Winter green Brings Fresh Ideas For Spring

The past few weeks have been busy with three major events which have gotten me thinking of the season ahead. The first week of spring classes began mid January, and with it, lots of new horticulture students, continuing students and soon to be graduates in May.  Many of these people will be looking for employment during the upcoming season, whether it be seasonal summer work to gain some experience, or that first career move upon graduation, we are all wondering what the spring season will bring.  It’s my job as a horticulture instructor to keep up with trends in the industry and guide horticulture students toward stable and satisfying careers in the future, as much as that is possible in an unstable economy.  I take that responsibility seriously and am impressed with the quality of students that come though our horticulture program and their strong desire it be a part of this industry 

January 21 Gateway Technical College students and staff attended the Mid Am Trade Show.  We attended the ‘Student Career Fair’ and I spoke with many of the businesses in attendance.  All of the potential employers were from Illinois.  Many landscape companies from the North Chicago area were present which makes commuting do-able for some of our students in southeastern Wisconsin. I’m not sure why Wisconsin employers were not represented at this show but my feeling is that a lot of WI landscape companies are waiting to see what the economy will do this spring before hiring.  That and just a lot of snow this year!   There is a lot of uncertainty in the business world right now which does not lead to strong hiring – the recession, the housing market, Obama’s health care proposal, Gov Walker,  taxes – all these issues effect business in Wisconsin, and the landscape industry in turn, so understandably taking a ‘wait and see’ stance seems to be the popular one. 

One thing that seems apparent over the past few years is that design/construction and nursery businesses are some of the hardest hit by the recession.  Horticulture students don’t always realize how much of a sales job landscape design actually is.  They picture themselves drawing pretty designs and picking out plants with agreeable customers. Landscape design is basically a sales job which drives the rest of the business from installation to nursery to maintenance.  Nothing happens until the idea is sold, so closing the sale is key to everything.  This is not easy with everyone hungry for work, competition fierce and profit margins slim.  It takes a lot of experience and a smart sales person to thrive in landscape design right now.   A lot of landscape design/construction is heavily dependent on the new construction market and when it declines so does landscape design/construction and the nursery business which supplies the trees and shrubs.

Consequently there is an oversupply of larger size trees and shrubs on the market which drives down those prices.  Some of the landscape design/build companies are trying to diversify into the already crowded landscape management market which drives the value of maintenance down as well.  The landscape maintenance market is somewhat more stable as it is not as dependent on new construction.  People and businesses will always need to have their lawn mowed and their ‘snow blowed’.  However it’s also a fairly easy business to start, with just a mower and string trimmer anyone can call themselves a ‘landscaper’.  There are too many unemployed people right now willing to mow someone’s lawn for $20 cash.  This again drives down the demand for professional services.

In the end a lot of smaller landscape businesses have been driven out of business.  The poor economy has shaken the landscape tree hard and some of the ‘low hanging fruit’ of small landscape business have hit the ground.  Hopefully what remains are landscape companies, and people, who have managed to weather this economic storm by operating smarter and leaner and will come out stronger in the recovery.  I know some very difficult choices have had to be made to keep companies afloat. 

January 28 Gateway held the nineteenth annual Wintergreen seminar with a ‘sustainable’ focus.   Why is sustainability so important to the green industry and how do we use it to improve our businesses?  This was a somewhat controversial topic but lots of great ideas were presented and connections made. In spite of the dismal weather, 174 attendees were present.

 It’s simply not enough to be just another landscape company focusing on ‘customer service’ and ‘low price’, these attributes are not in short supply.  Customer service is often touted but what does it really mean?  Customer service is not just giving customers what they ask for, its anticipating needs and meeting them before they even know they need it.   Having a low price reputation is great – if you can stay there – it’s just there’s always someone waiting in the wings to underbid you.   To be successful every company needs a unique market ‘niche’ or specialty.  Sustainability is very important to today’s customer and a market niche virtually untapped by landscapers in our area. Look in the ‘yellow pages’ under ‘landscaping’ and not one advertisement mentions sustainable or organic practices. The ads basically all look the same and offer the same products and services. This doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that higher end customers don’t even use the yellow pages anymore but depend on the internet and social media for information.  How does your company webpage look?  Does it really work for you or is it just an online ‘flier’.  Do you have a Face book page or use other social media?  Do you realize that 70% of customers shop online first to get information about a company or service before even making that first call?  Where will your business show up when someone ‘googles’ your name?

