An outdoor extension of the home is how people have treated their back yards for some time now.
Landscape design/build firms have been creating al fresco kitchens with dining “rooms,” entertainment spaces complete with flat-screen TVs and enclosed areas that feel like a cozy den with no walls. The demand for outdoor living environments has not slowed – in fact, it’s gaining steam in some ways.
“The projects we’ve seen in the last two to three years have been extremely large in comparison to what I would expect,” says Ed Szczesniak, owner and designer, Georgian Landscape Design in Duluth, Georgia. “People are not blinking at spending $100,000 to $150,000 on a landscape project now. For next year, I’m anticipating we’ll have three projects in the $200,000 range.”
Szczesniak dials back to 2008 when the economy plummeted, seven years after he launched the business. “I was shocked – I was getting phone calls for (larger) $20,000 projects,” he says. “I realized people were thinking, ‘I don’t think this is a good time to invest in the stock market. I don’t believe I can sell my house without taking a loss. So, I’ll invest in what I have and stay put.’”
A similar stay-put-and-spend mode seems to be shaping up as Szczesniak looks toward 2020. His average job used to be $8,700 and now it is in the $45,000-plus range. “Seventy percent of our projects begin with hardscapes,” he adds.
Indeed, hardscapes are dominating the outdoor living space with requests ranging from standard areas for simple furniture to elaborate, multi-level surfaces that include retaining walls. “Typically, the paver patio is the bones,” Szczesniak says.
James Ward says, in general, he’s fielding more inquiries for outdoor living spaces, due in part to his company’s marketing focus on this arena. A few years ago, he changed the name of his Kansas City-based business to Innovative Outdoor Living. “Every year, we are getting more calls,” he says, indicating that there’s no shortage of demand for paver patios, fire pits, landscape lighting and features that add bling to an outdoor kitchen like flat-screen TVs and high-end grills.
Clients are interested in saving on some aspects of a design, such as sticking with a basic fire pit rather than an all-out fireplace or gas-powered unit. Additionally, they’ll spend more on practical features like pavers rather than going for less-expensive concrete.
So, there’s some budgeting give-and-take. The landscape firms we spoke with for the story are seeing shifts but no slow-down in their design/build departments.
“The median household income in our area is about $175,000 per year, and in some areas of town, it’s closer to $250,000 to $300,000,” says Michael Pierro, president, Landscape Design Concepts, Norwood, New Jersey. “It almost seems like the higher-income households are more cost-conscious.” He attributes this to an anticipated recession. Meanwhile, he says commercial clients like luxury retail properties are spending on landscape design. Now, about 90% of his business is with property managers. “They want their exteriors to look pristine because it’s the first thing people see when they pull up,” he says.
What outdoor living features are top priorities for 2020, and which ones are phasing out? Lawn & Landscape talked to firms that shared what people are asking for when they decide to move forward with a landscape design.
Beginning with “the bones” of the outdoor living space, as Szczesniak says, pavers are nothing new on the landscape design scene. However, they’re now viewed as more of a standard for hardscape versus a splurge. Because pavers are more costly than concrete, budget-conscious clients have leaned toward this simpler surface in the past. But Ward says this is not the case anymore.
“When it comes to investing money in an outdoor space, knowing that when concrete cracks they have to jackhammer it up and redo it, people are willing to spend on pavers because they last longer, can be maintained easier and we can easily fix small sections,” Ward says.
Education is the key, Ward says. “Once they see how it is installed and maintained – the value of the investment – they lean toward that instead of just putting down concrete,” he says.
Ward is also selling alternative surfaces like recycled granite tiles that are installed like pavers. The material is salvaged by a local supplier, which repurposes granite countertops that are removed from homes. “They take the scraps and cut them into 3x6 or 4x6 pieces, and then we use those as pavers for people’s patios,” he says.
Some clients like the sustainable aspect of selecting a material that will be given a second life on their properties. Others simply love the way recycled granite looks. “It’s not cookie-cutter,” Ward says.
Pierro says more of his customers are choosing pavers long-lasting color and cost-effectiveness compared to other paver brands. So, he’s sourcing more of this material for paver patio projects and clients like the savings.
Szczesniak is designing patios with curved, free-form shapes with pavers in varying colors to add interest. For example, he might soldier course an edge in a darker paver color. “It really kicks everything up,” he says. Paver patios are married with retaining walls and columns that create a room-like feel. Szczesniak might build four columns along a 150-foot retaining wall and install coach lights to create an attractive visual.
