Building a Greener Landscaping Business

By Rick Ascolese

Everyone seems to be talking about the environment these days, but what does this mean for landscape maintenance professionals?

Many landscapers think of themselves as true conservationists. Mother Nature is their business partner, and protecting the planet their top priority. But environmentalism focuses a white-hot light on the industry. Landscape maintenance companies are scrutinized for their use of herbicides and pesticides, their water usage, what they do with green waste and the emissions from their machines. Virtually every aspect of their business is under a microscope. The Federal government, states and even communities are constantly creating new regulations and restrictions governing how we maintain our landscapes. Landscaping companies across the country are re-evaluating how they do business and whether or not they can make a profit.

This is especially true in California, where environmental laws and water use restrictions are particularly stringent. You would think that landscape maintenance companies operating in California would be fighting for their very survival — and some of them are. Others, however, have found the business climate in California to be quite tolerable. They are adapting their business models to the ever-changing environmental situation and thriving in the process.

“Business is about meeting challenges, and, as business people, we must find a way to overcome the new challenges we’re facing,” said Mark Wesel, regional vice president for TruGreen LandCare in California, a leading commercial landscape maintenance company.

Like every other landscaping service provider, the company must adhere to the strict regulations that cover the industry. But instead of seeing environmental awareness as a big green monster, TruGreen LandCare has embraced the movement. Every department within the company is working diligently to meet or exceed the latest environmental standards.

“The environmental initiative is essential to our corporate strategy,” said Wesel. “We consider the environmental movement as something that is good for business so long as we are leading the way in science and best practices. The new regulations certainly add complexity to the services we offer, but in the big picture these are positive steps that are good for everyone.”

Water works

 For the past four years Southern California has received below average rainfall amounts. During the past 12 months only nine inches of rain fell in Los Angeles (the average is 15 inches a year). As a result, most SoCal cities have restricted the watering of landscapes.

Water restrictions apply to nurseries, as well. One of the largest in the state is Miramar Wholesale Nursery, which operates facilities in San Diego and Orange County. The San Diego facility alone covers 190 acres and stocks some 1.3 million plants and trees at any given time. Miramar is owned by TruGreen LandCare and supplies many of the plants that are used by the company. The nursery also is at the forefront of water conservation.

“In September of 2007 we received a mandate from the City of San Diego to reduce our use of potable water use by 30 percent beginning in January of 2008,” said Suzie Wiest, regional manager at Miramar. “We had already implemented a conservation program and cutting an additional 30 percent didn’t seem possible. Our team joined together to examine every aspect of our operation. We developed a comprehensive approach that allowed us to actually exceed our water conservation goals.”

According to Wiest their water reduction methods included employee awareness, fallowing field-grown divisional plants (daylilies, tulbaghia, moraea, etc.), expanding the use of drip irrigation, installing new pressure regulators, and increasing the overall use of reclaimed water. In one year, they cut their potable water consumption from 44.6 million gallons to 25 million gallons, a 36 percent reduction.

Miramar is also promoting the use of drought-tolerant plants that are becoming popular in Southern California and across the arid Southwestern United States.

“Drought-tolerant plants are not just cacti,” said Wiest. “They include a wide variety of very attractive plants, from groundcovers to trees.

The company also composts its green waste into soil amendments (saving valuable landfill space) and rewards the reuse of plastic containers with credit for future purchases.

“Not only do we provide our customers with a diverse selection of quality material, but we work hard to be a trusted resource for landscape-related information,” said Wiest. “We strive to stay ahead of the current trends to ensure success in any climate.

Wiest’s colleagues at TruGreen LandCare have also taken seriously their responsibility to manage water wisely. In the field they utilize drought-resistant plants, install “smart controllers” to regulate sprinklers, use mulch to slow evaporation, recommend thatching and aeration to improve water absorption, and apply the latest in mowing techniques to reduce the use of water. Training is also part of their program. Area managers are required to take classes to certify themselves as “Landscape Irrigation Auditors.” The training helps them understand how to conserve water while keeping landscapes healthy and beautiful.

Motor monitors

TruGreen LandCare’s western region operates a fleet of almost 1,000 commercial vehicles. This includes scores of three-quarter and one-ton trucks, pickups and various other utility vehicles. They also use a variety of motorized tools including chippers, shredders and mowers.

Conserving fuel is not only a matter of environmental stewardship, it also has a big impact on the company’s bottom line. The company has taken several steps to cut back on the consumption of gas and diesel. These days they pay careful attention to work scheduling and try to route their crews more efficiently. In most cases they keep their crews within a 30-mile radius of their branch office, and they try to maximize the number of crew members in a single vehicle in order to avoid sending more than one truck. Soon they will transition about 100 area managers into fuel-efficient Ford Ranger trucks, a move that will reduce fuel consumption by about 30 percent for that particular fleet.

Meanwhile, the company must keep abreast of rules and regulations governing the hundreds of smaller engines that they use on a daily basis. In addition to passenger vehicle certification every two years, beginning in 2008, California implemented a complicated certification system governing small engines. Most mowers fall under the horsepower threshold for permits, but chippers, stump grinders and the like must be classified according to their age and emissions output. This is, of course, time consuming and expensive; costs range from $700 to $5,000 for a three-year permit.

“California often is a forerunner in environmental issues,” said Wesel, who oversees 14 TruGreen LandCare branches in California, Arizona and Nevada. “The processes we are using here may end up being a model for other regions as they adopt tighter environmental standards. Our team has done a great job so far at staying current on all of the certifications.”

Green growing

 One of the hottest of hot button issues for landscape professionals is the use of herbicides and pesticides. Many of the decisions regarding chemical use are made for landscape maintenance companies by the various state and federal agencies. The list of approved products is somewhat limited; but smart, certified landscaping professionals can still get the desired results by utilizing the right products in the proper amounts and supplementing their use with organic methods and best-practice techniques.

“Our teams are very knowledgeable and well trained, and they have satisfied the necessary certification and licensing criteria,” said Wesel. “They follow label directions carefully and take advantage of our system-wide experience to know exactly which products to use and in what amounts. In fact, we typically use fewer chemicals agents than the average homeowner on a per foot basis because our people know how to get the very best results based on precise application and timing. This is a function of experience and training.”

Another way to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides is not to use them. Organic practices are far more important to green-conscious landscape companies these days. An example: why spray for aphids when ladybugs will solve the problem? Mulching mowers return clippings, which are 98 percent water, back into the turf. In some cases, landscape designers are replacing grass with decomposed granite, which requires no watering and very little maintenance.

When clippings and trimmings are collected, they are being recycled into organic mulch. It can either be used in gardens or as potting soil, or as a top layer in landfills to help speed up the composting process there.

Whether or not you believe in climate change science, one thing is certain, the business environment for landscape professionals is changing rapidly. Landscape maintenance companies must get “greener” or risk being forced out of business. Customers are seeking providers that are environmentally conscious, and government agencies are continually tightening the regulatory screws. Beyond those compelling reasons, environmental stewardship is the right thing to do. One landscaping company may not be able to save the planet, but as an industry we can set a good example for everyone else.

Rick Ascolese is president of TruGreen LandCare, a nationwide provider of commercial lawn and landscape maintenance. Headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., the company services customers from 70 branch locations throughout the country. TruGreen is part of the ServiceMaster family of brands, one of the world’s largest and most versatile service networks.

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