Finally, a Dandy Lawn Without the Dandelions

Sod is a growing business and it's the quick, though not the cheap, way of going green

Planning to put in a lush, sod lawn this year? You're not alone.

A recent Gallup Survey put out by the National Gardening Association notes that in recent years more than 4 million American households purchase an average of half a billion dollars' worth of turf grass sod each season.

The bulk (3.3 million) lay the lawns themselves, while the rest have landscapers do the installing. All indications from the survey are that new-lawn acreage will be going up during the next few years, and that's just fine with Peter Gavit.

Mr. Gavit entered agriculture school in the early '70s. It was a time when the once-dominant potato farms in his south-eastern region of Rhode Island were on their way out, bowing to serious spud competition from Maine and Prince Edward Island.

"Sell out to developers or look for alternative crops," was the standard advice to farmers of the day. So Gavit chose grass, majored in turf management, and is now one of the major sod farmers in the United States.

On 400 acres not far from Kingston, R.I., Gavit sows several cultivars including Kentucky blue and chewing fescue, and he harvests lush, green, ready-to-roll lawns.

These are cut from the land in great rolls of sod and transported to customers who can't, or don't have the patience, to wait the 12 months or so it takes to get a good lawn from conventional seeding.

Landscapers, homeowners, office park managers, and even football stadium owners are all buyers of the "instant" lawn.

While it may be highly specialized, turf or sod production is straightforward farming just the same. Soil quality, nutrients, moisture levels, and pest control concern the turf producer as much as the potato grower or home gardener.

But there are differences. No other crop is mowed every three to four days during the growing season, and where a wheat farmer in Kansas can drive to the nearest silo and dispose of his entire crop, the turf farmer has to find customers for every blade of grass. He has to be as much a salesman as a grower.

"The turf grower is much more intimately involved in selling than the conventional farmer," notes Doug Fender, executive director of Turf Grass Producers International, "and all the product has to be sold within about 100 miles of the farm."

That's because turf should be in place and growing within 24 hours of harvesting, particularly when the weather is warm. For these reasons turf growers aren't commonplace.

All told there are about 1,000 major growers dotted about the country, says Mr. Fender. By major growers he means that the bulk of their farm income comes from turf.

After homeowners, major purchases come from landscapers, golf courses, and sports complexes. In March of 1996 Gavit supplied sod for the New England Patriots' Foxboro Stadium. hundreds of square yards were laid in early March, used for professional soccer all summer long and finally for a grueling Super Bowl-bound football season.

What draws people to sod lawns? "Instant beauty," is the No. 1 reason, says Fender; the fact that bare soil in the morning can become a lawn in the evening that can be used the next day. Few, if any, weed problems come with the sod and, apart from regular watering during the first weeks, upkeep is minimal.

Sod lawns can be installed all season long, at the height of summer when seeding is out of the question. "It can also be laid on frozen ground," says Gavit. The moment there's a thaw, new roots start pushing down into the soil. "Even in the middle of winter, a good sunny day can stimulate root growth," he says.

Meanwhile, healthy new-home construction is keeping the landscapers' trucks rolling up at Gavit's Turf Inc. Farm this season. When a new home is built on speculation, the builder wants a lawn in place when he shows the home to prospective buyers.

"Immediate curb appeal" is the need of new home construction, says Fender. "We're the caboose on the construction industry train. When the train goes by we follow. Right now we're on our way up."

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