How Labor Shortages Are Impacting The Landscaping Industry

Labor shortage: an epidemic plaguing the nation and affecting all industries, especially the landscaping industry. SoilKit spoke with Jess Burg the founder of Outgrow your Garage, a company that provides business expertise for those involved with the trades, and former owner of Pears to Perennials, a landscaping company, to hear her insights into the impact labor shortage has on landscaping. 

Jessi Bur, Founder of Outgrow Your Garage

The field of landscaping is already one of the lowest-paying skilled trades for entry-level positions, dissuading potential workers from the start. The pandemic, however, amplified the overall available labor force. 

Furthermore, Mrs. Burg noted, “Not only are the low wages affecting that industry, but we’re finding more people want to be on the design side of the job rather than the install side. As for suppliers in landscaping, they are shrinking. There are fewer suppliers doing a greater percentage of the supply chain, which makes us more susceptible to any hiccups.”

The central root of the issue points to technology. Mrs. Burg makes a notable point: “The downside [to technology] is that fewer people are wanting to get into the trades because they would rather work on a computer all day, or remotely in the comfort of their own home.” The fast-paced advancement of technology also generates a steep learning curve for those who have been in the industry for 15-20 years and are now expected to be up to speed on not only their trades but new technologies as well. 

Though, technology has a plethora of benefits to the industry, including programs that let you do site measurements from a computer using available satellite data. “Not only does this mean more accurate measurements, but also it saves time for both us and the client, which is a win-win.” Mrs. Burg elaborated, “ I also think the proliferation of online invoicing platforms has changed the game because it ensures consistency, accuracy, convenience for the client, and usually leads to getting paid faster.”

On the flip side, there is that learning curve that comes with technological advancement, as well as the expense. “When we talk about the cost of technology, it includes dollars and your time. How much time does it take to learn, use, and set up?…there aren’t enough hours in the day for a 1-5 person company to keep up with jobs while trying to keep up with learning the latest technologies.”

Anecdotally, Mrs. Burg shared, “When I was running my landscaping company, it was nearly impossible to find a CRM (customer relationship management) software that worked for small trades companies. I wanted something better than an email spreadsheet to keep track of my client information, and something that was also able to organize recurring jobs and one-time jobs.”

Mrs. Burg suggests that hiring more women, and making schedules flexible to child care, may aid in remedying labor shortages. Only 6% of landscapers in Colorado, for example, are women. “… the shortage is only going to get worse if we are limiting the number of people we can hire for those reasons.”

She urged, “We as an industry need to push for education to be accessible and affordable to smaller companies. For example, an HR company that targets blue-collar industries came out recently with a fantastic education program, except that it isn’t a good fit for anyone who has under 15 employees. A lot of newer businesses don’t have that many employees, so despite making the hiring process easier, they are cost-prohibitive for small companies that are just starting to hire a couple of people at a time… we need to petition for something that’s not only affordable but has tiers for all stages of owning a business that makes it easier to grow as a whole.”

Spring, A New Season Has Arrived

Sunday was the first day of spring, and quite honestly it felt so much different from it has in years passed. Why? I think it is because we are now returning to our pre-COVID activities and back to the business of life.  As much as I complained about shelter-in-place and restrictions, I will forever appreciate that COVID let me stop and smell the rose buds during spring.

If you know anything about me, spring is my favorite time of year. It all starts with the time change.  You begin to feel the days slowly get longer; the birds begin to sing differently; and you see buds indicating life is coming. But this year I am grumbling. The purple martins didn’t make a nest in my well-equipped and comfortable accommodations; spring is colder than usual; and I am still dealing with Hurricane Sally damage down here on the Gulf Coast.  I am just too busy to stop and smell those rose buds this year.

