Florida landscaping contractor builds his business on passion, dedication

Grant’s Gardens

President: Grant Beatt
Founded: 2000
Headquarters: Sarasota, Fla.
Markets: Sarasota, Fla., and west of the city on island properties from Anna Maria Island to Casey Key
Services: Commercial and residential maintenance; pruning, trimming and fertilization of all trees, shrubs and ground covers; vine trellising, training and fertilization; turf management, including mowing, edging and fertilization; irrigation monitoring and maintenance; low-voltage landscape lighting monitoring and maintenance; seasonal color installation and maintenance; topdressing; mulching; landscape pest control; water feature maintenance; containers, vessels, urns and pot maintenance; design and installation; mitigation; large palm and tree installation; arboricultural services; and hardscaping
Employees: 54
Website: www.grantsgardens.com

Speak with Grant Beatt for a few minutes and one gets a sense of how passionate he is about the landscaping industry.

His wife Danielle, who handles the business side of their company, Grant’s Gardens in Sarasota, Fla., concurs. “He is reading all of the time about what’s new. He’s on the University of Florida’s website always looking for the most innovative and appropriate ways of doing things based on new information coming out. He is the consummate landscape professional.”

Established in 2000, Grant’s Gardens is a turnkey company providing services for high-end island waterfront properties west of Sarasota, from Anna Maria Island to Casey Key, with a small presence on the mainland. The clientele is 60 percent residential; 40 percent commercial.

Cultural differences

Beatt learned to appreciate nature growing up in his native South Africa.

He says, “The difference between South Africa and America is a gardener is a much better way to describe a person who is involved in the landscaping business,” he says. “If you call someone here a gardener, it’s like a derogatory term. If you look up the true definition of a gardener, it’s somebody who is a steward of the land.”

Beatt earned his Bachelor of Science in horticulture and landscape design from Virginia Tech in 1989, then returned to South Africa to join a top landscape contracting firm. In 1991, he returned to the United States to work in Rochester, N.Y., as an arborist, landscape designer and consultant.

His partner, Glenn Souza, had worked for Young’s Landscaping, Longboat Key, until Beatt bought the company in 2007, combining their experience with Souza’s expertise in Florida landscaping.

Fixing problems from the past

Beatt believes there were many bad judgment calls made in landscaping during the last 50 years in Florida. “In the old days, the cheapest way to get landscaping down and meet certificate of occupancy was to put plant material down in 20 percent of the landscape and bring out turf to cover the rest of the 80 percent,” he says. “It was the cheapest way to go. We didn’t understand downstream how it pertained to irrigation and overuse of water and pest control.

“Turf can be designed in such a way that you can manage it efficiently and keep it in the maintenance budget of the clients,” he adds. “It’s a great part of the landscape. It’s an asset.”

Grant Beatt learned to appreciate nature growing up in his native South Africa. He started the company with two employees, and has grown it into a multimillion-dollar business with 54 employees and two locations.

He says the mistakes of the past must be reversed, understanding that “ecology comes first and then we come second.”

He adds, “It’s not just about the ecology aboveground – most importantly, it’s about what’s going on belowground, because we need that ecology to help clean up the mess we’re in right now,” he says. “It’s about soil conservation, soil ecology, and understanding how important trees are to our communities and our ecology. That’s the benchmark and we move forward from there.”

Creating an ecology

While landscapers in other parts of the country generally deal with four seasons, Beatt points out that Florida’s climate calls for a different way to operate a landscaping business. For instance, a great deal of tree pruning is conducted prior to the onset of the hurricane season.

And, there’s the longstanding joke about Florida having only two seasons: wet and dry. “It’s all about understanding how the weather and rain works here,” he says. “You’ve always got to be proactive. You can never be reactive.”

It starts with the design.

In choosing plant material, Grant’s Gardens uses a native plant skeleton, then co-mingles exotics and architectural elements into the native backbone. “We have a pretty interesting look,” he says. “I’m a big zoysia turf fan, and a fan of right plant, right place. We’re trying to create ecology. I’m not just talking about the birds and the bees, but holistically, everything is getting created a lot closer to the formality of the building.”