What people are not asking for is paver driveways, Pierro says. In fact, no one has requested this from his company in the last five years. However, 10 years ago, paver driveways were a sizable part of his business. The cost is more than double than concrete, so clients are reserving pavers for outdoor living spaces instead.
Szczesniak rarely designs an outdoor living space without including a weather-proof flat-screen television. Some clients really go big and integrate surround sound and multiple screens.
Another trend: Giving clients a place to take cover. Rather than pergolas, some are choosing complete roof structures. “We are almost building a whole other room on to the house,” Szczesniak says.
Stone surrounding a grill, smoker, pizza oven and refrigeration unit makes a cooking space feel completely built-in, much like a kitchen inside the home. “You’ve got your standard grills, and some will go outlandish and put in the equivalent of a Viking unit with cooktops and an oven,” Szczesniak says.
On the other hand, Pierro fields more requests for simple outdoor kitchens. “They’re asking for a basic retaining wall for a drop-in barbecue and maybe a sink if they have the plumbing for it,” he says.
Not all clients are willing to spend on a retaining wall with space to drop in a grill. “We did a paver patio and outdoor kitchen for a customer who requested a price for a drop-in barbecue bar area, and it was an extra $3,000,” Pierro says. “He didn’t opt for it.”
But when grills are a priority, clients are interested in what’s new.
Fire and Water.
The majority of Szczesniak’s design/build projects happen in golf course communities and HOAs that offer their own swimming pools to residents. “They are going more toward utilizing their community pools, so we are not doing a lot of pool installs,” he says.
Instead, clients are asking about pondless waterfalls and fountains. “When we do water features, we also incorporate lighting in and around them so if you’re out there in the evening having a glass of wine, you can enjoy it,” he says.
Fire is another attractive outdoor living extra that homeowners are after, and Ward says most of his clients go for the wood-burning fire pit style that’s relatively simple yet delivers the type of enjoyment people expect with cozy seating.
“Some want a nice, table-level gas-burning pit – it comes down to preference,” Ward adds. “For our clients, we are doing more of the smaller wood-burning fire pits because they are more cost-effective.”
Full outdoor fireplaces are a possibility, but not a big seller. In fact, Szczesniak has honest discussions with clients about the expense these structures will add to the budget so clients can determine whether they’ll use it enough to justify the cost. Most will not. “We’ve done about 22 fire pits this year and three outdoor fireplaces,” he says.
Light the Night.
Outdoor lighting is a promising area of growth for Ward. Once clients experience their properties with landscape lighting, they’re usually sold. Ward reports tripling lighting installations last year, and the service shows no sign of slowing down.
He works with a supplier that sets up lighting demos on clients’ properties. “It’s a plug-and-play system where we can put out the lights, illuminate the house, trees and accents like fountains, then we leave the lights there for a weekend,” Ward says. “When we come back to take it away, nine times out of 10, they are like, ‘Have the crew come back and put those lights in.’”
Pierro, on the other hand, has noticed a dip in outdoor lighting sales. He attributes this to the fact that many clients who opted for paver driveways chose to illuminate them, too. Now that he does not build paver driveways, lighting business is down. He counted only two landscape lighting jobs completed during the 2019 season.
Lighting might be considered a luxury by some, but as Ward says, once clients see how landscape lighting enhances their properties, they are much more tempted to integrate this feature into the design. So, when Szczesniak starts an outdoor living space from scratch, his crews lay wiring even if lighting isn’t in the plan. “This way, if they call back in six months and decide they want lighting, the infrastructure is already there,” he says, estimating that about 65% of his projects include lighting.
Outdated landscaping is a focus of some projects, especially for residents who have lived in their homes for 10 to 15 years and recognize that their plants are tired, overgrown and simply not “the thing” anymore. “Many had builder plants installed and those are spent,” Szczesniak says.
He is putting in more disease-resistant plants like cryptomeria japonica. What he’s not installing: boxwoods that struggle in his region’s heat and humidity, knockout roses, hollies and Bradford pears. “We are also taking out quite a few cherry trees because their root structures are too ‘surface,’” Szczesniak says.
Pierro’s design/build demand is mainly in the commercial arena, with luxury retail properties, shopping malls and strip centers willing to spend on landscape design to create outdoor living spaces that entertain and engage guests. “We do a plethora of malls and they are choosing river rock in landscape beds to replace mulch,” he says. “It keeps away rodents and prevents insect infiltration, and it’s safer – no more mulch fires because of cigarettes.”
