Sunday, October 26, 2008

Close up your yard for winter

A wintery blanket of snow and ice will cover our yards very soon. Now is the time to run through the check list of fall yard maintenance items before it is too late.

  • Remove leaves and sticks from garden beds, lawns and other areas of the yard
  • Remove annuals and other seasonal plants
  • Cut down perennials after several killing frosts.
  • Divide perennials and remove unwanted plants from the garden.
  • Mulch around the base of tender perennials and plants that need extra insulation during the winter. Mulch beds with compost, leaf humus or Sweet Peet.
  • Dig and store tender perennials, tubers and summer bulbs
  • Cut the lawn up until the air temperatures are consistently below 50 degrees F. Don’t leave the lawn tall going into winter.
  • Apply the last round of lawn fertilizer when temperatures are below 50 degrees F, this will help root development and prepare the grass for spring growth
  • Plant spring flowering bulbs before the ground freezes
  • Turn off in-ground irrigation systems, drain and blow out the system
  • Drain and winterize water features. Empty bird baths, clean and store
    Empty clay pots, store in covered and/or dry location for winter
  • Stop feeding the fish in the water features
  • Clean out catch basins, drains and window wells (better now then when they’re backed up!)
  • Re-edge garden beds, this will make it easier in the spring to reestablish the edges
  • Water plants one last time before coiling up the hoses, particularly evergreen plants (rhododendron, holly, azaleas, conifers, etc.)
  • Spray anti-desiccant on plants, particularly broadleaved evergreens that are exposed to winter winds.
  • Inspect outdoor lighting, replace bulbs as needed. Adjust timer as necessary.
    Stack fire wood up off the ground, cover with a tarp to keep dry.
  • Prune plants now only for clearance along driveways, walks and buildings or to remove any damaged or diseased plant parts – hold off on major pruning until late winter and early spring.

Good sanitation is important to maintaining a healthy landscape. By cleaning up leaves and dead plant parts you will minimize the potential for recurring disease issues. A clean landscape also minimizes places that rodents and other pests can hide.

Click here for comprehensive season by season check list of lawn and garden to-do’s.

Friday, August 22, 2008

What happened to my lawn this summer?

This is the time of year that the true health of a lawn is exposed. By end of summer a number of factors have conspired against our lawns. A combination of activity on the lawn, shade and drought stress have helped to decrease the health of the lawn which increases the susceptibility to insect damage. And, weather conditions this summer encouraged certain lawn diseases which may have had an impact. All of the potential stresses add up to a lawn that could look better and be much healthier.

Heights area yards are often saddled with shade from the wonderful mature trees that are so plentiful. However, turf grass needs at least four hours of sunlight for the grass to be healthy. Shade also impacts available moisture – generally contributing to increased drought conditions as trees soak up available moisture.

Fortunately for homeowners, fall is generally the best time to rehabilitate your lawn. Now is not the time to try and perk your lawn back up with fertilizers – the magic cure is not contained in an easy to apply bag.

In the long run, practicing proper cultural practices will have the biggest impact on the health of your lawn. Cultural practices include mowing, irrigation, aerating, de-thatching and top dressing. For do-it-yourselfers you can make a big impact on your lawn with a little effort and time, or you can hire a service provider to help you with the items that you may not be equipped or able to handle yourself.

Keeping it simple is important. Mow your grass tall. You don’t always have to cut lots of grass each time. Raise the mowing height to three inches or taller. Skip a mowing or two if the lawn doesn’t need it. Cutting the lawn too short encourages weeds and reduces the health of your existing grass. Sharpen your mower blades at least twice a year if not more regularly and leave the clippings on the lawn as long as you don’t create piles and clumps of grass.

Heights area lawns will benefit tremendously from aeration at least once per year, either in the spring or fall. Aeration is the process of removing cores of soil throughout the lawn allowing air to get to the roots of the turf grass. It helps to alleviate compacted soil and encourages better surface drainage to minimize the potential for moss growth. You can rent an aerator for $50 to $60 for a half day or hire a service provider to do it for you. Shady lawns that have moss or those that have not been aerated recently will benefit tremendously from aeration twice a year – both spring and fall. The soil should be slightly moist for good penetration. Aerating the lawn twice in two directions will not hurt the lawn.

Thatch build up occurs in lawns that are actively growing or that have been under maintained over the years. Thatch is the layer of dead bio-mass that has not decomposed between the crowns of the turf grass plant and the soil. It builds up and creates an impermeable layer that prevents moisture, fertilizer and other lawn applications from getting to the soil. Some thatch is good as it helps to stabilize and cool the soil, but more than ½” of thatch becomes problematic. Removing thatch can be done by hand with a rake and lots of effort or with a power dethatcher or verti-cutter which can also be rented like an aerator. Rake up the thatch and compost it or bag it for the city to pick up. Aggressively removing thatch may require some spot seeding in areas that become very thin.

