Mark Fockele wound up in the green industry because it was something he truly loved, but it wasn’t the career path he’d always been on. In fact, he went to law school and practiced law for 10 years before even starting his landscape business. “I found out law wasn’t the career for me,” says Fockele, who now owns The Fockele Garden Co. in Gainesville, Ga. “But whenever I wasn’t at work, I was outside, doing a lot of gardening work. It was something I really loved. So about 21 years ago, I decided to make a big change.”
That big change meant leaving an established career behind to pursue what really made him happy. Though he didn’t know much about running a professional landscape business, Fockele threw himself into the industry and started working from the ground level up. He hired a couple of laborers and began to slowly pick up landscape work. Today Fockele’s company brings in more than $3 million in revenue and is 45 percent maintenance work and 55 percent installation for a 60 percent commercial client base.
But Fockele hasn’t only built a business. He’s built a name for himself, particularly for offering a variety of sustainable services. In fact, the company has even won numerous PLANET and state awards for landscape maintenance and design build, as well as the 2010 PLANET Merit Award for erosion control. Besides designing and installing rainwater harvesting systems, Fockele’s staff has also become experts in managing water use through smart irrigation, bioswales, open drainage, the use of drought-tolerant plants and other onsite stormwater methods.
Building a business
In the early years, Fockele says business was one huge learning experience. “For a long time, just about every project I did required learning something new since I didn’t have any professional background in the field,” he says. “But I learned as I went along. I learned stone work, drainage and irrigation, plantings of various kinds, how to do water features and more. I learned it all on the job.”
Today Fockele has become a leader for offering sustainable landscaping practices that are still new to many. But Fockele says that it’s been yet another learning experience for him. While the company has become well known for these offerings, he says they essentially “stumbled” into such techniques with one intuitive client. “A very forward-thinking customer of ours asked if we could build a rainwater collection system,” says Fockele. “This was five years ago, so she was ahead of her time. It was the first system we’d ever put in, but it was very successful. She wanted a rainwater system that she could use to water her gardens. And in 2007, when Georgia had a total water ban, she never ran out of water. She was able to keep her garden in good condition throughout the entire ban – relying only on rainwater. That was an eye opening experience for us.”
From there, Fockele says the sustainable services segment of his business began to grow. And the drought that Georgia suffered from 2007 through 2009 only helped drive home the value of such systems. “During the drought, we started putting in a lot more and a lot larger systems,” Fockele says. “Most people were still asking for traditional systems, but the drought has started to change that. The drought has had a dramatic effect on promoting the importance of finding more sensible approaches and solutions to irrigation.”
Offering these types of services has also been a smart business move for Fockele, who says the segment is certainly profitable. “But even more important,” he says, “is that it’s an activity that helps us sell our previously existing products. If people are concerned about not having water available to them, they may not want to plant anything. If we can offer them a way to eliminate these worries – to ensure they’ll have water available – they’ll be more likely to want to go back to planting gardens and having beautiful landscapes.”
When he started offering rainwater harvesting and smart water management techniques, Fockele says he hired a marketing firm to help expand this part of his business. But he says that was just one of a variety of efforts to get the word out. “I’ve presented programs to various groups about this kind of activity, as well, but mostly we are just out there talking to our customers,” Fockele says. “It’s really a combination of all those old tried-and-true efforts that every landscape business uses to share their news.”
Since getting involved in the design and installation of rainwater harvesting systems, and the smarter management and control of water, Fockele has followed the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), an interdisciplinary effort by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Botanic Garden. SITES works to promote sustainable land development and management practices and has created a site-specific rating system to rate sustainable sites.
Fockele has also embraced the Environmental Protection Agency’s Low Impact Development (LID) principles and guidelines. According to the EPA, LID works with nature to manage stormwater as close to its source as possible. This is achieved by employing techniques such as preserving and recreating natural landscape features to create functional and appealing site drainage that treats stormwater more as a resource than a waste product.
One of those LID promoted methods is of course collecting rainwater. “If you collect 10 gallons of rainwater, that’s obviously 10 gallons that’s not run off,” Fockele says. “Just like if you collected 10,000 gallons, you now have 10,000 gallons that’s not going into the storm sewer. That’s a big deal. There are many techniques promoted by LID that allow you to do this such as open drainage in which you allow the stormwater to drain through the property through shallow ditches, and then percolate into the ground. None of that would happen if water was running through a pipe.”
Rain gardens are another LID promoted technique. These are special gardens designed to collect and hold rainwater before percolating into the sub soil. The design and plantings are critical as it must be able to withstand a greater amount of moisture and a greater concentration of nutrients. “There are obviously some plantings that are going to promote better percolation than others,” Fockele says. “Dense and layered plantings, for example, will promote the infiltration of water into the soil more than turf will.”
Another LID promoted method, bioswales, is often confused with rain gardens. While similar in nature, bioswales actually slope to a destination (which may in fact be a rain garden), and are a mechanism to direct water’s flow. Like rain gardens, the vegetation that composes a bioswale can be varied.
All of these techniques are continuing to gain recognition as more and more people embrace the importance of sustainable solutions. And growing efforts like SITES or the EPA’s LID principles and guidelines are really helping promote that importance. Fockele says the time for these types of solutions is now. “These measures and techniques are simply a natural complement to what’s already going on in the building and construction industry as a whole,” he says. “People are finally coming to realize the importance of environmental considerations when they’re building. So these types of measures we’re taking in the landscape industry are working to achieve the same goals.”
This story is one of three that appeared in Lawn & Landscape's Water Works e-newsletter. To continue reading about Mark Fockele and how he has added sustainable services at his company:
Adding rainwater harvesting to your portfolio: Proper training is essential for expanding into these eco-friendly practices.
Tips for drought-tolerant landscapes: Mark Fockele shares his favorite plants and how to educate clients on watering techniques.