Patience and Preparation: The Keys to Spring Turf Success

As the classic Tom Petty song goes, “the waiting is the hardest part.” And for many turf managers in the northern part of the United States, that’s the stage you’re in as spring approaches. If you’re a business owner, it probably means you’re a doer, so waiting is even more difficult for people like us. You want the turf you manage to wake up and look good for you and your clients as soon as possible, but you don’t want to rush the process either. So what do you do in the meantime while you wait?

The good news is that—practically and professionally—there are ways that you can use your time wisely in this season to ensure that you’ll be ready to go once the weather turns and it’s go-time. And, when the time is right, I’ve got some helpful tips to get you started on the right foot.

Rushing can do more harm than good

First things first, take a deep breath and relax. Unfortunately, you’re not going to wake up dormant turf all by yourself, no matter how much your clients are bugging you. Especially if it’s a cold spring and clients are impatient, it can be tough to manage expectations.

The reality is, if you try to work the soil before it wakes up, you can cause problems like compaction in the soil that you’ll have to correct later anyway. And if you’re putting seed down too early, it can rot and not germinate because the soil is too wet. The same goes for sod. It’s a bit of a paradox to have patience with sod establishment, because sod is typically the “instant gratification” turf project. The best time to lay sod is when it really starts to warm up in the late spring and into summer. The ground needs to be at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit for grass to grow or for seeds to germinate, and you’re not going to be able to speed that up.

It’s all about results and turf health, and if you start too soon and don’t get the right results, it ends up looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. That can be costly to your schedule, your bottom line, and ultimately your reputation as a turf manager.

Make sure everything is in order

If you can’t focus on the turf, then I recommend shifting your focus to your team and yourself. We all have that list of things we need to get done for the business, but we never have time during the season. That list probably includes safety training, equipment training, cleaning and inspecting equipment—even equipment that you don’t use every day like aerators and sod cutters—working on marketing materials, and your own professional development as a leader.

That last one is especially important for the long haul. It’s like when a professional basketball player works on their free throws or their three point shot in the offseason. They’re constantly working on their weaknesses so that they eventually become strengths. In the late winter and early spring, take some classes on leadership or customer relationship management or whatever it is that you feel like you might be missing as a business owner or manager. And, if you don’t feel like you have any weaknesses to address, then it’s time you get a mentor! We all have weaknesses, but they’re not always easy to see. By finding a professional mentor, they can prepare you for challenges ahead, and alert you of gaps in your business or management that might cause problems.

Develop a “go-time” gameplan

When the weather starts to turn and spring arrives, you won’t be able to do it all at once, so you’ll have to prioritize. If you’re an LCO that has a lot of properties, you’ll likely want to start working on the ones that are south-facing or are wide open without many trees. Realistically, that’s the turf that’s going to warm up the fastest and be ready to go.

In most cases, the turf is going to be pretty matted down, so I recommend you dethatch the turf gently to give it an opportunity to breathe and so the soil can warm up. Remember, only start working on the soil if it’s begun to warm up on its own and is beginning to grow. Don’t rush it! And, if you see serious winter damage, you might need to plan for some major repairs or replacing the lawn. RYAN has some great resources for winter recovery in this blog post.

Next, put down a soluble fertilizer with a complete N-P-K to give the turf some nutrients, as well as combat winter diseases like snow mold. As more of the properties warm up, repeat this process across your client base and you’ll be off and running.

Be transparent and honest

The key here is to be transparent with your clients about your plan. Many customers, understandably, are only thinking about their lawn and not the bigger picture. If you have an impatient customer, it might be good to walk them through your spring turf process, and explain to them that it wouldn’t be good for anyone if you started the season too soon. As is often the case, managing expectations is a crucial part of keeping your customers happy.

But if you show that you know what you’re doing, you’re prepared and organized, and you’re delivering the results that they’re looking for, it’ll all work out, and it’ll be worth the winter wait.

Matt Shaffer is a world-renowned golf course superintendent and turf expert. He has worked at some of the most prestigious golf courses in the world, and now owns his own business called M.A.T. (Minimalist Agronomic Techniques) where he promotes his philosophy of “less is more” when it comes to turf maintenance. He is currently working with the Ryan and Steiner brands on “Mondays with Matt,” a social media video series, sharing tips and stories from his experience in the turf industry.