Healthy soil is the vital building block for a lush and full lawn. Any lawn can be improved by top dressing with organic materials like compost or leaf humus. Heights area lawns have heavy clay which anyone who has tried putting a shovel in the ground knows is hard to dig in and thus difficult to get plants to grow in. Gardeners top dress their vegetable gardens and flower beds with leaf humus and compost products to build the soil and help feed the plants. Consider doing the same for your lawn. There is very little organic matter left in the clay soil of our lawns. Adding organic matter like compost improves the soil composition which results in healthier grass. When top dressing, a little bit goes a long way to helping your lawn. Over application will smoother the grass, so applying a very thin layer will be more beneficial. Plan to buy material in bulk quantity if possible. Measure your lawn area and determine the square footage (length x width = square feet). ¼” of compost spread out over 3,000 square feet will require approximately 3 cubic yards of material (or about forty five 2 cubic foot bags of product).

Instant cures are for late night infomercials. Good maintenance practices applied over time, like exercise and diet, will provide the best results. Not all lawns need to be dethatched, so check first. All lawns will benefit from aeration, top dressing and mowing the grass taller. The work you put into your lawn this fall will pay big dividends next year, helping your lawn to better survive next summers heat and drought.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Caution: Increased insect activity this summer

In a letter dated August 4th to our current customers:

We’ve had a rainy summer which has increased soil moisture, providing a more desirable habitat for lawn insects. We are seeing signs that there may be more damage to lawns this summer than we have seen in years past from these little invaders.

Larger than normal adult Japanese Beetle populations have been noted by Ohio State University Extension service in multiple areas of the state. The large adult populations may result in a large new white grub population. One major factor contributing to the success of the grub is current soil moisture conditions. Soil moisture levels are high which will make it easier for the female Japanese Beetles to find suitable locations to deposit their eggs which will hatch into the larvae or white grub.

We have also seen increased incidence of sod webworm and are beginning to see evidence of chinch bug in some lawns, particularly those lawns that have a history of chinch bug activity.

How are insects controlled?
Traditionally we wait and monitor sites to evaluate pest populations and potential for damage before determining if a curative insecticide application is warranted. The benefit to this approach is that we do not simply apply insecticides on a broad basis – we only apply where and when necessary. Often this results in some lawn damage that needs to be repaired as the presence of insects is not known until symptoms of damaged turf begin to appear.

Preventative applications can be made and are generally scheduled earlier in the summer on those lawns that have a history of insect problems and where the homeowner’s threshold for damaged turf is low. In these cases the homeowner has determined that the risk of damage has a bigger impact and is less desirable than applying a preventative insecticide application.

What should you do now?
We need your help to be on the look out for areas of your lawn that are in the process of turning brown or that have turned brown already. Alert us to these conditions so we may investigate further to determine the cause – as not all brown areas are the result of insect damage.

Option 1: Watch and wait to see if insect damage appears and then evaluate the need for an insecticide application based on insect population and potential damage of the lawn. The benefit to this approach is that in hindsight an application may not be necessary, lowering cost and reducing the use of pesticides. However, the wait and see approach may result in increased turf damage requiring more expensive lawn renovation work to correct the problem.

Option 2: Contact Lawn Lad today to discuss the appropriate course of action and if a preventative application is warranted for your lawn. We do not make blanket recommendations for pesticide use – so if you are concerned and want to be proactive – please contact us to discuss your options so that the potential for damage is minimized.

More information about Integrated Pest Management.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Selling a home quickly – a Realtor’s input on current challenges

I have been asked by quite a few homeowners this year about home value relative to landscaping as they are preparing to put their home on the market. I decided to do a little research and better understand what is happening in the current Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights housing market. With the SunNews reporting recently that the Heights area has lost between 8-9% of its population base there are a lot of homes available on the market.

I had an informative conversation with
Kevin Cahill, an agent with Keller Williams Realty of Greater Cleveland, who specializes in residential Heights area homes. Cahill shared his insights with me about some of the challenges that sellers face in the current housing market.

“One of the biggest challenges facing a seller in today’s market is the length of time the house sits on the market. As the length of time on the market increases, so do carrying costs for the owner. The ability to make a quick sale in this market provides the best opportunity to capture the homes real value and to cap the outgoing cash flow required to own and maintain the property.”

A report generated late June from information available through the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) indicated the following average market times for homes in the
Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights market for the previous 90 days. The report includes active, closed, contingency and pending listings.
$150,000 to $300,000: 95 days average on market with 362 listings
$301,000 to $450,000: 97 days average on market with 120 listings
$451,000 to $700,000: 119 days average on market with 85 listings
$701,000 and above: 112 days average on market with 35 listings

Cahill commented that he does not believe the MLS statistics reflect the actual market conditions. “I believe the average market times are actually higher – closer to 50% longer than the MLS indicates as it does not account for expired listings or those homes that are relisted which therefore do not reflect the true market time.”

