Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Terminator could be mowing a lawn near you

I’ve always been slightly disappointed in the lack of technological progress in the world. Sure, we now have portable telephones that also take pictures, record videos, play music, light fires, open cans and change flat tires. Essentially, we have Swiss Army Phones. But what I really wanted and expected by the year 2000, let alone 2005, is the flying car, or individual jet packs, or robot servants who cater to our every whim.

Given how high gas prices are I doubt we’re going to see flying cars anytime soon. And engineers are still working out the kinks on the jet packs. But the latest in robot technology is here to make all of our lives easier. It’s the Electrolux Automower.

According to an article by the Bucks Free Press in the United Kingdom, “the Electrolux Automower which Electrolux says is a robotic lawnmower that fertilizes as it grazes. The Automower is designed to save time and make life easier. Once the boundaries of a lawn are set with a perimeter wire system, Automower can wander off on its own continuously munching away, rain or shine, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, recharging itself as needed. The short clippings from the Automower drop back into the lawn, helping to return moisture and nutrients to the grass.”

Still I can’t help but worry. Technology running amuck is a constant theme in many of my favorite Hollywood movies. The Terminator. The Matrix. I, Robot. (Well, I, Robot was OK, but not really a favorite.) In each of these movies, man’s downfall is caused by technology going too far, giving machines too much power, and allowing them to take over the world.

I can see it now. The robot lawnmowers conspiring against us. First your lawn. Then the world.

So until we also have flying cars and jet packs, I’ll just hold off on the robot lawnmowers too, and leave the job up to the talented, human professionals in the Green Industry.

— Mike Seuffert

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A $10,000 government fine for not treating weeds

The Hungarian government is serious about weed control. Serious in a way opposite from many North American regional and local governments. Hungary recently introduced a $10,000 fine for failure to eradicate ragweed from your property.
(Image: Ambrosia artemisiifolia. Source: Weed Science Society of America).


According to the Society for a Ragweed-Free Hungary (it really exists!), ragweed covers about 12% of the country. About one million Hungarians (a quarter of the population) are allergic to ragweed and the country spends about $170 million a year in pharmaceuticals and hospital visits to treat ragweed allergies.

Ragweed is a North American native, and invaded Central Europe during the first World War. In the late 1990s, as land was privatized, ragweed took off as an invasive weed and now the most infested countries are Hungary, Croatia and parts of France and Italy.

Although Hungary even invested in a satellite imaging system to locate contaminated areas, some Hungarians say the new regulations will be ineffective because there will not be enough police around to provide enforcement during peak ragweed season. That's the traditional European vacation season.

According to a report published by Bloomberg, Budapest resident, Janos Soltesz, bought a goat in 1988 because the authorities were, even then, bugging him about the ragweed on his property. Now he has 48 goats -- who, nevertheless, still have plenty of ragweed to eat.

Apparently goats produce a biological antidote to the allergen that affects so many people. One witty Budapest observer observed that perhaps the government ought to look into ways to cross-breed immune goats with people.

Related links:

"Sneezing Hungarians Battle Ragweed Plants With Mowers, Goats,", Aug. 19, 2005.

Virginia Tech's Weed ID Guide for Common Ragweed: Ambrosia artemisiifolia

"Ambrosia (Ragweed) in Europe," by Ondrej Rybncek, Siegfried Jäger, Allergy & Clinical Immunology International - Journal of the World Allergy Organization, March 2001.

— Lynne Brakeman

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Watch out for you and yours

Watching news reports of Congress skewering ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown over the Katrina response debacle reinforces, for me anyway, the ever-growing conviction that governments, all governments, are by their nature ill prepared to respond to any sizable disaster, be it a major hurricane or, heaven forbid, another 11 September. Brave and dedicated individuals, some just happening to work in government service, provide whatever relief there is to be had. Once these charitable souls have organized and begun to put things right again, it's time for governments to get down to their real work — assigning blame. Yes, let the committees that inevitably blossom post disaster begin their self-appointed, self-righteous task of finger pointing. If I'm fortunate enough to see disaster heading my way, you better believe I'm not going to patiently wait for some governmental agency to wade through the debris to lead me and mine to safety.

