Knowing the limits

Features - Lawn Care

In a region where two young girls were killed by lawn chemicals, Kris Ashby wants his employees to be cautious with their treatments.

November 1, 2012
Lee Chilcote

However counterintuitive it might sound, Kris Ashby, owner of Elite Grounds and Spectrum Landscaping in Pleasant Grove, Utah, applies chemicals precisely so that he can avoid using them at all.

“We spend a lot of time trying to prevent issues,” says Ashby, whose nine-year-old lawn and landscape company handles mostly commercial maintenance and installation. With 60 employees, it is one of the largest landscape firms in Utah. “We’re pretty aggressive, but because we’re consistent, we don’t use a lot of chemicals. For instance, we have a big push in the spring to make sure we get our pre-emergents down at the right time.”

Elite Grounds, which Ashby founded in 2003 with business partner Mark Minson after working for three decades in the field, has always had a scientifically-driven focus on results. Yet for many landscape professionals in Utah, a defining moment came two years ago when a tragic accident galvanized the industry to new safety standards.

In 2010, a pesticide worker treating voles applied large amounts of chemicals too close to a home, killing two young sisters in the Salt Lake City suburb of Layton three days later. The company was ultimately cited for more than 3,500 recordkeeping violations, and the worker responsible faced two counts of negligent homicide.

The untimely tragedy became a rallying cry for improving Utah’s pesticide regulatory system; today, landscape companies are required to become licensed applicators. Previously, the system only required individual workers to become licensed.

“A lot of companies dump chemicals because they let things get away from them, and they’re trying to get things in line,” Ashby says. “We’re very selective about chemicals. We believe in the integrated pest management approach of identifying the plant first, and then choosing the right chemical that is specific to taking care of the problem.”

Although chemical applications are hardly the sole focus of Elite Grounds’ work – the firm maintains large commercial properties for cities and companies, has assisted Utah’s professional soccer team with turf management and completes large landscape installations – it provides an apt metaphor for the firm’s approach to business.

“I started Elite because I wanted to create a problem-solving company that has the experience and resources to give people real solutions,” Ashby says. “We’re very strong in chemical knowledge, and we’ve become a real partner with large campuses such as Novelle, which is an international software company here. We take care of their campus, and they like us because we have all the professionals to do it.”

The right way.
The key to using chemicals properly, Ashby says, is to train your workers properly, invest in further education and take licensing and continuing education seriously.

“One of the differences between my company and a lot of others in Utah is that I built my company around the green industries – I have 17 licensed chemical applicators, a staff person with a bachelor’s in soil science, three arborists and a licensed backflow technician,” says Ashby, who got started in the industry in 1976 when he went into business with his father. “We cover the large needs of professional industries.”

In addition to maintaining corporate campuses, Elite Grounds also works with a lot of smaller cities that don’t have their own arborists or landscape professionals on staff. “There’s a niche. If they need arborists, in a single call, they can have us do it.”

The company even has a licensed right-of-way applicator and vertebrate animal pest management applicator. The former takes care of median strips in major roadways around Salt Lake City, while the latter is trained to safely treat animals like voles.

Being green. Some might find it ironic that Elite Grounds’ strong chemical knowledge has actually led the firm to become an industry leader in the rapidly growing field of organic lawn care. Yet Ashby is not surprised and says it is a natural outgrowth of chemical know-how.

“We have a lot of lush gardens here, and our lawns are a beautiful bluegrass and rye mix. Yet as water has become more and more of an issue, we’ve spent a lot of time developing water-efficient landscapes,” he says. “With fertilizer costs going up and concerns about chemicals, we have also added organic programs to the company.”

The results are impressive, Ashby says. “I’ve done organics on my home for 12 years now,” he says. “For years, organics were a little pricey. Yet regular fertilizers are petroleum based, so they’ve skyrocketed in price in the last few years. Meanwhile, biological treatments have gone down in price and become more competitive.”

Efficient equipment. Another major emphasis of Elite Grounds is on the productivity and efficiency of its equipment. It uses two-man mowing crews and has an in-house mechanic division. Because of its emphasis on efficiency, quality equipment and regular upkeep, the company is able to operate a robust fleet of 34 trucks with only 60 employees.

“We keep our equipment really efficient, and we’re constantly buying new equipment that will keep us efficient,” Ashby says. “Although it’s leveled off recently, fuel prices have been going up almost a penny a day, so we’re very conscious of fuel use too.”

You can read more Growing Green newsletters at

More than words

Kris Ashby doesn’t just preach safety; he wants it spread throughout his culture.

Last year, Elite Landscaping and Spectrum Landscaping had no reported accidents. Owner Kris Ashby says that this feat was accomplished by deliberately placing a high emphasis on safety making it part of Elite’s employee culture.

“We do a lot of work to make that happen,” he says. “Every week, we spend 15-20 minutes in our managers’ meeting discussing safety. They discuss these items with employees as part of a tailgate safety meeting. It goes from the top all the way down.” Ashby says there are three basic ways that the firm creates a safety-conscious culture. Taking proactive steps is key to ensuring your workers are safe, he says.

First, Elite Landscaping has policies in place to check that equipment is working properly. Elite Repairs is an in-house management company that continuously evaluates equipment, making sure safety features are turned on and working.

Second, the company has regular trainings for employees in Spanish and English. Every manager that has Spanish-speaking employees speaks Spanish as well as English. Printed safety materials and a policy manual are given to every worker. Employees know that they are not to tamper with equipment that isn’t working.

Finally, Elite managers place an emphasis on making sure that employees wear professional, safe attire and that they know that safety is a foremost concern. Employees always wear safety glasses and ear protection when necessary.

Additionally, they are required to wear hard hats during construction jobs.

In the end, the results are not only quite impressive, but also entice clients. “Having a good safety record is something that’s really attractive to bigger projects,” Ashby says.