Doing it all for green($) 

BY SEAN JAMES

The demographic of folks interested in eco-friendly landscaping is broadening, in both age and numbers. Some may not find environmental issues all that important or engaging. Maybe it’s just tiresome after all this time. Still, is it really worth ignoring a whole segment of potential customers? There’s work to be had by specializing in this direction. Incorporating a few elements is good and increases your bottom line. What are the best initiatives to focus on? Which solutions will ‘fix’ the world? Which are more profitable? Remember, at the very least, you’re probably already a bit eco-friendly. After all, you sell or plant trees and trees sequester carbon, reduce the urban heat island effect and soak up rain water.

Some readers may have tuned in about the debate surrounding garbage. It usually rages around techniques to prevent waste from going into landfills. Debaters often miss the fact it’s not about one best solution, but rather all the solutions. It’s the same with environmentally-friendly landscaping. You may not be able to do everything on every property, but doing a little bit of as many techniques as you can makes a landscape impact the planet in a positive way — and makes customers feel much better about their investment.

So, what exactly ARE some of the techniques available to us? 

Edible landscaping
This is the fastest-growing trend in gardening. Our industry bemoans declining prospects, but isn’t too enthusiastic about staying up with new trends. Many customers are being drawn to gardening by the idea of growing their own food, knowing that it’ll be pesticide-free and may even be more nutritious through good soil stewardship. Whether it’s a table at your nursery featuring a few easy-to-grow veggie options, or a few edibles dotted through a garden, the public, especially Millennials, are ready. Many veggies such as Swiss chard, cabbage and their relatives and even squash and beans are quite beautiful, and can strengthen designs. They also get customers out working in their gardens, engaging in their landscapes and loving it a little more every day. This helps combat the growing trend of plant blindness and helps them appreciate the art that landscapers produce. From the professional’s perspective, it also allows us to stretch our legs artistically, building our knowledge base and adding more plants to our palette.

Bees and butterflies
Another expanding trend in horticulture is the duo of pollinator-friendly landscaping and landscaping for monarchs, which couples nicely with native and ‘nativar’ plantings and biodiversity gardening. After all, it IS the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity for a reason! ‘Nativars’ are cultivars of native plants, such as Little Devil ninebark and Hello Yellow butterfly milkweed (it’s just fun to SAY!). If you really want a sale and the customers’ daughter is within earshot, ask the parents about a butterfly garden. They may or may not be interested, but if the daughter hears, she won’t let you leave without making her parents buy her a butterfly garden. She’s now your best sales person! 
Bees and monarchs are all over the news and social media. Schools are installing butterfly gardens, educating students and parents at the same time and increasing awareness. There’s nothing wrong with educating yourself and jumping on that bandwagon. More respect in the community, and being able to sleep at night knowing that you’ve done a Good Thing, make the improved bottom line even more appealing. Remember to reach out to local media if you’re doing a project such as a school butterfly garden. It’s free advertising and it increases awareness about an important issue.

Cleaning strategy
Related to pollinator support is the idea of how we should clean up gardens. Cleaning up every scrap in the fall and removing it from the site is standard. Leaving the garden standing, (apart from diseased material such as plants affected by powdery mildew), gives a home to valuable predator insects and draws birds into the garden to eat seeds and pests. It allows the plants to shelter themselves through winter; the stems of each plant act like little snow fences, collecting drifts of insulating snow. It also adds structural interest during the bleak season. Mulch leaves into the lawn in the fall and put the excess on the gardens. By spring, Mother Nature’s minions will have worked it all into the soil, improving soil structure and nutrition, and supporting the valuable life cycle under the surface. When cleaning up the garden in spring, cut perennials down to only 15 cm (6 inches), to leave hollow stems for bee habitat. Use a mower to mulch clippings on-site and reapply them as organic matter over the garden. Where possible, make a pile of woody clippings, out of sight behind some shrubs. It provides valuable shelter and habitat as it breaks down. This may take a bit of customer education, since they’re used to the old-fashioned way, but most will see the value of the new (actually, very old) methods.