—Ron Hall

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Hard to imagine the job ahead

When Hurricane Andrew roared through south Florida in 1992 it flattened somewhere between 25,000 - 28,000 homes (depending upon whose numbers you take) and damaged another 100,000 plus. In terms of financial loss, it was the most expensive natural disaster ever suffered by the United States. It took 11 years to rebuild all the homes that were destroyed. By contrast Hurricane Katrina destroyed 275,000 homes and damaged 200,000. What, 10 times more homes destroyed!!?? That's what the American Red Cross is saying. The scope of the devastation is staggering.

Monday, Sept. 19, Jerry Howard, CEO and Executive VP of the National Home Builders Association, and Dave Seiders, Chief Economist, discussed Katrina's effect on their members. It was enlightening.

In a nutshell, here are a few of the points they made:

1. Not only was a good portion of the Gulf Coast's housing stock destroyed in the storm, so was the region's homebuilding infrastructure. Most homebuilders in the affected region have been temporarily put out of business by Katrina.

2. Cement for rebuilding will be in tight supply, even tighter than before because the Port of New Orleans was the main port for imported cement.

3. Softwood-timber, a large portion of which is grown in the affected areas, will be abundant as damaged forests are cleared, but the long-term supply is uncertain since it will take growers years to replant and harvest again.

4. Plywood prices nationwide jumped dramatically on the heels of the disaster.

5. The NAHB will ask Congress to relax tariffs on Mexican cement, Brazilian plywood and Canadian-grown softwood.

6. If rebuilding follows the same path that other Hurricane-ravaged areas took it will happen in a slow, steady progression; it will take years and years; there will be no huge construction spike.

What's in store for the U.S. housing market nationawide post-Katrina? Seiders predicts a slight slowing of new home construction, at least through the remainder of 2005, but 2006 continues to look strong.

"I think the economy has enough forward momentum to get through this (Katrina) in fairly good shape," he said.

— Ron Hall

Monday, September 19, 2005

Fuel surcharges — everybody's doing 'em

I spent Thursday and half of Friday with a dozen folks from the Ohio Landscape Association ( They invited me to participate in their strategic planning. Sure, we did a fair share of planning but we also did a fair share of trading info as far as each of our perceptions of the market, customer expectations, rising costs, etc. What I found out was that just about every one of the six contractors at the planning meeting s had either added a fuel service to their services or where about to add one. The reason, apart from the high price of gasoline and diesel, was that their suppliers were charging them fuel surcharges . . .even when they were traveling to suppliers' sites to pick up and load material. How much are they adding to their clients' bills? One percent was the most common response. — Ron Hall

Friday, September 16, 2005

Baseball fever, lawn striping and Rex Sox blunders

Who would have guessed it after an awful April and early May, but the Cleveland Indians are playing great baseball and look like they may make it into the post-season. Right now, they are 1/2 game up in the wild card race over the Yankees, and only 4 1/2 games behind the Chicago White Sox for the division.

I was at a game the other night and around me people were asking, “How do they make those designs in the grass?” Designs range from checkerboards and stripes to an American Flag at Fenway Stadium and starburst at Comerica Park at this year's All Star game.

Those in the landscape business may already know all about lawn striping. But what interested me is how striping is catching on, not just at MLB ballparks, but at regular homes. I recently saw an article from a local paper, the Akron Beacon Journal, about it.

(I was also looking for a picture from the 2004 World Series with the intricately-designed Red Sox logo striped in the outfield. I actually couldn’t find a picture, but did find an article about the Red Sox field being completely renovated last off-season. It looks like the Sox wanted to cut down on their errors, and were blaming the field for their poor defense. Last year, they made 105 errors: 66 at home in Fenway Park and 39 on the road. Seems pretty convincing. But this season, with their new and improved field conditions, they have already made 103, the fifth worst in the majors. I’ll have to wait for the off-season and the Bill James Handbook to see how their errors broke down home vs. away. The point of this all is that it’s a poor player who blames his equipment, or in this case, the field. But I suppose there’s just no accounting for SS Edgar Renteria, who personally have committed 27, or about 1/4 of the team’s errors.)