If this is accurate, then for homes in the $150,000 to $400,000 price range with an average market time of about 95 days, the real average would actually be closer to an average of 143 days on market, or nearly five months.

Cahill explained the financial impact: “Let’s use the example of a $250,000 home – with a cost of ownership not including utilities and maintenance costing the owner $2,000 per month. If this home would typically sit at least six months on the market, cutting the market time to twelve weeks would save the owner $6,000, or about 2.5% of the home value.

“In today’s market the goal is get the house to sell faster than anyone else’s. Sellers need to have a strategy.” Cahill shared.

When asked about the factors that would shorten the length of time on the market, Cahill said, “To get on the low side of the average number of days on market there are two factors – price and condition of the home. These two factors will open up the pool of potential buyers, thereby attracting more qualified and likely buyers for the property.”

Cahill explained how buyers today use the internet and how time on market is affected. “Prospective buyers are looking at listings online to determine if they want to make an appointment to see the home. Photos that reflect an attractive, appealing front fa├žade will get more activity. Once the prospective buyer sees the condition of the home, and it is priced appropriately for the market, the market time can drop fast.”

I asked Kevin what impact landscaping has on the sale of a home. “I generally recommend that sellers put in as much time and effort on the landscaping and the interior of the house as they can afford. Spending money on specific projects to get a house ready for sale is worth it – including the landscaping if necessary. It’s going to impact perception, which impacts the number of showings and also the buyer’s opinion of value.”

I asked Kevin his specific thoughts on landscaping and how sellers should approach getting their house ready for market.

“Homeowners don’t always have the cash before the sale to do the work that might be necessary to make the house competitive in this market which contributes to longer market times. Each scenario is different – each house has different needs. Sometimes landscaping isn’t the highest priority if the living room has shag carpeting or there are other more obvious drawbacks to the home. Although basic maintenance goes a long way to making a house more marketable and this includes the landscaping.”

“Most homebuyers will identify initial qualifiers like location or neighborhood, price range, bedrooms, baths and certain key amenities. Good landscaping is generally not defined in the initial search criteria; however the curb appeal gets the home shown more quickly and frequently than other homes that are being considered.”

Thank you Kevin for taking time to discuss the current housing market and how quality landscaping can affect a homes time on market and value.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

When a customer complains

I've written previously about how I don't believe a business intends to provide poor customer service. They don't start off the day with a goal of loosing customers or pushing them away. But unfortunately poor service is all too prevalent.

As a business owner I cherish feedback from my customers. I feel fortunate when I get it because I know that the customer did not have to share their feelings with me. Why then do I hesitate to share my experiences with other business owners or managers when I know how valuable the feedback can be?

At times the complaint is meant to illicit an immediate response - as in, "Waiter, there is a fly in my soup." I'm asking for an immediate response to my problem. But not all problems with service are as obvious to see and easy to fix like a fly in the soup.

I believe that we are a polite society for the most part and in many cases people tend to avoid conflict. Reporting poor service to the business owner or manager can be uncomfortable. If the person in the business is receptive to hearing about the problem then we can at least be satisfied that someone heard what we had to say and may act on the feedback for the better. When the person who receives the feedback or complaint is either not engaged or appears disinterested and worse yet is defensive, it discourages us from going out our way in the future to share again.

I heard someone say once that when a customer complains they are looking for an excuse to continue to do business with you. That comment has stuck with me since the day I heard it. I realize that my choice to share my experience with a business owner is my way of gauging their responsiveness to my needs. I don't expect them to jump up and down for me or be perfect in their service delivery, I know mistakes will be made. What I'm gauging is whether or not they care about what I'm telling them. I'm determining if they are aware of the problem and if they accept this as normal or if they want to make changes.

I know that we have lost customers who never bothered to tell us the reasons we lost their business. Others have commented on frustrations they experienced and we lost them because I failed to respond in a manner they believed to be acceptable. The old saying that only 10% of your customers will complain if they have a problem may be true. Regardless of the percentage - I wish more customers would tell us when something is wrong or not to their liking.

Ever sit at a restaurant and the manager comes by and asks, "Hello. Everything okay with your dinner this evening?" This question elicits the standard response, "Yes, everything is just fine thank you."

If the manager really wanted to know your thoughts he might say, "Good evening. I'm sorry to interrupt. I hope you are enjoying your dinners. May I ask, is there anything we could have done this evening to have improved your experience?" Now this question opens dialogue and invites the customer to offer a suggestion or constructive feedback without feeling as if they are complaining. The customer is at ease and is more likely to be honest.

We began asking our customers this very question and I am thankful we did. I appreciate the suggestions and feedback - it provides us with the information we need so we can make your experience with Lawn Lad a more positive one.

