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Drought-Proofing Your Landscaping Business

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Updated: March 11, 2020

Australia has just experienced its driest, hottest year on record.

We are also experiencing our third major drought since federation. Our previous major drought, the millennial drought, was very recent, lasting from 1997 to 2009—but many of us went back to business as usual once that threat had passed.

However, this current drought and the catastrophic 2019 fire season have made many begin to call this weather pattern ‘the new normal’. The introduction of Level 2 water restrictions has refocused attention and caused many to think again about how we can preserve our precious fresh water supplies, both now and into an uncertain climatic future.

With Sydney’s dam levels at their lowest  in 15 years and the possibility of harsher water restrictions to come, many landscape professionals will find their businesses being significantly impacted. So, how can you drought-proof your business to survive, and even thrive, in these challenging conditions?

Many landscape contractors are likely to have encountered clients who are doubtful about proceeding with their landscaping plans in the current environment. They may worry about the ability to keep new plants and turf alive or whether they  should alter their plans if this is indeed the future of Australian climate. Landscape maintenance professionals will likewise come across a range of concerns from existing and potential clients. However, the situation offers landscape professionals  the opportunity to demonstrate,  more than ever, the value of engaging dedicated professionals to develop and maintain their valuable landscapes.

Educating your clients and your team is the key to succeeding in this atmosphere. Reassure your clients that your expertise allows for a myriad of strategies to ensure the ongoing health of their new or existing landscape. Your team should be well-versed and up-to-date on all aspects of water preservation and plant health.

First and foremost, ensure your staff know all aspects of the current water restrictions inside and out. Clients will be relieved to know that there are many ways they can still use water and other techniques to ensure both the economical use of water and the health of their gardens. As a landscaper, you can also apply for an exemption to the water restrictions because your business is reliant on water for its ongoing operation.

If you haven’t already applied, you can do so through the Sydney Water website, www.sydneywater.com.au. An exemption will allow you to use water for your clients’ landscapes under certain conditions.

Some of the other techniques you can educate your clients on include plant selection and placement, mulching, soil enrichment,  water  storing  additives, mowing and watering techniques, as well as irrigation options.

Plant selection can be an essential component of planning for new landscapes or invigorating existing landscapes that need to be overhauled. When establishing a planting layout, you will need to consider not only the aesthetics but also the physical location of the landscape, the soil type, the light conditions, the use of the space, and the water requirements of the plants in the proposed landscape. Some obvious choices for drought-resistant gardens  include using native plants that grow well locally or succulents that are ideally designed for drier, harsher conditions and can add colour and variety to any garden. Turf choices should also be carefully considered to ensure the best choice of lawn for purpose and water preservation. Educating clients that they can water-in new lawns according to a new turf establishment plan can help to allay fears regarding new landscaping works. Also, advise clients to let their lawns grow longer under dry conditions; longer grass retains a higher water content.

Sydney water has a handy plant selection database that can assist landscapers and their clients to consider plant choices that are suitable for the area, soil type and use low levels of water to stay healthy. Now is also a good time to have your team familiarise themselves or refresh their knowledge of appropriate plant types and new varieties available in the market.

Educating clients regarding the value of enriching their soil is also an excellent way to provide them with more options for water-wise, drought-resistant gardens. Soils that are well mulched and high in organic material will retain water for longer, as well as provide for healthier growth.

Helping your clients to devise and maintain a soil enrichment program can be a valuable part of either new landscape works or those conducted by landscape maintenance professionals.

Similarly, educating clients on the value of using the correct watering techniques for deeper, healthier root development can help them to establish a garden that uses less water and can survive times of heat and stress. Be sure the planting schemes you agree with your clients group plants  of the same water requirements together and locates them in appropriately lit spaces in the landscape. Trees need special consideration in dry conditions too; ensure they will receive enough water to avoid undue stress that could lead to pest and disease vulnerability. Economical water use is not only good for the environment but will also save money on future water bills. Many experts believe that the price of fresh water is massively under-valued and this will be forced to change in the near term.

With the Level 2 water restrictions in place, many clients may need to be educated on which watering options are available to them. With the use of hose watering no longer permitted except under exceptional circumstances, you may find a higher degree of interest in the installation of watering systems. Drip irrigation and compliant ‘smart watering systems’ that adjust watering according to plant needs and weather conditions can be an excellent way to help plants to survive hot, dry climate conditions. If your landscaping business doesn’t already have at least one irrigation specialist, now could be an excellent time to train staff and expand your business opportunities. TAFE NSW and other RTOs offer comprehensive irrigation courses that could supplement your existing skill set, expanding your career options and your earning capacity. You may also find clients increasingly interested in drought- proofing their gardens with the installation of rainwater tanks as part of their landscaping project. However, the installation of grey- water systems is frequently discouraged and heavily restricted by most local governments and should be approached with caution.

On the upside, landscape construction businesses may see renewed interest in the installation of new pools or refurbishment of existing pool surrounds. With warmer, drier weather, many clients may like to expand  or refresh other outdoor entertaining areas. Be alert to these opportunities and you may well see your business grow and thrive in these conditions.

In terms of educating your team in skills that will help to drought-proof your business, The Landscape Association runs workshops throughout the year that focus on specific skills and information that can help to keep you and your staff up to date with the latest techniques and products on the market. Some of the topics that will be addressed in workshops this year include irrigation, turfing, soils, design and much more. These are available to both members and non-members, with members receiving discounted entry. To register your interest  for these events, visit our website at www.landscapeassociation.com.au today.

If you haven’t already signed up as a member, why not take the time to learn about all the other outstanding benefits available to members as part of our excellent suite of services and resources custom-designed for landscape businesses and professionals.

And remember, while these conditions may appear challenging for the landscaping sector, change always brings with it new opportunities. All good businesses need to move with the times to stay relevant. So, seize the day and you may well find that your business doesn’t just survive the ‘new normal’, it thrives.