DIY Solution

Features - Design/Build

A Washington D.C.-area landscaping company discovers the benefits of producing its own mulch and topsoil onsite.

November 4, 2013
Julie Collins

Topsoil is vital for everyday operations at Denchfield Landscaping, a full-service design/build, and maintenance company in Hyattsville, Md. In the past, even by stockpiling soil between jobs and working with multiple vendors, the company would run out when it was most needed.

Yet as the topsoil supply kept dwindling, the nearby pile of dirt removed from excavation jobs kept growing – resulting in what came to be known as Mount Denchfield, a 40- to 50-foot-tall pile of rocks and soil in the company yard. “That mountain would have been expensive to pay someone to get rid of – probably $20,000 to $30,000 to truck out,” says owner Kurt Denchfield.

When Denchfield Landscaping landed a contract that required about 3,000 yards of topsoil, they knew it was going to be a hassle to get that much soil. So Kurt’s son, Taylor, started researching options for turning Mount Denchfield into quality, usable topsoil.

Once the Denchfields found and purchased the right soil screening machine for their needs, they were in business.

“It’s fantastic,” Kurt says. “All of our field dirt we’d otherwise have to pay to truck out, we now turn into topsoil and send back out to our jobsite or to our garden center.”

How it works. The soil screener at Denchfield Landscaping can be run by one employee and processes about 30 to 35 yards per hour. An employee uses a skid-steer loader to dump the dirt into the hopper. From there, the dirt goes through a hammer mill that breaks up the clumps on a conveyor belt and shoots the dirt out onto a cylinder made of screening material, which rolls the dirt over and over so fine particles drop onto a conveyor belt. From there, the quality soil emerges ready for use. Rocks, wood, and other debris get kicked out the other side of the machine into a pile that can be trucked away.

Dealing with debris

Even if don’t have room or the interest in screening your own topsoil or making your own mulch like Denchfield Landscaping does, there are other options for removing shrubs, soil, and miscellaneous debris – without hauling it all to the landfill.

Case in point: Meyer Landscape & Design in Moline, Ill. The residential and commercial landscape design and installation company relies on recycling and reuse to tackle debris.

The first step with any waste is to identify how it can be reused. If employees are removing old mulch from a job site and it’s in decent shape, they will reuse it around trees and shrubs at the company’s nursery site and garden center. If customers near wooded areas give permission, the company will spread out extra soil removed from the worksite into the wooded areas to minimize what has to be removed.

When needed, hydraulic lift trucks are used to transport soil and debris back to the design office and garden center. From there, owner Kurt Meyer hires a company to haul approximately 800 to 1,000 cubic yards of soil and debris away three times a year at a cost of about $20,000 per year. Each time, the process generally takes two and a half to three days and involves two semis and an excavator. “We do a dumping fee on most of our proposals to cover part of that. It doesn’t cover it all, so it’s still a chunk of money to shell out, but it works pretty well,” Meyer says.

Tree trimmings are taken directly to a forestry products company that grinds it into hardwood mulch at no charge. Meyer has a similar arrangement in place for concrete, too. It gets hauled directly to a concrete recycling plant, where they break it up for reuse – also free to Meyer, except for trucking time.

Soil screening isn’t the company’s first foray into recycling. A few years before Denchfield Landscaping started producing its own topsoil, the company began taking the yard waste and wood it normally paid to get rid of, chopped it up with a grinder, and used the resulting mulch in yards and garden beds. Some of it also gets sold, alongside the topsoil, in the garden center. “It’s been great because we’ve been able to drop our price to the public since we can make it here,” Kurt says. “Almost everything the trucks bring back each afternoon we’re using somewhere, putting it in our yard and reprocessing it to turn it into a product we can use in our everyday work,” he adds.

Cost and research. Both processes weren’t without their upfront investment, of course. The soil screener cost about $60,000 and the mulch grinder about $200,000. The company also spent about $100,000 on new skid-steer loaders, which are used to dump material into the soil screener and mulch grinder.

“We ran the numbers at one point when we made the decision to buy the equipment,” Kurt says. “I’d guess we save anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 a year.” A lot of the savings come from not having trucks on the road hauling waste from jobsites to the company headquarters and then offsite for disposal. “There’s fuel, truck time, plus the liability of having big trucks driving back and forth, insurance costs, things of that nature,” Kurt says.

Onsite recycling of this nature requires plenty of upfront research, not to mention space for setting up the equipment, unloading piles of debris and loading up the finished product. “Not everyone has that, but if you do, it’s a great way to save the environment, save money and help with production needs,” Kurt says.

For companies in the market for a soil screener or mulch grinder, both Kurt and his son Taylor stress the importance of upfront research. “Doing your homework and learning about the piece of machinery you’re contemplating buying is really important,” Kurt says. “Then you’ll need to fine-tune the process of what you put into it and what you get out of it to get the right makeup of material.”

Particularly with the soil screener, the Denchfields took time to determine which configuration would work best for their company. “There were products at both ends of the spectrum – some giant contraptions seemed extreme for our needs, and other smaller products operated off a battery,” Taylor says. “We picked a model in the happy middle, one with a diesel engine that seemed very durable.” One key to the process, Taylor adds, is conducting an onsite product demo.

The Denchfields are now true believers in the value of making their own soil and mulch. “It’s a great feeling to basically take trash out of people’s yards and turn it into something that’s useful in our everyday work,” Kurt says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.

Photos courtesy of Denchfield Landscaping, Inc.