Thank you for caring and taking the time to give us feedback on your experience.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Say Plant Phenology ten times really fast

Okay, so maybe saying Plant Phenology ten times really fast isn’t the most productive use of your linguistic skills, but if you did want the challenge – wouldn’t it be nice to know what Plant Phenology is?

Simply put, phenology is the study of the timing of recurring biological events from season to season – for both animals and plants. Plant development each spring, from bud development to leaf emergence to spring flower are all timed in sequence based on environmental factors that can be measured and used to predict when these events will occur.

Why is this so important? Those who are observant, and most gardeners and landscape service providers know which plants flower first in the year. Most everyone knows that spring has arrived when the forsythia is blooming. What’s interesting to know is that
white pine weevil insects also emerge at about the same time. So, those interested in managing potential insect problems proactively can use a tool like a Plant Phenology chart to know that when the Japanese Pieris is in full bloom, that the white pine weevil emergence will be coming soon.

The actual dates that each plant emerges from year to year is not tied to a calendar we keep on our desk. There are seasonal fluctuations which affect the timing on the calendar from year to year – so we can’t say that on April 1st we should be looking for white pine weevil. By using the Plant Phenology chart we can use the flowing of plants as visual indicators of when we can expect eggs to hatch or adult insects to emerge of certain insects which allow us to monitor pest populations to see if some action is required.

Okay – wow, that sounds like a whole lot to take in. For most homeowners using this tool is not necessary as you may depend on a professional to manage your landscape. But for those gardeners who are continually frustrated and feel as if they are a step behind because you can’t constantly monitor for insects and catch them all – a tool like this is invaluable because it allows you to be proactive.

It is important to know that the plant phenology chart available for each area is a guide and may fluctuate from plant to plant and from area to area. Because plant and insect development is based on growing degree days (GDD), a measure of the accumulated number of degrees over the average baseline, the actual temperature measurement varies from area to area and may even be affected within an area due to microclimates. The age of the plant, moisture of the soil and other factors can also affect the timing of certain biological events.

Ohio State University Extension office provides a plant phenology listing that is updated with current growing degree day information by zip code.

More information can be found
here about how GDD are calculated and some of the challenges that may occur when using this tool. The June 19th edition of the Buckeye Yard and Garden Line newsletter addressed GDD - the issue is located here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Memories of Staycation 2008

We’ll a holiday weekend is upon us – here is to a great Independence Day holiday. With summer upon us it’s time to pack the car and head off on a trip to enjoy time away from school, work and the hectic pace of everyday living. I have fond memories as a child of our summer camping trips – except perhaps for the part about sharing the back seat of the family station wagon with my brother and sister – there was never enough elbow room.

I asked some friends about their vacation plans this summer and I’ve heard more about shorter trips, close to home trips, and staying at home this summer “trips” – or what I’ve heard some refer to as a “
staycation”. It seems as if travel is lower on the list of priorities this year. Perhaps it’s the price of gas and travel, or in general people’s perceptions of the economy and wanting to keep a tighter rein on the budget. Regardless of the reason – it seems that staying home this summer is a likely alternative to lengthy travel and vacation plans.

I recently had several customers ask me about making changes in their yards because they were going to stay home this summer and they decided to invest the money into their landscapes and homes so they could enjoy it this season and for years to come.

Whether the investment is made in the home or the yard, it makes sense to invest the money where you will get continued enjoyment and value. Recently I installed some additional low voltage lighting into my landscape and it has certainly increased our desire to stay out in the yard quite a bit longer. More than ever we are enjoying our yard late into the evening hours. I’m looking forward to cooler temperatures this fall, when days are shorter and the lighting lets us extend time outside as long as we like.

I suspect that rising consumer prices and a slow economy with uncertainty ahead has created tighter budgets and therefore has caused many of our customers to evaluate how and where they spend their money. While spending on landscaping projects has slowed compared with years past when people had more discretionary money to spend, people are still investing in practical projects that make their yards more livable and enjoyable.

According to the 20th annual 2007 Cost vs Value study conducted by
Hanley Wood, LLC featured in Remodel Magazine, exterior home projects recapture approximately 70 – 80% of the cost of the project in increased home value. For example, an exterior wood deck in the Cleveland area brought 71.4% recovery rate in home value. Brick and stone patios serve the same function as a deck and are more common in the Heights area than are wood decks.

What does this mean for us locally? I believe our customers recognize the importance of good landscaping and how it positively affects their quality of life. While larger more comprehensive projects have been put on hold or are being phased in over time in smaller segments, there are still a number of selective projects that our customers are doing to make their yards more livable.

The top three projects this year appear to be drainage, lighting and patios. While I wouldn’t have predicted the number of requests for these projects this season – in hindsight it is not surprising that these three projects are odds on favorites this summer for most frequently requested project. Each of these projects is associated with access and usability of the yard. Poor drainage prevents the area from being used, and lighting extends the useful number of hours that a family will spend outside, while a patio carves out an area for congregating and enjoying the views.

