Steve Coyne’s path into a successful hydroseeding business was quite an unintended one. A former agricultural employee from San Diego, CA, Coyne had just moved to Dallas, TX, more than a year ago and had hired someone to do hydroseeding at his home; he had heard rave reviews about it.
But the job the man did for him was not praiseworthy. So Coyne decided that if he wanted something done right, he had to do it himself. And he did. And Coyne turned that weekend-warrior work into a full-time hydroseeding business called Superior Hydromulch. His clientele is 70% residential and 30% commercial.
Whether a full-time enterprise or part of an overall erosion control business, hydroseeding has become an increasingly popular method of erosion control. Influencing factors include lower equipment, materials, and labor costs as well as the implementation of Phase II of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).
According to Turbo Technologies in Beaver Falls, PA, the first known hydroseeding unit was a jet-type system built by the State of Connecticut long ago and that used peat moss as the mulch agent. With the new roads of the Interstate Highway System during the Eisenhower Administration going through hills instead of over or around them, conventional seeding techniques that were no longer effective gave way to hydroseeding.
Although the early machines worked well and it was noted that the grass grew better and faster, the units were quite expensive. Now they’ve come within economical reach of many of those in the erosion control industry.
Today hydroseeding is called for in areas where soil has been disturbed. It’s an attempt to prevent erosion and establish new vegetation and, in many cases, is a response to government regulations preventing sediment from flowing from a disturbed site into other areas, such as storm drains and waterways.
In hydroseeding, seed mixtures combined with water are hydraulically applied to soil. The mixtures include the seed appropriate to the soil and/or weather conditions, such as warm- or cool-season grass seed, and can include such amendments as fertilizers, wood-fiber mulch, and tackifier, all of which help hold down the soil while plants become established. Water retention, dispersing characteristics, and mixing ability are prime factors to consider when choosing the appropriate amendments. The client, job specifications, weather conditions affecting the area, germination rate, and susceptibility of the soil to erosion often dictate seed use and soil amendments.
As an erosion control choice, hydroseeding is inexpensive and a common revegetation practice because it enables operators to seed large and sometimes inaccessible areas quickly (as opposed to other methods, such as the application of erosion control blankets), although sometimes it is used in combination with other techniques in response to the environmental conditions. As such, it can be a profitable niche business.
An Economical Alternative
Basic hydroseeding equipment includes a tank (truck- or trailer-mounted) with some sort of mixing device (paddle or jet agitation); hoses to spray the seed mixture; and pumps powerful enough to spray the mixture to a distance of a few hundred feet. Tanks might range from a few hundred gallons (lighter in weight and easier to maneuver) to a few thousand (requiring fewer refills). Crimpers are features used to attach straw to the soil.
Whether hydroseeding comprises a partial percentage of business or all of it, many erosion control business owners believe it is the most economical choice of erosion control.
“Hydroseeding is only limited due to access of equipment to the site,” says Bob St. Jacques of Four Seasons Landscaping in Windsor, CT. Hydroseeding makes up 20% of his business. “The alternatives are rolled erosion control matting and hay mulching using a power blower – also limited due to equipment access.”
Hydroseeding is far less costly than erosion control blankets and turf reinforcement mats in the Connecticut region, St. Jacques points out, adding that hydroseeded material requires about 50% less labor to install compared to standard erosion control blankets and is one-third less expensive.
Jerry Schlensker of Turfscape in Zionsville, IN, who uses hydroseeding on about 75% of his projects, estimates that a single straw mat would be approximately three times the price of hydroseeding with the same seed mix. Turf reinforcement mats would be three to four times the price of the rolled straw blanket. Something like a straw and coconut fiber (coir), straight coir, or turf reinforcement/erosion control blanket product can run up to six times the cost of low-end, straw-rolled erosion control products, with hydroseeding in larger acreage running about a third of the price of that. On smaller projects of a quarter- to a half-acre, hydroseeding would be slightly less than or commensurate with the price of rolled erosion control products, he adds.
Watching the Weather
Similar to farmers, hydroseeding professionals are big-time weather watchers and have to plan their jobs accordingly.
We have some tremendous weather here,” Coyne says. “The weather has a big impact on my decision-making.”
Recently he applied 2 ac.’s worth of material at his church, and a light rain fell in the evening, for which Coyne was thankful. But a few days later, he was biting his lip as 2.5 in. came down hard.
