Monday, February 24

Q. I have a small, but rapidly growing landscape maintenance company. My biggest problem is quality control and customer turnover. What policies would you recommend to provide better quality work and less customer turnover?

San Diego, CA

A. You are experiencing a common problem for many business people, not just landscape gardeners. The first thing you need to do is ensure that your employees value your customers as much as you do. All the threats in the world will not do this. You must give them the responsibility. You must pay them well. Pay unsupervised employees by commission only. They only get paid if you do and only a percentage, not a flat fee. Provide a bonus plan based on monthly customer service reply cards (mail them out with the bills and offer a discount if they are returned - this way you get the good comments as well as the bad). Also call customers regularly for additional input. Make the bonus worthwhile for excellent work. Set up a program to allow your employees to share in the profits on commission sales of materials (fertilizer, etc.) Give each employee the responsibility to handle their own customer’s complaints. They, not you, should contact the customer and discuss the problem and resolve it (lay out the guidelines of what can and cannot be done). Be sure to follow up on this to make sure it was done. Do a monthly profitability analysis on each employee’s route or list of customers. Set up a scoring method. Incorporate this into the bonus plan. Set minimums for profit, customer complaints, equipment care, etc. and stick to them. Have written guidelines as to what occurs when an employee drops below his minimum (sliding commission scales, warnings, then ultimately termination). This provides a lot more carrot than stick, but for certain people the stick is necessary (if nothing else it will eliminate your problem employees before they cause you problems). Lastly, for employees with over a year in the company set up a profit sharing plan. Give them a stake in your future and they will guard it for you.

Friday, February 7

Q. Is there an easy way to remove old lawns before rototilling? Also, how do you keep Bermuda type grasses from coming back?

El Toro, CA

A. A machine called a sod cutter is available for rent at most rental yards. It will slice away the top layer of lawn allowing you to get down to the dirt. Before doing this spray the lawn with Round-up (allow a month for the following process). First make sure that the lawn is in good shape, nice and green. Yes, nice and green. Round-up must be absorbed into the plant’s system to work so the grass must be healthy and growing. Spray the lawn thoroughly with Round-up (follow manufacturers directions). After allowing period to dry (follow directions) resume watering of lawn as normal. Wait one to two weeks to assess results. Spray again if necessary. After another two weeks if there is no living grass you can proceed with the sod cutter.

Tuesday, February 4

Q. We often do landscape jobs on residences that have small sloping lawns that we seed instead of sod. Watering this area just right is very tricky to keep the soil in place. Is netting appropriate in a case like this?

Pacific Beach, CA

A. A fine netting can be used, but you will still have a problem with the netting interfering with the growth of the grass. A better solution is a soil stabilizer like Soil Seal. We will have an article in an upcoming issue on this technique. For now, though, if you want more information contact Soil Seal Corp., 1111 West Sixth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90017, (213) 481-7185.

Friday, January 24

Q. We are considering organizing a new business installing artificial putting greens for both residential and commercial applications and were wondering if you knew of, or could recommend, a good resource for a contract template for this specialty application within the landscaping industry.  Any help would be appreciated.

A. I don’t know of any templates for this specialty, but you should be able to adapt a standard landscape installation contract to this purpose. Templates for these are available from many sources. Most office supply stores sell such templates or a search with Google should provide the answer you need.

Tuesday, November 26

Q. I live in South Florida and just bought a home with a sprinkler system fed from a well. I’m not sure the optimal quantity or length of  time that I should have the timer running the sprinklers during the different times of the year. As you know, we don’t get as much rain in the winter as we do in the summer. Most of the lawn gets some shade from tall trees except for several hours/day in which it gets direct sunlight.

South Florida

A. Congratulations on your new home purchase. Being a California transplant I’m only really familiar with the weather in Minnesota and California. Despite the great difference in the climate, setting your sprinkler system follows some very general rules that can be applied anywhere. Landscape contractors and gardeners deal with this problem all over the world, but the general rules are always the same.

First, though, let’s talk about that well. Well water is usually great, but it also usually has more particulate matter floating in it then city tap water. That can cause problems for your sprinkler system over time (particularly for drip systems that have very small nozzles). If your system does not already have an inline filter before the automatic sprinkler valves, I’d recommend installing one.

No matter where you live the best time to water is early morning. This gives the water time to soak in before the heat of the day. Late evening is bad because the water can sit all night and cause fungus problems. Mid-day is bad because the evaporation can damage the plants.

Each valve should be set to water a particular area of similar plantings (i.e. lawn, garden beds, fruit trees, etc.). If your areas are mixed it makes it more difficult as the different plant types have different water requirements.

As a rule of thumb set your irrigation system to water long enough to wet everything down to the point of surface saturation (just before you start seeing surface pooling or run-off). How long that will be will take some trial and error experimenting. As to the interval, it should be set to water again just as everything has dried out to a nice moist level, but not still wet or soggy. Again, some experimentation to determine this level.

Depending on the level of humidity, in your area I would suggest a general guideline would be to water either every day or every other day during the summer and once to twice per week during the winter.

As you can see, there is no set or magic formula. Everyone’s landscape is different and every gardener must fine tune the irrigation system to fit their particular landscaping needs.

