The Balancing Act

What does the 2009 landscaping budget look like? If it’s anything like mine, things are a bit tight but, like many others, I never really had a huge budget to begin with. Managing smaller budgets can be tough, but there are plenty of ways to make sure that turf receives proper care and maintenance without breaking the bank. This month, I’ll let you in on a few of my secrets to balancing the needs of turf with the budget.


Mowers are the hardest-working machines, so having one that fits my needs is a key to productivity. The type of mower chosen should depend on the type of grasses. At Virginia Tech, I use two different types of mowers--a rotary mower and a reel mower.

Typically, rotary mowers are used for grasses that are kept at a higher height, such as cool-season grasses. On cool-season fields, I usually do not cut the turf below an inch and a quarter since a lower cut places more stress on the grass, possibly resulting in increased susceptibility to disease or impaired growth. Review the different sizes available before choosing a rotary mower. A smaller deck-size one will cost less but will also require more work on a larger field.

Another option is a reel mower, which is more commonly seen on golf courses. I use a reel mower on Bermuda grass, which I cut at around one-half inch. As with the rotary mower, the size (and the amount of money spent) should depend on the amount of grass that needs to be cut. I was able to save a few dollars and purchase a three-gang mower instead of a seven-gang, and it only requires a few extra passes to mow the stadium. If you have a limited amount of space and don’t mind a little extra time and effort, choosing a smaller mower may be a great option.


Using spreaders is one of the easiest ways to distribute fertilizer on turf, but choosing the right spreader may not be the easiest decision. There are several types to consider, including the drop spreader, rotary spreader and hopper spreader. Of course, the budget and size of the field will influence a selection, but the wind conditions in an area are a critical factor in a decision.

I use a drop spreader for the football field because I can control exactly where the fertilizer is going, especially if it is windy. Since it gets fairly windy here in Virginia--particularly in the fall--a drop spreader is ideal because it drops the fertilizer straight to the ground, preventing uneven coverage and avoiding waste. Drop spreaders are generally lower in cost than other types, and can be attached to a tractor or pushed by hand.

If you live in a not-so-windy climate, a rotary spreader is a good choice for a field that requires precision application--the best reason to choose one of these spreaders. Although it can be attached to a tractor, I prefer a walk-behind since you can more easily control the amount of fertilizer that is dispersed, and increase or decrease the speed of distribution if needed.

A third option is a hopper spreader, which vibrates back and forth, distributing fertilizer. A hopper spreader is similar to a rotary spreader in that the fertilizer is airborne during distribution, so it’s more prone to blow in the wind. I occasionally use a hopper spreader, which I attach to a tractor. As with most spreaders, size will be a key factor in the price. If you don’t mind refilling frequently, a smaller load size will greatly decrease expenses.

Even if a particular area isn’t prone to wind, be sure to evaluate the microclimate to be treated. Stadiums, buildings or hilltop locations can force air more strongly into an area than you might expect. Rent, borrow, or demo different models to take a test run before purchasing one.

One additional way to keep down the costs associated with spreading fertilizer is to be sure that the spreader is calibrated correctly, and is distributing the appropriate amount of fertilizer at the desired rate. Too little fertilizer can be ineffective on the turf, and too much is not only a waste of money, but also potentially dangerous to the environment.

Infield Groomers

Infield grooming offers perhaps the largest opportunity for cost-saving measures. You can spend a little or a lot based on the type and brand of infield groomer, but you don’t necessarily have to spend a great deal on the attachments.

Many infield groomers have 20 or more attachments, but a more affordable base model and a tight budget may force you to get creative. At Virginia Tech, I actually make many of my own attachments, using items lying around or purchased from a local hardware store. For example, I created a nail drag with two by fours and penny nails and made a drag mat out of chain link fence. Lastly, for a coco-matt drag, I usually use an old piece of carpet--the options are truly endless.

Irrigation Systems

If you tend grounds that get plenty of use, an irrigation system is a must-have, and will greatly vary in price, based on particular needs. The best thing to do on a tight budget is to purchase an irrigation system that you can afford--simple as that. It is much more important to have a simple irrigation system than to have none at all. If you have more in the budget, take a look at some of the features available to precisely determine the needs as well as the best fit.

If you can’t afford a top-notch system, be creative to cut costs.

Forego a more expensive irrigation system, but increase the use of fertilizers and biologicals to strengthen the turf. Using a mycorrhizal product will help increase water absorption, decreasing the need for more frequent irrigation. Again, using even a basic irrigation system is generally a worthwhile investment for heavily used fields or those in dry climates.


One thing that many people skimp on when the budget gets tight is an aerator. Aerating turf is an essential step for any field, and even more crucial if the field gets a lot of play or wear. There is a wide range of aerators, from hydraulic pull-behinds to manual options, and each provides its own set of benefits.

On the practice football fields, I use a pull-behind slicer which slices into the soil and twists slightly. Since the width of the slicer is not adjustable, I usually aerate in a cross-thatched pattern in order to ensure that the soil is aerated thoroughly.

To aerate the field in one clean pass, choose an aerator with adjustable tines so you only have to go over the turf once. Conversely, if you have more time, choose a manual model and cross-thatch.

Don’t feel pressured to buy a top-of-the-line aerator if money is an issue--you simply need something to put some holes in the ground. Think about what other equipment is on hand that might work, be sure to test the method, and analyze its true effectiveness first. Nothing is worth the time or the money saved if the turf suffers.

Particularly in times like these, a tight budget can cause you to take a second look at the maintenance equipment in your arsenal and reevaluate needs. Be honest about how the program operates, from how much liquid capital you have to how often you actually treat a certain field. By prioritizing needs, examining available equipment, and adding a bit of creativity, you can have healthy turf without breaking the bank.

Jason Bowers, CSFM, is the Sports Turf/Athletic Grounds Manager at Virginia Tech University. Before his current position, he worked as an Assistant Superintendent at Whiskey Creek Country Club and Beaver Creek Country Club in Maryland, and as a Turf Specialist at Bozzuto Landscaping. He graduated from Virginia Tech with an Associate’s Degree in Agricultural Technology. Bowers can be reached at