Published on September 10th, 2013 | by Scott Cooney1
Starting an eco-friendly landscape maintenance business in arid climates
If you live in an area that doesn’t naturally get a lot of rain, odds are, your neighbors are spending a lot of money trying to keep a lush green grass growing where, well, it shouldn’t be. If you’re a regular Ecopreneurist reader, you are probably immediately viewing this scenario as an opportunity to help make the world a better place while also making yourself a decent living.
Homeowners around the world are starting to wake up to the considerable cost and effort required to keep a monoculture of Kentucky Bluegrass growing in their yard. According to an analysis by Sustainablog, 50 million Americans will spend their precious weekend free time behind the handlebars of a gas-guzzling, toxic emission spewing lawnmower to mow their lawns, and then spend the money to put 20,000 gallons of water on their lawn to keep it growing each year. Add it all up, and those clean looking green lawns contribute 5% of America’s total air pollution. Idiotic? We think so. But also a great opportunity for you to ease their pain, and help them save some of that money, so they can pay you to make their lives easier while greatly reducing their footprint.
In 2003, I lived in an arid climate and saw this exact scenario, and started my first green business: Eco-Mowers. I used push-reel lawn mowers, Black & Decker electric mowers, trimmers, and sweepers, and an electric tiller as my primary equipment. I started off just working with homeowners to help them keep their lawns in shape. I figured once I had my foot in the door, I could start to talk to people about xeriscaping their parking strip (see how Las Vegas xeriscaped, more or less city-wide, here, and the results), installing an organic garden, and doing other things to help reduce their lawn’s footprint.
As you can see from the graphic, lawns are quite thirsty. So if you’re going to start this business, the first and foremost thing you need to learn, and the question most customers had was how to water their lawn most effectively. Here’s some reading on that:
- How to efficiently water your lawn (from Blue Living Ideas)
- 5 tips to keep your lawn eco-friendly (from Green Building Elements)
- Water conservation 101 (from Green Living Ideas)
Next, start small by learning how to xeriscape parking strips (that narrow area between the sidewalk and the street). Once you’ve learned how, you can start by offering to do a friend or family member’s parking strip for free, just to get the experience and get some pictures for your portfolio. The main thing to remember is that if you’re going to dig, let the utilities and municipalities know ahead of time–they’ll have to mark out the ground you’re planning to dig in to let you know where electric, plumbing, and other hazards may lie. Here’s some primers on xeriscaping:
- Xeriscaping your yard for water savings (from Blue Living Ideas)
- Green landscaping ideas (from Green Building Elements)
- Water-wise gardening (from Eat Drink Better)
Now that you’ve learned how to properly water, mow, and maintain lawns (as well as rip part or all of them out), now you can start with plants and gardening. After about six months with Eco-Mowers, I had several customers start to ask me about doing gardens and compost heaps. This was a huge value add, and a very profitable aspect of the business that just plain felt terrific. By planting an organic garden and then coming out to maintain and weed it once a week, I found infinite satisfaction: that nexus of getting paid reasonably well for something that you’d likely do for free, and having customers love you for it. Here’s some reading about gardening:
Make sure to use organic seeds for any garden project. If they’re not organic, at best they likely have a lot of chemical residue, and at worst, they’re genetically modified (GMO). You’ll want to get materials that are tailored to your local environment. In Australia, where arid landscapes are the norm for instance, you can find most of what you’re looking for in terms of gardening equipment and relatively drought tolerant seeds online at Quicksales.com.au, just by searching for organic seeds, heirloom seeds, and the like. Many local municipalities will also have master gardener workshop series, and master gardeners who should be able to tell you what works and what doesn’t.
In terms of the financial side of the business, two keys to success I found were:
- Get on a regular weekly schedule with customers. Whether you’re mowing, maintaining the garden and compost, or raking leaves, provide the go-to service for your customer so that you have regular income and they get regular service–things stay beautiful, and both you and the customer are happy.
- Get geographic clusters of customers. This cuts down your driving time and maximizes your billable time, while also cutting your fuel costs, vehicle maintenance costs, and other expenses (payroll, broken equipment from bumps on the road, etc.). The best strategy to do this is to do fairly aggressive marketing to the neighbors of your customers. Spend some time walking the neighborhood, talking to neighbors, and even posting flyers or business cards on peoples’ gates or mailboxes.
If you’re interested in starting this green business, and would like some help, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I spent 4 years running this business, making a decent living right away, and ended up selling it for a tidy profit.