Improving your surroundings and making the space more livable is quite practical. And I think our customers are being more practical with how and where they spend their money – helping to make the staycation just a little bit more memorable this year.

Happy Independence Day!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Take out gardening

Something about gardening stirs the emotions. Experiencing the sites of the garden in spring certainly feeds at least one or two of the senses. Harvesting from a vegetable garden feeds a few more senses – along with making the hungries disappear.

I’ve not made an objective study of how many gardens there are in the Heights area, but as a regular in many back yards throughout the Heights I have noticed a stark decrease in gardens from what I recall as a child growing up. As a child, it seemed as if almost all of neighbors had gardens as did many of my lawn customers. One of my long time favorite customers, Robert Stanger, a master gardener, would talk with me at great length about gardening and the “projects” in his back yard. For sometime he ran the community garden at Canterbury Elementary School. Bill Valis who lived down the street always had a prolific garden in his back yard – I stood in awe at the size of the plants in his garden that towered over me as a youngster. I’m not sure what he fed those plants, but I think if he was a follower of Jerry Baker I’m sure some of the Pabst Blue Ribbon he always had at arms reach was included in the plants fertilizing program.

I’m not sure if gardening is as popular today as it was twenty five years ago when I was growing up. But I can appreciate the challenges of a time constrained schedule and how it does not marry well with gardening. There are many things a garden provides. For some it’s the experience, exercise, and joy of planting and harvesting. For some it’s more the enjoyment of fresh produce that you can really taste. Local in many cases just tastes better than produce flown in from across the country.

Well, if fresh produce is what you’re after, there are options. I was interested in an article I read in the Plain Dealer from the end of May about the growing number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. CSA’s provide an alternative to either gardening or the grocery store for fresh vegetables. At a nominal cost, you can basically order or contract for your produce throughout the growing the season. This benefits the farmer in planning and helps with cash flow, while the consumer gets local, fresh produce at regular intervals throughout the season.

The concept of CSA’s struck a cord with me. While my plan is to begin gardening this summer with my son, I’m a bit more of a pragmatist and want to make sure we have fresh produce on the table. I’m not confident that much of the harvest is going to make it past the edge of the garden once my three year old discovers the fruits of our labor. I can only imagine between the nibbling off the vine and the fun he has squashing things that this year we’ll be gardening more for the experience than the harvest. Perhaps the CSA’s can provide the harvest so we still have something fresh for the dinner table.

Friday, June 20, 2008

When service fails

I'm fairly certain that businesses do not intentionally set out to disappoint their customers by providing poor service. It is truly amazing when you begin to think about recent experiences and how poor service has become the norm rather than the exception to rule.

Recently I attended a trade/convention show in Buffalo, NY and was on the receiving end of my fair share of poor service. I had some distance away from our business and therefore an opportunity to reflect on the topic and more in particular about the experiences that our customers have when interacting with our business.

When I'm the recipient of poor service I'm human and find myself getting irritated or frustrated to varying degrees. Depending on the situation I consider my options and decide what I'm going to do. Often times I grumble, walk away with a poor taste in my mouth and catalog the experience so I can decide in the future whether or not I choose to do business with the establishment again.

When I'm the recipient of less than satisfactory service I begin to ask myself a series of questions.

  • Is the business owner or manager aware of how their employees are failing their customers?
  • Will I come back to this business again?
  • How many repeat sales is this business going to loose because it can't get the basics right?
  • Should I say something to owner or manager? Wouldn't they like to know what is happening?

The extent to which I ask myself these questions in part depends on the relationship I have with the business and my need or desire to continue a relationship with the business. It is opportunities like my time away from my own business where I can reflect on these questions and begin to evaluate how other businesses succeed at customer service and how others seem to fail.

I know that we have let down our fair share of customers over the years. For me, the topic of customer service is very personal. While certainly this is no excuse, we have gone through and continue to experience growing pains. In the process I know that I have let down my fair share of people by failing to follow through. I ask myself why have I let this happen and how do I fix it. As a business owner I make it my goal to insulate our customers from having to experience our growing pains. Our customers have enough frustrations in the day, we certainly do not need to add to the list.

For me, I recognize that we are not perfect. It's the reason that I often give other businesses a second chance when I feel let down from their service. What I hope to see is improvement in other businesses where I may have been the recipient of bad service. In our own business I have recognized some areas that we are weak. In many cases it was our customers who pointed out some areas where we needed to improve. I appreciate those customers who take time from their day and risk sharing their thoughts and feelings regarding their experience.

