2012 Environmental Business Awards

2012 Environmental Business Awards

Features - Cover Story

Three real-world approaches to building sustainable companies.

December 10, 2012
Carolyn LaWell
Industry News

Imagine a plush landscape that never taps into city water. Imagine one maintained by alternative fuel and energy. Or one that only uses local plants and materials. The winners of The Lawn & Landscape 2012 Environmental Business Awards are committed to eco- friendly practices that provide long-term sustainability for their projects and clients.

The winners – The Fockele Garden Co., Sebert Landscaping Co. and WinterCreek Restoration – were chosen not only for their dedication to these principles but their ability to develop successful companies based on these practices. Read on for how each company’s environmentally-focused landscaping choices have caught attention and led to business growth.

The Fockele Garden Co.
Gainesville, Ga.

Five years ago a client asked The Fockele Garden Co. to install a rainwater harvesting system. It was the first request of its kind for the Georgia company.

Now, 75 percent of The Fockele Garden Co.’s projects include sustainable elements that conserve water, build attractive environments and eliminate waste. The successful approach has been highlighted with regional and national awards.

“If you slow down and look around at what our communities look like now, it’s obvious that we’ve done a lot of damage and it’s obvious there are things that need to be fixed,” says company founder Mark Fockele.

“We have too much pavement, way too much stormwater runoff; we have hot, dry, unshaded parking lots that go on forever. These are just not pleasant environments. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been inclined to do this. Another reason is we have encountered clients occasionally who have pushed us into tackling more projects of this kind and getting involved in more sustainable gardening techniques.”

One of those clients was an urban Atlanta homeowner whose backyard flooded every time it rained. The project’s goal was to collect the stormwater, create an attractive landscape and reduce the runoff problem for properties downstream.

“We captured a large portion of the water that was entering our property from uphill and used it to keep our water features full,” Fockele says. “We created dry stream beds in the property that slowed the water down and promoted infiltration into a gravel ditch. Then we collected some of the water in cisterns so that we could use the water later.”

The Fockele Garden Co. places a large emphasis on rainwater harvesting and stormwater management techniques to decrease erosion and supply irrigation.

For example, the company’s Smartville project provides a local elementary school a sustainable garden and teaching tool. A rainwater harvesting system was installed to collect water used two or three times a summer to perk up plants. The school hasn’t tapped the city water for irrigation in three years.

The same garden also uses on-site compost to build soil health. All of the organic waste – sticks, limbs, tree trunks – is composted to eliminate adding to the landfill. Also, many of its components were designed to teach students about nature.

“The garden has a lot of bold colors and bold textures and weird goofy plants that kids really like,” Fockele says. “We think that we’re giving these kids an atmosphere that is likely to help them develop an appreciation for nature and love of the outdoors.”

Among The Fockele Garden Co.’s portfolio are a large number of gardens that balance plush landscapes with hardscapes. Fockele takes a sustainable approach but one that allows the company to design, install and maintain its projects so there’s a level of continuity.

“That problem becomes many times more important when you’re trying to develop a landscape that uses sustainable features, because sustainable features as a rule are things that you can’t accomplish in a month or two or in a year or two,” Fockele says. “These are practices that require years and decades to bring to fruition.

“Fockele says he sees continual opportunity in this portion of the landscaping industry and he’ll continue to embrace it.

“First, I find it a lot more interesting and rewarding to do this type of work,” Fockele says. “Second, it helps attract attention and build our business. A lot of customers are recognizing the benefit and importance of this approach.”

Sebert Landscaping Co.
Bartlett, Ill.

Sebert Landscaping Co. launched a quest to minimize its yearly fuel consumption. It started swapping gasoline mowers for propane and switched to battery-powered equipment. A decrease in carbon emissions was evident, but a conversation quickly started about how to use the equipment even more efficiently.

That’s when Sebert Fleet Manager Ralph Meyer tossed out the thought of solar panels.

“When we started looking at battery-powered equipment as an alternative, it sparked an idea here on our end that what if we recharged the batteries on the equipment by utilizing solar panels that were fixed to the top of the trailer to recharge the equipment versus having to come back in the evening, plug the trailer in and recharge the batteries on the trailer,” says Jeff Sebert, CEO.

