April 15 2014 03:13 PM

Are You Ready?

‘Green’ is everywhere these days— note the terms eco green, sustainability, low carbon footprint, and more. So it seems that it’s time for us in the ‘green industry’ to make a greater impact in this this direction.

Many landscape contractors across the country are already offering organic or chemical-free services to their clients. Maybe you’ve thought about adding a green division to your operation, but you just can’t see a good reason to make that leap; not right now, anyway.

You might want to reconsider.

There are many good reasons. For one, it’ll generate an additional revenue stream. It’s also a terrific P.R.

and marketing tool, and you’ll be able to spread the word via your company’s website, and through social media. The best reason of all though, is that customers are asking about it and want it now.

Oh, sure—your competition will still be out there, continuing to maintain their client’s properties in the conventional way. You, however, will have a distinct advantage over them, because in addition to traditional methods of maintenance, you now have the ability to put them on a ‘green’ track.

Even though a green approach may be a bit more expensive, homeowners who want a smaller carbon footprint are willing to pay a little extra for it. “More and more consumers are interested in making sure that they have a healthy yard and space around them,” said Jenna Messier, program manager for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Organic Land Care Program, in Greenwich, Connecticut. “It’s a good way for people to be environmentally conscious at their own homes.”

Being a green consumer goes beyond simply avoiding chemicals. People in general are becoming more aware and concerned about the planet. They still want to live in beautiful settings, which is why we’re in business. If they can and be environmentally compliant at the same time, consumers feel they have the best of both worlds.

Water conservation plays a big part in this. If you read all the headlines about drought in many of our states, you know that this resource is becoming more precious, as well as more pricey. In many places, rising water bills reflect this. Homeowners are motivated to save water out of concern for both the planet and their pocketbooks. They want to reduce penalties for overuse and capitalize on incentives for using less.

“The trend is going towards using less water,” said Ty Davis, irrigation manager for Austin, Texas-based Clean Scapes. “It will keep going that way because it has to. Any place that is running out of water has to push conservation.” The manufacturers of irrigation equipment have been very cognizant of this fact and are focusing on water-conserving products. Many of the newer irrigation products on the market have much lower precipitation rates than before.

The eco-green movement is about more than just conserving water, however. It’s also about using organic and natural materials to fertilize turf and shrubs. It’s about using biological controls for insects and diseases rather than chemical ones. And, it’s about turning away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner alternatives such as propane, natural gas, biodiesel and battery power.

Some landscape contractors find themselves getting more referral business than ever once they go green. “It gives people something different,” said Shirley Kost, head designer at Unique Garden Environments in Long Beach, California. “When people see you doing something differently, they’re more likely to hire you. Most of my jobs have come from the city’s Lawn-to- Garden program, but I’m getting more and more referrals from people who’ve seen what I’ve done, and said, ‘I’d like to have something like that, too.’ I think going green really gives you an advantage.”

Cut the chemicals One of the easiest and simplest ways to start going green is to ditch the pesticides. The problem with these chemicals is that they kill beneficial insects, like ladybugs and pollinators along with the bad guys.

While the disappearing bees are old news by now, scientists say pesticides may be to blame, and we won’t know the long-term ramifications for years to come. But the headlines these days continue to bombard us about the dangers of all the chemicals in our environment. Also, many homeowners with children and pets simply don’t want chemicals around. Fortunately, there are lots of organic alternatives.

Herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers are next on the to-go list. The concern with these is mainly the chemical runoff that pollutes waterways. Again, there are natural alternatives. The simplest might be to pull weeds instead of poisoning them, if the area is small enough. If there are too many to pull, or the space too large, a limited use of herbicide may still be necessary, preferably organic.

“If you’ve been in the organic business for a long time, you’re not going to have many problems with your lawns because they’ll be nice and healthy,” said Scott Walker, owner of Pleasant Green Grass in Durham, North Carolina. “Weeds are an indicator that something is going wrong in the soil, such as not enough organic matter, too much water, or not enough. If you can get those things figured out, you’ll cut back on the number of weeds.”

The best way to keep turf and plants free of disease and insect attack is to keep them healthy and strong. “Most of the time, insects attack plants that are growing out of balance,” said Walker, “like getting too much fertilizer, or using synthetic nutrients for sustenance. If you’re growing them right, then they’ll grow up strong and be overlooked by disease and insects, which will go for more susceptible plants.”

