A mom of three young sons mixes it up in the tough Minneapolis landscape market

Brandi Werra handles spring flood clean-up at this residence on the St. Croix River earlier this year.

“Why do you rob banks?” a reporter asked Depression-era bank robber Willie Sutton. “Because that’s where the money is,” he responded, uttering a phrase that’s kept his name alive long after his robberies have been assigned to the dustbin of history.

So, why did Brandi Werra start a landscaping company after working 14 years in various capacities in lawn and property maintenance and landscape and irrigation companies? She answers frankly: to make more money.

“After a few years of deliberating it, I decided I wanted to make money for myself instead of for other people,” Werra says. “I have a good client base, and I decided it was best for me and my family to take this step. I’m the mother of three young boys and my oldest has autism, so the flexibility of owning my own company was also very appealing.”

As you can see, she’s used to dealing with, and overcoming, challenges, understands that the goal of starting and owning a company is to generate income and earn a fair profit, and is appreciative for the experience she gained working for others in the green industry.

DIRT-E GIRL Lawn andProperty Maintenance

Location: Twin Cities, Minn.
Clientele: Residential and commercial
Services: Property maintenance,mulching, turf care, tree and shrubcare, leaf removal and propertyclean-up, turf enhancement, irrigationmaintenance, soil testing and pHamendment, and winter services

She says she values the experiences that, more than anything, taught her the irreplaceable value of customer care. These experiences also gave her confidence to start her own company. She concedes that starting a business in this stuttering, uncertain economy has not been easy.

She named her company DIRT-E GIRL Lawn and Property Maintenance (http://dirtegirl-lawn-property.com), which serves the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. She and her three employees focus mostly on the residential market, and estimates her company’s customer mix at 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial. Most of her commercial clients come from work her company provides to their residential properties. “I don’t necessarily go out and seek out commercial properties,” she says. “I really do prefer residential. I like the one-on-one, direct client contact of doing a residential property.”

Maintenance services

DIRT-E GIRL provides a variety of lawn and property maintenance services. It provides weekly mowing, spring and fall clean-up, core aeration, overseeding, power raking, mulch installation, turf fertilization and weed control, bed edging, tree care services, landscape design services, landscape installation, and annual and perennial planting. Additionally, the company offers irrigation installation, spring start-up, maintenance, troubleshooting and repair. Winter services include snowplowing, walkway shoveling and salt and alternative ice melt.

DIRT-E GIRL’s comprehensive maintenance program is based on lawn restoration, weed identification, turf disease identification and treatments to mitigate problems. Turf is mowed on an average of every seven days April through November, with the frequency changing during rainy or extended dry periods. Turfgrass species and local conditions during the growing season determine mowing height, although Werra will adjust the height at a customer’s request. Trimming is done in conjunction with each mowing. Weed control, including seams and cracks in sidewalks, is a biweekly service almost always in conjunction with the mowing. Her company will provide weed control manually or with herbicides. Although Werra prefers manual removal, most customers like the convenience and cost savings of chemical control. “Although my clients don’t want to pay the money that it costs to do mechanic treatment when they want the immediate results, I don’t like to bring a lot of the harsher chemicals in,” she says.

Her company prunes and shears ornamental shrubs, bushes and evergreens twice each maintenance contract period, although employees will remove tree suckers, shoot growth and tree limbs impeding walkways and parking areas are pruned as needed. Mulching entails a weeding, followed by an initial application of mulch in previously-mulched tree rings and shrubbery beds using a premium quality, double-shredded hardwood mulch of a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Topdress mulching offers a fresh layer of no more than 2 inches.

Brandi Werra installs mulch at this residential property that DIRT-E-GIRL maintains.

Different maintenance services are performed at various seasonal times. In the early spring, DIRT-E GIRL applies a preemergent herbicide and a broadleaf weed control for grassy weeds along with fertilizer for spring green up. The company does a second application in mid-spring. In early fall, turfgrass under her company’s care receives a time-released balanced fertilizer and, if needed, a broadleaf herbicide spot-treatment. The final late-fall fertilization sees the application of a quick-release nitrogen fertilizer to build turfgrass roots and encourage early spring green up.

In late winter and early spring, ornamental shrubs are fertilized with a slow-release organic fertilizer in conjunction with the mulching. In late spring and early fall, the company conducts regular inspections of ornamental trees and shrubs for evidence of insect infestation.

