Compost as a soil amendment prior to planting turf, and using it for maintenance as a top dressing product, are common applications on residential and commercial landscapes, ball fields and golf courses.
Marsha W. Johnston
BioCycle December 2017
“Compost has two primary uses for turf: Establishment as a soil amendment prior to planting, and maintenance as a top dress product,” explains Al Rattie, director of market development at the US Composting Council. “I don’t think comprehensive data on the size of the market for compost-based turf/lawn products exists, but one can speculate on the market size. Assuming a typical turf top dressing of one-quarter-inch of compost, or about 33 cubic yards/acre, multiplied by all of the ball fields and golf courses in the U.S. translates into an almost unlimited potential, but the reality is undefined.”
Compostwerks LLC in Mt. Kisco, New York, an ecological land care company, has offered a turf compost application service since 2007. “The market is growing for two main reasons,” explains Peter Schmidt, founding partner. “The first is that the consumer is pretty much putting a foot down about putting pesticides on their land. The second is states and regulatory agencies are banning the use of pesticides for land care. I don’t think that’s going away. It is only going to increase.”
In fact, Schmidt’s assessment of the market’s growth is precisely how Ecolawn Applicator founder Daniel Cote discovered compost for turf. After buying a lakefront property in Vermont in the mid-1990s, he learned that local regulations prevented him from using any chemical fertilizers to improve his lawn, which was in a bad state. After a little research, he aerated and reseeded the soil and spread a trailer full of compost on the lawn with a shovel.
While Cote’s compost top dressing created a beautiful lawn that all of his neighbors wanted him to duplicate for them, it became immediately clear that applying it with a shovel was an impossible business proposition. “I needed to find the proper equipment that would perform effectively and efficiently,” Cote recounts. “After extensive research, I found out that this kind of equipment simply did not exist. There were industrial machines built to work on large playing fields, but none specifically for landscapers who work in smaller residential areas.” So, despite no formal training in mechanical design, he devised the Ecolawn Applicator 100, a three-wheeled, walk-behind machine that would allow one operator to top-dress 10,000 square feet of turf in under an hour.
Roy Gross is a sales representative for St. Louis Composting, a compost manufacturer with multiple windrow composting sites in the St. Louis (MO) region. It processes about 800,000 cubic yards of green waste annually, and incorporates food waste at some locations. The company bought its first Ecolawn 100 in 2009 to rent out to homeowners and landscapers as a way to increase its compost sales. In the first year or two, it was rented mostly in the fall to customers who wanted to fix their lawns worn out from summer heat and use.
St. Louis Composting purchased more units for rental. “We started getting requests to buy the used machines,” recalls Gross. “Now, typically we will sell at least 4 of the used machines and 2 to 3 brand new ones a year. And I am completely confident in saying that we have seen at least a 50 percent increase in sales of Field & Turf Enhancer, our top dressing compost.” SLC produces the 100 percent plant-based, one-quarter-inch minus Field & Turf Enhancer at all of its 8 sites. The turf top dressing takes 180 days to process from start to finish, and sits typically another 60 to 100 days for curing, he adds.
Gross agrees with Schmidt about the growth prospects for turf application of compost. “As far as an industry, we are going to see top dressing increase,” he says. “People are becoming much more aware of the benefits of compost to make soils more productive…[and] due to the fact that some areas of the country are beginning to see fertilizer restrictions that only certain chemicals can be applied at certain times. Because compost is generally viewed as a soil amendment and not a fertilizer, it is not restricted.”
Compostwerks’ Schmidt notes that Westchester, Long Island, Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York, for example, aim to control use of phosphorus to prevent it from running off into waterways and creating dead zones. Consequently, both Compostwerks and St. Louis Composting use 100 percent plant-based compost, rather than phosphorous-rich animal manure-based compost.
Golf Course Utilization
But manure-based compost on turf is not taboo. Dan Dinelli, golf course superintendent at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Illinois and a pioneer in using compost top dressing on golf courses, just finished completely rebuilding the club’s greens using a mix of both animal manure and plant-based compost. The mix that was tilled in included 33 different amendments, including vermicompost, biochar, chip humate, compost, swine manure, probiotics, bone, blood and feather meal, and biosolids. “The biosolids has a high element of iron, which turf grass loves,” Dinelli notes, adding that he just purchased a new Ecolawn 250 top dresser that he uses on his putting greens. Although he suggested Ecolawn use wider tires on its machines “for more flotation,” its twin spinner and spinning auger will throw down even wet compost.
Compost use on turf is getting more attention these days, Dinelli observes, though golf courses that top-dress with compost every fall as he does probably still account for a small percent of the lawn and turf care market. “More people are still interested in top dressing with sand, which is the [golf] industry standard,” he explains, noting that while sand has no nutrients, it helps improve water movement in the soil, doesn’t compact, and provides a surface that is firm but soft. Although grasses in general can get by with low nutrients, those exposed to foot and golf cart traffic need more nutrients to overcome wear. “And compost does a better job holding moisture and delivering nutrients, so the best is to have both together,” Dinelli says. North Shore Country Club’s new greens are made of 90 percent sand and 10 percent of his 33-ingredient organic mix.
The biggest selling point for Compostwerks customers, explains Schmidt, is that compost top dressing is for people “looking to fix it for good,” as compost addresses fundamentals such as organic matter percentage of the soil, beneficial biology, nutrient cycling and sequestration of nutrients, and cation exchange. In addition, compost top dressing can be successfully integrated into a conventionally managed landscape as an effective solution to a chemically treated turf’s difficulty in sustaining itself during hot and dry months.
Compostwerks uses a top dressing compost produced at multiple sites in the region. It provides composting consulting in exchange for the kind of product it wants to use at client sites. Gregg Twehues, Compostwerks cofounder, notes that a good compost for top dressing turf is bacteria-dominated with a high, stable nitrogen content with particle size typically from granular to three-eighths of an inch.
Compostwerks uses Ecolawn applicators for its own projects, as well as sells the machines to homeowners, estates, landscapers, arborists, municipalities and golf courses. The manufacturer’s latest innovation was to increase the capacity of its largest models of top dressers and compost spreaders from one third of a cubic yard to one cubic yard, after its institutional customers kept asking for the upgrade. It has also introduced the Eco600 compost spreader that attaches to a commercial mower. The equipment’s versatility is a benefit when multiple turf products are being applied at the same location. “The Ecolawn 250 can be calibrated to spread compost, and then adjusted to apply other top dressings, like lime or organic fertilizer,” explains Schmidt.
Marsha W. Johnston is a Contributing Editor to BioCycle and an Editor at Earth Steward Associates in Arlington, Virginia.