After working 30 years for other companies, Ron Deal started his own Georgia operation and is thriving

Garden South Landscape & Design

Founder and Owner: Ron Deal

Founded: 2002

Headquarters: Athens, Ga.

Markets: Northeast Georgia

Services: Residential and commercial landscape design, installation and maintenance, and seasonal flower plantings

Employees: 12 with seasonal additions

Website: N/A

Ron Deal calls himself a dinosaur in the Georgia landscaping business. Not quite an apt description, but Deal, 59, has been around long enough to see the business change dramatically. He started cutting grass at 10 years old with his father and brother in Savannah, Ga., and he worked in landscaping through high school and college. Then he worked for 30 years in professional lawn maintenance before launching his own business, Gardens South Landscape & Design in Athens, Ga.

“I decided it was time to do something for myself and started this landscaping business 10 years ago,” Deal says. Gardens South generates yearly revenue in the range of $750,000, and mostly serves a four-county area northeast of Atlanta, venturing into the Atlanta market on request.

The downturned economy has brought changes to the landscaping industry, and Gardens South’s work is about 70 percent landscape design/installation with about 30 percent maintenance, the great majority residential. While commercial maintenance includes some seasonal flowers, that focus has been reduced to some degree. “It’s dropped off primarily because of water issues,” Deal says. “With the three-year drought we had, businesses are concerned that they aren’t seen as using too much water.” Deal focuses on durability of landscapes through proper plant selections and proper maintenance combined with good business practices.

This classic home is picture of southern charm thanks to the colorful ornamentals and the beautifully maintained Meyer zoysiagrass lawn. Deal’s company is busy in a four-county region northeast of Atlanta.

Knack for plants

“I’ve always had a knack for knowing what plant to put where,” Deal says. “While I was an undecided student at the University of Georgia, I walked into the horticulture department. I fell in love with plants, and I use a wide variety of plants.” While his horticultural training and knack for choosing plants have been important to his landscaping, Deal had to learn to draw designs. “I hired landscape architecture students and asked them to help me to learn to design,” he says. Despite an increased interest in hardscapes across the country, his love of plants is obvious.

Finding new varieties of plants for landscapes is a major consideration for Deal. “While in the heyday of landscaping business before the downturned economy, a landscaper might use 10 plants on average, I would more than likely use 30 to 40. Even next door in Alabama they use different plants, a whole group of plants not used here. I look at nurseries and I’ll order something, putting it in my yard to see how it does. It costs money to replace a plant, and our winters can be cold enough that some plants won’t survive,” he says. “We have good luck with pansies, snapdragons and Iceland poppies. Iceland poppies bloom some in the fall and really pop in the early spring. There’s a native plant movement, but we aren’t growing in native soil after so much construction at sites. I spend a lot of time educating people that it’s more important to use plants that are adaptable.”

Deal adds, “It’s important for me to go back in five years and see that the landscapes still look good. We try to be creative in our installs for them to be substantial given that landscapes transform. The landscapes transform from sun to shade and in plant size. We try to use plants that are going to stand up. Selections also depend on the homeowners, whether they want low maintenance or will have a service maintain the landscapes.”

More attention is being paid to correct maintenance techniques throughout the industry.

“We’re doing primarily pruning here in north Georgia,” Deal says. “We have nine months of growth, so we have to maintain through selective pruning, to maintain the growth inside the plant so 10 years down the road, it’s not just a skeleton.”

Proper plant maintenance also takes into consideration soil conditions. “Our soil is hard clay and we have a compaction problem that’s not good for grass,” Deal explains. “We don’t take out big mowers on rainy days. We will make a trip back to avoid that.”

Keeping customers happy is a major goal in Deal’s work. “If I want to try a new plant, I’ll tell a customer I’d like to try it, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll substitute a different plant. One of my greatest pleasures is that it seems like every customer becomes a friend. The customers are my advertising. It makes me happy to know a customer brags about my crew, how hard they work whether or not I’m there.”

Challenges a’plenty

Landscapers in general agree that operating profitably in a downturned economy with very tight margins requires good management practices. “We lost some jobs where we just couldn’t act fast enough to get the bids and crews there,” Deal says. “When profits are hard to come by, prices are up with profits limited.”

Limiting the scope of projects is one way that many landscapers have found to help keep their profit margins up. The increased interest in hardscapes has led some landscapers to work more extensively with subcontractors.

“In hardscapes, I concentrate on things my crews can do,” Deal says. “I got tired of using subcontractors and 75 percent of the profit going to subcontractors. I had to look over everything, and if a problem occurred, clients wanted to talk to me, not the subcontractors.

“Figuring out what people want and are willing to spend is an art form,” he adds. “So I try to work on a budget. If they are leaning toward masonry, for example, I have the best mason in the area to work with. We do a lot of pavers, decorative blocks and natural stone. Outdoor living space is the least costly, and creates a sense of excitement. Drainage is a big issue here, so we do a lot of dry streambeds.”

Labor availability is a major concern in the landscaping industry, and a number of landscapers have expressed concern about the efficiency of the e-verify system required before employees are hired. Deal says, “Tougher immigration laws have created a shortage. Government looked the other way as Hispanics were hired, now in 2013, we’ll have to e-verify everybody.” Gardens South employs about 12 full-time staff year-round with seasonal workers added during the spring.

Additionally, Deal says the employment environment is changing. “We have a real problem in shortage of people for crews and supervisors. Even with the horticulture department here at UGA, we seldom get students to work in landscaping,” he says. “The industry is in such transition. I think young people haven’t realized the changes that have occurred, that students coming out of the educational system aren’t going to get mid-level management jobs in the industry. They may have to water a lot of plants in the meantime.”

Looking down the road

Deal says, “It’s hard to guess how the industry will be in three to five years. I’d like to think that young people will be involved in the industry and my business will keep going. It takes people with passion.”

Deal says water availability is a major challenge, not only to his business but to the landscaping industry in general. While water issues have always been at the forefront in arid regions, they have become increasingly important in all parts of the country. Careful plant selection and placement along with correct maintenance are helping to limit water needs of plants, and these practices have gained momentum even in more humid regions such as Georgia.

“We wasted a lot of water before our drought,” he adds. “Government and people are now more cognizant of the need to conserve water.”

The Georgia Green Industry Association has been very active in issues related to water conservation, and Deal is currently president of the Athens area chapter. He says, “We would be a lot worse off without our association’s participation leading to changes in water management.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. Contact her at [email protected].