I have a bunch of trees in my yard, but I have two trees just outside my house that greet me every morning and my guests when they come to my porch. Hurricane Sally damaged one of them, and she is now leaning. I was afraid I was going to lose her, but I did find a bud the other morning, and it looks like we are going to pull through. What concerns me is I feel like in years past she was already showing more life at this time of year. I think this tree is a great representation of where we are. We all took a hard hit during the pandemic and for some – Hurricane Sally. But, we are on the other side — leaning but alive.

We are working harder to come out this spring. There is so much with high fuel prices, high fertilizer prices and life trying to return to the new normal. For all those reading this, let’s pause and appreciate that we are here, and we survived. We may be forever changed and carry a story with us that our grandchildren will not understand, but we will bud and bloom.

A Common Spring Pest: Burweed

Picture this: a beautiful spring afternoon stroll through a lucious, green lawn. Ironically, although this is characteristic of spring, the season also brings the pesky lawn burweed, sure to antagonize your leisure. According to Clemson University’s Extension Office, “lawn burweed (Soliva sessilis) is a winter annual that germinates throughout thin turf in the fall months as temperatures cool.” During this germination period, the weed is inconspicuous. But as temperatures steadily increase, the weed grows rapidly and spine-tipped burrs form in the leaf axils. Mr. Mike Randall from BWI describes the weed stating, “Lawn burweed has a ‘sticker’ like other weeds and is commonly mistaken for sand spur or pin turbine.”

If you fertilize and lime according to soil test results, and mow appropriately, you will maintain a healthy, dense lawn. These blades will compete with weeds for light, water, and nutrients, impeding burweed growth. 

Another healthy deterrent is to apply post-emergent herbicide during the winter months. This will kill off the weeds before they have time to form the burrs. Mr. Randall recommends that you always treat your burweed in the fall. “It’s a winter weed and is best controlled with pre-emergent in early fall as a preventative. Post-emergent herbicides, like weed free zone, can be used to control it.” It is recommended that you apply post-emergents between February and March. Mr. Randall concedes that if you miss the fall deadline it is never too late to apply pre-emergent to prevent seeds from growing into problematic weeds. 

The weed will begin to die in late Spring, as temperatures reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Is Inflation Affecting Your Garden?

Like most industries these days, the fertilizer industry is suffering from supply chain shortages and rising prices, making conservation imperative. SoilKit® makes fertilizing efficient, even with supply difficulties. As a result of shortages, fertilizer prices have more than doubled over the past year. By using SoilKit®, you can obtain an accurate measurement of the precise amount of fertilizer necessary for your soil, so you do not overconsume or overspend. SoilKit® gives science-based solutions for exact amounts, preventing over-fertilization. When using a soil test, you might find that simply raising your soil’s pH, for example, may make existing nutrients more readily available to the plants. Products that augment pH, like lime and sulfur, are still affordable. A feature SoilKit® hopes to implement in the future is the ability for landscapers and municipalities to aggregate multiple test recommendations to facilitate pre-ordering in bulk to achieve volume discounts.

According to Mr. Taylor Pursell, Chairman of Pursell Agri-Tech, “Fertilizers are commodities and prices are cyclical in nature.” He elaborated, “I have seen this (very large) spike in prices only a couple of times in my 40 years in the industry.” He predicts that prices will fall over time, however it will not be this spring. He explained, “The central cause of nitrogen prices rising is natural gas price spikes in Europe in 2021. Many ammonia plants (where most nitrogen fertilizers are produced) were shut down for a long period, creating supply shortages. Phosphate and potash prices have also surged due to supply chain issues.”

Mr. Pursell offered solutions other than the obvious: implementing a soil test. “When fertilizing anything (whether a lawn or food crops), the key is to use products that do not have excessive nutrient losses into the environment. This can be done by using controlled release fertilizers that deliver nutrients over a long period of time with minimal losses. Or, you can apply smaller amounts of fertilizer more [frequently].” He continued, “While most fertilizer is used in agriculture, consumer lawns can be a significant source of fertilizer runoff into lakes and streams or into wastewater systems. As excessive phosphorous and nitrogen are applied (and lost), algal blooms can form, which can have a detrimental effect.” With these insights, we wish you the best in navigating these elevated fertilizer prices this year.