“Had I not made the application the way I did – with a lot of extra tackifier and a wood fiber even though it was on a flat surface – who knows? I was unsure with the potential weather coming up, so I put down something on flat ground that might be put on a two-to-one slope. We have these beautiful carpets of grass coming up around that church right now, and I’m getting phone calls left and right from congregation members saying, ‘Atta boy!’
The region of the country is a decisive factor as well. “Where we are is in a transition zone, which means we’re in the worst part of the country to have pretty turf,” says Garrett Betts of A Cut Above Landscaping in Carbondale, IL. More than one-third of his work is dedicated to hydroseeding. “We’re too far north to use warm-season grass and way too far south to use cold-season grass, but we use cool-season grass because we don’t have any other choice. It looks pretty in the spring and the fall. It goes dormant in the summer and doesn’t look too good.”
Florida’s dry winter season presents a challenge in that it is difficult to get anything to grow. “We have to manually water the seed we’ve put down,” says Jay Medlock, an engineer with the DeBary, FL, office of Granite Construction, headquartered in Watsonville, CA. “We’ve had relatively good results with the hydroseeding and watering it during the dry season, although not as good as we would like to have had.”
Yet the state’s rainy summer season also can throw some curve balls. “During the wet season, especially the thunderstorm season, it causes challenges in that we dress a slope in the morning, and if we have a thunderstorm in the afternoon before we’ve had an opportunity to put the polymers and seed on the slope, we’ll have ruts and washouts in the slope after the rain,” he says.
For Bob Jerszyk of Bob Jerszyk Landscaping in Millbury, MA, the weather doesn’t affect the choice of seed – only the time seeding is done.
“In New England, we had a pretty strong drought this year,” he says. “It didn’t affect the growth much as long as it was watered. We found that it’s easier to use a tank when it’s not out hydroseeding strictly to carry water. In some of the remote areas that aren’t going to get hit, we can use the same spray nozzle for water.”
Weather has played a pivotal role in two of the major jobs Betts has done. One was a hydroseeding job at the Cedar Lake Dam, which is the city of Carbondale’s main water reservoir. The dam had been experiencing erosion and had suffered quite a bit of damage. It was October, and the rain was copious. Betts called the engineer in charge every day to ascertain whether he’d be hydroseeding that day. After several days, Betts went on to tackle another important landscaping job. In the midst of that job, he was called to return to the dam to hydroseed when the soil conditions finally permitted.
He called another employee and asked him to bring the hydroseeding machines to the dam. “By the time I got to my shop, got my big machine, got my water pumped, got everything set, got the hydromulch loaded, and got to Cedar Lake, it was probably almost 5 p.m. Another guy and I had to drag that pump from the ground to the top of Cedar Lake Dam.”
He and his employee were practically shooting slurry in the dark as the sun went down. They had to do not only the dam area, but also an area where dirt had been borrowed for the fill to fix the erosion.
“We weren’t so concerned about the borrow area as we were about getting the steep part done before the rain, because it was supposed to rain that night. So we sprayed it and sprayed it. The engineer was standing on the top of the hill with a flashlight, trying to point out the bare spots, and 100 feet below we’re blowing it out.”
It did rain that night, substantially, but the area did not suffer any erosion. Betts had used a 100% pure wood fiber hydromulch and Finn Corporation’s StikPlus. The next day, they successfully hydroseeded the borrow area.
Another project Betts did that proved to be a challenge was at Tamms Correction Center, a maximum-security prison in Illinois. The prison had been putting in a shooting range and had excavated a large mound of earth that was shaped like a “C” with sides that sloped down and met at the grade level. The distance from the ground to the top, Betts says, was about 75 ft. with a 1:1 slope. On the face side of it, it was vertical. On the back, it had more of a slope to give it integrity.
The state wanted a no-mow type of vegetation that consisted of native grasses, clover, and ground cover. Betts added the 100% wood fiber and hydrogel and covered a half-acre with the mix. He had shot 6,000 gal. of slurry.
“We put 30 pounds of gel on this half-acre,” says Betts. “The normal rate is 10 pounds of gel per acre. We knew the severe rate of the StikPlus, so we used the thin severe rate. When you use that wood fiber, StikPlus, and that hydrogel and you put that much gel on it, it’s like a sponge. When that rain comes, it just grabs it and sucks it in. That’s a form of erosion control right there – you’ve got some pretty good holding power.”
When a big rain came 48 hours later, the area suffered no erosion, Betts says. Still, he was a bit concerned, and a week and a half later he returned to the site. “I went down there and was thrilled to death when I saw it. I just couldn’t believe it. It looked just like the day we’d done it. It was beautiful.”