In any case, I can’t wait until the playoffs. I just hope that I get to go down to Jacobs Field and see a big Chief Wahoo logo in the outfield grass come October.

— Mike Seuffert

Friday, September 09, 2005

A remedy for the Friday late-afternoon droop

It's Friday afternoon at 4:30 pm and boy am I draggin'! Three newsletter deadlines in four days. Whew!! Glad that's over.

But now I owe the company one more half hour (at least) of some kind of productivity and my mind is kind of like yesterday's wadded up newspaper.

When I get like this, there's one surefire way I know to reenergize my brain cells: looking at pansies. Preferably live pansies. But pictures of pansies will do in a pinch.

Pansies. I love 'em!

They're so simple, so plucky, so resilient. Here it is nearly mid-September and there's a couple of survivors from last March's planting still hanging on in my annual bed. They come in a practically infinite palette of colors. Most of them have got great names.

Here's my very favorite pansy: Imperial Antique (image courtesy David at Stecks Nursery and Landscaping; check out their beautiful Web site).

I know these antique guys are hard to over winter up here in northern Ohio. But this weekend I will probably go out searching for a greenhouse that will sell me some anyway.

One site I like to keep an eye on is the Ohio State University Extension's Floriculture OnLine. They regularly post the results of their pansy and viola cultivar trials. The 2004/2005 results are up there right now. The ranking tables include links to images of the cultivars they tested. Check out "Icy Blue Sorbet." I gotta get me somma these!!

So I hope you are encouraging your customers to spring for some pansies this fall. You'll be doing them a big big favor by fixing them up with these humble, cheerful companions.

— Lynne Brakeman

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

RISE-ing in Las Vegas

Flew into Las Vegas this afternoon for the RISE Annual Conference.
The temperature was 97 F. when we got off the plane — hey, it's a "dry heat" right? Even so, I don't have enough hair on the top of my head to keep my brain from boiling if I'm foolish enough to stand out in the sun.
The RISE Conference (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment) is filled with all kinds of committee meetings and there looks like there might be a couple of interesting sessions, including one entitled "The Rachel Carson Syndrome" with guest speaker Alex Avery, director of research and education for the Center for Global Food Issues.
There's going to be some serious discussion about the environmental benefits of lawn care, too. This is timely in light of the anti-pesticide movement that seems to be getting stronger and stronger. I'll let you know what they say about that after the conference ends. (Sept. 9 update: "Silent Spring haunts the Green Industry").
Finally, some of the folks here are going golfing Thursday afternoon. There are many things that I don't do when the air temperature approaches 100 F. Golfing is just one of them.

— Ron Hall

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Things you learn at a yard sale

The wife and I went to some yard sales this morning. We rode our bikes and stayed in the neighborhood.
The neat part of yard sales, at least for me, is the socializing. Everybody has a story and most people are open and friendly at yard sales.
This morning I met Jim. He's 65. He mows lawns in his retirement but he calls himself a "handyman." Anyway, he's a nice guy and he says he charges $18 an hour. If the mowing doesn't take an hour, he does something else for the client, like washing a window or cleaning a gutter. He says he's so busy he has to turn away work. He says he keeps working to make enough money to pay the lot rent for his mobile home in Ft. Myers, FL, where he retreats in the winter.
There are a lot of "handymen" in our community. They do all kinds of services for their customers — from light construction to mowing to landscaping of one sort or another.

— Ron Hall

Friday, September 02, 2005

Give me the ball, coach

Tonight was escape night.
Like a junkie this past week, I've been addicted to every aspect of Hurricane Katrina's destruction. It seemed like I couldn't suck up enough of it, maybe because it seems so unreal. The human misery. The trash. Filthy water. Fire. All of it televised like some grossly out-of-control reality program. Each espisode seems more bizarre than the one before.
Enough already.
I hop on my ancient bicycle and thread my way through side streets to the local high school football field. Taking my place behind the sideline fence like one of the proud fathers there, I breath in the aroma of popcorn and icy hot and just let the colors and sounds surround me.
Stars fill the sky and the players, energized by the cool night air, compete with a ferocity that surprises me.
What a beautiful sight, that neatly lined grass playing field, and all my neighbors and friends filling the stands and enjoying themselves.

— Ron Hall