Avoid off-site disposal
Moving materials on and off properties can affect a carbon footprint in a big way. It’s also getting incredibly expensive and problematic to dispose of soil, rocks and cast concrete material, as well as organic matter. Using soil that is on-site when creating gardens keeps job costs down, without taking away from your profit margin. There are new products on the market such as Envirolok bags, which allow retaining walls to be made and vegetated without blasting material out of the ground and shipping it around the country.

Don’t take water for granted
Many responsible landscapers are already thinking about xeriscaping (drought-tolerant landscaping) when choosing plants for a design. Water is getting expensive; saving the customer cash in the long run makes you look good. Natives are very useful in this regard, being well-adapted to local conditions.

Rainscaping and all of its components help reduce flooding, which has overtaken fire as Canada’s most common insurance claim. It also protects our waterways and allows the use of some really cool plants including sedges, winterberry, swamp milkweed and water irises. Permeable paving allows water to flow through, soaking into the ground. It costs a bit more, but it helps take stress off aging infrastructure and adds to property values. Those are good sales points, along with the news from Century 21 that a good patio adds 12 per cent to the value of a home. Many communities are developing grant programs for this type of work and the municipal tax system is changing to promote LID (Low Impact Development), which helps reduce rainwater runoff.

Turf alternatives
Replacing turf with groundcovers and gardens helps with biodiversity and water infiltration. It’s also a value-added sale! As landscapes evolve and trees produce more shade, don’t fight to keep grass alive. Sell landscape upgrades instead!

Green roof niche
If it’s in the toolbox of jobs you sell, green roofs are getting more popular, reducing  the heat island effect, reducing flooding AND increasing biodiversity. If it’s not, sub-contract to a colleague and put a management fee on the total. Like permeable paving, if done right, it’s also a much better long-term investment for the customer.

Green your business operations
Finally, mindful consumption around your office and yard can make a series of little differences to your bottom line and your eco-impact. There are the obvious things, like buying in bulk to reduce waste. Choose products with less packaging. Switch to products made from recycled materials and seek more eco-friendly options such as straw-based Step Forward paper and waterless printing. If you’re willing to spend a tiny bit more for sustainable Bullfrog Natural Gas, biodiesel and LED lighting, you can justify the extra cost through the advertising potential.

It’s surprising how creative one can get. At Fern Ridge Landscaping, our yard has no hydro or water, and it would be very expensive to install. Watering stock plants was a problem, and keeping the shop lit involved running a generator. To solve this problem, eaves troughs were installed on the barn roof and channeled into one-ton water totes. We built large, lined flood trays, the bottoms gradually sloping toward a sump pit in one corner. Water is emptied from the totes into the trays, to soak into the plants for a couple of hours, after which it’s pumped back into the totes. The pump is a low-voltage bilge model which runs off a battery. The battery is charged with a small solar panel. In months when day length is shorter, that same battery runs a low-voltage LED lighting system in the shop. Reduced water use, low cost and no carbon footprint make it an appealing system. Labour to keep plants watered has dropped significantly and plant losses have been almost eliminated. It just took a little creativity and collaboration on the part of the crew.

Each of these concepts can help your business in little ways, adding up to a big change to your company’s overall appeal and financial success. Making changes to be more eco-friendly also gives excuses to promote your company through printed materials, email communications and especially social networking. Let people know what you’re doing. Always promote to show how responsible you are and to educate your customers, crew and social network followers about the differences you make — and they can make. A significant percentage of the population prefers to deal with responsible companies, and posting about the changes you’re making — and why — is a good excuse to remind people you exist. 

Sean James is owner of Fern Ridge Landscaping, an Ontario-based design/build/maintenance company, as well as an eco-consultant and a popular speaker.

Landscape Trades, April 2017