How to Allocate Your Time More Efficiently with Plant Growth Regulators
Can we talk for a moment about plant growth regulators? I spent 10 years in the golf industry where my fellow golf course superintendents and I needed very little prompting when it came to applying turf-centric PGR products like Primo. On top of promoting lateral growth, helping to prevent scalping and reducing clipping yields, they can reduce mowing — and the labor and resources it takes to conduct that mowing. That labor can then be deployed somewhere else on the property.
Since 2016, I’ve been an industry sales rep servicing folks in the golf, landscape, nursery, and athletic field industries. In this role, I am continually struck by how little landscape companies in particular understand and appreciate how PGRs can work for them. I get their issues with the PGRs and turf: The less grass grows, the less frequently some homeowner or corporate client may need an Lawn Care Operator to show up and mow it.
But I think LCOs in particular (and lots of golf course superintendents, to be honest) are missing the forest for the trees on this front.
This is all top of mind because Shortstop, a product originally formulated as a PGR for trees, will be soon labeled for shrubs (starting in July 2020). Yes, Shortstop is manufactured by my employers, the tree- and plant-health company Arborjet. But there are other PGRs operating in this space (think Atrimmec or Cutless), and I honestly do not think our company, and other companies, have done a particularly good job explaining what these products can do for landscape businesses — and their customers.
First of all, I’m not advocating the use of PGRs on a homeowner’s turf. That probably is unnecessary and may indeed disrupt the rhythm of scheduled visits. I’m talking here about shrubs. Traditionally, LCOs have balked at PGRs in this context (or maybe not even considered it, as so few PGRs were labeled for shrubs) because, if you trim a massive hedge using a team of four guys, a PGR application may cost more than paying those four guys to do that pruning.
But here’s the thing: That plant growth regulator allows an LCO to skip a month or two (or three) of subsequent hedge-trimming. That frees up the LCO to deploy those four guys to do something else, something more profitable and productive than trimming back shrubs.
In the LCO world, this dynamic tends to get lost in the churn of day-to-day service, personalized customer relations and new business development. Here’s something else that gets lost: the demonstrable benefits PGRs have on the plants themselves.
Briefly, all these plant-heath inputs work on different areas of the plant; every chemical touches a different amino-acid chain or enzyme. Plant-growth regulators generally affect the chain that ultimately fires the hormones governing shoot growth. The PGR stops that chain from forming and shoot growth is therefore inhibited.
But PGR applications don’t mean the laws of thermodynamics just go away. You can’t destroy energy. If the energy inside a plant can’t go toward shoot growth, it redirects elsewhere. Roots get hardier. Cuticles get thicker. The space between nodes on a branch become smaller. Carb stores become larger. Effects vary from species to species, but generally the plant gets hardier, which means you have less problem with disease (like cytospora canker in blue spruce and sycamore anthracnose; Shortstop has been proved effective in fending off both — and alleviating drought stress).
Healthier trees and shrubs are part of what produces happy customers, of course. And referrals!
In short, I think LCOs need to be more strategic about the way they think about PGRs. And the same goes for golf course superintendents, frankly. When I try to discuss PGRs for trees on their properties, for example, they tend to roll their eyes. Yes, supers do have a love-hate relationship with the trees on their golf courses. Those trees compete directly for nutrients with all that turf, of course. They create too much shade. In fact, most supers joke that the only good way to treat a tree is with a chainsaw.
I’m all for disposing of unnecessary trees on a golf property. These days, trends in course design and maintenance are all about creating more width in fairway corridors; the tree-removal ethos, in golf, has never been stronger. But again, PGRs are as much about improving plant health — especially in those trees you don’t take down. I encourage superintendents to pay attention to specimen trees, the ones on their golf courses but also the ones that accent the clubhouse, or maybe an outdoor wedding venue. Those are worth saving and invigorating with PGRs.
The reality for golf course superintendents is this: Their primary job is keeping the golf course maintained, healthy and attractive — but they’ve got responsibilities across the property. If you treat that 100-foot hedge with a plant growth regulator, it will be thicker and healthier (like a hedge is supposed to be). And because it’s not growing nearly so fast, all of a sudden you have freed up a guy to go hand-water with you.
The best superintendents are the ones who are continually improving the golf course. In any position, you can’t be static — you can’t be standing still. Deft use of PGRs free up labor to make improvements somewhere else, like those flower beds beside the 10th tee or that barrier landscaping along the outdoor patio.
In this way, the possibilities for superintendents and LCOs truly do overlap.
Let me give you a specific example: Where I live, in North Carolina — and across the South — anyone who runs a landscape company or maintains a golf course is familiar with loropetulum, also known as Chinese fringe plant. This is not a pest plant but a colorful, popular shrub deployed in many contexts, domestic and corporate, across the region.
It’s also one of the most aggressive, fastest growing shrubs you’ll ever hope to see. I know landscape companies where they dispatch crews to cut this stuff back four times a year. Then, after 3-4 years they often have to just hack the thing down to a manageable size again, because it’s just too hardy to contain.
Several of the PGRs now labeled for shrubs do not include loropetulum, which means they don’t work on the Chinese fringe plant (what’s more, it’s technically illegal to even apply them in that context). Well, Shortstop does work on loropetulum, as indicated by the new label. That’s big news.
Yes, it’s going to be good for the makers of Shortstop. But I’m here to encourage LCOs especially to start thinking one or two steps ahead. Don’t fixate solely on how they’ll be containing Chinese fringe plant going forward. Think about all the hours of labor you’ll be saving in doing so. Then think about all the other productive, profitable things your guys can be doing, for your customers, when that problem has been mitigated chemically.
Eastern Division Sales Manager; Golf, Sports Turf & Nursery Markets