Feb. 20 2019 07:57 AM

There’s no doubt the industry is headed toward more sustainable practices. Here’s how one company has taken the green in green industry to a whole new level.

Walking the aisles of your local grocery or retail store, you’ve undoubtedly seen buzzwords like sustainable, green and organic on the packaging of all sorts of products. And while the organic food movement is perhaps the most widespread trend, people are becoming increasingly concerned with not only the products they eat, but the ones they use for beauty, health, pet care, cleaning and lawn maintenance.

Whether you’re personally on board with the movement or not, if you’re in the landscape industry, you should care about this growing trend. For environmentally conscious individuals, or for parents concerned about the safety of their kids playing in the yard, many companies in the green industry have adapted to match these consumer trends.

LID Landscapes is a Boulder, Colorado-based landscape company that knows a thing or two about implementing sustainable initiatives and practices. General Manager Scott Natter has been in the landscape industry since he was a teenager. After earning his landscape management degree from Brigham Young University, his career led him to Boulder in 2013, where he’s played a vital role in the evolution of LID Landscapes as a successful, sustainable landscape design and maintenance firm.

While most people understand the broad definition of organic as being free from chemicals, the term sustainable varies a bit more depending on who you ask. “Sustainable landscapes means something different to many different people. For one person, sustainable might mean ‘hey, I don’t want to be out weeding on a weekly basis,’” says Natter. For those with this mentality, sustainable means having a landscape that requires little upkeep.

“For others it has more to do with the overall impact on the environment.” To these folks, weekly weeding might actually be seen as a sustainable practice since it avoids the use of chemical weed killers.

Natter says his definition of a sustainable landscape is “a landscape that’s happy where it is, with plants that are planted in the right environment, and using practices that allow minimal maintenance while the landscape continues to flourish.”

LID Landscapes takes the definition of sustainable even further. “It’s how little can we put into a landfill? How much can we recycle so we’re not contributing to waste?” says Natter. He adds, the company’s motivation for using sustainable practices is twofold. “One is being good stewards of the land. We want to protect it, and it’s why we’re in the industry we’re in. We like making beautiful landscapes. Part of that is protecting the overall landscape we live in.”

The second part is creating better value for the company and its customers. “When we’re being sustainable and finding ways they can be sustainable, it cuts down our costs for them — maintenance, water costs, whatever it happens to be,” he says.

Recycling at its core

The core of LID Landscapes’ sustainable practices is recycling. It composts all of the organic matter it hauls away from job sites. Instead of taking branches, grass clippings, sod, soil and other yard waste from its projects to a landfill, the company recycles as much of it as possible. These composted materials are then used as amendments in new landscape plantings on both residential and commercial properties. Natter says that using recycled mulch adds healthy nutrients to landscapes, saves room in landfills and reduces the emissions necessary to transport and dump materials.

In addition to organic matter recycling, LID Landscapes recycles old concrete and flagstone scraps from project removals and demolitions. Rather than hauling these materials to a landfill, it crushes the materials into a small size, similar to gravel, which is then used for sub-bases under patios, driveways and other landscape hardscapes.

“If we can eliminate [the need for] 80 percent of [new materials] and recycle everything that comes off of our sites, that’s definitely a big gain for us.”

The company also takes all metal scraps, wood pallets and plastic materials to a recycling plant. The company practices the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mentality in its office, limiting its use of paper, which is, not surprisingly, made from recycled materials.

Not only are these practices good for the environment, they benefit the company’s bottom line.

Using recycled materials from job sites reduces the amount of new materials the company has to purchase, and with each truckload to a landfill costing between $200 to $400, Natter says it also saves on disposal costs.

A different approach

LID Landscapes’ services do include the use of organic fertilizers and herbicides, but in Natter’s experience, organic herbicides have not been as effective as traditional products. “We have some that we’ve tried, and we will continue to try and find others that work well, but as of now, there isn’t anything that works great.”

Rather than relying solely on organic products to achieve a sustainable landscape, LID Landscapes has realized that the most effective organic method of weed control is manual weeding. “There’s a lot of hand weeding at first and using fertilizers that strengthen the natural landscape so that the desirable plants become stronger.”

