Category Archives: Tips

MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE: Choosing A Landscape Contractor

You have made the decision to get help with your yard.  So how do you decide who to hire?  There are so many landscapers, gardeners, designers, lawn cutters, full service companies, etc. out there.  First, you need to determine your needs before even looking for or considering anybody.  Are you looking for somebody to maintain what you already have, somebody to guide you in what to do, or somebody to completely install something new or renovate what you currently have?  In these good times, many contractors will claim to do everything and anything just to sell work.  But not all aspects of landscapes are the same and, therefore require different skill levels, knowledge and expertise.

To manage what you already have will require the services of a maintenance contractor.  This can be as simple as a neighborhood kid to pull weeds, cut the grass and rake leaves or as involved as retaining the services of a full service maintenance contractor.  Services could include ornamental bed maintenance, turf, tree and shrub chemical applications, water feature care, irrigation work, etc.  If you enjoy cutting grass but dislike cutting back perennials and pulling weeds you might want to hire a professional gardener.  The best match for you all depends on your level of services desired.

If you want your existing landscape reworked, completely renovated, or have a new home construction, you will need the services of a landscape designer.  This can either be from an independent designer or a designer associated with an installation company.  A professional designer will incorporate your visions and priorities in conjunction with your property’s strengths and weaknesses into a creative plan that can be implemented in full or over a period of time.  This plan can either be installed by you as the homeowner or hired out to a professional landscape construction company.

Now that you have determined your needs and what type of landscaper you are looking for, how do you select the right person or firm?  There are many deciding factors in determining who will meet your needs and give you the best value, and one of the biggest factors is certification. There are many certifications available to green industry professionals and here is a list:

  • Certified Green Industry Professional (CGIP) – This program is offered by the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA).  CGIP certification is earned by individuals taking a very in-depth four hour exam on horticulture and other related information geared towards specialties including:  landscape contractor, designer, and manager.  Learn more at http://www.plantmichigangreen.com/mcn.

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  • APLD Certified Landscape Designer –This program is offered by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD).  The certification is earned by submitting work which is then evaluated by professional peers.  Learn more at http://www.apld.org/consumers/certification.asp.

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  • ISA Certified Arborist  – This program is offered by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). This certification was developed for professional arborists in order to provide the public and those in government with a means to identify those professionals who have demonstrated, through a professionally developed exam and education program, that they have a thorough knowledge of tree care practices. Learn more at   http://www.isa-arbor.com/certification/exams.aspx
  • ICPI Certified Concrete Paver Installer.  This program is offered by the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI).  There are currently two levels of certification with the first level incorporating classroom hours and an exam for basic brick paver installation knowledge and the second level aimed at more advanced brick paver knowledge.  Learn more at www.icpi.org.

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  • Certified SRW Installer (CSRWI) – This program is offered by the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA).  There are currently two levels of this certification on how to install segmental retaining walls; a basic course with an exam and an advanced course with an exam.   Learn more at http://www.ncma.org/development/certifications/Pages/default.aspx
  • Landscape Industry Certified (LIC) – This program is offered by PLANET, an international landscape organization.  Learn more at http://www.landcarenetwork.org/cms/certification/categories.html.  PLANET has several subcategories of the LIC:
    • Certified Landscape Professional (CLP) – The exam is a 4-hour multiple choice test covering business management topics.
    • Certified Landscape Technician (CLT) – The exam is a written and hands-on test. Candidates choose to test in Hardscape Installation, Softscape Installation, Turf Maintenance, Ornamental Maintenance or Irrigation.
    • Certified Horticultural Technician (COLP) – This course emphasizes tree and shrub maintenance procedures. Candidates concentrate on landscape trees and ornamental woody plant physiology, health care management, and establishment.
    • Certified Lawn Care Manager (CTP) – This study material covers the essential knowledge needed by an effective turf grass manager in northern growing zones. The study leads to a mastery of weed, insect and disease identification/control, as well as diagnosis of common turf grass problems. The material supports Integrated Pest Management concepts, pesticide safety and customer relations in northern climates.