In most cases the feedback I get is taken very personally. As the owner of the business I'm responsible for the experience our customers have and it begins with me. I think back to the times when I know I let someone down because I didn't follow through. Some distraction got in the way between my commitment to them and the follow through they expected. I've worked to change things internally so I can avoid making these same mistakes again.

Hopefully our customers can see the difference we're making - and in any case, will continue to provide the feedback so that we can continue to improve. Some of the feedback we get is louder, more direct and shall we say... obvious. While at other times the feedback we receive is more subtle. Anyway the feedback comes it is appreciated and please know that you are heard.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Learning from others - Thank you Thornton Landscape

I'm grateful for a recent opportunity to explore and learn new business practices by visiting an established landscape design/build company located north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Rick Doesburg of Thornton Landscape generously opened the doors of his business and gave a day of his time to share his business operations with us.

Last week I set out accompanied by two managers from the Lawn Lad team, Adam and Drew, en route to Cincinnati as a part of the PLANET Trailblazers program. In a continuing quest to learn from others who are successful in this industry, we took the opportunity to learn about Thornton Landscape and what has made them a successful business for nearly fifty years.

As a growing business we face challenges each day. I know that others before us have experienced similar frustrations and any chance we have to learn from the successes, failures and lessons learned the better off we will be. I have made plenty of mistakes in business and it pains me when I look back and think about how I could have avoided making those mistakes and possibly souring relationships with our customers in the process.

As a business owner who has to make the books balance, I questioned the wisdom of three of us taking two days from the office and away from the business here at home and spending money on travel, lodging and the lost opportunity of working here at the business. In hindsight I do not regret making the investment - we learned a lot from the trip. Perhaps one of the more valuable things to come from the trip thus far is the conversations that have been started on numerous topics about those areas in our business that we can and should improve.

To be certain the conversations are just beginning and the investment in the trip will pay dividends for some time to come yet. I believe the out of pocket costs we incurred will benefit Lawn Lad tremendously as we prioritize areas for improvement.

I value the input from our customers - as this is the primary source for ideas on how we can improve. One of the key questions I want to ask and have answered is, "What could we have done differently to improve your experience?" The feedback provides us with the necessary information to make improvements in areas where we may not have realized we were lacking. Taking the trip to Thornton Landscape and getting outside of our bubble allowed us to see how another successful business is meeting the needs of its customers.

Thank you to Rick and Andy Doesburg and the Thornton Landscape team for having us down and helping us to learn from your experiences. Thank you also to our customers who provide us with feedback about how we are doing and their experiences so that we may continue to improve our service to our customers. I invite you to share your experiences and suggestions for improvement.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Trees & Grass - the contradiction of our suburban landscapes

We love our landscapes. After working in our customer’s landscapes all day I enjoy going home to my own yard so that I can relax and spend time with my family.

When I do have the opportunity to take a walk through the park, which is not quite as often as I would like, I often reflect on the natural cycle in nature. I’m in awe of how complex, yet utterly simple it seems. The seasons change and the life cycle is always working. The natural ecosystem balances out without man’s interference.

In our rectangular suburban plots we can’t wait or don’t want to wait for Mother Nature to run her course. For example, fall leaves don’t settle into the landscape and decompose over the ensuing months. Instead we rake them up and sweep them to the curb, where they are picked up and hauled off to a composting facility. Leaves and other landscape trimmings and debris are composted for a year or more resulting in rich organic compost, available then to rebuild our beds replenishing much needed organics and nutrition to our landscapes.

We ask our suburban landscapes to do things that Mother Nature did not intend. We love large shade trees and a nice green expanse of cooling grass below. Mother Nature did not intend for grass and trees to grow together – but we insist that they do, and then wonder why neither is thriving. Grass grows in meadows where it receives full sun, where as trees grow in forests and groves - each thriving in its own ecosystem.

In our suburban landscapes the trees take the brass ring. With their expansive root systems and over arching and shading limbs, grass doesn’t have much of a chance. Compacted soil and poor drainage also conspire against our own green pastures often resulting in mud, muck and frustration.

What then is a homeowner to do when the lawn is important? The physiology of the plants living in our landscapes will not take notice of the address change and therefore do not realize they should behave differently in our yards. Plants will behave as Mother Nature designed them to.
Begin with reasonable expectations. It might take some reading and research or consultation with a professional to help develop an appreciation for what is possible. But recognize that lawns will be less successful with increased shade and competition from surrounding trees.

Evaluate the area and decide on priorities. If the lawn is important then thin and/or limb up surrounding trees to improve sunlight and air circulation. Build the soil of the lawn with topdressing – adding organics is critical. Aerate the lawn once, if not twice a year. Plant grass types that can tolerate more shade. Raise the mowing height as tall as you can and skip mowings when possible to leave the grass tall. Water as necessary to keep the lawn healthy, but remember, the healthier the root system the less watering you will have to do. Shady lawns typically have week roots systems, so focus on the roots and your lawn will be much improved.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The health care pinch

Health care seems to be a regular headline in the news. Like many small business owners I must know enough about a topic, like health care insurance, to make purchasing decisions and administer the benefits for the company. This certainly does not make me an expert on the topic – but like many, I am a consumer and purchaser of the products and services and have some very personal experience with the process.

