Question of the Week
I am interested in producing sod for the wholesale market in Pennsylvania. What should I take under consideration in terms of soil requirements, seed, etc.?
A: The depth and uniformity of the soil is critical. In Pennsylvania, fields that are located on the flood plain next to the bigger rivers—Susquehanna, Schulkyll, Delaware—have some of the best soil types for growing sod. As an added bonus, every few years these fields get flooded and covered with several inches of sediment. Cutting sod means removing three-quarters of an inch of the top "A" horizon soil and having Mother Nature replenishing that layer is a real advantage. In addition, rivers provide a source of critical irrigation water.
The ideal soil is sandy loam followed by silt loam soils. Heavy clay soil is a poor choice because it is difficult to cut and heavy to lift for harvest, transport, and handling, especially when moist, which is necessary for the sod to stay "live" for that critical 24- to 36-hour window when harvesting, shipping, and installing. The ideal site would also be very level with few or no stones in the top four inches. Much of the sod being purchased for athletic fields, parks, and commercial and high-end residential projects has to be grown to exacting specifications including grass species, stones, being weed-free, etc. Some states such as Michigan have specifications for the production, sale, and transport of sod.
Other critical requirements for sod production are a sod cutter, small grain drill or seeder, fertilizer spreader, sprayer, fork lift, and irrigation system with access to water. Irrigation and moisture levels are critical for both production and harvest of sod. The type of grass you grow would be largely dictated by the type of customer you are considering. The type of sod installed on athletic fields is a very different blend of grasses than what residential or industrial projects would need. Several central Pennsylvania sod farms grow a variety of two or three sod mixtures for different client types.
The ATTRA publication Sustainable Turf Care is a good resource for additional information on turf. Its emphasis is on soil management, species diversity, and cultural practices that enhance turf growth and reduce pests and diseases by reducing turf stress. It also looks at mixed species and wildflower lawns as low maintenance alternatives to pure grass lawns. It is available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=80.
In addition, if you're a beginning farmer, you should find the ATTRA publication Evaluating a Farming Enterprise useful. It can help you develop an enterprise that works for your property and your goals. It is available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=277.
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