River rock costs more at the time of installation but will save them in the long run, Pierro says. Irrigation is also considered an investment that pays off in the landscape. “If you want grass to grow, you need it,” Pierro says, adding that clients are still requesting this feature, even if they might not be asking for lighting packages.
Walls that double as seating are another way clients can maximize the functionality of a structure in their outdoor living spaces. Ward has designed a number of properties that feature a firepit surrounded by a seating wall with pillars. Here, customers do go for lighting. “We integrate nightscaping and lighting under the capstones on retaining walls,” Ward says.
Looking toward 2020, Pierro is optimistic about continued commercial design/build business, and Ward says landscape lighting is a bright spot.
Szczesniak expects more large projects that prove people are interested in creating an oasis at home. He sums it up like this: “Projects are growing exponentially.” L&L
There are advantages to both liquid and granular fertilizer. The key is to know when to use each type. Using the correct style of fertilizer – and applying it correctly – will keep your clients’ lawns looking green all year long.
Here are a few things to consider when determining the most effective fertilizer for a given site application.
Layout of the Area.
Small, hard-to-navigate spaces may call for hand-spraying of liquid fertilizer, especially for crews that prefer to use machinery in their granular applications.
“We use liquid when we have to do hand applications – so those are going to be bump outs, small islands, hills, anything like that where we can’t get a machine into it,” says Dan Mausolf, general manager at Stine Turf & Snow in Durand, Michigan.
For large, flat areas, Mausolf’s crews prefer using granular fertilizer whenever possible. They typically spread the fertilizer using a metered, calibrated hopper available on commercial spreaders.
“It’s just faster and you can cover more area (with granular fertilizer) as opposed to liquid,” Mausolf says.
Terrain is a key factor in determining the right fertilizer, agrees Kyle Rose, business development office for The Green Team, which has offices in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Roanoke, Virginia. But because Rose’s teams typically spread granular fertilizer on foot using hand-crank spreaders worn over the chest – he prefers granular over liquid for hilly areas.
“We have a lot of hills at our branch in Virginia, so it’s hard for us to use push spreaders,” Rose explains. “A lot of times we prefer granular because we can be more precise and get those areas done. If you’re spraying liquid fertilizer on a hill, you’ll be slipping and sliding all over the place.”
Type of Application Needed.
In Sarasota, Florida, owner Michael Falconer’s Lawngevity crews typically use granular fertilizer for new starts and at key application times throughout the year in order to get “that really nice green lawn that your customer's looking for,” he says.
“It has to do with the amount of nitrogen you want to put out,” he adds. “If you want to put a larger amount out – say, one pound of nitrogen per one thousand feet – you’re going to use granular. If you tried to use liquid at that higher rate, you’d probably get leaf burn. Liquid’s not good if you’re trying to put a heavier amount of nitrogen out.”
In between seasonal granular applications, Falconer’s crews prefer liquid fertilizer as their go-to tool for more frequent maintenance applications.
The advantage of using liquid for maintenance applications is that it allows crews to customize applications for each client, as needed.
“The big advantage is, you can pull up on a yard and if you’re going to spray it with liquid fertilizer, you can mix for what you see when you pull up,” Falconer says. “So if you pull up to a lawn and it has an iron deficiency, you could add a little iron to your mix . . . or if your lawn has insects, you (can) put the insecticide in there. (With liquid fertilizer) you do everything in one shot.”
There’s also the issue of correct application rate. Many crews feel it’s easier to calibrate the correct application rate when using granular fertilizer.
“In my experience, it’s easier to train people to put out the right amount of granular on a property as opposed to spraying liquid, just because everybody tends to walk in a different way or spray in a different pattern (with liquid),” Rose says.
“There are a lot more variables involved with spraying – you have to make sure your gun is calibrated properly. You have to make sure you’ve mixed at the right rate, and that it’s being agitated properly in your tank,” Rose adds.
Windy days can also pose a problem for liquid applications, especially if crews are using low-volume sprayers.
“A gust of wind can pop up, and (with liquid) you can end up spraying fertilizer where it’s not supposed to be,” Rose says.
To increase accuracy of spreading when using granular fertilizers, Falconer recommends using a properly calibrated professional spreader with a side shield, which he developed, to avoid spraying fertilizer into pools or into ditches or other waterways.
