real opportunities in the landscape industry

“Oh, so you plant trees, cut grass, and do stuff like that?”

Believe it or not that’s how a good number of folks view the landscape industry.  They think landscapers (BTW, I don’t like that word) are more or less a collection of laborers for outdoor work — certainly not a “professional” workforce.

Public perception is one of the challenges we face, and we’re going to be talking more about that on LandscapeAdvisor.  But here’s a key point:

[quote]Poor public perception does not have to be a negative. In fact, use it to set yourself apart from the “clutter”.[/quote]

Whenever I need to explain to someone in the “uninformed” public what I do, or what the landscape industry does, I put it this way.  First, I tell them I love my work. That really gets their attention. 🙂  Then I explain that with landscapes you have to take into account a number of factors and influences.

I mention how science plays a big role because you’re dealing with soil, plants, insects and disease.  Engineering is real important too because we’re moving earth and constructing all sorts of outdoor features.  And finally, all these elements have to not only function well together, but look good and last a very long time.

Usually after that short explanation they have an “aha” moment; a better understanding and respect for what we do.  And that’s a big part of how you succeed and set yourself apart.  You inform & advise people.  You help them understand what’s really going on with their landscape and how you’ll improve things.

When you approach your landscape business and customers in that way, you’ll see how much people respect you and count on you.  It’s not only the work that’s enjoyable, but the relationships that go with it.  At this stage in my career I’m now landscaping the children’s homes of past customers.  Very cool.

Branches of The Landscape Industry (pun intended)

Since well-planned and maintained landscapes include so many different influences, the industry has created quite a few categories of businesses.  The diagram shows the 11 that I commonly see and work with.


Diagram of green industry business categories


As you can imagine, there are also many variations of these 11 categories.  And companies sometimes create their own unique business by combining some of the categories — or even becoming more specialized within one category.

Let’s take a look at each.  You’ll see how every category has its own knowledge & skill requirements.  But you’ll also see how connected and important each category is to the others.  The landscape is truly an ecological system.

Tip: If you’re considering working for a company in any of these categories, only speak to those that are respected and admired.  Ask around, including talking to as many people in the green industry as possible. Nurseries and other suppliers can sometimes help point out the better companies.

Garden Center / Nurseryperson

Nursery plantsGarden Centers can have a real mix of green industry talent — as they should.  Customers will come looking for advice & products for anything to do with their landscapes.  And that makes it a great job for getting general knowledge.  As a matter of fact, that’s how I started.

You naturally think “plants” with a garden center, and that certainly is a major part of their business.  But homeowners are also coming in looking for help with design, lawns, hardscape, water-features, irrigation, … you name it.  Even insect & disease problems.

I include “nurseryperson” in this category because these 2 fields share some similarity — and that’s plant knowledge.  In the garden center the plant expert can usually give some design advice too.

So there is a specific category or career known as nurseryman.  I’d rather say nurseryperson because men and women work in all fields of the green industry.  A nurseryperson specializes in plants.  This could include propagation, growing & production and sales of plants.

Landscape Maintenance Contractor

lawn-cutting (1)Overall, this is probably the most common category of green industry business out there.  And I think that’s partially because it’s relatively easy to get into.

In most cases no real certification is required other than a basic contractor’s license.  And, depending on what aspects of maintenance you get involved with, the equipment cost can be minimal.

Landscape maintenance is a broad business category.  For example, there are companies that essentially focus on keeping properties “groomed”.  They’ll do the seasonal clean-ups, cut the lawn — and weed, edge & maintain all planting beds — snow removal too if needed.

From that basic maintenance service, companies may start to expand on what they offer.  They could do lawn care treatments, tree & shrub care, pruning, mulching, etc.

So you can see how some maintenance companies can start to take on what other green industry contractors do.  Perhaps their customer will ask about planting design & installation, a drainage problem, a new walkway or some other hardscape feature.  But as you might expect, this is often where landscape businesses get into trouble.  We’ll be talking more about the best ways to expand your offerings while staying professional.