Drainage key to landscape’s success

Beatt insists on designing landscapes that will ensure the long-term success of its maintenance down the road. “Landscape designs are very similar in terms of maintenance,” he says. “We want to establish what the client’s expectation is on an annual maintenance budget and work backwards on that for our landscape design.”

That approach applies to irrigation as well. “It’s about a water budget and understanding what the water source is: either reclaimed or potable water,” he says. “We push very hard on our clients not to use potable even in the philosophy of matching water quality to the usage. We push for reclaimed if it’s available. If it’s not available, then we want our clients to put a well in.”

At the same time, Beatt advocates integrating cisterns into the mix. “We need a well as an auto-fill mechanism for the cisterns,” he says. “We design the cisterns so they have the correct capacity for 1-inch rain events and integrate that into the landscape.”

Being knowledgeable about stormwater and runoff, Beatt knows cisterns are important in the attenuation of stormwater. “We first look at cisterns as a stormwater mechanism and water conservation comes along for the ride,” he adds.

Beatt promotes the idea of the right plant in the right place and that turf has a role to play in stormwater treatment and attenuation. To that end, he has another company, Ceres H2O Global Technologies, which has a patent pending process for treating stormwater runoff. The system provides bioaugmentation and biostimulation at the point source for developing the soil ecology as it pertains to bacteria and fungi. The system involves a bacterial inoculation to treat and degrade or convert compounds. The CereS3 Smart Stormwater Swale harvests and stores stormwater, irrigating the native vegetation in the bioretention swale. The seepage irrigation enables regular inoculation of native vegetation root system and surrounding engineered soils.

Many tools in the toolbox

The landscape maintenance division of the company has been its foundation, opening the door to provide other services, Danielle says. Sixty percent of the company’s revenues come from maintenance.

When it comes to caring for turf, Beatt does not adhere to one single approach.

“We believe that in the science and art of horticultural, you have a toolbox and there are different tools that are needed either independently or in collaboration to manage a particular site,” he says. “Every site is different, from the soil profile to the irrigation, quality of the water, shade and to the drainage.”

Beatt believes the primary challenge with turf problems is that irrigation systems are overdesigned in their initial installation.

“They don’t take into account what the soil profile needs to be downstream,” he says. “There is this whole notion of just getting water out onto the landscape as much as possible to meet the requirements of warranties and the like. Nobody is going back and re-assessing the irrigation to make sure it’s operating correctly with regards to the drainage.”

That compounds irrigation problems, resulting in low oxygen content and depleted microbes in the soil profile with turf, shrubs, trees and ground cover showing problems.

“If you don’t understand this, then you continue to swing the pendulum, throwing water at a plant and taking water away,” Beatt says. “You drain fertilizer and pesticides. Until you deal with the drainage and irrigation you’re always behind the eight ball.”

New way of viewing water restrictions

Water restrictions are often in place in Florida. However, Beatt insists, “In our sugar sands, you cannot use clock and calendar irrigation. There’s a mentality that the soil is a bank account and it’s going to store water for a week. It doesn’t work like that. We find that we use far less water if we have a higher frequency, but low volume of irrigation.”

Sarasota County allows watering 24/7 for those using low-volume irrigation on their landscape.

Beatt also is pushing for a variance on rotator sprinkler technology as is used in California. “We’re big fans of rotator sprinklers from Hunter Industries,” he says. “There are other companies out there, but we like the MP rotator.”

Grant’s Gardens has an IA-certified irrigation contractor and a water auditor. “We are big on understanding water budgets,” he adds.

As for fertilizer use, the company adheres to Sarasota’s “strict” ordinance, which encompasses blackouts between June and September. Beatt was on the forefront of that effort. “In some ways, I’m regretful on how that all went down,” he says. “The focus should have been on irrigation and not on fertilizer. They felt at the time that the fertilizer was the low-hanging fruit and went after that. It’s pretty successful in achieving the end goal as far as that’s concerned, but I still feel a lot of work has to be done on irrigation.