As the owner of the company I’ve made the choice that offering benefits is an important part of the compensation structure for our employees. I believe that we are able to attract and retain excellent talent in part because of these benefits. Not all landscape service companies offer or provide insurance coverage to their employees.

Beyond major medical plans which includes an HSA option, we offer dental, vision and term life insurance. We also provide long term and short term disability plans. We just began offering an FSA (Flexible Savings Account) so that employees can use pre-tax dollars for all medical related expenses.

Our renewal rates are scheduled to increase approximately 12% this year, which I’m told is in line with the national average. This is on top of an increase from last year of 18% and similarly the year before.

I’m not sure what the solution is to continuing to provide health insurance and related benefits to our employees. I’m committed to making the insurance available to our employees and their families. However, our customers are facing increasing costs in their personal budgets and are not interested or able to simply pay us more for the landscape services they receive simply because our costs are rising.
What is a company to do? In order for us to remain competitive in the market place for customers we need to provide excellent value and keep our pricing in line with the market. We also must remain competitive in the market place for employees by offering benefits. We are not just competing with the landscape industry, but other prospective employment offerings where our talented people may go if we can’t offer what they need. Lastly, we must make our forecasted profit so that we can continue to reinvest in the operations of our business.

Do we increase prices? Coupled with rising fuel prices this has happened to some degree already. I’m not sure the market will support significant price increases. Do we cut benefits and/or compensation to our employees? Will our employees be willing to accept these cuts and will they stay with the company to serve our customers? Do we accept lower profit margins as our costs increase? I’m not sure this is a sound strategy if we intend to stay in business for the long term.

The answer is more complicated I’m sure and not so cut and dry. For the time being we have focused on increasing our efficiencies. We are investing in becoming more efficient, and as we grow, the impact of the improved efficiency will pay larger dividends.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Gardening with my son

Growing up in Cleveland Heights my mother always had a vegetable garden. After mowing the lawn I regularly put the clippings around plants in the garden with the extra clippings going into the mulch pile. I didn’t quite understand why we did these things, but I followed instructions. As the warm months passed by I recall picking tomatoes, lettuce, beans, carrots and berries from the garden – enjoying them on the spot or at the dinner table.

Fast forward twenty-five years and today I look around and don’t find the same number of gardens in the Heights area. Perhaps my childhood memory of our garden and our neighbors’ gardens formed a larger impression on me – thinking that everyone had a vegetable garden. Today though, it appears that gardening doesn’t fit into our busy lifestyles. To talk about your Blackberry today isn’t likely in reference to the fruit in one’s garden.

Last summer I began working with my two and half year old son in our yard. He sure has taken a liking to the weeding knife – as it can dig and make holes like no other tool. This spring he likes digging for worms, grubs and spiders. “Daddy… want to a see the worm?” Charlie asks a thousand why's each day, and at this point the teacher in me hasn’t tired of answering all of the why and how questions.

What a wonderful season to begin gardening with my son. I plan on building a small garden this summer so that Charlie and I can play in the soil, plant seeds, and watch the wonder of nature transform brown dirt into a bountiful harvest.

Who knows if we’ll ever get to eat anything this year - I’m not sure how successful our experiment will be. The deer may conspire against us and the demands of growing business make for long hours. But hopefully when I look back at this season, the draw of working in the soil – nurturing young plants and minds will have drawn me away from the business just long enough to build lasting memories for Charlie.

PS – I’d like to thank Mary, a customer on Torrington Road, Shaker Heights for sharing her stories about gardening with her children and youngest son in particular. Her stories several years ago planted the seeds for me to begin thinking about making our own garden. I welcome your stories about gardening, and in particular – ideas on making gardening fun and exciting for the little ones.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Top 5 Landscape Projects to Decrease Market Sales Time

"A number of studies have concluded that an attractive, well-planned landscape can increase the value of a home from five to 20 percent. Also, the National Association of Realtors reports that almost 20 percent of buyers consider landscaping to be a "very important" factor in the decision to buy a house." - Jill Sell, May 14, 2008 The Cleveland Plain Dealer

In the current market any advantage a seller can gain by making their home stand out from the rest of the field can greatly impact the bottom line. When selling a home an important factor to a quick sale is making the house as marketable as possible. Sales is a numbers game... and attracting as many qualified home buyers is the first part of the equation.

Excellent curb appeal attracts buyers. While unexceptional, nondescript, and under maintained landscapes can actually repel prospects. The first impression from pictures or a drive by of the property may determine if the prospective buyer will schedule an appointment to see the house.