Natter says his crews manually remove weeds until the desired plants become stronger and force out the weeds. “If you have a strong, dense turf, there’s less possibility of weed growth, and that’s more the management practice of being organic and less impactful to the environment that we end up taking a lot of times.”

There’s controversy in many areas, including Boulder, over the possible harmful effects of herbicides on insects, animals and humans. Because of that, Natter says it’s a better scenario if the company can achieve the desired effects of a healthy lawn without reverting back to using chemicals.

The cost of going green

Educating clients that to have a sustainable landscape, one must accept a certain level of weed growth can be a challenge. “There’s this mentality for some that ‘I don’t want to see any weeds in my turf, I just want a lush, green lawn.’ To achieve that organically without using chemicals is virtually impossible. At some level, you’re going to have some weeds.”

However, he adds that if you create a very strong turf, you’ll have very few weeds. That doesn’t mean you’ll have a yard full of dandelions, but an organic-seeking homeowner has to be content with one or two stragglers. “If people can accept that, we can achieve an organic lawn by not using chemicals.”

But, the question is, are people going to accept this if they’re paying good money for landscaping services? Natter says some clients are receptive to this approach, and some aren’t. “It’s when the values don’t align that make it difficult.” He says LID Landscapes works with clients to “help them find a happy medium of how much time they want to spend maintaining their lawn, how much they want to pay for it and really what is acceptable.”

When people hear the words green or organic associated with a product or service, they usually equate this with higher costs. Natter says that for clients who really want this organic method, there is an upfront cost because of the labor you invest to get it to a state that’s more sustainable.

However, some investments pay off over time. Natter says upgrading irrigation systems is one of the biggest green initiatives Colorado is experiencing. And it’s also a money saver. According to Natter, most irrigation systems in the Boulder area are older. Helping customers use proper water management practices and update their old irrigation systems has a direct impact on the overall cost of their landscape.

So, yes, some sustainable services can be more expensive, but it really comes down to what the client wants. Natter says he’s fine if every prospective client isn’t interested in LID Landscapes’ methods. He says the company prefers to have a more sustainable practice, and if that means it doesn’t win over everyone with its approach, then it just finds other clients who are a good match for its services.

Looking forward

Beyond recycling all of its materials and using organic weed control methods, what more could a company possibly do to operate more sustainably? LID Landscapes is moving toward reducing its carbon footprint and emissions by using battery-powered equipment. The equipment doesn’t create exhaust fumes or noise when working on job sites.

While LID Landscapes does already use some battery-powered tools like backpack blowers and concrete saws, it’s still holding out on electric mowers. Natter says this is because it hasn’t found a commercial mower that will last one of his crews an entire day. He’s optimistic that manufacturers will get there soon, but he says his company’s biggest challenge is having technology catch up with what it needs.

Adapting to change

There’s no doubt the industry is moving more toward sustainable practices as evidenced by the increasing number of electric power tools, mowers and lawn care products that have come out in the last few years. Natter says that many of LID Landscapes’ competitors profess to have green practices, and while they may not be recycling as fully as LID Landscapes does, they at least offer the use of organic fertilizers and herbicides.

“If you’re not on the cutting edge of the green industry, if you’re not pursuing these more organic methods of landscaping, then you’re being left behind,” says Natter.

Considering implementing sustainable initiatives in your company is a step in the right direction. Natter’s advice? “Just take it one step at a time. Find the next way to improve your practices, and institute that. And then once you’ve got that down, work toward the next one.” He recommends to just keep doing this until you’ve moved in a much better direction.

Becoming a sustainable company doesn’t happen overnight. LID Landscapes has been in Boulder since 1980, and its green practices have evolved over the years. “As we’ve become more knowledgeable about the effects of these questionable practices with using herbicides and pesticides … and filling up our landfills and all the waste that’s created, we’ve purposely moved toward a more sustainable direction for our company.”

Adopting new practices and methods as a company can seem daunting, but be careful not to resist the ways the market is changing. You don’t want to be left in the dust as your competitors adapt their services to what clients are asking for.

It’s safe to say that most landscapers want to take care of the environment and create landscapes that are healthy and safe for people and creatures alike. So if moving more toward sustainability is good for the earth, cost-saving and what your customers want, what do you have to lose?

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.