Spring Fever adapts to the wants and needs of each client

Spring Fever’s personal gardener service is a great fit for the owners of upscale suburban properties and multi-acre country estates.

Bruce Williams wants everyone to get spring fever. That’s why he started offering landscape design, installation and maintenance services in 2000. Over time, the lineup of services grew, leading to the opening of Spring Fever Outdoor Living Center in a new shopping center located in Gretna, Neb., in the fall of 2008.

Armed with pruning shears, Laura Mortenson takes on some trimming as part of Spring Fever’s personal gardener services.

Full service is an understatement for Spring Fever. If it’s part of outdoor living, they’re involved in it. That includes landscape design and installation, extending to hardscape and water features; irrigation and lighting system installation and maintenance; growing 600 deciduous trees and starting perennials on 2.5 acres of a 5-acre production property; and operating a 750-square-foot garden center with 4,000 square feet of outdoor display space.

Williams earned degrees in horticulture production and horticulture service from the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture. He worked for several large landscape nurseries in the area, gaining hands-on experience in design, plant and hardscape installation and maintenance before striking out on his own. The launch was low-key, with personal phone calls to potential clients his primary marketing tool.

The Gretna location puts him in a prime market for potential business. This Omaha suburb has been the fastest growing city in six states for the past six years. Located 18 miles from the business hub of Omaha, it provides the advantages of the upscale suburban and country estate lifestyle for those commuting to professional positions at universities, hospitals and offices in the city. Williams says, “We are surrounded by white-collar workers. People that value the time they have with their families and look to us for ways to extend their time off. We launched our personal gardener services, an expansion of our maintenance package, in 2008 to cater to them. We’ve also seen a boom in townhome development around the area, which is drawing empty nesters and retirees.”

Getting personal

Turf maintenance was a major segment of the business from the beginning, with everything except for mowing offered. As many large properties joined the client list, that expanded to ornamental and flower bed care and continued to evolve.

Spring Fever maintains 600 deciduous trees like these, part of the current 2.5 acres of nursery stock production on their 5-acre site.

Nine years ago, one client built onto their home, doubling its size. The only landscaping remaining on the 2-acre property were the original trees. Williams worked with them to develop the new landscape design, and Spring Fever did the installation. “Landscaping the entire property allowed us to create an outdoor living environment with multiple features, all to scale. We used mass plantings, a flagstone patio and created some intimate nooks. Two separate ponds were installed and stocked with koi and aquatic plants. We’ve been maintaining the property since the installation and also maintain this client’s commercial business property, the site of their cabin and the properties of their three adult sons,” he says.

The personal gardener service developed to better serve this particular client. Williams says, “We were at one or more of their sites almost weekly with different aspects of ongoing maintenance. At the beginning of 2008, I presented the maintenance as a seasonal package. If this will work with your budget, let’s set it up on a contract basis and we’ll become your personal gardener. They loved the idea, and it’s taken off from there.”

Bruce Williams is founder of Spring Fever Outdoor Living Center and oversees all segments of the company.

The total personal gardener package includes anything from the flower beds and containers, to pruning, landscape projects and lawn care. For this client, Spring Fever also takes care of the irrigation system, outdoor lighting system and pond maintenance. Another major client with a multi-acre estate initially contacted Spring Fever for assistance on rejuvenating the existing, overgrown landscape. Williams removed some plants and added several extensive plant beds. Approximately 3 acres are now landscaped and under the personal gardener program. “We start off the beds and containers at this site with spring color and do one change-out in late summer that blends into fall. They’re considering a holiday change-out as well, with greenery and some accents for color,” he says.

Mowing was added to the service package the same time as the personal gardener services. “We were running into issues on some accounts where a separate company did the mowing and fertilization and we did the remainder of the site maintenance. By adding to our services, we were able to control the overall outcome and provide a single source for questions, concerns and billing. We pride ourselves on the properties we care for and now prefer to be involved in every aspect of the total package,” Williams says.

The overall maintenance segment of the business is 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial. Sixty percent of the residential business is customized, contracted personal gardener services, 30 percent is contracted turf-only services and 10 percent is on an as-needed basis. As needed services may be just about anything, from containers only, adding annuals to existing flower beds or pruning trees and shrubs, to pond start-up or winterization. Several homeowners with small orchards on their properties also turn to the company for their fruit tree spray program.