“I think that’s where we’re missing this whole runoff issue,” he adds. “Our soils are so saturated that they’re not behaving as nature’s cistern. We’ve having runoff taking place in significant levels here in Sarasota County and we just don’t understand how irrigation relates to pesticides and fertilizers.”

Maintaining for the long term

Beatt says maintenance isn’t something to be done on a month-to-month basis, but on an annual contractual basis. “We want to understand very clearly what the required resources and labor is going to be in order to maintain their property,” he says. “We look at it over a 12-month period and then we break that 12 months into 12 equal payments. There are periods of the year where we are footing the bill for resources and labor and there are times where the client’s property equals itself out.”

That approach requires keeping an eye on the cash flow in the business, he points out.

“It’s a long-term outlook over a period of a year,” he says. “You can’t be looking at your profit margin on a month-by-month basis. It’s more into quarters and into the six-month period and looking downstream.

“We don’t have a high client turnover. We have an understanding that our clients are going to be with us for the long term and we plan our business based on that.”

Seeking change

Beatt is involved in industry matters beyond his own business. He serves on the Sarasota County Tree Advisory Council, advising county commissioners on arboricultural issues, as well as re-examining Sarasota County’s landscape ordinance.

One measure advocated by the council is that accurate compaction tests be done on site at the time of landscape installation as a condition toward a certificate of occupancy. “We want to make sure the site is prepared for long-term sustainability for the plant material,” he says. “We’ve seen huge problems with retention and detention ponds being excavated, the material slopped down on building pads, and then we’re expecting plants to grow in this material.”

Beatt doesn’t believe the environmental movement is “very well-educated” on the science of some landscaping approaches. “There is so much misinformation out there,” he says. “With the fertilizer ordinance, we get all heated about it, but at the end of the day, I walk 5 miles to the waterfront from my office and look up and down this coast and see the condition of our mangroves. We allow the condominium associations and homeowners to butcher these mangroves down and we’re talking about fertilizer?”

Setting a high bar

Grant’s Gardens has 54 employees, most of whom are Hispanic, including several groups of family members.

“Grant sets very high standards for the guys in the field,” says Danielle. “We started as a maintenance company and he used to work alongside the guys; he felt that showed them respect.

“When we started the company, there were two employees and Grant. The three guys would go out every day and do this high-end work. The guys learned a lot from Grant because he is a perfectionist and he really does pride himself on educating clients and employees on how to do it correctly. He doesn’t like people taking shortcuts.”

Beatt hand-picked a few employees and trained them to supervise crews. Six years ago, when the company bought out another company, Beatt learned to combine two corporate cultures.

“We’re in a constant training, re-training mode,” Danielle says. “Grant meets with the two maintenance managers, walks through properties with them and shows them things he wants their crews to know.

“We treat our employees with respect and value them not only from an economic standpoint but also as professionals because we see them as landscape professionals, not as just guys who mow the lawn,” she adds.

Working off each other’s strengths

Grant’s Gardens is a multimillion-dollar company. Danielle says, “We used to work out of our house. Now we have all of these employees in two locations and buildings and more trucks.”

She attributes the company’s success to a “very high level of customer service. We have human beings answering phones. We meet with customers on the properties. We try to develop a relationship with each customer so they feel a sense of loyalty to us and we feel a sense of loyalty to them. We try to build on those relationships.”

Grant’s Gardens is primarily a referral-based company with little marketing needing to be done, Danielle says.

“Our company has completely grown on word-of-mouth.” she adds.

Going forward, landscape maintenance will be based on “smart” landscape design and “smart” irrigation, such as evapotranspiration technology, Beatt says.

“What I see for the future is smart landscape design, understanding about biodiversity, and understanding soil ecology,” he adds. “The future of our industry is understanding our soils. Once you understand how the roots of the soil work together, you understand what horticulture is all about.”

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.