Lawn Care Operator / Applicator

lawn spreaderThis business provides the applications of whatever the lawn needs throughout the year.  This would include things like fertilizer, lime and other soil amendments, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, etc.  Typically there’s an annual contract for a property that has a certain number of visits and applications included.

You would need certification and an applicator’s license for this business.  And in order to keep the license you’ll need to recertify occasionally.  Check your particular area and state requirements.  In NJ, here are the Private and Commercial Pesticide Applicator Licensing Requirements.

A professional lawn care operator needs to be very knowledgeable of turf.  He or she can then understand soil analysis reports, diagnose turf problems and prescribe the solution(s).

Sometimes a Landscape Maintenance Contractor will work with a Lawn Care Operator to provide this service for their customers.  That’s a great example of how two well-run businesses can have an alliance where both companies benefit — and the customer too!  Very smart.

Plant Health Care Specialist

Tree trunk injectionToday, any company that offers real “Plant Heatlh Care” services is practicing IPM (Integrated Pest Management).

The Environmental Protection Agency defines IPM as “an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.”

The key phrase here is common-sense practices.  In other words, it’s understanding that everything on a property can either directly or indirectly affect the health of the plants.

But the first thing to consider in Plant Health Care and IPM is: “Is this the right plant in the right spot?”  Because, if not, this plant is already destined to problems.

A typical Plant Health Care and IPM service will monitor all the plants on a property.  The annual contract might have 4,5 or 6 visits scheduled.  Each visit you would walk the property and scout for plant problems and/or potential problems.  If you find something, you’d treat for that particular problem and advise the customer if other steps on the property need to be taken.

You could almost think of yourself as a plant doctor.  The plant health care specialists that have a lot of knowledge and experience are very respected in the landscape industry.  This is a great category if you want a one or two-person business.

You will need certification, and then the proper licensing for applicators.  Check the particular requirements in your area. In NJ, here are the Private and Commercial Pesticide Applicator Licensing Requirements.

Irrigation Contractor

Sprinkler head installNo matter what specific “branch” of the landscape industry you might be in, it’s always an advantage to know something about the other related fields.

For an irrigation contractor I think it’s important to have a certain amount of “general” plant knowledge in addition to the technical knowledge of irrigation.

Think about it.  As an irrigation contractor your responsibility is to deliver the right amount of water to plants & turf.  Yes, some of that control is managed through the system’s “controller”. But with all the different equipment and design possibilities, the controller is just one ingredient of a professionally installed irrigation system.

An irrigation contractor should know the water needs of different plants.  Otherwise, a poorly designed system that over or under waters the plants can do more harm than good.

Some irrigation contractors meet with the landscape designer or contractor to plan how the system should be set up.  Not only can they talk about plant needs, but also things like grades, drainage and soil types.  All these things play a part.

Most, if not all companies that install irrigation systems also service them.  But I also work with a couple of smaller companies that just do service and minor alterations to existing systems.

And here, once again, you can create a niche-type business within a category (like irrigation).  Your small, professional and personable service will be tough to compete with.  And you’ll have an ever-growing, loyal customer base to give your business security and a nice income.

Although certification is not required, it would be helpful to learn and verify best-practices through a certification program.  Also, I can’t think of a better way to show you know the trade well.  Here’s information from the Irrigation Association on certification.

Licensing for irrigation contractors varies from state to state.  The Irrigation Association has this helpful information about licensing.

Hardscape Contractor

Installing bluestone pathHere’s Wikipedia’s definition for hardscaping: The placement of nonplant elements such as fences, walkways, paving, and lighting in a planned outdoor area.  I know — it says “nonplant elements”.  That sure covers a lot of things. 🙂

So it’s not hard to imagine a business category that just does hardscaping.  In fact, most hardscape contractors focus on only a few of the elements because, once again, you can spread yourself too thin.

For example, a company may specialize in walls, walkways & patios that are made with manufactured concrete products.  All these manufactured products lend themselves to relatively quick, systematized installation.  And in many cases you can learn these systems right from the manufacturers.  There are even certification courses for installers from organizations like ICPI.

On another end of the spectrum are contractors that specialize in natural stone.  Most everything they build includes some form of natural stone.  As you’d expect, this is a more challenging and time consuming type of work.  There are workshops & courses out there for stone masonry, but I think working with a well-respected stone mason is key to learning the trade.

