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Stop paying for landscape maintenance you don’t need (while helping the environment)

Categories:Landscape Maintenance Recommended

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The average homeowner (and small business) pays $150-$300 a month for landscape maintenance. Often times, it’s too much and here’s why:

For years I worked at a relatively large scale, regional to national, including a decade in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia. Over time, I’ve been able to transition to my true passion: landscape design for smaller residential and local businesses.

Spending more time in landscapes in neighborhoods, I began to notice the modus operandi of local landscape maintenance crews. And I’m concerned frankly. I’m concerned for the environment and I’m concerned homeowners are paying for things that are unnecessary.

Landscapes and gardens are not exterior spaces that need maids. Your garden or lawn is an ecosystem full of living things that will benefit most from you spending your hard-earned dollars wisely.

For the first ten years of my career, I worked in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The president of our company, Lawrie Jordan (MLA Harvard), was fond of saying ‘It’s not the hamburger, it’s the fries and shakes’. Lawrie is a very bright man, and his point was the true profit for many companies is not the main big-ticket item, but the various services that go along with the sale (the fries and shakes – in our case support and maintenance).

I get it and agree. Having a reliable monthly income from maintenance is a big deal, but not at the cost of the very customers we serve and the environment we protect.

Every couple of weeks, a big truck pulls up and an industrious crew of landscapers moves into the residential property, cutting and buzzing and blowing, all with a practiced display of hard work and purpose.

First, the grass is cut, then the hedges are sheared, and finally, the driveway is blown. It’s loud, it can be obnoxious to neighbors, and much of it is padded profit for the landscaper that the homeowner really shouldn’t be paying for.

Let’s go through the most common recurrent (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly) costs:

Grass-cutting. If you have turfgrass, it needs to be cut in most cases. I tend to use Zoysia on projects and in my own landscape because Zoysia is tough and grows slowly. Most years I don’t even cut it on my own property. Zoysia at its best needs reel mowers, of which almost no residential landscapers use by the way.

Regardless, most people want their grass cut, so this is a legitimate cost on a weekly to monthly basis.

Trimming of shrubs. Nearly all deciduous shrubs need nothing more than a once or twice-yearly removal of crossing branches and dead branches. Deciduous shrubs should be planted to grow naturally to fit the space where they reside. Deciduous shrubs have a natural form that is most beautiful when left alone.

If a landscaper is the one who planted the shrubs in the first place and now is trying to convince you the plants need to be pruned to size, then shame on them for planting shrubs that will outgrow the space in the first place.

This calcycanthus does not need our help to ‘shape’ it or control its size. Plants are adapted to grow without human assistance and are usually more attractive when left in their natural form.

Evergreen shrubs should generally be pruned once or twice yearly as well, once in early summer after the spring flush is complete and then late summer. Many of the best evergreen shrubs should be pruned as described above for deciduous shrubs.

The tightly shaped evergreens such as boxwoods and yews should be pruned BY HAND, twice per year.

Drive through your neighborhood and you will see very few well-grown foundation plantings. Often this is because of years of shearing with electric shears by people who have very little idea of what they are doing. I strongly suggest you spend your hard-earned money on taking care of your evergreen shrubs properly – each mature plant can be worth $100’s of dollars when mature. Insist that shrubs are hand-sheared and understand what the goal is whenever you allow anyone to trim or shape your shrubs in any way.

Leaf Blowers. Here we are, the bane of many neighborhoods, due to rampant noise pollution and in most cases unnecessary use (late fall the possible exception). Leaf blowers, in my opinion, are an excuse for landscapers to visit your home every couple of weeks, blow things to and fro, alienate your neighbors, all while convincing you the homeowner this is somehow necessary to a well-tended landscape.

Every kid mowing lawns knows how to strategically mow so they don’t have to sweep the driveway, yet landscapers are under no such limitation. The kid mowing grass on a Saturday wants to get the job done fast and teenagers have a remarkable ability to be strategic when the need arises. You need to have fall leaves blown away, fine, but the idea leaf blowers must be used on a weekly basis by your local landscaper is, generally speaking, hogwash.

The kid mowing your yard wants to get the job done quickly. Landscapers want to add services and charge more.

Ask yourself if a weekly or twice monthly visit from leaf blowers whose decibel ranges compare to chain saws is worth it for your landscape and your wallet.

Leaf blowers are loud, environmentally wasteful and beginning to be banned in many forward-thinking communities.

There are plenty of reliable online resources that credibly outline the problems with gas leaf blowers (noise pollution, spreading of allergens, etc.). The point of this article is not to focus on the inherent problems with leaf blowers per se, but to help the local homeowner and small business understand weekly use of leaf blowers is largely unnecessary and designed (in my opinion) to ensure the landscaper can charge the fees they do (fries and shakes).

Pesticides. Pesticides should rarely or never be used in residential landscapes. Most pesticides are broad-spectrum in that they kill everything that comes into contact, including beneficial insects.

Landscapers who put down preventative pesticides are doing so because you will pay for it, not because the landscape needs it. Meanwhile there is potential many beneficial insects are being completely eliminated from your garden.

A healthy landscape should generally be able to fend for itself. Are there situations where a targeted pesticide may be of use? I suppose, but to pay a company to introduce pesticides into one’s landscape on a weekly or monthly basis wastes money and is potentially ecologically irresponsible. We have collapsing bee populations and residential neighborhoods might form a valuable part of a success story for bees and pollinators if we get pesticides out of these areas.

How to save money (and protect the environment):

  • Pay for turfgrass mowing – ideally a neighborhood kid but otherwise a landscape maintenance company. Ask them what type of grass you have and what type of mower they use. Educate yourself on the proper mowing height of the turf in your landscape.
  • Don’t allow leaf blowers into your landscape except for fall cleanup. Rakes used to work fine.
  • Understand what you are paying for when it comes to pesticides. What is being applied and what is the purpose? Preventative spraying of pesticides is a waste of money and potentially dangerous to the environment.
  • Find a landscape person who will responsibly prune your shrubs by hand. In pruning, generally less is more. Find someone who understands the growth pattern of the plants they are pruning. It may be more expensive, but with the savings from the other areas (pesticides, fertilizer, leaf blowers) you’ve eliminated costs, this is a worthwhile investment that will protect the often very expensive mature shrubs and trees in your garden.

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