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Landscapers Stay Busy In Off-season

By Jenny Callison, posted Jan 4, 2019
Local GroundsGuys franchisees Kelcy Swickard (left) and Nick Horvath hang Christmas lights during the recent holiday season. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
‘Tis the season – winter – a time when lush lawns go dormant and many outdoor plants, similarly, take a break. What’s a lawn maintenance or landscaping company to do?
 
In the mild coastal climate of North Carolina, there are options, but also challenges.
 
One way to keep crews working and revenues coming in is to diversify. Nick Horvath and Kelcy Swickard, owners of the local Grounds- Guys franchise, spend much of their time in December stringing holiday lights. That’s an option that their franchise allows, and there is an expanding market of homeowners who want an impressive display but don’t want to wrap trees or light up their rooftops themselves.
 
The GroundsGuys can also do snow and ice removal. While there is not high demand for that in the Wilmington area, Horvath said that they have already gotten some requests from customers who are jittery about this winter after last January’s multi-day snow and ice event.
 
“What we do during cold weather months keeps us from starving, but the summer months furnish most of our revenue,” Swickard said.
 
The GroundsGuys franchise here is only six months old, but its owners understand the full yearly cycle of yard care: Swickard and his father owned a landscaping business for some time. So, an array of services is built into the franchise’s portfolio.
 
“We do general maintenance, we blow leaves, we do irrigation, hardscapes, sod installation, pressure washing, landscape lights,” Horvath said.
 
The fledgling operation, based on its experience thus far, expects to be busy from April to early November. This past fall, as lawns went dormant, their customers needed yard cleanup as well as tree and shrub trimming.
 
Jason Shew, owner of Tide Creek Landscapes, is completing his first year in business for himself, after working for some big landscaping companies in other parts of the Southeast. Yard maintenance is needed year-round in this area, he says.
 
“It never slows. We are still doing lawn edging, bed edging and hardscape maintenance. Then there are pre-emergent treatments for weed control. We are also doing some raised bed construction, irrigation system shut-downs. We’ll do [irrigation system] startups beginning in March.”
 
Like the GroundsGuys, the Tide Creek owner understands the importance of diversification so the company is not dependent on growing-season yard maintenance. He is a landscape contractor and offers construction of retaining walls, paver driveways, patios and fire pits as well as landscape design and installation. The trend to more outdoor living is driving this aspect of his business.
 
“We’re growing fast. I’m booked three months ahead,” he said, noting that there is increasing demand for landscaping and maintenance services in the Wilmington market and not enough supply.
 
The challenges of winter landscape work include less-than-optimal weather conditions. The ground doesn’t dry out quickly, so “you get used to slopping around in the mud,” Shew said. “And you have shorter days, and it’s cold.”
 
Then there is the challenge of keeping a crew employed during the slow-grow months. Finding and retaining good workers is difficult, and landscaping companies don’t want to find themselves short-handed as spring arrives. At present, Tide Creek has a workforce of three in addition to its owner.
 
“I’m starting a big commercial contract Jan. 1. I will have two guys on that,” Shew said. “It will allow me to keep my boys on the job.”
 
Having worked for some large enterprises, Shew knows he wants to keep his company smaller. “My goal is to have two installation crews and two maintenance crews,” he said.
 
Not all landscape-related businesses eye diversification as a means to consistent revenues.
 
Dick Hahne, owner of the Freedom Lawns franchise for New Hanover County, comes at the lawn and garden business from a slightly different perspective. His company does not mow, blow, trim or pave. It specializes in maintaining the health of the landscape, and that is a year-round concern, he said.
 
Before moving to Wilmington and purchasing the franchise three-anda- half years ago, Hahne worked in grounds maintenance for the motorsports industry. Freedom Lawns was a logical choice when the Ohio State agriculture major decided to go into business for himself.
 
“In a typical year, we are busy 12 months out of the year,” he said, explaining that typically, he and his crew of seven technicians and one plant health specialist visit each customer’s property every six-to-eight weeks.
 
“We have as many winter weeds as summer weeds. In the fall, we focus on creating healthy turf to prepare lawns for dormancy. We stop feeding grass in September. In October and November, we put down fall pre-emergents to prevent winter weed seed growth.”
 
Pre-emergent herbicides prevent the germination of seeds by inhibiting a key enzyme, lawn experts say. In some areas of the world, they are used to prevent crabgrass from appearing in lawns. They are applied to lawns in the spring and fall to prevent the germination of weed seeds.
 
“In the winter, [grass] roots are still vibrant. When needed, we add potassium to promote root growth,” Hahne said.
 
All three landscapers said the record 100-plus inches of rainfall in 2018, not to mention storm damage from Hurricane Florence, has created extra work and problems. Hahne said his crew has lost 25 days this year and is playing catch-up.
 
“With the wet weather we’ve had, there is a tremendous amount of disease,” Hahne said. “It’s important to keep that under control; otherwise you’ll get lawn scarring.”
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