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Landscape individuals and companies can sometimes be required by the state to have a license depending on the work being completed.  All individuals and companies must have a license to apply pesticides for hire.  Pesticides are used to control weeds, insects, and diseases in lawns, in planting beds, and on trees and shrubs.  Make sure when hiring a company to complete this type of work that both the company and the technician are licensed by the State of Michigan.  Although the state and most municipalities do not require a builder’s license for most work that landscape contractors do, please check with your local building inspector to find out requirements.  At the current time, there are no statewide license requirements of landscape and irrigation contractors other than what is listed above.

Although certifications and licenses are important to look for when hiring a green industry professional, they are definitely not the only thing.  Years of business experience can sometimes be helpful in making a decision to hire a company, but references from people you know are much more beneficial.  Sometimes a company might have a 30 year history but might have been recently taken over by a descendant or new owner.  If a friend, neighbor or co-worker can verify the quality of work and customer service this will be much more helpful in your decision making.  Also, actually look at the work that they performed.  Is this the type of work that you are looking for?  Does it meet your expectations?  People have varying degrees of quality requirements.  Your neighbor might have enjoyed working with a particular company and can overlook that lines are not quite straight, or the quality of plant materials is questionable, or the grades are wrong.  If these issues are important to you, continue looking for someone that will meet your specifications.  Another great idea is to evaluate the landscapes at various stages, particularly those that have been installed for a number of years.  Has the landscape held up?  Does the contractor offer warranties for plant material, hardscaping construction, etc?  If the contractor does offer a warranty, how long is the warranty for?  Do they have a history in honoring their warranties?

Another major factor in determining who to choose for your garden needs is getting to know the salesperson or owner of the company.  Having a good relationship is key.  If you are not comfortable or do not trust this person, then it is apparent that you should move on.  For smaller jobs deciding who to use can be relatively uncomplicated.  If you have a costly job, are concerned about the health of a 100 year old oak tree, or are planning for a landscape that will be with you for many  years, you should be very cautious who you hire.

In summary, once you have determined what level of service you are looking for consider the following factors in making the right choice for hiring a landscape contractor:  certifications, licenses, referrals, quality of work, and relationship.  These factors will help ensure that your landscape expectations are met.

A few weekends ago, I attended the Association of Professional Landscape Designers’ annual international conference in Toronto, Canada.  It had been several years since my last conference and I was extremely happy I attended.  It is great to spend time with my peers from around the country and world.  There were designers from England and Saudi Arabia in attendance.   This conference is packed with great speakers and amazing gardens from the area.  The annual conference has been held in various locations including Detroit in 2013, Boston in 2017 and next year in Seattle. 

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One of the great talks was by Susan Cohan, APLD of Susan Cohan Gardens in New Jersey.    She is an award winning, nationally certified landscape designer and is well-known in the landscape and design communities for her design work and for her writing about design. Her residential landscapes for private clients and concept gardens are frequently published and have won numerous awards. Susan has been a contributing editor to Garden Design, an American voice on the British Thinkingardens, as well writing about gardens and design since 2007 on her own blog Miss Rumphius’ Rules.

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Susan’s talk was about three overarching styles of gardens: traditional, contemporary and rustic.  Most designers try to be specific when describing a design’s style, but in reality, all landscape design can be easily divided into one of these categories.  Each of the styles has elements that can crossover into another to create a unique hybrid that will ultimately tilt one way or the other. 

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Traditional landscapes tend to be the most common type of landscape, especially here in Michigan.  These type of landscapes would incorporate brick, stone, pavers and wood and look alike material that fits in regionally.  Vintage and antiques could also be possible but not necessary.  The overarching goals of a traditional garden design are to create a well-defined and beautiful outdoor space.  This type of style is very broad and would include many sub categories of gardens (i.e. English Gardens, Mediterranean Gardens, Oriental Gardens, etc.)

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The hardscape manufacturers we use offer products that would fit in each of these styles.  Most of their products could fit in the traditional style.  Some of the great products we enjoy using include Unilock’s Rivercrest Wall for walls, Unilock’s Enduracolor and Enduracolor Plus pavers, Oaks Ortana and Ortana Plus for walls, and Rosetta Dimensional Flagstone for floors & Rosetta Kodah Walls.

