Deep in the Heart of DROUGHT

The average landscape contractor’s salvation for the past couple of years has been the maintenance business. But what happens when everything stops growing?

Contractors in Texas have recently had to cope with the hottest, driest summer on record. Aside from the punishing working conditions they and their employees have had to endure, contractors have been faced with severe watering restrictions, cautious consumers, and lawns and landscapes creeping toward the brink of death.

“It’s been a real challenge to keep everything alive and growing, not to mention the sprinkler systems up and running,” says Bert Blair of Yellow Rose Landscape Services with branches in Dallas and Fort Worth. “We didn’t see any new plant material being installed in August due to the watering restrictions and ground being so dry. And you could really tell where irrigation systems weren’t covering well on properties; patches of brown grass right next to green.”

Despite all of the challenges this summer’s drought has created, an opportunity has also arisen—for the industry’s best contractors to showcase their value as proactive, expert consultants.

All eyes on irrigation

“Our sprinkler repair business has been inundated; we haven’t been able to keep up,” Blair says. “Everybody has been having irrigation system problems this summer, and there aren’t enough licensed contractors to do the work.”

To comply with the City of Austin’s stringent watering restrictions, Clean Scapes crews have been supplied with water hoses so they can hand water around buildings and high-profile areas. Beyond that, they’ve also been busy responding to irrigation emergencies all summer long. For example, the extreme heat has caused the ground to shift—and that has resulted in numerous broken irrigation lines.

“Wildlife has also been a factor, specifically with drip irrigation,” adds Ivan Giraldo, president of Austin-based Clean Scapes. “Animals such as squirrels and rats are turning to these drip lines as a water source, and are chewing through many of the hoses.” Clean Scapes services Central Texas, from the northwest areas of Austin to San Antonio, and the hill country including Bastrop to Fredericksburg.

Ben Collinsworth of Native Land Design says his employees have been paying more attention to the efficiency of their irrigation systems. “With the limited water windows we have in many markets, if a system isn’t operating at peak performance, we are exponentially losing water to our plant material and grass,” Collinsworth points out. Based in Austin, Native Land Design also has branches serving San Antonio, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley.

Collinsworth is excited to see the emergence of new technology that will help his company remotely control sites, allow stack valves to run simultaneously, and provide daily alerts on flow output. “We think that the present conditions will help us implement some of these new technologies on our properties by displaying the importance of the control it can give us as the contractor,” Collinsworth says.

Expertise and client education also come into play. “We’re spending more time talking with clients to let them know what to expect on their properties given the environmental factors,” Collinsworth says. “The irrigator is one of the most important positions in our company ... Keeping good employees in that position is vital, and finding those people when needed has become increasingly difficult.”

Jon Zertuche of Certified Lawn & Landscape in San Antonio was the beneficiary of that theory as it played itself out earlier this year. He was hired to install irrigation at a property across from a university. While searching for the water source, Zertuche found that the double check (backflow preventer) was missing; likely stolen. He brought it to the university’s attention.

“They were wondering why their property was browning out,” Zertuche recalls. “I asked them if they were aware that their double check was missing. They had no idea. So I asked them when they last saw the supervisor from their current landscape provider. They said they always see the mowing crew but haven’t seen the supervisor in a long time. Well, I jumped on that because I make a point to always visit our properties. Now we have a signed contract with the university because of the other contractor’s inability to maintain the irrigation system.”

Mowing and maintenance

Blair says some of the smaller contractors who don’t have irrigation divisions are the ones who have really suffered this year. “We’ve actually grown our mowing business because we’ve picked up accounts from other landscape companies that don’t do irrigation,” he says. “Some of those contractors, especially those who specialize in residential, have actually gone out of business.” They had to cut back to bi-weekly mowing—with no means to fill the revenue gap.

Certified Lawn & Landscape also cut back to bi-weekly mowing on several of its irrigated properties. “Fortunately, we specialize in commercial, and our signed commercial contracts keep the cash flowing,” Zertuche says. “Now I’ll go to a property to do some extra detail work. If we need to mow, we’ll mow.”

Clean Scapes crews have made some adjustments of their own. For example, the deck level has been raised on all mowers. “The goal is to keep grass levels as high as possible while maintaining a manicured appearance,” Giraldo points out. “This helps retain moisture.”

Clean Scapes crews have been more vigilant with respect to equipment maintenance. “The heavy accumulation of dust going through the motors has definitely required additional maintenance this season,” Giraldo says.

The drought has taken a toll on Certified Lawn & Landscape’s installation business; it’s down about 30%. People were afraid to plant anything this summer for fear of it not surviving. “I was really focused on upselling a lot of mulch, especially on properties that didn’t have irrigation throughout,” Zertuche says. “We were having a lot of problems with shrubs dying, so we were trying to be proactive about getting mulch down to help protect them.”

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