The list is endless for the different types of hardscape businesses.  One company I work with specializes in granite belgian block.  They do curbs, borders, driveways, and courtyards all out of belgian block.  The quality of their work and efficiency in production is amazing.  The majority of their work is for other contractors and designers (like myself).  The challenge is getting a spot on their busy schedule.

There are hardscape contractors that build ponds & water-features, and garden structures like arbors, trellises & pergolas.  Some work with metal to build structural and decorative features.  Lighting also is an area that some companies specialize in.

Landscape Architect and Designer

Landscape grading planHow important is good landscape planning and design?  Critically important.  And not just for how the landscape looks, but how the “living” project will hold up and develop over the years.  Just like we talked about earlier — this is where you think about the sciences, engineering, construction and artistry.  As a landscape architect or designer you’re constantly asking yourself how each of these aspects play a part?

The majority of my work is renovations.  These are existing landscapes that are in need of complete re-dos.  Renovation work is a great teacher because you get to see what did and didn’t work.  It’s just amazing the affect that time and the environment has on the things you build and the plants you install.

Frankly, I think it should be a requirement that landscape architects and designers spend time in the field as part of their training.

Landscape Architecture is actually a broad field.  Today there are quite a few areas of specialization, such as: Landscape Design, Site Planning, Urban Design, Park & Recreation Planning, Reclamation & Restoration, etc.

To be a “licensed” landscape architect you’ll need a college degree and then you’ll go through a licensing process, which includes passing the LARE exam.

States and various jurisdictions can have their own requirements.  The ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects) has a great website if you have questions about the field.

Landscape Designers are part of a less defined field than landscape architects.  A competent landscape designer combines some of the things landscape architects do, but with a strong emphasis on garden design.  So they’ll take their plant knowledge and apply that to a real good understanding of the site.  Just like an LA they’ll consider the site’s characteristics such as grades, soil type(s), drainage, existing trees, etc.  Then they’ll work closely with the property owner to advise and show what’s possible, both with plantings and hardscape.

This category, landscape designer, is one that I fit into.  What’s interesting to me is realizing all the different influences that go into a design, and then working with all the different professions and talents to make these projects happen.

Currently, there is no “licensing” requirement specific for landscape designers.  The APLD (Association of Professional Landscape Designers) does offer accreditation for “certified landscape designer”.  It’s based upon their review of your education and experience.  The APLD also looks at examples of your work along with your application.

If you’re interested in becoming a landscape designer its smart to begin attending organized courses and programs in related landscape topics.

There are college degrees for ornamental horticulture and landscape design/development, but there are also numerous related courses and programs out there that you could start to take.  Some landscape design courses are part of certificate programs that include other related courses, but can also be taken by themselves.

Also, check locally at community colleges and high schools for certificate programs.  Botanical gardens can offer courses too.

I know respected landscape designers that have little formal education, but have an incredible amount of knowledge & talent.  It comes from experience and devouring every piece of design and related information they can find.  And if you talk with these people you’d see it’s not so much a job as it is a vocation. They just love what they do.

Landscape Design/Build Contractor

Landscape boulder placementA landscape design/build contractor brings together the design aspect of a project plus the actual construction.  A design/build contractor will normally have a landscape architect or designer on staff.  Although some D/B companies (often the smaller ones) get their design work from designers in their network — or from the client’s designer.  But these companies always have people in-house that understand complex landscape plans.

On the construction-end, the D/B contractor provides all the talent & resources to build the project.  Some larger design/build companies have most, if not all the talent & resources in-house. However, more often the D/B contractor will need to bring in other companies, especially in areas like: pools, electrical, carpentry, metal-work, audio/video, etc.

Clients will choose to work with design/build contractors because it puts all the pieces and responsibility of the project “under one roof”.  And as you’re probably thinking, that is a lot of responsibility.

As a D/B contractor, what you decide to do in-house must be top-notch.  And the rest of the work you’re responsible for must come from top-notch contractors & other professionals you know.  This is where your “network & alliances” come in.