Get to Know SoilKit Sales Representative Miller Kinstley

One of my earliest childhood memories takes me back to a small 20’X50’ vegetable garden on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama. I can still remember my legs covered in dirt as I ran the bucket on my Tonka backhoe toy to dig the holes that my brother would fill with seed. “You two are such a big help,” my mother would cheer us on as she fixed our lopsided mounds. I did not know it at the time, but she was instilling something in me that would follow me the rest of my life.

One blink of an eye later, I was ten years old with a 50 pound sack of clover seed cradled in my arms. My father stood beside me with sacks on each shoulder as his best friend backed up “Ol’ Bessie.” This 1964 Massey Ferguson tractor had easily seen more than five thousand miles solely on wildlife food plots. Putting my body weight (which could not have been much more than the sack of seed) into full swing, I heaved the bag up to the spreader on the back of Ol’ Bessie. We emptied our sacks and watched as the seed scattered onto the rich black soil. I was finally starting to get the hang of it.

It took 12 more years for it all to come together for me. While at college in Starkville, Mississippi, I spent time working on the Mississippi State research farm and spent much of my free time on a friend’s nearby farm. It’s worth noting, in case my Mom is reading this, I spent a lot of time going to class too. From my senior year through the end of my Master’s program, I started farming on my own. This time, however, Mom and Dad were not there to fix my mistakes. Yes Mom, I still went to class, but at 5:00 AM before class, I was moving my cows, letting out my chickens, checking on my lambs, and feeding my pigs a little breakfast. I had worked out a deal with Johnny and Deb Wray at High Hope Farm and had over 400 mouths to feed. While moving all the animals around, I was also growing their food –the grass –and the soil simultaneously. Without recognizing it, I was combining 22 years of experience into a regenerative farming practice.

Today, I still love to help things grow, but it has manifested itself in different ways. For example, I still go back to our family property to help my parents plant their garden and wildlife food plots. I just do not use my Tonka backhoe toy anymore. WhenI am not there, I am helping landscapers across the United States grow their customers’ lawns, gardens, trees, and shrubs while also helping them grow their businesses. With SoilKit they are able to improve their operational efficiency (often by 300%) with soil testing and fertilizer application best practices. I also use SoilKit to design programs specifically for my customers that generate more revenue and new clients. It is evident that my landscapers, similarly to myself, still have a passion for things that grow. I would not be surprised if it all started for them somewhere like it did for me, in that little backyard garden outside Birmingham.

Purple Martins

I am not going to miss the scout this year. I want to attract my first group of Purple Martins. I grew up with my Mom always preparing for her Purple Martins. Now, to be a bit biased, I grew up in Elberta, Alabama, and we lived very close to the Gulf of Mexico. The proximity to the Gulf made Elberta, the ideal location for Purple Martins to spend the summer having babies before heading to South America for the winter. Other parts of the US may have this bird, but it flourishes here on the Gulf Coast. Purple Martins belong to the swallow family and boast dark and glossy purple plumage. They fly around gracefully eating airborne insects and delight us with delightful songs at dawn and dusk.

As early as I can remember, my Momhad two poles in our backyard that were connected with a wire, strung with as many as 10 gourds suitable for nesting summer homes for her wild friends. Throughout the years, these martin homes grew fancier. Sometime in the 90s, Mom traded in the gourds and wire for a white stacked condo-style house with round holes on a pole. But if you want to see something impressive, you should see the version she has today. Her wild friends, who I suspect crave a human audience and companionship just as much as she does, now get white gourds that have specially shaped (moon-shaped) holes specifically designed for the birds –all this on a crank pole. The crank is essential for cleaning out the homes at the end of the season and facilitating the return of babies when they are bumped from the nest too early. While times have changed and my Mom’s bird houses have changed, the birds have not. I missed that memo last year.