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Although different designers have different opinions on what is or isn’t a contemporary design, I believe Susan’s definition is more towards modern design.  Her definition is a simple design.  Simple does not mean easier, but there is a lot of orderly repetition, limited amount of plants used, sleek and lacking ornamental and geometric.  This style is known for its streamlined aesthetic and sleek sophisticated style. Overall the garden will feel controlled and organized. Typically, the focus is heavier on hardscape and structures than it is on plants. Plants used have very little color, mostly green with maybe a little white.  Materials used on a typical contemporary design would include steel, glass and concrete.  You will see unexpected details in the design while incorporating technology to its fullest.  One of the main goals of contemporary design is to create contrast. For example a large massing of ornamental grasses pops out against a grey concrete wall, orange cushions draw your eye when placed on otherwise simple patio furniture and a fire pit filled with colored glass demands attention when set amongst a bed of bluestone. It is important to be selective when creating contrast, too much can be overwhelming and make the space seem disjointed. Pick two or three spots in your yard and focus on one contrasting element for each.

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Hardscape materials would include material such as Unilock’s Artline paver & Porcelain tile; Unilock’s Lineo Dimensional Stone wall; Oaks Eterna, Presidio, & Molina pavers; and, Rosetta’s Miros Patio Slab

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Rustic landscapes are similar to traditional landscape but are not as neat more natural.  Whether you’re in a woodland setting or out on the prairie, rustic landscape design is all about reflecting the natural surroundings. This type of style uses handmade and aged look products.  Relics, shards and artifacts help define this landscape. The rustic style is very eclectic.  Using natural material such as flagstone and boulders is essential for this style.  Natural-looking man-made products could be used such as Rosetta’s  Grand Flagstone and/or Outcropping.

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By Steven D. Thoms, CGIP, APLD, CLP

 

Drought of 2018

During these dog days summer, your lawn needs water now more than ever. Without a sufficient amount of rainfall, these hot weather conditions can be a killer for your lawn and garden. You may find yourself working harder this season to keep your grass lush and green. Keeping your lawn hydrated is very important, so here are a few tips to help you water your lawn and keep it healthy all season long.

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Watering Tip #1 – Water your lawn before the heat kicks in. This way water is less likely to evaporate before it reaches the roots of your grass. It’s not a necessity, but it is recommended to water your grass earlier in the day – ideally before 10:00 am. Another important consideration to make is what time you mow the lawn. Mowing in the morning is better for your grass, but you shouldn’t mow after you water the grass. Wet grass causes clumping and ruts and leaves your lawn vulnerable to certain diseases.

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Watering Tip #2 – When watering, you need to water deeply. Water your lawn every 3 to 5 days, but only enough to wet most of the root area. Allow your lawn to dry out between watering. Frequently watering the grass keeps that root area consistently wet, reducing the amount of soil oxygen that is available to the roots and inviting fungi that can cause lawn diseases.  Different types of sprinklers put down different amounts of water.  Spray heads (which are the smaller heads) that stay in one position put a greater amount of water down.  These zones are usually set for 10-15 minutes.  Oscillating or gear driven heads put down less water since they have to move.  These zones are usually set for 20-25 minutes.

Watering Tip #3 – Look for signs of drought. While you shouldn’t water your lawn too frequently, you shouldn’t go too long without watering it either so look for signs of drought. Sometimes the grass leaf doesn’t have enough water to bounce back after foot traffic and just lies over. Look back on an area that you have walked on. If you still see the footprints, this is an early sign of drought stress, and you need to water your grass.

Also, consider the color of the grass. A purple-blue color often indicates drought stress. Before the grass turns brown from lack of water, it fades to a purple-blue color. If you see these colors, it’s time to water your lawn.

