Professionals who work in the green industry know the difference between average and premium sod, but they may not realize all the work and expertise that goes into producing that premium sod. Farm Manager Eddie Ott recently sat down to discuss the cultural practices and advanced technology that result in superior turfgrass.
Eddie Ott has been growing sod for more than 20 years. He joined NG Turf in 2016 and currently serves as farm manager for the sod fields in Gordon County, Georgia. He oversees all the day-to-day operations, including weed, insect and disease control, irrigation, fertilizing and mowing. He manages the process from soil prep and planting to harvesting and delivery.
“When we’re going to plant or replant a field, first we will pull soil samples,” Ott said. ‘’That way we know exactly what to add to replenish the soil, exactly what it needs to grow another crop.” Ott said some growers neglect to do soil testing and amending. “We get a better quality product by putting that fertility back in the soil,” he pointed out.
Matching the correct pH level to the specific variety is also vital to healthy turfgrass, for example adding lime to soil with a pH level of 5.5 when TifGrand Bermuda prefers 6.0 to 6.5. “Once the pH is corrected, anything you add after that—like nitrogen, phosphorus, pot ash—all of those nutrients become more readily available to the turfgrass and work much better for a stronger, healthier grass,” Ott explained. (The pH requirements for each turfgrass variety are listed on the NG Turf website.)
To keep weeds from invading the turfgrass fields, Ott’s team applies pre-emergent herbicide each spring and fall, a practice he also recommends to customers. “We are in the process of finishing up the fall application, and we’ll apply again in February, so going into spring the grasses will green up without competition from crabgrass, goosegrass, or other weeds.” The two applications will help keep weeds out of the turfgrass throughout the summer months.
Many of the varieties Ott grows are Blue Tag Certified by the Georgia Crop Improvement Association (GCIA), which ensures the turfgrass is grown according to rigorous standards. “Inspectors come out three times a year, usually after the first green-up in the spring, again in mid-summer and then again before the grass goes dormant in the fall. They look for off-types—so in a zoysia field, for example, they check for Bermuda coming up. They also look for weeds and insects and disease. Basically, they provide a second set of eyes, checking for the same things I look for as a farm manager.”
The ability of a piece of sod to hold together when it is handled, called tensile strength, affects a sod’s value. “Anybody in this business knows that laying sod with poor tensile strength is a hard job.” Customers have mentioned that although the same amount of square footage can be found elsewhere for a lower price, not as much of it can be installed because it crumbles into pieces.
Along with sound cultural practices, maturity has a major impact on tensile strength. “Some suppliers will harvest sod when inventory levels run low, even though the grass should stay in the field a few more months,” he reports, “but we have enough acreage to let sod mature into a good quality product. You could almost throw these pieces like a frisbee and they would still hold together.”
The close proximity of a turfgrass farm to its customers helps ensure that the sod remains in a similar soil type, which assists with establishment. “Farms in many areas grow sod in red clay, so that’s what’s on the bottom of the sod,” Ott explains. “When that sod gets installed in this area, it’s not going to establish near as well as sod that is grown here and installed here. And this river bottom ground that we’ve got is perfect for growing sod.”
The less time sod spends on a pallet between harvest and installation, the less stress on the turfgrass, which also translates to more successful establishment. Ott recommends installation within 24 hours of delivery. “Our farms are located all around the Atlanta market, so we can harvest fresh and be only about an hour away from most sites in middle Georgia up to Chattanooga.”
A single turfgrass field can comprise a dozen different soil types and moisture profiles. So farming hundreds of acres requires the use of technology to ensure consistency from one piece of sod to the next. Ott underscores the importance of using technology for ecological sustainability — using water, fertilizer and herbicides responsibly as good stewards of the land.
GPS-assisted soil mapping allows Ott and his team to precisely calibrate fertility requirements through a grid of five-acre tracts. “Some areas of the same field may not need any lime. Some areas may need half a ton, others may need a ton. We’re able to apply the right amount of lime or fertilizer exactly where it needs to go in the field.”
- Smart irrigation rigs communicate wirelessly to moisture sensors in the fields for precision watering. “If you overwater, it’s just going to run off. If you underwater, the grass won’t get what it needs to mature,” Ott says. He explains that too little water results in underdeveloped root systems that are more susceptible to drought, while too much water can cause issues with disease and root rot. Precision irrigation promotes environmentally responsibility and is especially important in the drought-prone Atlanta area.
- A Firefly Proslab automated harvester laser cuts straight rows of trimmed sod, creating zero waste and perfect edges for easy installation. The machine offers the fastest method of harvesting, cutting and stacking the product on pallets that are immediately ready to load and deliver for fresher installation.
Ott says customer satisfaction drives the NG Turf team to maintain their high standards year after year. “I talked to a customer this morning who said, ‘Yes, your prices are a little bit higher, but I can justify using your sod because my labor costs go down. And if I order a 504 square foot pallet, I’m actually laying 504 square feet of sod.’”