Promos from national lawn-care services are full of enticing promises. "A Beautiful Lawn can be yours!" says Scotts. "Providing curb appeal for 40 years," states Lawn Doctor. "Our Grass Is Greener," assures TruGreen. The message seems to be getting out: Americans anted up more than $44 billion in 2006 on professional lawn and landscape service. But was it money well spent, especially when you could do the work yourself and save hundreds of dollars?
To help answer that question, we enlisted three staff members in the New York metropolitan area to go through the consultation process with four of the largest national residential lawn care service companies: Lawn Doctor, Scotts, TruGreen, and NaturaLawn, which is known for "green" lawn care. We then asked two turf experts, Keith Karnok from the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at the University of Georgia and Martin Petrovic from the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University, to review the lawn service's analysis and proposed treatment.
Of course, your experience might vary since these are nationwide lawn care services with hundreds of independent branches. Because of that, we didn't complete the lawn-care treatment and measure actual results.
Here's what we learned:
Despite claims about "tailored" and "specialized" programs, we found that the lawn care service prescriptions were surprisingly alike. That's because most major lawn services use widely accepted lawn-care practices designed to cure a wide range of problems. "It's a cost-competitive, high-volume business," Petrovic explains.
As a result, you should have realistic expectations. "It's a long shot to think that a little bit of fertilizer is going to transform your lawn," Karnok says.
The companies described an intensive training process that combines classroom education with field training. But lawn care service standards can be hard to enforce with franchises. So ask if the technician is from a franchise or company-owned branch. Ultimately, the quality and specifics of any lawn care service depend on the individuals who make the analysis and apply the treatments.
Insist on a written contract that spells out the terms and conditions of the services and the products being applied. Beware of contracts that automatically renew services.
Start with the company's literature, but then talk with the local lawn care service technician. In our experience, the two views didn't always align. One technician from Lawn Doctor criticized natural products. A technician from Scotts insisted that "the organic stuff just doesn't work that well or else all of us would use it," even though his company had just rolled out an organic option. But unlike food, there are no national government standards for organic lawn care. Check www.epa.gov/greenscapes for tips and information.