Last year was the first year I got my own Purple Martin condo on a pole to draw in wild friends to my house. My Mom kept telling me I would not have mosquitos if I had the birds. And to be honest, after growing up listening and watching the birds all my life, I had come to expect them to put on a flying show with choir-like chirping. I missed having that. So, I purchased a fancy Purple Martin house with all the bells and whistles and then when it came to installing the house, it was a bit complicated and that means it got pushed a couple of weeks to wait on my husband to assist with the concrete and other mechanisms to get it cranked up in the sky and be prepared to weather Gulf Coast Hurricanes. After the installation, and feeling so accomplished, my parents came over and looked up at the house and told me, “Pretty sure you have missed the scout.” I did not want to believe that and kept up high hopes that even if I missed the first scout, the birds would find these new homes. What bird would not want this fancy condo on a pole? Needless to say, I missed the scout.

So now that I failed to take into account the natural migratory pattern and behaviors for Purple Martins, I will not make that same mistake in 2022. I am not going to miss the scout, and I hope you learn from my mistakes before planning your own Purple Martin accommodations. To help break it down, here are my unprofessional but hard-knock tips that my Mom has passed on from her years of bonding with the wild birds:

  • Prepare a home for the scout, the birds, and the babies. These birds rely on human-made nests. My Mom’s home of choice is a group of manufactured gourds that have moon-shaped holes affixed to a pole that can be cranked up and down. Why moon-shaped holes? Because there are predatory birds like hawks that can also get into a regularly-shaped circular hole.
  • Make sure the home is ready to go just after the first of the new year. Expect to see martins here on the Gulf Coast as early as February.•If you are using the home from the previous year, make sure to clean it out and prepare a clean residence for your wild friends.
  • The nests need to be placed in an area where the birds have lots of open space to swoop and dive all over with a source for water. And the nests need to be high enough for safety, but be sure to put low enough where you can enjoy the daily activities and songs.

Despite all this, I am not guaranteed to attract my very own Purple Martin family this year. They will often return to the same breeding spot and sometimes will even go back to the same gourd. However, I will have all the conditions ready and will keep an eye out for those beautiful purple glossy birds and keep an ear out for the sweet chirping excitement. See the video below.

My Mom and Dad not only watch their beautiful friends, film, and share their experiences, but last year had to do a baby rescue operation…. and good news – the rescue was successful.

Soil Temperatures & Importance of Timing Pre-Emergents

As the new year rings in, it becomes imperative to apply pre-emergent herbicides to your lawn. A pre-emergent is a herbicide that is intended to prevent weeds before they have the chance to start developing. Weeds begin to germinate at soil temperatures around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is key that you apply the first pre-emergent when your soil has consistently reached 55 degrees; making the best time of year for application in the Fall and Spring. 

Hi-Yield Weed & Grass Stopper

According to Mr. Graham Simmons, director of Turfgrass Operations at Woerner Farms in Foley, AL, timing is critical because “once the temperature is right for weed seed germination you are “fighting from behind.” Pre-emergents work by preventing weed seeds from germinating or killing the seed shortly after it germinates, subsequently preventing it from becoming a full-grown plant. 

If you are new to lawncare and are not sure what product to use, we can offer suggestions. The best pre-emergents include Hi-Yield Weed & Grass Stopper, Sta-Green Crab-EX, and TURFGRO Professional (the latter two of which can be purchased at your local Lowe’s). Many pre-emergents are mixed with a nitrogen fertilizer, which can be problematic for your plants when nitrogen works with spring frost to cause harm. The aforementioned pre-emergents do not contain nitrogen and are therefore our favorite picks. We recommend a 0-base nitrogen product. 

Sta-Green Crab-Ex Crabgrass Control

Furthermore, Mr. Simmons recommends applying a post-emergent separate from the pre-emergent for winter weeds. Some chemicals like Atrazine have both pre and post emergent control.