As well as water feature design and installation, Spring Fever provides ongoing maintenance, including spring start-up and winterization.

The service package is customized to every property. Williams says, “When we’ve had a client for eight to 10 years, we develop the contract based on previous work on the property and anticipated needs. We draw on that overall experience to develop the initial package for a new client, giving them the option to add more services during the season.”

Always seeking to accommodate the client, Williams offers flexibility in the payment structure, as well. Some contract clients prefer invoicing for services delivered within the month, while others prefer the invoicing for contracted services evenly split into six monthly payments during the season.

Up close and personal

It takes horticultural expertise and an eye for detail to deliver personal gardener services. Williams found that in Laura Mortenson. She’d worked in landscape maintenance on the East Coast before relocating to the Omaha area, and was intrigued by the opportunity to combine serving as a personal gardener with helping to operate the retail side of the business year-round. She has become the main personal gardener, allowing Williams to cut back a bit in order to oversee all segments of the company.

Two part-time, year-round employees fill in at the store during the peak sales period, and when Mortenson is in personal gardener mode. The trio has excelled at display, as well as customer service. As growth continues in the retail segment of the business, Williams plans to take over the next building bay, tripling the current 750 square feet of indoor display space.

The equipment arsenal is designed for flexibility, moving from installation to maintenance as needed. There is a Chevy S10 pickup for client meetings and small tasks, a 3/4-ton Dodge pickup to pull an equipment or maintenance trailer and a Chevy C70 with a 14-foot dump bed to haul mulch, rock, soil, sand and debris. A John Deere 250 skid steer helps with large hardscape and grading projects, and a shop full of resources, such as a sod cutter, aerator, plate compactor, masonry saw and a lot of smaller tools and equipment for hardscape, irrigation and pond installations, is always available. Mowing equipment is mainly Exmark, in part, Williams notes, because it’s built in Nebraska. Blowers and trimmers are Stihl, and the spray equipment comes from another local supplier, Lesco (now part of John Deere Landscapes). “Our new secret weapon is the Ditch Witch Zahn,” says Williams. “This articulated machine has 30 hp and is only 36 inches wide. With seven front-end options and over 40 attachments, we plan to expand our services even more with this fun piece of equipment.”

The most versatile piece of equipment is the Freightliner FL 60 box truck with a 4,000-pound lift gate. Mortenson turns it into a mobile garden center in the spring, stacking a broad assortment of annuals and perennials on rolling transportation carts as she heads to the personal gardener sites to fill flower beds and containers. The client becomes a collaborator in the selection process, picking the color combinations or individual plants while Mortensen makes recommendations and puts it all together. “The homeowners love having a say in the design and seeing their ideas develop on the spot. Laura’s great at suggesting the little extras to make the plantings even more stunning,” Williams says.

The box truck morphs into a traveling garden medical unit as well. If Mortenson or Williams spots a problem, they have a variety of remedies on-hand for instant treatment. Both are licensed applicators. “The clients always opt for that element of the personal gardener service,” says Williams. “We do that so often, we’ve kidded about putting a big green cross on the side of the box truck.”

Looking forward

Williams is currently the main designer on the landscape side, but he’s planning for growth there, too. James Livengood, now a senior in the University of Nebraska landscape design program, has advanced from crew member to crew foreman in his four summers working with the company. Williams says, “He’s done a great job, learning our operations and joining in our focus on personalized customer service. He’ll come on full-time following graduation, taking on some of the design work. I anticipate adding a crew or two to handle the landscape projects and maintenance accounts that will generate.”

Spring Fever’s personal gardener services may be contract-based, covering all elements of the outdoor living area, or a one-time special service, such as sprucing up flower beds.

Five full-time seasonal crew members tackle landscape installation and float when needed with Mortenson on the personal gardener side. Nebraska weather patterns fluctuate greatly, so the season could kick off anytime from mid-March to mid-April and close down by Halloween or extend into mid-November.

Williams notes they’ll consider everything related to outdoor maintenance as growth potential at least for one season. Holiday lighting was a one-season experiment, but the overlap with the end of the season landscape preparation was too much of a stretch to be a good match. Instead, they offer Christmas trees, homemade wreaths and decorations at the garden center.

Snow removal is under consideration, following last year’s record-breaking snowfall. As with other service additions, it would first be offered to clients in the contracted personal gardener program. At Spring Fever, it’s all about that personal touch.

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.