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Watering Tip #4 – Adjust your sprinkler system. Be mindful of the weather – rainfall, hot temperatures, etc. – and adjust your sprinkler system accordingly. Avoid setting it at the beginning of the season and forgetting about it. Another thing to consider is adjusting your sprinkler pressure to water with large droplets, which are less likely to be blown by the wind and more likely to fall and penetrate through the soil.  Most lawns right now need the system running every day.  Zones that are in full sun will obviously need more water than zones in the shade.  At my house, my front yard faces the south.  I need to run the zone along the hot asphalt street more than ever now to keep green.  My backyard, which faces the North has ample shade so it does not need as much.

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Watering Tip #5 – Set a schedule. Choose to water either in the early morning or evening to minimize water lost to evaporation. If your lawn is subject to fungi, water in the early morning to allow excess moisture to evaporate.

The hot, humid weather that comes with the spring and summer seasons is not always kind to our lawns. With consistent care, regular watering and these tips, you’ll be able to keep the lawn cool and healthy.

Many of our clients are frankly just too busy to properly adjust their sprinkler system throughout the season.  Unless we have access and can change ourselves or we communicate it to our clients to adjust themselves it just doesn’t happen.  During droughts like this we get calls from clients asking why their lawn is “dyeing”.  The irrigation contractor turns on the system in the spring and that is where it stays throughout the season.  Many years, sprinklers are not even needed until late June or early July.  We get plentiful of rain in April, May and usually June to keep the lawn and plants healthy.  This year has started early and most of all lawns in the area are stressed out.  Even though turf is very resilient, coming back from the yellow of yellowest looking we want it to face the least amount of stress as possible.  We have been installing smart Wi-Fi irrigation controllers on our new systems as well as encouraging clients to upgrade their older systems to the Hunter Hydrawise System.  This type of irrigation controller saves water during moist conditions and keeps your lawn looking great during these droughts.  You can control it with a smart device from your backyard or couch and you can even allow us to control the system to keep your landscaping looking the best as possible.  Please call us if interested in upgrading.

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Spring Landscape Maintenance Tips

Yah!  Spring has finally arrived here in Southeast Michigan.  The grass is starting to green up, buds are swelling on trees and shrubs and perennials are popping out of the ground.  So how do you prepare your landscape for the upcoming season?  We hope these tips will help you out if you are doing these tasks yourself or looking to hire a landscape contractor.

Planting Beds

  • Blow, rake and/or physically clean out debris from your beds.  With large beds, decorative stone beds and/or beds with groundcovers usually the easiest way to clean out is with a powerful enough blower.  Dirt only beds might need the dirt physically turned over with a shovel or cultivator.  Shredded bark beds also need to be turned over and loosen the hard top surface.  Even if installing new bark if the old bark has crusted surface it needs to be broke.
  • Adding new mulch is a preference thing.  It should be done every or every-other year.  If budget and/or time is a constraint every-other year could be option, but recognizing that controlling weeds could be more difficult on the second season.  Just remember though, mulch depths should be about four inches.  On average, two inches a year decomposes.  So if you are on a bi-yearly schedule you will need to install more mulch.
  • Mulching around trees has become quite an issue over the last several years.  Mulch should NOT be applied above the flare of the trunk.  The root flare is the portion to the tree where the trunk widens at the base as it transitions to the root system. This flare occurs at the natural grade of the soil. It is of critical importance that this level be maintained.  So a mulch volcano should be avoided at all cost!

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  • Pre-emergent weed control can be added to beds to help prevent weed germination.  This will not control any weeds that are already rooted in the bed.  So, if there are still weeds leftover from the previous season, these should be pulled or sprayed with a post-emergent such as round up.  Careful application should be taken to avoid overspray onto desired plants.  One thing to consider is that some weeds will become resistant to pre-emergents if they are added every year to the planting beds.
  • If you do not have something (plastic, steel or aluminum edging or retaining walls) to separate the beds from the turf, a spade (or machine) cut bed edge defines the bed and puts the finishing touch on the landscape.  If adding mulch to the beds, using a spade to push back soil and old mulch from concrete/paver sidewalks and drives will help prevent new mulch from being washed onto the surface.

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  • Except for cold weather annuals (i.e. pansies, etc.), these types of plant material should not be planted until frost is not possible.  The rule of thumb is around Memorial Day (late May).  Alternatively, you can find out when the projected last frost date is in your area by checking with your local county extension office.