In order to maximize the potential for your plants to thrive in your environment, you should consider the USDA growing zone map. This map sets the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants will grow best in their location. The map takes the average annual minimum winter temperature and divides these into 10 degree Fahrenheit zones, which correlate to colors on the map. Compare these temperatures to those at which your plant will thrive.

You can also use to determine your location’s soil temperature by location.

New Years Resolutions + New Beginnings

New Beginnings

Ah yes, a New Year. A time for new beginnings, and of course, resolutions. Everybody makes them, but not everybody keeps them. You may have made your resolution to get outside more and practice outdoor lawn care. Maybe you have committed to starting a garden this year. Or maybe you have decided to start working with a lawn care company. When determining your resolutions pertaining to outdoor living space, there are a few things to keep in mind that make this year different.

Firstly, 2022 will ring in a rise in fertilizer prices. Global supply chain problems have contributed to a shortage of key raw materials in fertilizer production for all types of fertilizers. But in addition, as a result of the natural gas crisis (predominantly in Europe), although seemingly unrelated, fertilizer prices are projected to rise even further.  Here’s why natural gas has further exacerbated the problem.  Natural gas is a key input in nitrogen-based fertilizer production. Let me break it down. Urea (the solid-state of ammonia) relies on natural gas to exist. Thus, without natural gas, we have no urea and without urea, we have no nitrogen-based fertilizer. As the prices of urea and natural gas increase, as will the price of fertilizer, and subsequently the price of food (since fertilizer accounts for the second largest cost component of most agricultural production). Over the past year alone fertilizer prices have more than doubled, according to The Wall Street Journal. With fertilizer looking at a substantial price increase, it is important, and in the interest of your bank account, to pay for only what your plant needs. You can take a soil test (through SoilKit) to determine this amount.

COVID has drawn us all to the outdoors, spurring a profound appreciation of our planet for some, but little action has been taken to improve environmental conditions globally. We have experienced an unprecedentedly warm fall and winter season and this increase in global temperature has been largely the result of human consumption and pollution. It is now in the hands of the individual to protect our home and an environmentally-related resolution is a great place to start. One way you can help is by improving soil health and decreasing the overuse of fertilizers.  Soil testing can show you how to improve soil health and decrease fertilizer use.  Improved soil health will lead to an increase in soil organic matter which is a proxy for an increase in carbon capture (soil organic carbon).

Regardless of the goals, you have set for 2022 we all get a long-overdue, fresh start, just be sure to consider the factors that make outdoor living different this year. Remain cognizant of your impact on the environment this year. The time for action is now. Together we can make a difference.

Christmas Tree Disposal

The New Year’s resolutions have been made and new gardens have been planned but what to do with that lovely Christmas tree that is turning brown and losing needles in the corner of the family room? 

The SoilKit® office chose to take our office tree out to the 256 Woerner family farm and placed the tree in front of a brim feeder in our pond. My brother, Allen, also disposed of his family’s Christmas tree at the farm too. Algae will grow on the trees, giving baby fish something to eat and providing cover for the fry.  This will increase the chances the fish will grow to adulthood providing fish for us to catch or feast to the resident Bald Eagle.  Natural Resources and Bureau of Land Management officials near Carlyle Lake in Illinois and Lake Havasu, in Arizona round-up trees each year to help refurbish reefs that provide food and shelter for species such as sunfish, bluegill, and bass. I encourage you to find a similar program near you and dispose of your Christmas tree in a sustainable way.  

Communities all over the U.S. have other ways of recycling Christmas trees that are beneficial to the environment.

For more than four decades, Alabama’s Gulf State Park has been organizing a yearly drop-off for Christmas Trees (they collect through the end of January every year!), and then come spring, volunteers lay out the trees in ways that promote dune structures for local beaches. All of this hard work has paid off, and naturalists with the state park recorded less dune erosion after Hurricane Sally than they did sixteen years ago following Hurricane Ivan. Dune restoration projects that use Christmas trees are popular along the Gulf and east coasts. 