Equipment choice for hydroseeding is dictated by the job’s specifications. “If it’s temporary seeding along a buffer strip, we would be more concerned about the grading equipment we’d need,” says Schlensker. “A disc would be more appropriate because it’s less expensive. An athletic field may require lasers, and oftentimes we’ll even do some drilling on an athletic field before we hydroseed to get a little more precise application of seed; it also leaves a more finished look in the soil surface. If necessary, we’ll rent equipment that we don’t have available if it’s more appropriate.”
The equipment use or choice of methods of seeding is affected by weather variables, Schlensker notes. “We had an extremely wet spring, and oftentimes we were doing some temporary seeding and actually did no tractor work at all because the tractor would get stuck. We worked right behind the bulldozers, seeding from behind the curb or from the street. This is temporary seeding, so the finished surface is going to be rough-mown [using] brush-hog mowing equipment, and it’s not required that it be a particularly fine texture or a fine seed bed.”
Hydroseeding operators typically buy equipment that fits the needs of their targeted market. Aaron Brown of Bulldog Brush & Bath in Naugatuck, WV, has one Finn Corporation T-330 HydroSeeder with a 3,350-gal. tank to seed 1.5 ac. at a time for the bigger jobs he typically does. Twenty-five percent of his business is dedicated to hydroseeding.
It took Coyne about six months of research to ascertain which equipment would be best for his operation: Is it a pumping agitation system? Is it a large tube? Is it mechanical?
“Having come from a vegetation management position with the Agricultural Department in San Diego, we had fairly top-quality equipment with a good agitation system,” he says. “So I wasn’t too sure about picking one of these plastic tanks, and I just wasn’t impressed with a jet type of agitation system. It had to be a heavy-duty, mechanical agitation with beater bars inside the tank so that I would get a good mix and a consistent agitation as it was being pumped out onto the property.”
The other factor he considered was price. “For what I wanted, I knew I was going to pay a whole lot more,” Coyne acknowledges. “So I had to scrutinize the differences among pumping systems, agitation systems, and the heavy-duty steel tanks.”
When Coyne opted for a Kincaid Equipment Manufacturing 425-gal. AgiGator hydroseeding machine, he hydroseeded his front yard with it to his neighbors’ rave reviews, and from that point, he had enough work lined up to keep him busy for the following two years. Although his machine is one of the smaller ones in the industry, he can cover about 4,000 ft.2per tank, he says, although he usually averages about 3,000 ft.2 per tankload.
“My motto is, if I see dirt, I’m not done,” Coyne says. “That piece of equipment allows me to get a decent amount of coverage. In a residential situation, with a couple of hoses, I can do a load an hour, and most residential customers are anywhere from six to eight loads, so you’re looking at a nice, relaxing day’s worth of work. If I can get 3,000 square feet per tankload, you’re looking at a half-acre. A half-acre is a nice little chunk of change for me. I averaged a half-acre a day in May, made a ton of money [he says he’s earned twice as much as he did in his government job], and produced some pretty nice-looking lawns.”
Jerszyk has a completely different reason for opting for his two 500-gal. tanks. “The reason we use 500-gallon tanks is because, at full capacity, there’s no need for a special commercial driver’s license because of the weight,” he says. “The weight is the only consideration.”
St. Jacques’ choice of equipment depends on the capacity of the machine and what type of access he has to the job site. Four Seasons’s equipment list includes a 400-gal. Aqua Mulcher, a Reinco 1,500-gal. unit, and a Reinco 2,500-gal. hydroseeding unit.
“There have been many projects in which we’ve been involved that have had very limited access,” St. Jacques says. “There have been times when we would have to use our 400-gallon seeder mounted on a four-by-four truck to gain access to sites while using our larger seeder as a Ã”tanker’ to fill the smaller machine. Also, there have been times we’ve had to tow our seeder with a large bulldozer to access slopes.”
Betts says his 600-gal. Finn T-60 HydroSeeder is used just to mix chemicals; it’s rarely used for hydroseeding. He prefers his 1,180-gal. Finn T-120 for hydroseeding and is looking to buy an even bigger model.
“The bigger HydroSeeder automatically means you’re grabbing that much more water,” he says. “Most of the time the water is on a hydrant right down the street, but that’s still a trip. The drive time is the same whether you have a 500-gallon unit or a 3,500-gallon unit.”