As a landscape service provider we are often called in to help a homeowner get their house ready to put on the market. Each situation we encounter is different. For some a simple spring clean up is the solution while other projects have included entire yard make overs to help get the house ready for market.

From our experience in working with both homeowners and Realtors, here is our top five landscape check list items to help sell your home more quickly.

Top 5 Landscape Projects to Decrease Market Time:

  • Get rid of clutter: remove piles of old fire wood, brick and rubbish from the yard and from behind the garage. Get rid of the old swing sets and play equipment if possible. Clean up the yard, which may mean a spring or seasonal clean up is in order to get rid of leaves, sticks and other landscape debris. Clean and neat allows prospective buyers to better imagine how they would use the space and communicates that you have maintained your space.

  • Basic Pruning: First remove dead, diseased and damaged plant material. Remove plants that don't look healthy or contribute to a clean and neat landscape. Prune plants so they clear pathways, walks and structures. Next, prune and trim overgrown plants that obstruct or obscure sight lines. Prune to reduce over sized or overgrown plants.

  • Define the space: Layout bed lines and install bed edges that create definition between the lawn and beds. Connect smaller beds with broad sweeping bed lines, eliminating little patches and awkward spots of grass. Clean out the beds of weeds and unnecessary plants. Create a clean look by mulching newly edged and weeded beds.

  • Green lawns: The appearance of your lawn and landscape is an indicator to prospective home buyers about how you have maintained your home. A lawn in poor condition reflects poorly on the home, so renovate the grass so it will look its best. This may include spraying for weeds, aerating, fertilizing, top-dressing, and over-seeding by slice or slit seeding. A lawn in poor condition can look much better within 60 days. A healthy lawn is more attractive and helps to set off the new bed lines you have just installed.

  • Add color: Add annual flowers for instant and lasting color that will make an impact. If the house is going on the market in the spring install bulbs the fall before. If the lead time doesn't allow for bulbs then plant pansies in the spring. Follow up with summer bedding annuals like begonias or petunias, both are relatively low maintenance. In the fall plants mums and/or pansies. Install annuals in containers by entry doors or on patios, install or make room in the front walk entry area for annual color.

Decreasing market time directly impacts the bottom line by reducing carrying costs (includes: finance cost, insurance, taxes, maintenance expenses, utilities, etc.).

Begin with the basics. We often see homeowners spending time and resources on polishing and accessorizing the landscape before focusing on basic cleaning and pruning. Following these steps in order will make the largest impact and provide the greatest value. Much of this work can be accomplished on your own, although hiring a professional may get the work done more efficiently, within a shortened time frame and may be more effective with access to equipment, materials and experienced labor. The work is not complicated, for the most part it requires focus, time and follow through.

Lastly, don't overlook the required maintenance for the landscape while the house is on the market. A one time clean up will look really good for several weeks, but without maintenance will begin to loose its impact. Plan to keep the yard in tip top shape for showings that can occur at any time.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

First Post

Here goes - the inaugural post. My good friend Brian gets the credit for encouraging me to share my opinions, ideas and thoughts on topics from gardening and landscaping to running and growing a small business.

Lawn Lad is the business name that I have used since I was a young teenager while mowing lawns and maintaining yards in the Heights area. The business continues to grow year in and year out - bringing about welcomed challenges and good "problems" to have. I am an entrepreneur first - I love the challenge of building a business. I'm fortunate too in that I love the service we provide - creating and maintaining beautiful yards.

When I was in school I used to refer to my business as a learning laboratory - where I would try out new concepts learned in the classroom. Looking back I realize that I wasn't far off the mark when considering the business a learning laboratory - we are continuously improving, learning and growing as the process is never over.

One of the more valuable lessons I've learned is that if something is worth doing then a plan should be in place to make the initiative sustainable. The ability to sustain and commit resources is dependent on the capacity of the individual or organization. While I've always had a decent grasp of our company's production capacity and what we could accomplish in a given period of time, I’ve more recently come to understand and realize my own capacity and limitations. For a small business owner and an entrepreneur like myself, there are new ideas every day providing endless opportunity for distraction – and only so many can and should get my attention.

A good idea often fails due to failure to follow through, or quite simply execution. To be effective at running and growing this business I have to make sure I remain focused on the top priorities. While writing a blog is not necessarily at the top of my priority list, writing is a great way to organize and gel ideas into cohesive concepts. I learn from the writing process.

I’m in the business of solving problems, both externally for our customers on their properties, but also in the company solving operations and other business related challenges. It is my goal to learn from blogging and become better at what I do so that I may provide a better business and product to my customers, employees and the families that have come to depend on and benefit from Lawn Lad.

Thank you to our customers, suppliers and employees, past and present, which have helped us to grow and become better at what we do. I welcome your comments and feedback so that we may continue to learn and grow.