Cities a little more inland, such as Daphne/Spanish Fort AL and Sonoma, CA, take dropped-off trees to composting sites or chip them up for mulch for spring gardens. Mulching and composting your tree is great for the soil and helps keep organic matter out of landfills so everything breaks down the way nature intended! Plus, most communities that mulch the Christmas trees will provide their resident’s mulch for their gardens free of charge, especially to those who donated their trees; with the continued rise in fertilizer prices, every little bit helps. 

If you aren’t ready to part with your tree just yet, you can move it to a porch or outdoor area, and redecorate it as a Mardi Gras tree or Valentine’s Day tree! Really, really attached to your tree? Consider planting a variety of pine or spruce that grows in your grow zone, if you are able to, in native soils (start with a soil test!), or in a large pot that can be moved both inside and outdoors. Our Project Administrator, Morgan Cahn, grew up with a Norfolk Island pine that lived in a pot that her family used for a Christmas tree for more than a decade. 

The most important thing to remember before you take your tree to be recycled, mulched, or be made into a reef, make sure you take off all lights and ornaments (even the homemade cranberry and popcorn strings!). Most programs will have a designated drop-off area, day of the week to put on the curb for pick-up, and some non-profit organizations have even offered pick-up. 

How are you disposing of your tree this year? Show us a photo or video of you responsibly disposing of your tree and tag us on social media!

Saying goodbye to the year of the Sunflower 2021

We are saying goodbye to the year of the sunflower. What is my favorite flower? A sunflower. The National Garden Bureau has established 2021 as the year of the sunflower.

My brother, Allen, planted a field of sunflowers this year on our 256 Farm. We got to enjoy watching the beautiful flowers grow. I also had the chance to teach my children that a sunflower’s purpose is more than just being a beautiful flower. Sunflowers serve an agricultural purpose and have quite a meaningful life cycle.

There are many varieties of sunflowers but we planted the Clearfield variety. This variety grows to over 6 feet tall and stands very stately in beauty and it grows well in south Alabama climate fluctuations. Actually, it flourishes in our heat and humidity. If you sit back and watch the life cycle of the sunflower you experience all kinds of emotions. You feel the excitement with the germination, determination when it grows tall, and complete awe-struck when the flower reaches full growth (which only takes about 100 days) and you experience the colorful beauty in the gorgeous flower. But what fascinates me the most is watching the field come to life.

The sunflowers attract families and children taking pictures, bees, and pollinators with lots of activities, deer, and sometimes even some snakes. But there is life also to the flower. You get to watch the flower as it slowly and carefully follows the sun. The movement of the sunflower is called heliotropic which means they turn to follow the sun. It is what draws me in as if I am watching a motion picture. The whole field of flowers knows that it draws its’ energy and life from the sun and it follows the sun around throughout the day instinctually and completely choreographed together.

But, when the beauty has passed and the flower looks dead, its purpose begins. Most sunflower growers are growing the crop for oil, seed production, or for a cut flower. We grew our sunflowers for the birds. Literally – for the birds. As the flower dies, the head begins to bow over and protect the seeds that it has grown in the head. That protective measure is to keep Mother Nature from directly affecting the drying out process. The flower now knows to bend over and hover over the seeds to prevent rain from counteracting the drying out time. The flower will sit in that position for weeks and wait until the seed is dry. We have cut rows in between sections to help with accessibility into the field but ultimately, we will be preparing to draw in the migrating doves. The flower head will dry out and the seeds will fall to the ground. And guess what doves like to eat? Yes…sunflower seeds. And guess who will be waiting for them? My husband and children because one of their favorite grilled foods is the dove.

What is so amazing is a plant, a beautiful flower, will end with a delicious carnivorous family meal simply by attracting the bird to the by-product as a food source. But don’t miss out on the beautiful show that the sunflower puts on as it prepares for its ultimate purpose. I can see why this flower was chosen for 2021 and I am not sure the 2022 flower or rather any other flower of the year will live up to this great legacy.