Making things grow—that’s what you do. Some green things grow easily, with little effort, even thriving on neglect.

And some take a lot of tending, just the right kind of soil, fertilizer, irrigation and pruning to really flourish. you, as a landscape professional, know this, of course.

The same thing applies to your business. The more you tend it, the bigger and more abundantly it will grow. Whether you own a full-service landscape business that includes maintenance, or a maintenance-only service, you need to grow that business and keep growing it to be successful. you probably have done all the obvious things, like having a website and signage on your trucks. But there is a lot more you can do to promote your business. And the best part? Many of these are low- or no-cost.

Keep your business cards with you

Business cards are one of the most basic things any person in business invests in. They’re inexpensive, so don’t be stingy with them. Let them work for you.

Ruben Ramirez started Baywood Landscaping in Kingston, Washington two years ago. He’s discovered the importance of keeping a supply of his business cards in his pocket—not in his truck, not at home—in his pocket. “I’ll be working in someone’s yard, and people will be out jogging or walking the dog. They see me working, and they like what they see me doing. They’ll stop by and say, ‘Do you have a card?’ Then, later, they call me,” said Ramirez. “And I always give them an extra card they can give to their friends.”

Keep those cards with you all the time, not just when you’re working. Think about it. you meet people all the time—at your kid’s school, the hardware store, the supermarket checkout line. You never know when you might meet a potential new customer.

Put yourself out there

It’s one thing to get your business cards out there. But have you ever thought about getting yourself out in front of potential clients?

“I give talks at local nurseries about pet-friendly gardening and living walls. That way, people become familiar with my name and who I am,” says Anne Taylor, owner of Living elements Landscape, an eco-green sustainable landscape and maintenance business in Portland, Oregon. She makes sure to pass out business cards and fliers at those talks.

If you’re the type of person who’d rather have a root canal than face an audience, even a small one, perhaps there’s someone else in your company who’d be comfortable in this role.

Professional organizations

There are many professional organizations that you can join. This is a great way to network and meet people who can give you referrals.

Taylor can vouch for this. “I gave one of my talks to the Association of Northwest Landscape Designers. I also belong to the group,” says Taylor. “It’s really good to get involved with landscape designers; I’ve gotten a lot of recommendations and referral business from them.”

Overlooking something?

Jeff yeary owns a company that does the initial landscape work for big Indianapolis area housing tract developers. This connection has given Start to Finish Landscaping in Whitestown, Indiana, steady work for many years. But when housing starts slowed during the recession, so did his business. “We sat back one day and said, ‘We’ve been introduced to 300 new homeowners every year. What if we were able to mow and fertilize their properties?’ We started building relationships with those homeowners. So now we mow and fertilize at those homes,” said yeary. “We even have homeowners in those tracts who aren’t our regular customers calling us, saying, ‘Hey, Jeff, we’re going on vacation for two weeks, can you mow our lawn while we’re gone?’”

Referral incentives

“I’ve tried just about everything except going door-to-door,” says Mike Friederichs, when asked about growing his maintenance business. He’s co-owner of Pro Landscape Maintenance in Waconia and Gaylord, Minnesota. “early on, we used inserts in Sunday newspapers. Those are expensive, and the return on investment was only about 25 percent, so after one or two seasons, we quit. We also advertised in a local magazine that’s free to all box holders and mailing addresses. We still do that. It’s about $250 to $300 for a half-page ad.”

As the business grew, Friederichs found that most of his business came from word of mouth. And to keep that going, he uses a referral incentive program. “We give people a $20 credit for every referral that leads to a new customer. It’s worked so well, we’re considering raising it (the credit). When you consider the cost of advertising versus giving your customer something that they see as a real value, it gives them an incentive to talk to their family members, friends and neighbors about you.”

The incentive program is unlimited. refer Pro Landscape Maintenance five times, you’ll get $100 back. “every client receives a little postcard-sized card about the incentive in their contracts every year,” says Friederichs. “And there’s also a reminder at the bottom of every invoice.”

Friederichs spends about $5,000 a year on advertising. But he’s considering spending zero next year, relying solely on the incentive program and seeing how it all stacks up at the end of the season. “I may not get much new business, but I also won’t be spending thousands of dollars on ads.”

The way you do business

yeary believes that the very way you do business with people can be a factor as well. “We don’t have any homeowner sign a contract with us for maintenance. If they don’t like what I’m doing, I feel they should be able to walk out and say, ‘Jeff, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do,’ and they should let me go at that time. There shouldn’t be anything dragged out for the whole season,” says yeary.

Being friendly goes a long way, too.

Carlos ruiz “likes to talk,” a quality that helped him start All Around yard Maintenance in Sacramento, California, while he was still in high school. He’s noticed, however, that a good many of his fellow landscape contractors are silent types. “I answer the phone when people call me.

A lot of landscape guys aren’t good communicators. They don’t speak a lot with their clients; they don’t return messages. I don’t just go there (to a client’s home) to do work. I meet them, we have conversations— we become more like friends. That way, I can almost guarantee a longterm contract with them.”

Social media

You may think that social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are just places to play, post funny pictures or connect with your old high school friends. They are, but they are also powerful business tools. In case you don’t think so, or that it can’t help you grow your maintenance business, perhaps you should take a look at how one of the biggest companies in our industry uses it.