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Herbaceous Ornamental Plants (perennials, ornamental grasses and ground covers)

  • If mulch was heavily applied over the root system for the cold season, this should be carefully pulled back.
  • If (non evergreen) perennials and ornamental grasses were not cut back in the fall, they should be done before new growth shows.  For some plant material such as daylilies and hostas, it might just take a hand to pull it from the ground.  Some other  species, such as peony and Black Eye Susan might need pruners to cut the stalks.  For ornamental grass, we use powered or hand hedgers to cut as low as possible.

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  • Most groundcovers will just need a good raking over to pull out any dead branches, leaves and debris.
  • Spring flowering bulbs should be left alone until the leaves are yellow.  Then at that time they can be removed and a bulb fertilizer is usually recommended.
  • Vines (such as clematis) should have dead branches pruned off.
  • New plants can be installed as long as there is no chance for a heavy freeze.  Here in Southeast Michigan we are pretty much in the clear of that danger.

Shrubs

  • If physical winter protection was installed in the fall, this should be removed immediately.
  • Dead branches should be removed in most cases.  Sometimes certain evergreens will have brown leaves from winter damage, do NOT remove these yet.  Many times these branches will produce new leaves/needles.  The smartest way to check is to prune at the tip of a branch in search of green cambium.  If brown, continue cutting back until green or you reach an intersection.
  • All new type landscape roses (Carpet, Knock Out, Oso Easy, etc.) should be cut back six to twelve inches from the ground.  This will promote a thick and healthy plant.
  • Hydrangeas should not be cut back in the Spring as they have produced many if not all of their flower buds in the previous fall.  Arborscens or Smooth (Annabelle, Incrediball, etc) and paniculata or Hardy (Limelight, Quickfire, etc.) Hydrangeas flower on new wood, so you can get by pruning lightly, but to control size major pruning should take place in fall or early winter.  Macrophylla or Bigleaf and quercifolia or Oakleaf Hydrangea  flower on old wood so no pruning should be done unless the branch is dead.  Then pruning back to the next live bud might be necessary because of winter damage.   To control size, major pruning should be done in June or July.

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  • Most shrubs should not need any fertilizer in the Spring.  If needed, this should be done in the late fall.  The one exception could be acid loving plants.  On rhododendrons, azaleas, etc.   Thoms Bros. uses a product out of Westcroft Gardens called Greenleaf Compound.  We apply it to flowering plants in spring before they bloom, right after they bloom and again one more time in the fall.

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Turf

  • Debris (leaves, branches, etc.) should be removed as soon as possible from your lawn.
  • If the lawn was left long in the fall, cutting would be recommended.
  • Any bare spots that were killed by winter or from the previous season, can be raked and seeded.  A seeding mulch is usually recommended.  Pre-emergent (crab grass control) should be avoided in these locations as they will prevent seed from germinating.  Adding some soil to the areas might help as well.
  • A pre-emergent weed control should already have been or quickly applied to prevent crab grass from germinating.  A light fertilizer can also be done at this point but usually is not needed if a heavy late fall fertilizer application was completed the year before.
  • Pink or gray snow mold should also be raked off the lawn and seeded.  A fungicide is not recommended as the disease has already did its damage.
  • Aeration of the lawn is recommended for turf that has heavy soil (clay) and/or heavy traffic.  Grass needs water and air in order to grow. When soil is compacted, water and air do not get to the grass. Aeration involves poking holes in the soil with an aerator, by which water and air can better circulate and stimulate growth.   Aeration should take place in the early Fall as to prevent undesired weed germination but can be done in May when ground is warm enough but drought isn’t a problem.

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  • Overseeding/slit seeding is the practice of spreading grass seed over an existing lawn.  This can either be done by hand/spreader or using a machine that actually slits into the existing turf/soil. The obvious need to overseed is when your grass is thin.  But keeping your lawn young by overseeding every so many years will keep it fresh and thick.  Be aware though, turf can be thin because of too much shade and root competition from trees.  Even though there is some shade “tolerate” turf species, no grass likes deep shade.  Overseeding would only be a temporary fix.  If a lawn is really in rough condition, it can be overseeding in the same time frame as aeration..May.  But the best time of season is late summer/early fall.