You may be asking, “If I can’t use chemical fertilizer, then what do I feed plants?” The answer is mulch and compost. “I compost all my green waste at home,” said Kost, “and I try to do it for my clients, too. It’s good to add organic compost as a top dressing to all the beds. It has a lot of worm castings in it, and that helps with both the nutrients and the soil.” There are also some organic fertilizers available. The green approach may cost more in added labor, but this may well be offset by the savings you’ll realize by not buying chemicals.

There is a learning curve to this. The sooner you get started, the better you’ll be able to stay ahead of your competition.

Use alternative fuels

Changing the fuel you put into your mowers is another great way to go green. You can do this gradually, replacing old, worn-out mowers with new propane-powered ones. Or, get adapters that allow gas-powered models to run on propane. Depending on availability in your area, natural gas (CNG) might be a way to go.

If you have diesel mowers, consider biodiesel. You can even produce it yourself, as Walker does; he built his own processor to refine the used vegetable oil he acquires through a winwin arrangement with a local restaurant chain. He gets their fryer grease waste; they get reduced-cost landscape services. Or, you can purchase biodiesel from an increasing number of producers. You can go ahead and use it in your existing diesel mowers with little or no adjustment.

There are lots of advantages to biodiesel. For starters, it burns much more cleanly than petroleum diesel does. Some users claim that because of that, it’s easier on engines, so you may even get more usable runninghours out of your expensive commercial mowers.

Battery power isn’t quite “there” yet for the demands of professional turf care mowers. But it is for other tools, such as blowers, chainsaws, string trimmers and hedgers. Using them in lieu of gasoline-powered units cuts both air and noise pollution.

Conserve water

These days, drought is on everyone’s mind. In many areas, there are higher water costs and penalties for overuse. On the positive side, there are rebates from many water agencies for reducing water usage. Because of this, customers are demanding lesswasteful alternatives.

Reducing turf areas or changing them out for more drought-resistant grasses is one answer. Besides being less thirsty, these species are better able to heal themselves. Because of the way they grow, they fill in their own holes or patches very quickly and effectively. In landscape beds, choose native plants and shrubs that are adapted for the area and have survived past droughts.

Change the way you water. If you’re not using smart, weather- or soilmoisture-based controllers already, it’s time to play catch-up. Look into low-volume micro and drip irrigation; this technology cuts water use by at least 30 percent by delivering water directly to the root zones of plants. Very little is lost to evaporation and wind, and there’s no runoff or overspray onto driveways or into the street. Because these methods keep plants healthier, they can fight weeds, pests and diseases that much better.

“These methods not only provide savings in water, but ultimately, savings in money also,” says Davis. “It’s definitely more specific than just broadcasting water over everything. You’re not spraying what doesn’t need to be sprayed.”

Putting in a new irrigation system may cost a bit more at the outset. You’ll need to educate your customer about the fact that they’ll be saving money in the long run.

In cases where customers balk at the cost of going to lower-flow products, they may go for retrofitting. It’s less expensive than a new system and relatively easy to change a conventional irrigation system over to low-flow or drip. It’s done by simply capping sprinklers and running dripline from one of the old stems. This will save water, even if it’s only done in the landscape beds.

Recapturing water that would otherwise be wasted is another great way to cut usage. Look into rain barrels, rain gardens and gray water systems that recycle kitchen and bathwater to irrigate the landscape.

Providing different irrigation choices gives your clients more options, and who doesn’t like that? It sends the message that you are sensitive to your customer’s concerns, and will do everything you can to help them achieve their conservation goals, now, and in the future. This can only be good for your business.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, and reap rewards

“Recycling” is probably something you already do, to some degree: grinding up yard trimmings for mulch, for instance. But you may not have considered recycling the nutsand-bolts materials of hardscaping.

Next time you remove someone’s old backyard barbecue pit, instead of throwing the debris in a dumpster, see if any of that material can be repurposed for new projects. Could some of the old tile be turned into stepping stones? Or the bricks in a new retaining wall? “Most of the contractors I know recycle,” said Kost. “Whenever we pull out cement, we reuse it in a landscape rather than putting it in a landfill.”

Reusing material has advantages beyond saving money; it’s a chance to show off your creativity. Take before-and-after pictures and post them on Instagram, your company’s Facebook page, or use them in your marketing materials.

The eco-green movement is no “flavor-ofthe-month,” trendy fad that will go out of fashion soon. Rather, it’s here to stay, a growing avalanche that started small, but is picking up momentum and mass as it moves forward. As the millennial generation approaches homebuying age, they’ll probably want chemicalfree, water-stingy, small-carbon-footprint landscape services. Will you be there to reap the benefits?