Tucson company’s gardens showcase the uniqueness of its climate

Xeriscaping is the predominent landscape style in Tucson. The city of half a million people is located in the Sonoran Desert. The region averages 12 inches of rain annually.

My true love is gardens,” says Chris Niccum, founder and president of Sonoran Gardens, Inc. “The residential market lends itself to the ability to produce a truly beautiful garden.”

That may come as a surprise to landscapers who associate beauty with lush turf and a heavy use of water. Niccum, however, has spent his career contending with drier climates, and says he’s fortunate to be in a community that not only embraces a desert-style landscape but also educates its citizens on water conservation.

Still, the residential market is a comparatively new one for Niccum. A horticulture graduate of Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., he spent the early part of his career with institutional and resort clients.

Sonoran Gardens, Inc.

Founder and President: Chris Niccum

Founded: 1996

Headquarters: Tucson, Ariz.

Markets: Tucson, southern Arizona

Services: Custom Care Landscape Maintenance, The Contained Gardener, landscape design & construction, seriscapes, irrigation installation and repair, landscape lighting and landscape renovations

Employees: 15 full time, 2 part time

Website: http://www.sonorangardensinc.com

Since launching Sonoran Gardens in 1996, his focus has been on improving high-end clients’ outdoor living spaces with both hardscape and plants. And, while maintenance may not mean a lawnmower, the company’s Custom Care division has proven to be a winner.

Outdoor living spaces

After growing up in the Midwest (“I started mowing people’s yards when I was 13 and I never quite quit,” he says.) and going to school there, Niccum has headed for steadily drier climates, first working at a community college in Dallas and later at small university in southern Idaho.

“From there I went into the resort hotel business in the Caribbean,” Niccum says. “I worked at two different resorts there, and with one I was really fortunate because I was involved from the ground up, set up the nursery, grew all the plants, did most of the design work for where the plants were going all the way through construction and into the first few years of maintenance.”

Later, relocating to Tucson, he worked for a large resort hotel, taking on the dual roles of grounds superintendent and golf course superintendent. Then, in a change of management, those in-house departments were outsourced.

“That’s when I said, ‘I think I’ll start my own landscape company,’ and that’s when Sonoran Gardens was formed,” he says.

Starting with a truck and one employee, from the beginning the company was all about design-build for the residential market.

“We’re really focused on outdoor living spaces,” he says. “Our climate is really conducive to being outdoors.”

Not surprisingly, Niccum says a large part of Sonoran Gardens’ repertoire is hardscape, including outdoor kitchens and swimming pools. However, the work isn’t done in-house.

“We’re essentially a general contractor on the hardscaping side,” Niccum says. “For just about anything that can be done on the outside of a house, we have a subcontractor who can do it. Our in-house crews are focused on planting, irrigation and low-voltage lighting, that kind of thing.”

The firm’s Custom Care horticultural services have been a hit with clients.
Photos courtesy of Sonoran Gardens, Inc.

For what he calls the “softscape” side of the business, Sonoran Gardens has two crews, with each crew consisting of a foreman and two or three laborers, and the emphasis is on Xeriscaping.

That means staying away from plants such as oleanders, bougainvillea and palm trees and utilizing those native to the U.S. Southwest, such as mesquite and palo verde trees, shrubs, succulents and cacti.

“Drip irrigation is the standard,” he says. “About the only time we do pop-up spray heads is if we’re putting in a lawn, and that’s a minor, minor piece of our business.”

How minor? People with children will install grass in a play area, but Niccum estimates he’s done less than 1,000 square feet of turf this year. Where people do want the look, more of them are having him install a synthetic turf.

Custom caring

A big part of the Sonoran Gardens story is design. Niccum employs three landscape designers, although inquiries start at his desk. Today, most people find the company through its website.

“Probably 75 percent of our inquiries are on the form on our website that gets emailed to us,” he says. “That’s then passed on to me and I spend a little time looking at the property on Google, and on some real estate websites. Before we ever talk to them we have some feel for what the project is all about.”

That information is then passed along to the company’s construction manager, who makes the initial phone call. He also has the property on Google in front of him on the computer. Along with gathering more information, one of his jobs is to evaluate if the job will be a good fit for Sonoran Gardens.

The Niccum family is fully engaged in Sonoran Gardens and offers services, such as irrigation and lighting, along with its design/build projects.

“We’ve learned that we’re not competitive in every single bit of this business, and there are some projects that don’t make sense for us,” says Niccum. “If we believe this is a project for us, the construction manager talks about the fee structure.”

If the job looks like it’s a good fit the construction manager and one of the designers meet with a potential client to review the project, give a design price and provide a rough estimate on construction costs.

Hardscape may be the company’s bread-and-butter, but five years ago, in response to customer demand, Niccum launched Sonoran Gardens’ Custom Care division.

“We do a very highly detailed, intensive maintenance program customized to each property,” he explains. “It’s very focused on providing everything needed to keep that landscape in exceptional condition without additional charges.”

For a flat monthly fee, Niccum says the company will go in and do what’s normally considered maintenance, including pruning, minor irrigation repairs, light-bulb replacement, chemical weed control, fertilization and insect programs.

He adds that the price per month isn’t inexpensive.

“But, we really focus on horticulture, as opposed to raking and cleaning and weeding,” Niccum says. “Irrigation is so important here, and it also ensures the irrigation systems are properly maintained and adjusted at appropriate times.”

Separate crews do the irrigation work, and also maintain a still newer acquisition, The Contained Gardener, which regularly plants and maintains container gardens for more than 80 customers around the Tucson area. Niccum bought the company just last year.

Custom Care and The Contained Gardener offer regular, reoccurring income. Fortunately (and finally) Niccum says, the new housing market in the Tucson area is beginning to pick up again.

Niccum hopes to see those areas of the company continue to grow, although in the future the decisions won’t entirely be his. He and his wife, Jean, who came in to run the office shortly after the business started, are in the process of stepping back and allowing their son Matt Niccum, who now serves as construction manager, and daughter Kira Niccum Pritzl, operations manager, to take over.

Still, Niccum says he takes a great deal of pride in the paychecks that go out to employees and subcontractors on a regular basis, and in the career he started as a teenager.

“I’ve always felt there was a great pleasure in walking into a bare piece of dirt or an ugly backyard and when you’re done it’s beautiful and everybody loves it,” he concludes. “That’s one of the big pay-offs with this industry. If you don’t feel that, you probably shouldn’t be in it.”

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at kschipper@wordmechanics.com.