Many of us got into this horticulture game because we love plants and being outdoors.  It’s obvious however that a love of plants and the outdoors is not enough to sustain a long term career in the horticulture industry.  Gateway horticulture students study job descriptions from various companies and its apparent to them that along with stellar plant knowledge, business skills are highly necessary.  Many times these job descriptions focus more on the professional business skills a person needs than on plant knowledge.  Students soon realize that the basis of their training –plant identification and plant care is important, but they also need strong communication skills such as selling, marketing, speaking, writing and using the computer.  I dare say these skills are equally, If not more, important than horticulture.  These skills take a student from basic laborer to supervisor and manager and higher pay and satisfaction. In the same way, landscape business owners need to ensure they have the business skills necessary for survival and growth, or hire people who do. 

Toby Hemenway, the keynote speaker at Wintergreen, is author of the bestselling book, Gaia’s Garden, a Guide to Home scale Permaculture.  Permaculture is difficult to define but can be described as a holistic and ecological design process that captures the inherent energy and resources of a site to develop appropriate landscapes.   Permaculture always incorporates food production into the urban landscape, not as a neglected ‘patch’ in the back of the yard but integrated and accessible to use.  The placement of landscape elements and ‘land ‘patterns’ is an important part of permaculture.  Permaculture is also unique in that is focuses on the the ethical dimension of caring for the Earth.  Toby’s presentation was truly inspiring and filled with wonderful images of what can be done using the concepts of Permaculture to heal and beautify our world.    What is also amazing is the fact that in working with Permaculture design concepts long term maintenance costs are actually reduced. Certainly this is a big selling point to use with customers. What commercial maintenance account would not want to develop a sustainable landscape to go with their ‘green’ business practices?  Especially if these practices would not only make them look better to their customers but also reduce costs, get better use out of their landscape, make happier employees and create improved natural areas into the future.

In the words of Christy Weber, the second speaker of the day at Wintergreen, it’s not enough to just say you are a sustainable landscape business; you need to really ‘walk the walk’.  Christy was one of the most humorous speakers we have ever had at Wintergreen and really ‘tells it like it is’.  Christy has made a very successful business out of ‘making green out of green’.   Everything Christy does is with green concepts in mind, from building her new office in an industrial part of downtown Chicago to hiring employees to waste and compost use, Christy is a pioneer of the Chicago ‘green’ landscape industry and extremely successful as a result.  One point Christy emphasized was the fact that there may not always be a lot of profit installing green projects such as green roofs or natural landscapes; it’s the maintenance contract to follow wherein the long term profit lies.  This is important because not anyone with a pickup truck and a mower can replace you to do it.

So how does a landscape business go about becoming greener and tapping into this market?  Nothing is worse than ‘green washing’ so education and training are needed to back up any claims of sustainability.   Certainly this is a trend we focus on in training horticulture students at Gateway Technical College – so please hire our students!  Our job as technical college educators is to be ‘future makers’ and train students for the jobs of tomorrow, not simply follow the status quo.  Brian Albrecht, President of Gateway Technical College, is positioning our college as a Midwest training center hub for ‘green’ technology and alternative energy innovation – wind, solar, electric cars, geothermal, water quality, green construction – and the jobs this will bring.  Certainly we constantly remind him that horticulture is the original ‘green’ industry and he has been a champion of support for our program.   

Jack Pizzo of Pizzo and Associates spoke about his work in ecological restoration.  This specialization bridges the gap between the raw sciences of biology, ecology and merges them with horticulture.  It is very similar to Permaculture in studying the ecological patterns of a site to create more natural landscapes focusing on the use of native plants.  Jack has made a successful career convincing clients of the power of natural landscaping to restore their property, increase wildlife, reduce chemical use, improve drainage and flooding problems and in the end make an entirely more beneficial environment for their business and surrounding community.   

So today I am looking at the three feet of snow outside my window and thinking of all my landscape friends and students in the snow removal business. Thank you for all your hard work digging us out of this storm!  I hope this bout of snow has brought you some early profit after a year of slim profits.  Wishing you a great 2011 season filled with new energy new, new ideas and lots of new customers!

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