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  • Irrigation should not be needed for at least another month.  When we get our first full week of no precipation is when you should consider turning on the sprinkler system.  Please do not let your irrigation contractor start up and program your system and leave it like that for the season.  if you do not have a weather and/or web based irrigation controller, you should adjust the amount of water your system puts done based on the season and weather patterns.

Maintaining Your New Sod

Wikipedia describes sod as grass and the part of the soil beneath it held together by the roots, or a piece of thin material.  The website goes on to say sod is typically used for lawns, golf courses, and sports stadiums around the world. In residential construction, it is sold to landscapers, home builders or home owners who use it to establish a lawn quickly and avoid soil erosion. Sod can be used to repair a small area of lawn,[1] golf course, or athletic field that has died. Sod is also effective in increasing cooling, improving air and water quality, and assisting in flood prevention by draining water.

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Sod is grown on specialist farms. For 2009, the United States Department of Agriculture reported 1,412 farms had 368,188 acres of sod in production.  Thoms Bros. purchases 80% of the sod used from http://www.kogelmannssodfarm.com/.

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It is usually grown locally (within 100 miles of the target market) to minimize both the cost of transport and also the risk of damage to the product. The farms that produce this grass may have many varieties of grass grown in one location to best suit the consumer’s use and preference of appearance.

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It is usually harvested 10 to 18 months after planting, depending on the growing climate. On the farm it undergoes fertilization, frequent watering, frequent mowing and subsequent vacuuming to remove the clippings. It is harvested using specialized equipment, precision cut to standardized sizes. Sod is typically harvested in small square slabs, rolled rectangles, or large 4-foot-wide (1.2 m) rolls.

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In Michigan, sod is grown on either a topsoil or peat base.  Thoms Bros. uses mostly topsoil based sod because it does much better on a clay based grade.  It will not dry out as quickly and will root much better.  Peat based sod is cheaper in price and weighs less, so installation is less intensive.  Peat sod is fine for a sand grade. 

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There are three types of sod grown locally.  The most prevalent is a Kentucky Bluegrass blend.  Premium Kentucky Bluegrass seed varieties will result in a high quality product that will resist disease and provide a deep green color.   Other types which are not typically used include a Fine Fescue/Bluegrass blend which is better suited for a shadier location and Bent Grass Sod which is used for golf course greens and tees.

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At Thoms Bros. we are committed to our client’s success, but we do not guarantee that it will not die if not watered properly.  We install high quality, fresh (cut same day) sod.  But sod is a perishable product and we do not accept responsibility for the care after we leave.

Sod should be watered promptly and thoroughly after installation.  If you have an irrigation system, our employees will turn on zones after the area has been completed.  Sod should not dry out until completely established.  You can check by lifting a corner to see the soil below is good and wet.  But do not over water as well.  The soil underneath should not be sopping wet.  As a rule of thumb for the first week or so, you should irrigate a minimum of once per day.  If the air is dry and/or temperatures are 80 degrees plus then twice a day is recommended.  If using an irrigation system, misting head zones  should be on from 10-20 minutes each day and spray head zones should be on 20-40 minutes each day.  The supplemental weeks the frequency can be turned down.  As always though, the best way to know is to pick up corner of sod. 

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First mowing is usually recommended about three weeks from initial installation.  The sod must be fully knitted down before mowing.  We highly recommend the first few mowing be done with a small (20″) walk behind mower.  Large commercial and riding mowers can very easily rip the sod out of place.  Optimum mowing height is 1 1/2 to 2 inches for a high quality lawn.  Mow regularly with a sharp rotary mower, allowing the clippings from frequent mowing to remain on the lawn.

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Fertilizing the new sod is not recommended for the first few weeks before the turf gets established.  Turf should be fertilized 4 to 6 times in a full growing season at a rate of 10 pounds per 1000 square feet.  The most important times are in late fall for good root growth and faster Spring green-up.

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