Betts has used guns instead of hoses for certain jobs. In most cases, he uses a hose, though he doesn’t like it. “It wears you out. It takes three times as long,” he says. “With that gun it is lickety-split. It’s fun and it’s easy. When I use that gun, I get filthy dirty. But with the hose, we just shove that seed right smack in the ground with a lot of force and right straight on top of the soil. The gun doesn’t have the force when it lands that it does with the hose. On the Tamms prison project, the gun worked super because it was slamming straight to it. We put so much on it, but we knew it was going to grow. I told my father I’d been hydroseeding for seven years and just felt like this was my best work. I was just in a groove that day. I was getting good coverage. Everything was clicking. I felt really good about the job.”
Seeds and Other Ingredients
The use of seed and amendments, as with equipment, is contingent upon the job specifications. That’s the case for Jerszyk, who says most of what he uses is dictated by the local conservation commission. “If it’s a retention pond area for a new construction site, they usually have a specific set of grades for the earth, a specific set of stabilizers, such as netting or erosion control blankets, and usually a specific mix,” he says. “Some jobs call for rye, less fescue. Some call for more fescue, less rye, and then we’ve done jobs with wildflower spray also.”
In Florida, Granite Construction uses a mixture of Pensacola Bahia and brown-top millet, along with some polymer amendments.
In terms of weather variables in Indiana, Schlensker has to deal not only with wet and dry weather, but also hot and cold when choosing seeds and amendments. “Spring and fall are more ideal times for planting cool-season grasses. In the cold part of the year, we may choose to use what we call a Ã”nurse crop,’ such as winter wheat, oats, or maybe some annual rye, which will germinate at lower temperatures. Some of the perennial ryes or bluegrass, for instance, or the fescues, are primarily the choices that we have in terms of lawn grasses here in Indiana.”
Schlensker also might opt for more straw mulch in addition to hydromulch in the hot and cool times of the year because the added bulk also provides a thermal insulator. “It keeps the soil cooler in the summertime and warmer in the wintertime, so we can extend our seeding seasons by using a straw mulch and actually use the hydromulch as a tacking agent over the straw,” Schlensker says.
The steepness of the slope provides some challenges with respect to choice of seed, Schlensker says. “Although it’s not as much of a challenge as length of slope or the amount of water that comes across that slope. Oftentimes we will use erosion control blankets as opposed to or in conjunction with hydroseeding, such as on a pond bank or the bottom of a swale. Sometimes we use the bonded fiber matrix products on a particularly challenging site.”
He adds that mound does not require a blanket, but rather hydromulch. “I typically would straw mound, just because it doesn’t hold moisture very well and the added bulk is beneficial. A steep mound is much easier to grow grass on than a slope that has a plateau above it that collects water for maybe a few acres and then drops that water across that slope. That’s a much greater challenge.”
>Schlensker makes an exception for a particularly long, steep slope, such as one that is more than 50 ft. That case calls for more extreme measures, he says, such as the bonded fiber matrix or rolled erosion control products designed for use on that type of slope. “But if it were just a steep slope, say behind a curb, where the water was directed to a storm sewer system, we probably would just hydroseed.”
Schlensker says his company takes an untraditional approach to hydroseeding in that it will hydroseed right over straw. “That flies in the face of all the agronomic teachings and horticultural principles they teach at the universities.” He adds that he adapted the method from an article he read several years ago and it has been effective in his practice.
“As long as the straw is not put down at an extremely heavy rate, the seeds one way or another get down to the soil, and as long as the soil is well prepared, we’ve had extremely good results,” he notes. “We do not only temporary erosion control seeding that way, but also front lawns of some of the million-dollar homes in this area. A lot of our competitors in this area and in central Indiana have followed our lead in using that method and have had very good results as well.”< Sometimes hydroseeding operators have to consult with outside help to find the right mixes of seed. Coyne consults often with the Texas Department of Transportation and agronomists to pinpoint the soil type. So if one hybrid of Bermuda grass will grow better than another in a given area, he is able to tell his client the factors upon which the price of the job is based. And sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. One of Jerszyk's most challenging jobs came in hydroseeding wildflowers at retention ponds near a regular pond. His company was instructed to use wildflowers so no seed or fiber would go into any of the intakes and the environment would be aesthetically pleasing and respect natural habitats. "We've learned the hard way that wildflowers usually take two to three years before they develop properly," he notes. "It vegetates right away, but it doesn't return a big crop of flowers the first year - basically it looked like a weed patch. Usually the second year it increases with the daisies about to open. The third year it's usually about 90%." Jerszyk says he'd do it differently next time by spraying on top of the soil and returning to hydroseed the fiber separately. "We get better coverage with the seed, and we are sure that the seed is covered," he says. As far as