It’s been a year since we last talked with many contractors across the country about how droughts are affecting their business. We’re all a year older, hopefully a year wiser, and while some droughts have ended, others have appeared, so keeping landscapes alive is still a major issue for many contractors.
So what services thrive in drought-mode? What dried up? And what can you expect when the drought comes your way? It’s important to understand that not all droughts are created equal. Droughts that don’t last very long, or occur in generally wet regions of the country, can fly under the public’s radar. It takes a long-term, severe drought to make property owners sit up and take notice.
As stewards of the landscape, we understand just how much landscapes need water to survive, and even a short-term drought in a wet region can play havoc with our business.
For instance, the northern half of the state of Georgia is currently experiencing a drought. Greg Parker, president of Parker Landscape Management in Gray, Georgia, said that in Jones County, where he does business, they have banned outdoor irrigation but his use of annual contracts has insulated his business from the worst of it.
Landscape companies that rely on a pay-per-cut model, on the other hand, are seeing their work evaporate. When grasses stop growing and go dormant, once-regular clients will call in to say they don’t need a visit.
Rick Wallace, owner of Lawn Works in Macon, says that the dry conditions have his business booming. “Overall, the drought has been good for us, mostly on the repair side of things,” he said. “A serious dry spell puts irrigation systems through their paces, so irrigation and landscape repairs are more common and more urgent.”
Neither owner believes that their regional drought will bring lasting changes unless it gets more intense and lasts longer.
This kind of thing has already happened in Washington, another wet state. Sections of the state were in the worst drought conditions possible, but the problems were still fairly small. The chief difference was that people became more aware of the problem, and that awareness has lasted even though the drought ended in January.
Of course, the poster child for increased drought awareness among property owners is California. In spite of El Niño topping up reservoirs in the northern half of the state last year, California isn’t out of the woods yet.
The first few years of drought did not ruffle many feathers, but as the problems intensified and state officials began to respond, Californians took notice. People began to take it upon themselves to conserve, and expected their neighbors to do the same.
At the outset, this posed some major problems for landscape contractors. Clients were taking Governor Brown’s slogan, ‘Brown is the new green,’ to heart and letting their lawns go dormant to conserve water.
For contractors willing to expand their services and learn new techniques, the combination of public attention and government incentives brought a flood of new business. Tremendous strides in conservation have been made using drought-tolerant plant material, retrofitting to more efficient irrigation systems, and with rainwater harvesting and graywater reuse.
There were some bumps along the way. Cassy Aoyagi, president of FormLA Landscaping Inc., in Tujunga, California, said, “We have thousands of native plants because we are in a Mediterranean climate, not a desert, and on average, we get predictable rainfall.”
Needless to say, different plantings have different maintenance needs. However, just because there’s less turf doesn’t mean that there’s less maintenance to be done. Many landscape contractors have kept their maintenance prices stable by offering hand-pruning and a more detailed look.
Selling clients on a more detailed look is important because it sets a standard. Drought-tolerant landscapes are more popular than ever, and with many of them being installed in a short period of time, there’s a golden opportunity to capture the public’s imagination. Currently, the popular perception of a water-wise landscape, at least in California, is dominated by cacti and gravel, but it doesn’t have to be.
Droughts occur all the time. With our national water infrastructure problems and steady population growth, they aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon, either. If droughts start to suddenly get worse, there may be mounting social and political pressure to move away from thirsty grasses.
Should that happen, it will be those of us in the green industry who will install and maintain whatever replaces grass. Those who are prepared for that change will be at the forefront. What preparations might fit your business is a question only you can answer.