ValleyCrest Landscaping, headquartered north of Los Angeles in Calabasas, California, operates in 24 states. They have about 10,000 employees. Caroline Weilert, vice president of marketing, is a strong believer in the power of social media to build business.

“Suppose you’re trying to reach a property manager who’s at a high level, and you don’t have access to him. you can learn a lot about this person because of the profiles he or his company has on social media. you can discover what he likes before you invite him to dinner or a sporting event. you can also discover who knows him by looking at his connections in LinkedIn and Facebook. People would always rather hear from somebody who’s referred by someone they know than just receiving a cold call,” said Weilert.

LinkedIn and Facebook aren’t the only social media platforms ValleyCrest uses. They also use Flickr and YouTube. But perhaps the most fascinating thing of all is the way ValleyCrest uses Twitter.

“That’s perhaps our most sophisticated channel, and the most developed in terms of our marketing strategy,” says Weilert. “every Wednesday at 11:00 a.m., we host ‘Landscape Chat’ on Twitter. We invite our “followers” to join us for an hour talk on a different topic. But we’re not the ones doing the talking. It’s a customer, or an industry association, or a journalist. There’s a tremendous viral effect, because everyone who follows those individuals has this content fed onto their Twitter streams.”

You don’t have to do this on as sophisticated a level as valleyCrest, but you could try some of these techniques on a much smaller scale. Best of all, it costs you nothing. Membership and participation on all these sites is free.

Angie’s List, Yelp and others

Angie’s List and others like it are rosters of local service companies that have received good reviews from customers. Its reliability comes from a guarantee that too many negative reviews will get a company removed from the list.

Yeary’s company is on Angie’s List. “We feel like that’s a plus,” said yeary. “We have a great rating on Angie’s List, because we do our best to make all of our homeowners happy.”

Yelp is online in every city and has reviews of virtually every type of service business on it, from hairdressers to surgeons, even houses of worship. you can stay on it for free, or pay to get higher rankings.

Ruiz is a big believer in yelp. “I did a cleanup job for a couple, and they wrote a good review for me. After that, I asked all my clients to write reviews. I started getting ten calls a week just from yelp. I got so much work that within the past four months, I’ve almost doubled my clients.”

While subscribers to Angie’s List have to pay to access the reviews; yelp is free. Anyone can read it, and anyone can post on it, which can be both good and bad. There’s nothing to stop one disgruntled customer from posting over and over again about how terrible he thinks your service is.

David Goodman has seen the dark side of yelp. He owns Goodman’s Landscape Maintenance in Phoenix, Arizona. “We had someone post a negative review about us. Well, we looked in our client database, and we never could find this person. But yelp wouldn’t take it down. And then they (yelp) started calling us, telling us that if we started advertising with them, they’d make any negative posts go away.”

Like yelp or not, ignore its business model at your peril. yellow-, Dex, yahoo! Local and other online “yellow pages” all have reviews now, too. These sites have become the primary way people find service providers. encourage your customers to post reviews if they’re happy with your company.

And if they’re not happy? Ruiz has some advice. “I had a lady that wanted us to be there exactly at five p.m. We couldn’t guarantee that, so she got upset. I told her, ‘I found someone else for you, and I’ll pay for your first month.’ She was happy, so she’s not going to write a bad review. I do things like that to make sure my reviews stay positive.”

Deal-of-the-day sites

Groupon, Living Social and others are “deal-of-the-day” sites that feature discounted gift certificates. Whether a deal becomes available or not depends on how many people sign up for it. Here’s how it works: you offer $100 worth of landscape maintenance services for $60. Then you and the coupon site split that $60; there’s no upfront cost to you. There are some drawbacks, however. you could get swamped with too many customers. It’s a good idea to put a cap on how many coupons you’ll actually accept, and how far you’re willing to travel.

Blogs, newsletters and podcasts

You can keep awareness of your company high even when you’re not in their front yards working.

ValleyCrest has its own blog called “ValleyCrest Takes On,” with articles on landscape-related topics.

Anne Taylor has a newsletter that she emails to all her clients. A recent one had a column on shade gardening, an “Ask Anne” section, general tips and even a cookie recipe.

Podcasting is a way for you to have your own radio station over the Internet. There are lots of hosting sites that make it easy for you. All you’ll need is a decent microphone and a computer. Make sure you put links to your podcast, blog or newsletter on your website.

Your company’s image

Goodman puts a lot of effort into making sure his company’s name and image are always presented in the best way possible. “Our 12 trucks have distinctive blue-and-white paint jobs that have become a familiar sight in the community. They all have our company’s phone number and web address. We also put signs out wherever we’re doing maintenance work. We get business all the time from that.” He makes sure the trucks are kept clean and that all 38 of his employees wear uniforms.

Another thing Goodman does is provide educational incentives for his employees. “We pay for them to take classes from the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association. By educating my employees, I’m getting better quality work, and in turn, I’m creating customer loyalty. That brings me referrals.” The more classes his employees take, the more raises they get.

See what works best for you

Just as there are different ways to cultivate plant life, there are a variety of techniques that can help you take your business to the next level. experience will teach you which of these will work best for you.