Environmental consciousness is not a fad. Many people want to take a more natural approach to everything…including their landscapes.
Not long ago, if you were a property owner who wanted to ‘go green,’ you did so with difficulty. Landscape companies that offered these kinds of services were few and far between. But now they’re much easier to find.
Now, new companies are springing up to serve this burgeoning market. They are small entrepreneurial companies, but they’re growing in size and profits. Perhaps it’s time for you to think about adding some green services to your company’s menu.
It should be easy for you to enter this arena; you already know the drill. You know how to plant nursery stock and install sod, how to fertilize and apply weed, disease, and insect controls. What you need to do is find materials to do the job without using chemicals. And that’s getting easier by the day.
There was a time when alternative products were difficult—if not impossible—to find. Your choices of organic fertilizers were manure, compost, or a combination of the two. But to get enough nitrogen into the soil, you needed lots and lots of manure and compost, and that caused problems. Put down too much, and the water has difficulty penetrating, and the plants don’t get enough nutrients. However, these days, there’s an abundance of organic and synthetic fertilizers that work very well.
Tremendous strides have also been made in natural insect control. Many more products are now available, and not just with ladybugs for biological and bacteria control (although they still work). And more organic products are coming out every day to control those other annoying garden pests: weeds.
When Scott Walker opened Pleasant Green Grass in Durham, North Carolina, six years ago, he had the organic landscape market to himself.
The organic approach has been slower to penetrate east of the Rockies, but Walker found that the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area was hungry for it.
“My clients are people who are eating healthy and have an organic lifestyle. Or, they’re people who’ve never used professional lawn care, because they wanted to stay away from chemicals but didn’t know there was another option,” said Walker. Durham is in the “Research Triangle,” where a lot of highly educated people work and live. A green landscape company was a natural fit. Not surprisingly, his company has been successful.
Walker never set out to be a landscape contractor. After getting his degree in parks, recreation and tourism from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, he went to Boulder, Colorado. “I went out there on a snowboarding trip a couple of years earlier and fell in love with it,” Walker said.
He got a job with Organo-Lawn in Boulder “just to pay the bills,” and found out he loved the work, being outdoors and working with customers. Walker began thinking, “I could do this,” and started researching his hometown area of Durham. “I discovered that there weren’t any organic landscape companies in that area,” he said.
He stayed with Organo-Lawn for four years, learning all he could about the business. When he moved back home to Durham, he intended to open a company that would be like Organo-Lawn, a part-organic, part-chemical hybrid. But the things Walker learned while studying for his pesticide license tipped him over to going all-green. He made the decision to stick to organics, “even though it was harder. Occasionally, we will use a synthetic product, but we’ll try every other avenue first.”
Walker says he’s “always been an environmentalist. I grew up in the woods, with Eno River State Park in my backyard. I’ve always had a respect for nature,” he says. He also had a grandfather who was an avid gardener. “I guess you could say gardening was in my blood.”
By contrast, Cassy Rosen “didn’t know anything about gardening,” when she was growing up, So how does a city girl who grew up in a Santa Monica, California condominium end up with a successful eco-green sustainable landscape business?
Perhaps it was her love for nature, animals, and later, her future husband Kirk Aoyagi, whom she met at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, California. The Aoyagis can’t quite remember who followed whom into majoring in environmental horticulture with an emphasis in design and build. All Cassy remembers is that she didn’t notice Kirk “until he drove by in an old muscle car.”
Another influence was David Fross. He’s a California “native plant guru,” owner of Native Sons Nursery in Arroyo Grande, California. She took a class from him, then went to work in his personal garden and became “hooked” on native plants.
After earning their bachelor’s degrees, the couple moved to Los Angeles in 1997 and opened C&K Landscape Design, which became FORM LA, in Tujunga, California. The company has grown from just two employees (the couple themselves), to more than 35.
Although Cassy Aoyagi’s young thumb may not have been green, her upbringing in the mid-1980s certainly was. “Both my parents were environmentally conscious. They didn’t use any chemicals in the house at all. Everything they did was cutting-edge green—things that are now standard, they were doing for the very first time. So I was totally inspired by that,” she said.
Walker’s company does use gasoline-powered mowers, partly because he just recently added mowing services and bought used equipment.
Eventually, he’ll probably buy diesel mowers, for one very good reason: he built his own biodiesel plant. “I have an arrangement with a friend who owns two restaurants,” said Walker. “We trade landscape services for used vegetable oil, and I run all my trucks on it.”
He has more competition now than when he started, but says that for some of these companies, calling themselves “green” is a bit of a stretch. “They’ll spread some organic fertilizer around and call themselves an organic landscape company,” said Walker.
Sometimes customers don’t fully understand the meaning of “organic,” either. At times, the highly educated Aoyagis find themselves in the role of teachers, even in eco-conscious California. “We had to do a lot of that, especially in the beginning, and we still do. But it’s a fine line. You don’t want to come across as condescending or preachy. Clients don’t want to hear a lecture; that’s not why they called you,” she stresses. Most of Walker’s clients were pre-sold on the organic idea, but some “are just sort of on the organic bandwagon. Their expectations are still that we’ll come in and wipe all the weeds out with one application. We have to remind them why they wanted organic in the first place,” says Walker.
“In the beginning, it was a lot harder,” says Aoyagi. “People would call and ask us to put in a traditional garden, and we would try to get their business some other way. Now people call us because we offer this (organic) service."
The Aoyagis find their greatest challenge lies in “getting clients to understand how deep the (eco-green) approach goes. It extends well beyond their property lines. I don’t think people realize that what they’re doing on their home sites can affect us globally. We humans think very short-term and day-to-day, and just don’t realize how so many of the things we do every day have effects that stretch well beyond ourselves,” said Aoyagi.
Would the Aoyagis ever consider applying a pesticide as a last resort? The short answer is no. “The way it works around here, if a client was begging us to use it, they would have to apply it themselves. But before we’d ever go there, we would be looking for as many alternatives as possible."
And there are more organic alter- natives available now to the green (or partially green) landscape contractor than ever before. Walker recently got to test one, a new chemical-free method of controlling weeds. It imitates what nature occasionally does—freezes them. The Frostbite Weed Control System from Arctic, Inc., Clemmons, North Carolina, was the brainstorm of company founder and COO Rob Howerton.
Howerton, a landscape contractor in Clemmons (he’s owned Howerton Landscaping for 14 years), got the idea one early spring day while cleaning his computer keyboard with a CO2 spray. A late frost had just killed off some newly emerged weeds, and Howerton thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this happened every year?”
That’s when he had a ‘light bulb’ moment. The two ideas merged in his head. He went out to the yard with the keyboard cleaner and sprayed some weeds. When he checked back two days later, the weeds had died, and Howerton knew he was on to something.
Should you decide to “go green,” there may be help available. Walker got some from Anka Funds, a venture capital firm with a strong environmental ethic that looks for small green companies to help, both with business advice and financially. They contacted him, liked what they saw, and they became partners.
Whether you go all the way down the eco-green sustainable road or just give it a trial run is your decision, of course. Check out your area and see if the market is ripe for these services. You won’t have to change your entire way of doing things, just some of them. The Earth, and your business, may benefit.