Rob Nelson stands just outside the arc of a sprinkler and looks over 18,000 square feet of new turf that will be ready to harvest this week.
The manager of Southern Turf Hawaii, which first put down roots on Kaiminani Drive in November, Nelson just needs a customer.
As the sprinklers soak 3 acres of new grass at the farm, Nelson isn’t worried about finding someone interested in purchasing his 2-by-4-foot squares of green, which run between $2 and $3 a square foot. That’s because Southern Turf Hawaii — the biggest sod farm in the state with operations on Oahu and Maui — has been shipping sod over on barges to meet Big Island demand.
“The landscapers are busy,” said Nelson, whose background is in golf course management on Oahu, Kauai and Lanai.
The Southern Turf Hawaii sign is a new sight on Kaiminani, but the company isn’t new to the state. In business for two decades, stores on Oahu and Maui specialize in sod for residential, commercial, retail and golf course projects, including two current projects for golf courses on Maui and Lanai. And while Southern Turf Hawaii is used to having landscapers reserve sod by thousands of square yards months in advance, it also offers single 2-by-4-foot squares to the do-it-yourself homeowner.
The company supplies Lowe’s in Kailua-Kona and The Home Depot on both sides of the island.
The 5.5 acres of leased land used to have plumerias growing on it. The property has been graded and covered with a layer of fine gravel, plastic and sod. A home on the lower acreage serves as Nelson’s residence and a barn is in the planning stages. A water tank serves as an emergency backup in case county sources fail. Sod would be dead in three days if that happened, Nelson said.
“People are stopping by now, asking questions. How do I do it? We’re here to help,” Nelson said. “This is foreign to a lot of homeowners.”
One method called plugging can help landscapers save money. By cutting up the sheets of sod into plugs, they’ll only need a fifth of the turf that would be needed for a full layer. Once in the ground, the sod will spread quickly to cover bare ground.
“Come buy only what you can put down in one day,” Nelson recommends.
The thick, mat-like layer helps exposed land absorb rain; the sod also prevents runoff and erosion of the island’s often thin volcanic soils. Water soaks into thick turf at a rate of 7.6 inches an hour, compared to 2.5 inches on slopes that have been planted with grass seed, the company claims.
Workers scatter sprigs of the turf — a short section of grass including the root — on top of the plastic, then cover it with a layer of rich compost that has been sterilized at 160 degrees.
“The only weeds are going to be weeds that come in by birds or blown in by wind, and those will be easy to get rid of,” Nelson said.
One of the company’s quicker-growing varieties is ready in seven weeks. That’s a short amount of time for sod and its because of the abundance of sunlight and warm temperatures in West Hawaii’s makai regions.
The sod could be farmed higher on the mountain or in Hilo — and water would be a lot cheaper in Hilo — but it would grow more slowly, Nelson said. The 5.5-acre farm has three varieties of sod, and room for two more in the future. The patch that is green and ready to go now is a strain called Platinum TE.
“It’s just the latest and greatest version,” Nelson said. “It’s a beautiful bright green grass that grows sideways, not upward. We know the golf guys love that because it’s low maintenance.”
Another version, Celebration Bermuda, is great for sport turfs and homes, Nelson said.
Come harvest time, the sod is cut into squares and hand stacked on pallets. There is not a lot of machinery involved in the farm.
“There’s nothing glamorous about this,” Nelson said. “It’s dirty, hard work.”