For his part, Falconer said it’s possible to achieve spray consistency with liquid fertilizer, but it calls for careful calibration of equipment.
“Every truck is calibrated for the technician,” Falconer says. Lawngevity crews do routine water “bucket tests” with their spray equipment at headquarters to check that they’re releasing around five gallons a minute – which “is about what a person will walk and spread over 1,000 square feet,” Falconer said.
“There are a lot more variables involved with spraying – you have to make sure your gun is calibrated properly.” Kyle Rose, business development officer, The Green Team
Relying on granular as a primary fertilizer type means crews don’t have to wait for access to a tank truck.
“You can be more versatile with granular,” Rose says. “If you’re a smaller operation that has only three or four trucks, and none of them have a tank, you can still send all of those trucks out with granular products. But if you’re doing a liquid fertilizer, you can only send one guy out if you only have one spray tank.”
Using granular fertilizer with slow release can lead to longer activation periods – meaning crews won’t have to reapply fertilizer as frequently. The result: cost savings in crew labor time.
“With granular options, we can use a material that might last 60 days, might last 180 days, or even up to a full growing season here,” Mausolf says. “So there’s more options (with granular). There’s more consistent growth color, throughout the majority of the season. You wouldn’t get that with liquid. You can’t put that much down (in a single application).”
In some cases, there may be a cost-savings effect to using granular fertilizer, particularly when additives are factored in.
“Once you start mixing in potassium and phosphorous into the liquid (nitrogen-based fertilizer), it becomes really, really expensive,” Rose says. “So, it’s actually cheaper to add more potassium and phosphorus into the granular fertilizers than it is to the liquids.”
On the other hand, if you consider crew labor time, there could be a cost savings effect to choosing liquid fertilizer – due to the fact that fertilization, weed control, and insecticide can be done in one spray application, rather than three separate steps.
“When you’re all done applying granular fertilizer, then you have to blow off (sidewalks and driveway) and then (as a second step) you’d have to pull hose and spray weeds,” Falconer says. “Whereas if you’re just doing liquid, you pull hose, and spray weeds and fertilize all in one shot. So, (using) liquid does help our costs.”
Rose agrees that using liquids can mean less walkovers of a property.
“I think you can be more flexible with liquid. You can mix fertilizer, insecticide, and weed killer in one tank and just walk the property one time,” he says. “So, it can be a little more efficient, with a liquid, if you have multiple applications on a property.”
While there are advantages and disadvantages to both liquid and granular fertilizers, one key factor may ultimately tip the scales in the favor of granular: client perception.
Many residential clients appreciate that they can come home from work and literally see evidence that crews have been on site and have applied granular fertilizer. When liquids are used, there’s often no such visual cue that the work has been done.
“There’s always that customer perception – for whatever reason – (where they fear) they might be getting cheated,” Rose says. “If they come home and see that you’ve been there and see that granular product, it gives them peace of mind that the crew did what they were supposed to do.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky.
When I talk with young entrepreneurs and new landscape business owners, the question I’m most often asked is: What are your secrets for success and how do I avoid failure? Or, given failure, how do I rebound when my big idea turns out to be a dud?
Here’s my list of the best things I ever learned about success:
1. It’s not about you.
People engage with your business because your values align with theirs. Back in the day, we called this “crawling behind your customers” eyes. Understanding your customers, creating a customer-centric culture and putting your customers’ needs first is the only marketing growth strategy you’ll ever need.
2. The best ideas come from anywhere, even your customers.
When we did a rebrand at Conserve, the company I co-owned, we didn’t ask ourselves what we thought our company should be in its next chapter. We asked our customers. When they told us how they thought we could be an even better version of an already great company, we reimagined our platform to their specs, not ours.
3. Leave your ego at the door.
Hire smarter people you can learn from and create teams that can run your business without you. Michael Dell admits to hiring smarter to drive his business to new heights. “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, invite smarter people or find a different room.”
4. Build relationships outside the office.
Connect with your employees on a personal level. It sounds simple but feedback I get from visiting companies around the country suggest that it’s not that easy. A company is only as strong as its weakest link. Avoid being the CEO who is unapproachable.
5. Be kind.
Building and leading a business is stressful. There will be days that test your patience and your passion. If your company culture has core values around respect, trust and transparency, your internal team will be your most important ally during challenging times.
6. There’s no silver bullet.
Prepare your company for greater resiliency by creating a culture with a thirst for learning and change, and an action plan that puts customers and employees at the center of your strategy for growth. If you take care of your people, your people will take care of your business.