Tinkering quickly began. Now, a solar film placed on top of the trailer and connected to an inverter converts the sun’s energy and charges batteries for Sebert’s chainsaws, trimmers and other equipment.

The rigged trailer worked just as planned. However, it came at a hefty price. The inverter cost $5,000. “If we can eliminate that piece, we’re making this very practical from a cost side to utilize within the field,” Sebert says. In collaboration with STIHL, the company has experimented with how to take the solar charge right to the batteries. Sebert would like to have another model ready for the spring so more data can be collected. “We took the trailer out into the field, we took data not only from the solar aspect of it but from the propane aspect, as well, to determine what the cost savings are on doing something such as this,” he says. “It works quite well. Now, it’s more how do we trim the costs – how do we slim this down for mass form so that at the end of the day it truly is worthy of our cost.”

As Sebert searches for the pay-off on solar, the savings on propane is already evident. In the last 18 months, half of the fleet has been converted to propane with the remaining half on a planned cycle. The propane mowers cost about $1,000 more, so the savings is seen in the cost of the fuel. Sebert pays about $1.80 a gallon for propane versus about $3.80 a gallon for gas. Propane burns faster, so about a third to a half of additional fuel is needed to compete with gasoline. But still, there’s a clear savings.

“It’s so much better for our environment and it’s safer for our guys to be working with,” says Sebert, who uses a local vendor and may install a fuel station onsite. “Gasoline is so much more volatile, and you don’t have the waste as well.”

Sebert’s dedication to environmentally-friendly ideas extends well beyond the field. Its headquarters is in the process of obtaining LEED Gold certification. The building dons solar panels, a green roof, landscaping with native and indigenous plants and water features that collect rain for onsite and customer irrigation.

“Everything we’re attempting to do is looked at it from a strategy of minimizing the cost, producing a product that is sensitive to the environment and giving our customers the best product at the end of the day,” Sebert says.

WinterCreek Restoration

Bend, Ore.

After Rick Martinson received a call that a local health insurance company wanted a completely native, ecologically functional green roof built, he immediately started research.

He couldn’t find a single green roof based on the idea. He accepted the challenge. WinterCreek Restoration, where Martinson is president, has taken an ecological approach to landscaping for a decade. The company’s niche is using native plants to blend landscapes with natural surroundings. The goal of the green roof was to replicate the environment on the ground in a 15,000-square-foot section one story in the air.

WinterCreek and insurer ODS Cos. are located in Bend, Ore., one of the state’s more centrally located cities and home to a high desert climate that receives about 11 inches of rain a year. All of the materials came from within a 400 mile radius in order design and build a truly native green roof.

To start, WinterCreek had to engineer native substrate that would maintain as much moisture as possible. Martinson, who is finishing his Ph.D. in ecology-based horticulture at Oregon State University, worked with professors to develop the perfect blend.

“The substrate was constructed of local pumice kitty-litter size and a blended compost that included mushroom compost, composted hemlock bark, locally produced compost from recycling centers, peat moss, etc.,” he says. “We retained the fines in the blend to help with water retention and soil structure. The compost provided organic structure, minimal nutrients and, most importantly, fungal and bacterial communities critical for the ecological functioning of the installation.”

The final result was a blend of 50 percent organic matter and 50 percent pumice. The substrate, which varied from 8 to 28 inches in depth, an additional 3 inches of pumice (from a local source, of course) and more than 42 different native species rounded out the growing portion of the roof.

The species included Mountain mahogany, Manzanita, Sickle-keeled lupine, Linear leaf fleabane, Naked buckwheat and Idaho fescue. “All of the plant material was propagated at our nursery from seed or cuttings collected within three counties in central Oregon,” Martinson says.

The idea was to create a space that offered environmental benefits, was aesthetically pleasing for employees to enjoy, controlled stormwater runoff and provided an ecological habitat for birds, pollinators and other organisms. To ensure that is maintained, WinterCreek studies the colonization rate of mycorrhizal fungi on the roof and how effective and efficient it is in artificial environments.

“These fungi form symbiotic relationships between plant roots, soil particles, bed rock and other plants,” Martinson says. “They are essential for the ecological functioning of native plant communities. Ninety-eight percent of the plants in the world are dependent on these associations and reestablishing these organisms in created landscapes reduces the need for water and fertilizers, increases vigor of plants and results in physiological change in how plants function, especially under stress.”