In the television classic, “Let's Make A Deal,” the host, Monty Hall (now Wayne Brady), offers players a choice: quick cash or a chance at the mystery prize. Those who opted for the mystery prize had to select from one of three options, each hidden behind a door.
Behind one door was a spectacular reward, like a new car or an exotic vacation; behind the others was something worthless or bizarre, like a donkey.
Plant selection can feel the same way. Make the wrong choice and you might wish you’d taken the cash. So you probably play it safe and choose what works. After all, why risk picking the wrong door?
The thing is, with a little education, selecting plants doesn’t have to feel like such a leap of faith. Once informed, your choices can bring the grand prize every time.
And let’s face it, with much of the country in severe drought, wasting water guarantees loss. The plants you use, although aesthetically pleasing, might not be the most sustainable. With rising water prices, your clients might start expecting you to uphold certain ‘green’ standards. That’s because, in the end, these practices save them money.
Going green doesn’t just indicate that you’re a responsible businessperson; it’s a selling point—and a major one at that. Year after year, the buzz around sustainability grows louder and louder. By using water-wise plants, that buzz will follow you from client to client, and all you have to do is take a chance. After that, sit back and let the new growth (and reduced bills) do the talking for you.
“Everybody wants to go green, and this is the way to do it,” says Shirley Kost, owner of Unique Garden Environments in Long Beach, California. “By choosing plants that save water and match your climate, native or otherwise, you’ll not only demonstrate your expertise, but you’ll boost your bottom line. And if you do your homework about what these plants do and what they’re going to require, you’ll produce incredible results.”
As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.” Transplanting exotic plants into foreign environments might work, but most of them will never feel at home; they’ll always long for “Kansas.” To survive, they’ll need additional maintenance, care and water. This, of course, means more time, money and labor on your part.
By choosing native or climate-appropriate plants, however, you can synchronize the landscape with hundreds of years of environmental familiarity. These species know exactly how to acclimate themselves to the region.
So, what does that mean for you? Many things, asserts Kost. “By converting to water-wise plants, your landscapes will be more sustainable, less water demanding, require less maintenance, and need very little fertilizer. Usually, we don’t even use fertilizer on our plants.”
Once established, these species can thrive in the climate without constant supervision. You might be tempted to dote on them, especially since they’re new. There’s nothing wrong with that. If it’s your first time with a new species, it’s not a bad idea to give them special attention. Then, when you feel comfortable, maybe after a few successful plantings, you can switch over to a more lax approach. After that, you’ll be amazed by their resilience, charm and beauty.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re limited to the species available in your area. It’s just to say that taking a plant from a rain forest and placing it in an arid climate might not be the best bet. You’re better off selecting plants that match the environment.
By selecting sustainable plants, you’re simply adding to what you already offer. That versatility won’t just bring in new clientele; it’ll allow you to pitch a conversion to existing clients, too. Let them know that you’re considering new options for their landscape.
Also, by selecting plants that match the native climate, you’ll arguably increase the landscape’s beauty. While exotic ornamentals lay dormant, many water-wise plants, like perennials, flaunt their colors year-round.
“It’s simply more beautiful to have flowers perpetually in bloom,” says Kost. “You see the wildlife coming in, too, feeding on the lush growth. These plants provide a color palette that doesn’t fade with the seasons.”
During establishment, however, there might be some patches in the landscape. So while waiting for that growth, it’s essential to keep clients in the loop, says Kost. “Sometimes you have to explain that it’s necessary to start with small plants for better survivability. To make up for that empty space, I’ll throw in a lot of annual wildflowers, like poppies, to add some color and some plant material until they start filling in.”
Consider offering an additional service contract to your maintenance duties, too—for a limited amount of time, while the plants are getting established. It’s a quick way to boost your bottom line, says Kost. “Usually, I offer a 90-day service contract with it, to be sure that everything is getting well established. That post-installation maintenance can be a major plus to your bottom line.”
While maintenance is, for the most part, relatively low with waterwise and climate-appropriate plants, you’ll still have to check in on them from time to time. So you’ll probably want to learn about the species before you begin trimming or cutting.
“You can’t just go in with a hedge trimmer. One of the real popular plants around here is flax, or phormium, from New Zealand, and some folks come in and they just cut it off like grass,” says Kost. “That definitely won’t work because it won’t grow back. It’s very important to know what you’re working with before you start maintenance.”
Finding the actual plant material has never been easier, Kost adds. “There are multiple websites that are regionally focused on the specifics of those areas. My bible for many, many years was the Sunset Guide. But that’s old, and in the last few years, everything’s gone digital. It’s as easy as point-and-click now.”
Many of these resources not only help you research your options, but they also allow you to purchase plant material online. That means you could plan and purchase entire landscapes before even stepping foot on a client’s property.
Beyond your bottom line, though, using sustainable plant material might save your clients legally, especially in drought-ridden parts of the country. California, for instance, has imposed fines as high as $500 for wasted water. That’s probably not the kind of letter you want your clients to receive in the mail.
Use the opportunity to inspect their irrigation systems. After the inspection, let them know where their water is going—and most importantly, how much of it is being wasted. Maybe even pitch an irrigation upgrade to accompany the plants. By offering a package, new clients will recognize that you work in broad strokes, and your existing clientele will see what they’ve been missing.
But don’t worry; it’s not all crimes and misdemeanors. Many municipalities and water districts actually offer incentives, or rebates, for replacing turf with sustainable landscapes. Some areas offer as much as $3 to $5 per square foot of turf removed. On larger properties, that kind of savings adds up quickly.
So, in the words of Monty Hall, “Is it door number 1? Door number 2? Or door number 3?” The answer is simple: with the right plants, every door is a winner.