Friday, November 8

Q. I’ve got 5,000 bulbs(daffodils) to plant… I have an auger machine to install them, and the customer has purchased the bulbs… how would you charge him?

OT Landscape

A. Straight time and materials. The customer already supplied the bulbs, but if there are any other materials you will be using then add that cost, plus your usual markup.

You also need to consider the equipment usage. If it is your equipment there is gas, oil, and wear & tear to consider. If you keep your books so that you break out your equipment costs then you can use that percentage to calculate what to add into a job for equipment costs. If the equipment is leased or rented then your costs are fixed.

Labor cost is, of course, a given. If you have done this type of work before then you will know how much manpower and time is necessary. If you are doing this for the first time you should consult with a local nurseryman to get a better idea of the labor necessary to do the job.

Your profit margin depends on many things. You should aim your bid to be double the costs. You may need to modify that depending on the level of competition in your area. Don’t cut your profit short. Maximize your profit for the conditions of your area and don’t be afraid to walk away from some jobs if the necessary and reasonable profit is not there.

In the end the most important thing is that the customer is happy with the work and what he paid and that you made a reasonable profit.

Tuesday, November 5

Q. I live in Northern Nevada, Reno area. When should we turn off the system and, how do we turn off the system properly? (New-Old house…)

Reno, NV

A. Your main concern is freezing and damage to the system. Are your valves above or below ground? If below ground, how are they protected? Do you have a main shut-off valve to the whole system?

As to when, the timing should be when you start to receive heavy frosts or the first snow. If you system has a back-drain installed you can shut off the system and then drain the lines (no water, no freeze damage). If your valves are underground in valve boxes and are at least 6″ below the surface in a covered box, you will probably have no problem.

Depending on your weather conditions, and the amount of rainfall or snow during the winter, you may need to water manually sometimes during the winter (if you have had a period of no snow, dry conditions, etc.).

Thursday, September 26

Q. Working in my yard, designing it, building it, and maintaining it has been my hobby for years. I’ve often thought it would be great to do this for a living. I’m now looking at an early retirement and would like to have a gardening business to keep busy and bring in a little extra income. The first article says a lot about starting your own business, but what about buying an existing business? Seems like you could be up and running a lot faster.

Temecula, CA

A. There are many good reasons for starting out by buying an existing landscape maintenance route, but there are some important considerations. First you need to examine the route and the customers carefully. Aside from being sure that the customers are happy with the current service you need to know how they feel about a change. You also need to know about the current owner’s relationship with the customers. Too often a new buyer loses 50% or more of the customers in the first six months - not because he does a poor job, but because he does not do it the same way as the previous owner.

In a future issue we will have an article with more details, but for now I’ll say that my opinion is that you can build your own landscape maintenance route with customers that are devoted to you, more easily (and for less money) than you can buy it.

Friday, September 20

Q. The most time consuming and least liked task I do daily is weeding. I use Round-up to kill the weeds in most areas, but I still have to cultivate the beds and hand weed around plants and shrubs. Any tips on how to make this less of a chore?

Pasadena, CA

A. Round-up is a great product, but if you really want to have effective weed control use Treflan to keep the weeds from ever growing. Treflan is a pre-emergent weed control product. It is spread as a granule into beds and around shrubs. It prevents weed seed (all seeds, actually, so be careful) from germinating. Stops the weeds cold. No growth, no maintenance necessary!

Saturday, September 7

Q. You said that bidding the job will make or break a business starting out. How do you learn to bid the job?

Buffalo, NY

A. You are referring to the article “How to Start and Run a Landscape Maintenance Business”. Bidding a landscape maintenance job requires some experience. Whether you are looking at a commercial or residential job site, you need to think through the process of what the job will entail. What tasks will need to be done and how often. Once you have a list (either on paper or in your mind, if you are more experienced, of those tasks you then need to assign the time needed to do each one.

Although that may sound complicated, it isn’t once you become experienced. Large jobs, usually commercial ones, will require that you take notes and plan it out on paper or computer. Smaller, usually residential jobs, can be done on the fly.

It becomes a matter of converting the tasks needed to do the job into time and then multiplying that time by your needed hourly rate.

Be sure to calculate all necessary costs when determining your hourly rate. You need to consider labor, transportation, equipment, and general overhead into every job.

Start small and learn by doing. If you over estimate you will lose the bid. If you under estimate you may get the work, but you will soon realize why. Either way, it’s a learning experience. You will get better as your business grows.

Friday, August 23

Q. What is the difference between a warm-season grass and a cool-season grass?

Kansas City, MO

A. There are two basic types of grass: warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. The warm-season grasses are grown primarily in a climate like the Southern U.S. and along the seacoasts in the southern half of the United States. Grasses included in the warm-season group are zoysia, Bermuda, St. Augustine, and centipedegrass. Each of these grasses grows well in hot weather, but will not survive the cold winters of the northern climates.

Cool-season grasses include the bluegrasses, tall fescue, creeping red fescue, chewings fescue, and the ryegrasses. Bentgrasses are cool-season also, but they are intensely cultured grasses, more suitable for golf courses than lawns. Cool-season grasses are more difficult to maintain in hot weather than are the warm-season grasses and, generally, are more susceptible to the ravages of diseases and insects.