Dealing with drought

Dealing with drought

L&L talked with landscapers throughout the state to see how they’re faring with the conditions.

April 15, 2014
Katie Tuttle
Industry News

As the drought in California continues to take a toll on residents and businesses, landscape companies are seeing negative effects. We caught up with a few to see how the worst dry spell in the state’s history is hitting their bottom line.

Jan Gross

“There was a slowdown in calls in for new landscape work,” says Jan Gross, president of Heritage Landscapes in San Anselmo, Calif. “Clients were holding off making decisions on what to do with their landscapes.  At one point our water district was calling for a 20 percent reduction in water usage and targeting the landscapes. We are reliant on the rainfall to fill our reservoirs in the county.”

Because of this, Gross is changing how the company handles some of its construction projects.

“On one of our installation jobs, instead of installing the native meadow we had designed, we have mulched the area and are waiting to see if the rains return,” Gross says. “We are recommending sheet mulching wherever possible and planting in the fall and winter.”

When the design can’t be changed, landscapers are instead maintaining it differently than they normally would.

Alan Needham

“We're (putting in) more water sprinklers, and we're reducing the time we're watering,” says Alan Needham, owner of The Valley Gardener in Buellton, Calif. “And we’re putting in smart controllers.”

Because Needham says customers tend to overwater, some of the master controllers are set up so he can control them in the office via the internet.

“I’ve got real-time notifications of overflow and stuff like that,” he says.

John Lord, owner of John Lord Landscape in Dana Point, Calif., says he hasn’t seen too much of a change in business due to the drought, but he is still being proactive in changing his irrigation practices.

“I’m putting in more drip irrigation, especially in planters,” he says. “But even lawn situations, I’m putting low volume emitters and things like that.”

Jeff Sybrant

Jeff Sybrant, the owner of A&J Complete Lawn Care in Red Bluff, Calif., says he too is installing more drip irrigation.

“I’m looking to use rotator spray heads more often,” he says, “and I’m looking to convert client’s garden areas over to drip line rather than traditional sprinklers.”

Sybrant says right now he isn’t seeing much of an effect, but he’s worried about business in the future, and what will happen if the drought continues.

“Nothing was really that extreme, other than that it was a lot warmer in January than it normally is,” he says. “I’m more concerned about the summer than I am now. If it doesn’t rain now, we might not have any business in August. That’s the biggest concern that I have. I’m looking at things like how can I just do work around the house to keep me coming (back); Hardscapes and boulders, and looking more towards drought tolerant plants.”

Lord says he’s noticed a shortage of plants, which makes it more difficult to create new landscape designs, however now isn’t the time to be installing those kinds of designs.

“I’m still surprised that people are planting.” he says.  “There’s a lot of stuff that won’t survive after a couple of weeks or a month of not being watered, and I’m still surprised that people are putting in such landscapes. It astonishes me. … I’m surprised at people who want grass and all that stuff. I always say ‘Well, what’s your yard going to look like when they shut your water off?’ But people don’t think that’s ever going to happen to them.”

To landscapers in other parts of the country who don’t think something like a drought could ever happen to them, California landscapers have one thing to say: Plan for it anyway.

“Just don't limit yourself to one thing with your clients so that you can continue to offer them the service to keep yourself in business,” Sybrant says.

“Plan for sustainable landscapes ahead of time,” Gross says. “Stay on top of the latest irrigation technology. And of course, she adds, “Training, training, training.”

Needham says the best preparation for contractors is to just stay on top of every job.

“Make sure your systems are designed and installed for maximum efficiency and that they're maintained,” he says. “No water flowing down the street. That's something every good landscaper should strive for.”

The author is associate editor for Lawn & Landscape. Email her at