Stick to Your Strengths

August 15, 2021

I often wonder if lawn maintenance is going the route of other home care companies. These days many people call a cleaning company for routine interior cleaning and a more specialized business for carpet or upholstery “deep cleaning.” Are lawn care companies now becoming more of a complete landscape business than they once were? It often seems so to me. Fewer people mow their own lawns and just figure it into their home maintenance budgets. If the lawn care company can mow my lawn and advertises for design work, why not hire them?

One of the largest landscaping companies in greater Portland, or probably now Maine for that matter, started as a mowing operation in Portland and now has mid-coast and Bangor offices. During peak season they employee about 200 workers. They have diversified from what was once primarily a mowing company, that sub-contracted their weed and feed program, to what is now a “Complete Landscape Company.” Maintenance of all types of lawn and shrubs, planting, design work, tree care, landscape construction, snow removal, pretty much the full spectrum. This complete service even goes as far as janitorial services, trash removal, and a security division, maybe spread too thin, in my opinion.

The company has had the huge landscape contract with one of Portland’s hospitals for several years. The hospital has one large primary location in Portland, several other satellite facilities, and numerous office complexes all around southern Maine. Mowing and snow removal seem to be their strong suits, but trailer loads of mulch are used in spring clean-ups (spread too deep) and shrubs are sheared into beach balls and hockey pucks. I must admit, the grounds all look very well groomed. Large beds of colorful annuals are planted each spring in highly visible areas.

So, what’s my point? Does a bigger company mean higher quality work? Does the fact that this landscape company is one of the largest in Maine mean they are one of the most knowledgeable? In my opinion, not at all! As I mentioned earlier, their work is very neat and well groomed, but based on excess mulch and improper pruning, that aspect is very faulty. Plants are not being properly cared for and the general public is being misled. Maybe they should stick to just the lawn care division and seek assistance with their pruning or other plant care skills. I see this all too often with lawn maintenance companies as they expand and diversify. Mowing work turns to plant clean-ups and pruning, then planting or hardscapes and possibly doing small design jobs.

Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of respect for people who grow, diversify, and try to broaden their knowledge. But it’s also very important to watch closely or learn enough to realize your weaknesses and when to seek the help of others. The management of many companies, and not just the big operations, somehow have to learn what mistakes they are making and fix them. Maybe better educating the public is a possible route to go? If all of us with landscape knowledge attempt to teach our customers just a tiny bit about the way plants should be cared for I think it’s a good start. This might make the public aware of what attention they should be seeking. Should they call an arborist, that just happens to mow lawns, with their turf questions? People in the industry have to be upfront with customers and stick to their fields of expertise.

Having operated a chainsaw many hours cutting firewood, I thought it would be easy to cut down only one tree on a job several years ago. It was only about a 6″ caliper spruce that I thought would fall right into the driveway, no problem. After cutting about 60% into the trunk I realized the tree wasn’t falling quite in the direction I had planned and if it fell the wrong way it would hit all kinds of wires and possibly even go as far as into Main street! Since I was just a few doors down from the hardware store, I ran over there, bought some beefy rope and tied it onto my truck’s bumper. By this point, I would be happier if the tree fell on my truck than onto all the utility wires and maybe the street. Fortunately, once the rope was tight between my truck and the tree, it fell in a safe place when I finished cutting it!

To make a long story short, this is a perfect example of me thinking I knew more than I did, I was playing arborist for a day, when in reality I should have hired someone with far more skill.

— by Phil Caldwell. Phil is a past president of NHLA (1989) who now lives and works in Maine.  

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