Building working-relationships with other contractors & professionals is key to producing any type of work that’s needed — and doing it really well and profitably.  We talk a lot about this on LandscapeAdvisor.

In addition to a network & alliances, a design/build contractor needs a broad knowledge of most landscape topics and how each relates to one another.  And without a doubt, that broad knowledge will go along with years of experience working on complete & complex projects.

A D/B contractor should also be well established with suppliers in the area.  These contacts and relationships are vital, as you can imagine.

Some of the design/build contractors I work with are small companies.  They each have a few skilled employees, a base location to work out of, and a full complement of tools & equipment to match the work they do.

Generally, other than the normal contractor licensing, there is no special requirement or certification.  But make sure you check in your area and jurisdiction.

Landscape Contractor

Planting arborvitae hedgeYou’re probably wondering what the difference is between a landscape contractor and a landscape design/build contractor.  Even though they do share similarities and sometimes look the same, there are differences.

A landscape contractor is not usually relied on for design input.  A customer will already know what they want, and maybe need some additional advice about plant selection or material choice.

Landscape contractors will normally not get involved in large, complex projects.  But those that have the experience and skill will take on plantings and construction that fit their ability.

Some landscape contractors have working relationships with designers and landscape architects (just like some D/B contractors).  And these relationships usually benefit both sides.  The designer or architect likes working with a landscape contractor that has the same quality standards and business principles.  And likewise for the landscape contractor — you’ll look to connect with a designer or LA that appreciates your work as a contractor.

When you work with a designer that understands your challenges on production and logistical issues, it’s a beautiful thing.  It becomes a relationship where you work together to get things done and solve problems.  Clients love to see this collaboration on their projects.  This is what I strive for with everybody in my network.

Some landscape contractors are happy (and quite successful) with staying small.  They’ll get laser-focused on what they like to do, what they’re good at, and what the market needs and wants.  This is a great model for those that want a small, personable business and enjoy the hands-on work.

There are maintenance contractors that occasionally take on landscape contractor work.  If the maintenance contractor is well-organized and experienced in that kind of work, it can be done.  The challenge with this, like with any kind of expansion or diversifying, is keeping quality and customer satisfaction up.

Arborist / Tree Work

Tree being cabledAlthough I put arborist and tree work together as a category, they do not always go together.  In other words, there are companies doing “tree work” that do not have a college degreed or certified arborist on staff — and they’re permitted to do that.

Let me just say that there are some excellent tree companies that don’t have an arborist working for them.  They just have a total commitment for doing tree work properly and years of experience.

The ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) created a certification program to teach and standardize important aspects of arboriculture & tree-work.  The ISA also wanted to give the public a means to verify the competence of people in the industry — and I think it does do that.

So then, what’s the best way to get involved with tree work?  I would get experience with a well-established, professional tree company.  And at the same time I would be taking courses related to the field.  No doubt the company you’re working with will pay for those courses.  You’ll be gaining on-the-job experience while building your knowledge credentials.  If all goes well you can eventually test for “Certified Arborist”.

Experience and certification really positions you for a bunch of opportunities in the arborist / tree work field, either working for yourself or another company.

Some tree companies also offer “shrub & tree care” services.  Today, it’s likely these services will resemble those of a “plant health care specialist” — so you’ll see IPM (integrated pest management) strategies & practices.

So What’s the Best Landscape Field (for me)?

If you don’t have any experience in the landscape industry, first think about the categories that interest you.  Learn what you can about them.  It’s going to be way more enjoyable and frankly, easier to succeed at something you love.  At least it will seem easier. 🙂

And then speak to people in those categories.  Again, it’s so important to only connect with people and companies that are professional.

You can see the depth of the landscape industry.  It’s not hard to imagine the opportunities.

Maybe you’ve realized I have a liking for smaller businesses.  Certainly some of that comes from being one myself.  But also because experience has shown me that it’s more likely the best work will come from smaller, owner/operator companies.

We have so much to talk about here on LandscapeAdvisor.  We’ll focus on the knowledge and best-practices of the trade.  That is what’s going to make you and your work memorable.  That is what’s going to change people’s perception of you.

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