amendments, Jerszyk uses a starter fertilizer. He doesn't like to use liquid lime out of concern for tank corrosion. And unlike some other hydroseeding professionals, he doesn't believe in tackifiers. "Usually when you use a tackifier on a slope, it's almost like walking on a concrete floor with grease on your shoes. It's very slippery, and for that reason alone, I think it's a safety hazard for the guys who are actually out there working. Secondly, I haven't found any results that in my mind justify the extra cost of the tackifier." Jerszyk says the seed mix he typically uses is a slope mix that is about 50% fescue. "Obviously you wouldn't need a Kentucky blue on a retention pond because nobody's going to maintain it. We built a golf course a few years ago, and that was an entirely different operation because the fairways were all sloped and needed quick greening, but then they needed strong turf for golf carts and people walking down the slopes and so forth." In Kentucky, it's another story. Michael Williams is a roadside environmental consultant with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. He works as a resource person for the agronomist districts, which oversee the vegetation management program. New-construction hydroseeding jobs are usually subcontracted, but many jobs, such as roadside crew work, are done in-house. The cabinet has seven hydroseeding units, two of them 1,500 gal. and five 1,000 gal. In Kentucky, hydroseeding is typically done with Kentucky 31 fescue. Similar to many states, Kentucky's roadside soil type has a poor texture with a high clay content and is shallow and rocky. "Our primary concern is for erosion control and then holding the slope in place the best we can," Williams says. "Once we can get a standard establishment, Kentucky 31 provides longevity." Still, there are times when hydroseeding is not the best choice. Even Coyne, whose business is 100% hydroseeding, concedes that. "We have some steep-slope homes right down the street from me, and one of the neighbors [asked] me if I would recommend hydroseeding. I told him I'd have to charge him a little bit more than most of my customers in the area because of the slope. I would be putting a different kind of material down altogether, so the slope definitely affects the cost. The type of material that I use on occasion can be up there with the price of some sods that are sold locally." The soil type also has a major impact on whether Coyne will hydroseed. "A lot of times the customer may want to correct the soil situation. We have a lot of drainage ditches out here along the roadside instead of underground sewer systems that catch runoff. Without fail, every single time, until the grass can mature through the summertime, the bottom of that ditch will wash out on the slightest little bit of rain. "I love them, but my customers are picky and they want perfection. We try to provide that for them, but you have to tell them that under certain situations - heavy rainfall being one - you're going to lose some material here in certain slopes and ditches with a lot of water movement." Coyne will tell his customers in some instances that sod would be more effective and less expensive to install, and then he'll offer them referrals to a number of other contractors with whom he's networked. Medlock notes there are times when hydroseeding is not the best choice because of the conditions. "We've had some situations with extremely steep slopes or slopes that are very close to traffic or would be very difficult to get back to, where we have chosen to use sods. Obviously, if you want instant gratification, grass and sod are the way to go." Schlensker says that while hydroseeding is sometimes not the best choice, it's rarely a poor choice when you have good equipment. But it might not be a sufficient option, he points out. "In some cases, we would hydroseed over a rolled erosion control blanket to apply additional seed and fertilizer and also provide additional tackification of the erosion blanket. If I didn't have a hydroseeding machine, that probably wouldn't be necessary, but I believe it does provide a benefit." In cases such as doing a soccer field under higher-moisture conditions, hydroseeding might not be the best option, Schlensker maintains. "It may be better to seed it with a tractor and a seed drill. You have to not only look at the site but also the site conditions at the time the job has to be performed." Jerszyk notes that the upcoming deadline for NPDES Phase II has not only increased the demand for hydroseeding, it also controls everything he does. "It was probably the best thing to happen to landscaping." But it also has presented Jerszyk and other operators with another quandary. "When we first started out, everybody was interested in erosion control strictly from a compliance viewpoint," he recalls. "So they were getting in touch with the erosion control association or their local conservation commission to find out who was doing it in their area. After the first three years of some really steady work, I noticed that it started to drop off as far as sales go, only because contractors were beginning to do it themselves. They're gaining the expertise they need to complete the job to the conservation board's satisfaction, and they're not hiring subs anymore." In addition, tanks are now so inexpensive that many companies are buying their own out of convenience. "Once they find out where we buy our seed and our fertilizer, they can use the same mix we do. They've cut into it quite a bit," Jerszyk says. Betts says he pitches hydroseeding on two counts. "I tell people I sell erosion control, number one. Number two, I sell dense, thick, near-perfect established turf. I don't think there's any such thing as a 100% established turf, but I think there's such a thing as 95% to 98% establishment, and that's what we sell."