Leaves are removed and the property is cleaned up in turf areas twice during the contract period, and ornamental and mulch bed areas once. All leaves and miscellaneous debris is collected and removed from the entire property as part of the spring clean-up.

The company also offers core aeration of accessible lawns, allowing for proper oxygen and nutrient delivery to the turf roots and enabling compacted soil to loosen and allow healthy root growth. Overseeding of thin and bare areas using an improved turf variety is done in early spring or during September or October. In late summer and early fall, a granular insecticide application is used for chemical control of general grub populations.

As for irrigation maintenance, the system is started up and thoroughly checked for head direction for proper turf and bed coverage and fixed for an additional cost. The company does mid-season check-ups twice. At the end of the season, the system is winterized to prevent damage due to cold weather and frost, and system breaks are fixed in the spring during start-up unless the break prevents proper winterization.

Werra aims for her clients’ irrigation systems to be as conservative as possible when maintaining and repairing it. “We make sure there are no leaks and that the correct heads are on the correct zones,” she says. “We’re trying to be conservative not only for the homeowner and their water bill, but also with the runoff and timing when irrigation is done. We want it to be proper for the turfgrasses and plant material, and to make sure it qualifies for watering bans here in Minnesota.”

Brandi Werra planting annuals in Woodbury, Minn., this spring.

Werra also does soil testing and pH amendment.

DIRT-E GIRL’s complete property maintenance also includes cleaning off lawn furniture and using a pressure washer to spray down a house.

The power of a woman

Being a new business, Werra has had to learn how to price her services so she covers the cost of doing business while making a profit. “I keep my prices the same. I don’t waver,” she says. “I deliver the quality that the client expects and deserves at the price that I charge.”

What has also helped Werra is that when she started, she already had a client base ready to go. “I didn’t start up as a ‘mow and go Joe.’ I knew I had to keep up that quality of care for those customers,” she says.

Werra adds a feminine insight to the nurturing of property to help achieve an aesthetically pleasing end product, and says she’s often had to do battle in what she observes is a “very male-dominated industry.” She says, “I definitely had to fight to get to where I am now, but I love it. I’ve loved teaching women and empowering women in the outdoors. You can still be girly, but it’s fun to take care of ourselves.”

Werra is active in the community and has been honored by such organizations as Women in the Outdoors for teaching safe outdoor equipment use. She’s taught women who are interested in such skills as how to use a chain saw and back up a trailer. She is big on education and received a Turfgrass Management Certificate from the University of Minnesota. She is involved in continuing education classes through the U of M extension program, including turfgrass recognition, disease identification and pest management, and also holds a commercial applicators’ license.

A competitive industry

Werra puts a high premium on educating herself, given the industry is constantly and quickly changing. In addition to weather challenges, she sees what she calls “weekend mowers” as another challenge. “It’s very competitive,” she says. “I have a few customers who used their services and came back to me because they were not getting what they were paying for. You do get what you pay for in this industry.

“The ‘mow and go Joes’ are probably not certified,” Werra adds. “You’re hiring people to come in and put down a product on your yard and they probably do what’s stated on the fertilizer bag or chemical bottle; they don’t know much more about that product. We’re just assuming that just because so and so said at whatever dealership that this would be a good product to use right now.”

She wonders if the part-time landscapers actually understand the products’ components and how they can benefit or harm a yard. “Are they licensed?” she says of the contractors. “That’s a huge question, because the laws are changing constantly. That’s the reason why these people are going with these people because they charge less. They just don’t know. I’m probably a little more expensive, but those chemicals come at a price. Not only do I need to pay for that product, but I need to watch out for myself, too, in the end. It’s a liability cost also.”

The future ahead

Down the road, Werra sees her company growing somewhat larger, but she doesn’t aspire to assume a statewide presence. “I really like the ‘mom and pop,’ small company feel,” she says. She also expresses concern over whether she’ll be able to continue offering fertilization services, given the emerging regulations on fertilization use.

And, about that name. “The name I chose for my company actually started as a joke at one of my previous companies,” says Werra. “I asked whether it wouldn’t be funny and would people work for someone named DIRT-E GIRL Lawn and Property maintenance or DIRT-E GIRL Landscape. It just stuck with me because that’s who I am. I’m a girl. I work in the dirt, I get dirty. It’s a description of who I am.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.