Saving the "Queen"

New York's DeFranco Landscaping committed to preserving beauty of Lake George
By Mike Ingles

Photos courtesy of DeFranco Landscaping, Inc.

You will find many of America's most pristine lakes and waterways in the Adirondack Mountains. But the water quality of these beautiful lakes and rivers are increasingly under the same pressure from land-use activities that have degraded lakes and waterways elsewhere in the United States. One of the most popular (and visited) of these lakes is Lake George, a long, narrow, 44-square-mile lake in the northeast corner of the state of New York.

Anthony (Tony) DeFranco, Defranco Landscaping, Hague, N.Y., is just the person to help do something about it. Lake George, known as the "Queen of American Lakes," still possesses some of the nation's purest water, but is starting to exhibit a downward trend in its water quality. Sodium levels have doubled the past 20 years and total phosphorus levels have increased as well.

DeFranco Landscaping, Inc.

Owner/operator: Anthony (Tony) DeFranco

Headquarters: Hague, N.Y.

Founded: 1984

Services: Stormwater management/erosion control, hydroseeding, rain gardens, wetland & pond plantings, landscape maintenance, tree & shrub care, pruning, flower bed maintenance, brush chipping, dethatching/aeration/slit seeding, irrigation system mainenance & repairs, snow & ice management, landscape design & installation, renovations, sustainable & native plant selection and hardscaping

Business mix: Residential 85 percent, commercial 15 percent; maintenance 60 percent, design/build 40 percent

Employees: 10


Today, ominous signs of runoff containments have created a "dead zone" at the south end of Lake George, where oxygen levels are too low to support fish and other aerobic activity. Numerous environmental projects are underway to help contain the runoff; the West Brook Conservation Initiative is one of the most aggressive undertakings. The project consists of environmental groups and towns working cooperatively to construct a stormwater wetland to alleviate sediment and pollutants from West Brook, a lake tributary, and the reconstruction of Beach Road that borders the shoreline of Lake George. Beach Road is the first porous asphalt pavement system for a heavily travelled roadway in New York State.

"Much of this is believed to be related to nutrients leaching into the lake from phosphate in fertilizers and failing individual wastewater systems," explains DeFranco. "Many communities have started to ban the use of phosphate fertilizers and are even requiring new construction projects to install shoreline buffers using native plants. A few communities are also looking into requiring mandatory septic system inspections."

DeFranco, a civil and environmental engineer, is certified in erosion and sediment control as well as being a certified nursery & landscape professional from NYSNLA. His father, David, a former science teacher, started the family landscape business after being asked to manage the summer property of a dentist to pay off a dental bill. The company still manages the property for the dentist's grandchildren.

To complement the family's landscape business, DeFranco started a professional engineering business. "There was a strong need to have an engineer on call to design septic systems, stormwater management designs and handle all the permitting necessary to make projects happen." DeFranco had spent summers working with his father and three sisters in the landscape business and developed an appreciation for the native plants and how they have had such positive effects on the regions soils and lakes.

With two master gardeners on staff, along with ICPI concrete paver installers and certified segmental retaining-wall installers, DeFranco decided to grow the family business in engineering and site-design, including stormwater/erosion control and adding shoreline buffers to comply with varying regulations issued by the eight local municipalities as well as the many state regulations.

Establishing turfgrass by hydroseeding with a tackifier allows the turf seed and the fiber mulch to adhere to the soil, aidng seed germination.

The proactive approach

"One of the best ways to prevent stormwater runoff is by hydroseeding," says DeFranco. "The process promotes quick seed germination. Hydroseeding with a tackifier (chemical compounds that stick to the surface) creates a slurry, allowing the fiber mulch and seed to adhere or bond to the soil. It's a popular method to use on steep slopes around the shoreline. We also apply hydroseeding in combination with biodegradable erosion control blankets on very steep slopes that are prone to erosion.

Once established, a strong stand of responsibly maintained turfgrass helps capture runoff.

"The Lake George Park Commission also has a regulation that requires any disturbed surface within 500 feet of the high water mark to have a protective coating securely placed over that area within 24 hours to prevent sediment from entering the water body," he adds.

According to DeFranco rain gardens (excavated depressions filled with a soil media mixture of sand, topsoil and organic material), when properly designed, can help control stormwater runoff. "The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, considers rain gardens as a green infrastructure measure," he says.

DeFranco Landscaping constructs rain gardens with as many native plants as possible to take up contaminants during a rain event.

"Rain gardens are typically designed so there is no standing water in the basin after 24 hours of a rain event," adds DeFranco. "Plants in the rain garden need to be able to tolerate wet and dry conditions at various times."

Communities are partnering with environmental groups to preserve the water quality of Lake George, an issue that Tony DeFranco supports.

Winterberry, dogwood, switch grass, wild bergamot and several other native plantings are favored for rain gardens. DeFranco continues, "Wetland plantings are better suited for wet ponds and forebays of stormwater basins, where the soil may be wet for longer periods of time."

In 2010, the Lake George Watershed Coalition recognized DeFranco Landscaping with the Frank Leonbruno Lake Stewardship Award for their use of native plants in their designs.

An engineer's perspective

DeFranco has the best of both worlds with his home and business in the Adirondacks, and by putting his engineering expertise together with his affection for the family's landscape business, he is helping to keep Lake George and other lakes in the region at the AA Water Use Level, which includes the main source of drinking water for the region.

"I can get very wrapped up in the details on the engineering plans, because in reality, the designer should know how everything is going to be constructed on the site before a contractor shows up to start the work. I also love plants. Nothing beats planting a few trees and shrubs and watching how the site visually changes."

Working with many environmental agencies, the Lake George Waterkeeper and local municipalities, DeFranco is encouraged by what he sees as a willingness of private citizens and government to join forces to protect the lakes and the environment. "I noticed a lot of people wanting to work with us because they know we have another level of expertise and knowledge about which permits are required for projects around the lakeshore. Stream and shoreline restoration projects are some of the tougher projects because they typically require multiple permits from multiple agencies."

DeFranco said that often, three or four agencies have to agree on stream and shoreline projects prior to starting work. Permits can vary from lake to lake, depending on the classification.

"It's best for landscapers and contractors to leave the design of these types of projects to engineers who have experience in that area. The timeframe for permit approval can vary, depending on what the project entails and if the scope of the project fits within each review-agency's regulations. These types of projects also require lots of patience and project coordination.

"We find that it is best for clients to be upfront with agencies such as the Lake George Park Commission and schedule a site meeting as early as possible to help expedite project permit approvals and reduce the amount of design time due to making numerous plan revisions and costly re-submissions," he says.

Many environmental groups and grassroot organizations feel that fertilizer applications along the shorelines and unvegetated shorelines are to blame for the degradation of the lake. DeFranco also spent one summer working for the Darrin Freshwater Institute, an organization that studies the water quality of Lake George.

DeFranco Landscaping must develop and submit property improvement plans that meet the region's strict environmental requirements.

The first step in solving any problem is in acknowledging that there is a problem. And although Lake George maintains its AA rating for water quality, that could slip away if counter-measures are not executed.

"The watershed still is under constant pressure from land development," explains DeFranco. "Stormwater runoff has been considered the biggest threat to the lake until invasive species started showing up in boat's bilge pumps. Stormwater management has become a critical aspect of every design project."

Mike Ingles is a freelancer writer living in Columbus, Ohio, who writes articles about business and the green industry. Contact him at