7. Be smart about money.
Anticipate worst-case scenarios and have a good backup plan. Get to know your balance sheet, have a clear set of financial goals and benchmark your performance. Budget for training, professional development, tools and technology, and allocate time for your team to become smarter at what they do. No matter how good you think you are as a financial manager, have a professional on speed dial to help you structure, assess and plan cash flows.
8. Run scared.
Bill Gates says that by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s too late to save yourself. Running scared is a lesson I learned at the beginning of my career about staying out in front. With success, be prepared for competitors to be hot on your heels. Maintain the same sense of urgency you had when you started your business and protect your turf, your customers and your talent.
9. Pay it forward.
Gratitude is a great motivating tool. Ignite the spirit of giving back, be a philanthropic partner and make other people’s lives and careers better. It not only promotes your brand and speaks to your sense of purpose; customers buy from you because of the way you make them feel, giving makes people feel good.
10. Learn from failure and move on.
Everyone who dreamed of building a company and has poured their heart into the endeavor knows what it feels like when the endeavor bombs. Push yourself through doubt, learn from the little mistakes to prevent making bigger ones and know that as a business owner starting out, you are not alone. Surround yourself with other entrepreneurs or CEOs in a peer group of like-minded people who can help you use the upsets as lessons learned.
Contact Bruce Wilson at email@example.com
If you create an environment in your business where the employees actually like their company and what they’re doing, that manifests itself over to the customer. They will buy more, and more frequently, from people who enjoy what they are doing. Creating an environment like that is incumbent on every business leader.
One of the mistakes I have made as a leader – and trust me I have made many of them – is not surrounding my A-players with other A-players to help us grow collectively. Have you ever gotten so frustrated with one of your sales team members that you eventually end up micro-managing them until they quit?
We had that happen a few years ago with a young gentleman. Let’s call him Steve. He was our lead business development person for our organization. He would give you the shirt off his back. Prospects really enjoyed talking with him and eventually buying from him. It was the rest of the process that was a complete disaster for him. His downfall was that he would roll into work at different hours every day, his sales reports were always late and, most of the time, incorrect. He could bring the new business into the door, but the execution and follow through from there is what was missing. He had the tenacity to get in door but he was missing the details after the close to hand off and deliver to our operations team.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that no matter how much we wanted him to make sure the process was completed, it was going to be a struggle for it to happen on his own.
We were asking our No. 1 sales person to modify his naturally hardwired behavior at the cost of eventually having him quit and go work for our competitor. We all have a natural hardwire and it is mostly ingrained in us by the age of 12 years old. When we hire people and put them in roles that they are naturally hardwired to do, employee engagement and overall contentment for both employee and company goes up. We can teach the proper technique to a natural born sales person but we can’t teach tenacity. We can’t make them want to wake up every day and want go out there and crush the competition. You either have it or you don’t.
If I could have the chance to do it again, I would have given him an assistant that had high attention to detail. I would have made sure he had the administrative help to delegate all of the low-level minutia, too. His admin could take care of the tedious detailed work for him so that he could focus on what he was naturally born to do, which was create relationships with potential new clients and sell, not live in details. If you create an environment in your business where the employees actually like what they are doing and like working at the company they are in, that transfers to the customer, leading them to buy more. They’ll frequently do business with people that enjoy what they are doing. Creating an environment like that is incumbent on every business leader. We have the right people have them in the right seats, but we as leaders need to coach and maximize them.
Here are some things to consider with your sales team:
- Do you know your top performers’ goals? If not, you are missing a huge opportunity. It needs to be their own goals, not goals that you set for them. The right sales person is going to be tenacious enough to know where they want to be in the next 1-3 years. Agree on the plan and get out of their way. Give them the keys to the car and let them drive. As long as you both agree on where the destination is, look out and support their goals.
- Do you have the right people managing them? It can be difficult to retain these tenacious go-getters. The fastest way to chase them out the door is to micro-manage them. Give them space, as they are going to take it anyway. They can become restless in stagnate environments. Make sure that they have new goals (that they have come up with) and new solutions to keep them happy and focused.
- Who do you have supporting your sales team? My best sales people require detailed people around them. They usually don’t want to live in rules/policies and procedures, so when we can help them delegate lower level tasks and keep them focused on actually selling and building relationships, the ROI for everyone goes up.
The author is CEO of Moscarino Landscape + Design and executive advisor with Culture Index.