Starting From Scratch

From starter business to full-service landscaping company

Many people in the wake of a job offer gone sour may become indecisive as to what they would do next. Not Heath Clinton. He and his wife, Mindy, both of whom have a bachelor’s degree in horticulture with a concentration in landscape design and construction from Utah State University, had moved to the Jackson Hole, Wyo., area in 2000 to take a job with a company where Clinton had previously served an internship.

Striping in the lawns gives a great visual effect.
Photos by Mindy Clinton.

However, the job fell through, and for the Clintons, there was only one choice: if they couldn’t get full-time employment with that company, they’d start their own.

In 2001, Cougarscapes in the Teton Valley of Idaho was started as a landscape maintenance company. In the beginning, they had one job lined up and no equipment. “We jumped right into it,” Clinton says. Over the years, the couple has added a variety of services to make the company a full-service landscape business. The company focuses on residential work in the Teton Valley, southeastern Idaho and western Wyoming areas.

Cougarscapes employs eight people at the height of its seasonal work, but most of the time there are only two full-time employees. Initially, weed control services were contracted out, but Clinton concluded that was a service they could do in-house. “We had taken a weeds course as part of our horticulture studies,” Clinton says. “We thought, ‘Why not incorporate that back into our company? Why not call this company Weeds Gone Wild instead of just Cougarscapes?’ People can distinguish between the two.”

Weeds Gone Wild started in 2004 servicing turf, ornamental, pasture and rangeland needs. The company became more self-contained, subcontracting only the tree care and excavation if a job requires heavy equipment. “Other than that, we do skid steer work,” says Clinton. “We start off by doing design work ourselves. Then we’ll construct it and maintain it. People like that because we can work with them throughout each phase.”

When the economy began to go into decline a few years ago, the Clintons added tree care to their services. “That fits right along in there with the maintenance,” Clinton says.

Heath Clinton, owner of Cougarscapes/Weeds Gone Wild.

Cougarscapes/Weeds Gone Wild operates with four trucks. One is a spray rig, one is for maintenance and two are for construction. Another one will be turned into a spray rig in 2011, and Clinton has another truck to go from site to site to inspect work.

The company uses four mowers, which are Toros and Walkers. A full line of equipment for construction includes skid steers and a Bobcat Toolcat utility work machine.

Clinton finds the maintenance phase “particularly exciting, as it allows all to see the progression to maturity of the landscape. Special needs in maintenance are needed to achieve this focus.”

Clinton ensures quality control by being present on every project. “We don’t take a lot of projects in a year, but I’ll make sure I am on-site on every single project. No one has to ask me if I’m sure if it’s going to work, because I am there to say it is going to work.”

Weeds Gone Wild has a four-step approach to weed control. “You basically have to ask how you can make the turf become self-sufficient without having to add all of these chemicals,” Clinton says.

A dry riverbed installed in Driggs, Idaho. This is a signature landscape of Cougarscapes/Weeds Gone Wild.

The first step is the correct amount of water. “If you throw too much water on there, you’re leaching all of the nutrients out of that grass and it’s going right through the soil. You have to add more chemicals and fertilizer onto that in order for it to green-up and make it healthy. The second is adding the correct amount of fertilizer. “If you over-fertilize, you’re going to be mowing like crazy,” Clinton says. “You’re going to be mowing twice a week in order to keep up.” A good soil profile is the third key factor. Sometimes, Clinton’s company will amend the soil to get it back to the point where maintenance will be relatively easy. Aeration is the last step. Weeds Gone Wild aerates every other year and dethatches every year. “Some people don’t need to dethatch every year, but if you are doing the correct watering, fertilizing and everything else, you need to do that every year because your thatch level becomes too much. If you have too much thatch, you’re not going to get the nutrients in there, the air, the water,” Clinton says.

Fighting invasive plants has become another challenge. Wyoming has a cost-share program to help property owners pay companies such as Weeds Gone Wild to eradicate pesky weeds. That includes a variety of thistles, spotted knapweed and leafy spurge, which is a difficult plant to battle, notes Clinton. “You’ve got to tell the homeowner you’ve got to come back twice a year on this one,” he says.

The first visit is before the weed puts out its seed. “You definitely want to burn that plant back,” says Clinton. “The best time to take care of that plant is in the fall, but especially after a good frost. Then the plant goes into a preservation mode. It takes everything it can into the roots because it’s a perennial plant. That’s when we go full force, applying a certain chemical that the plant will absorb into the rest of the system and knock it back out.”

Two ways the plant reproduces is by root system and by seed. “When the plant matures, you can hear it pop,” says Clinton. “The seed can be thrown 5 or 10 feet away. You’ll find one plant here, one plant there. You definitely want to hit it before it seeds.”

Cougarscapes/Weeds Gone Wild also provides snow removal services. “Summertime is when we make our money,” Clinton says. “The wintertime is for paying our bills. It’s the unpredictability. We had a site where we did an average of 18 to 22 plows, and last year we only plowed six times. The way we see it, we get what we get and we don’t throw a fit.”

Even summer work can be unpredictable given rain patterns. Last year, it was still cold, wet, rainy and snow was on the ground in April. The rain and snow continued into June. The wet spring proved challenging for one particular job that was initiated in June and had to be completed before July 4, so Clinton pulled in another company to help.

When it comes to weather, “The best thing you can do is hope for the best and get out there and work,” Clinton says.

While doing a constant juggling act with the weather, laborers can provide another challenge. Clinton sometimes has a difficult time maintaining employees beyond a few weeks because they didn’t fully appreciate the labor-intensive nature of the job. “Sometimes, people just don’t last, and that becomes our biggest problem because we’re such a small-based business,” Clinton says. “Bigger companies in the area are based on having 50 full-time people and then they hire between 50 to 100 people throughout the summertime. It becomes a problem for a smaller company to try to find the right people and retrain them.” Clinton finds it necessary to be on-site on job where a new person is working. “They need to know how exactly to mow a lawn, put a tree in correctly, put in irrigation correctly,” he says.

While supervising new employees is one factor for Clinton to be on-site at each job, he also knows that clients appreciate his presence from the time a project is designed, through its construction and onto its maintenance. “They know it’s going to get maintained because we’re right there with them,” he says. “That’s why we like to be a full business.”

Esteban Cova Rodrigues, a Cougarscapes employee, plants low-maintenance plants in Jackson, Wyo.

Being a one-stop shop is what differentiates his from other companies, Clinton adds. With his company already established in many services, he knows his pricing structure will provide the necessary revenue to stay in business while providing quality services. He also sees that clients trust his company. “People say you need to have a contract with a client, and I agree,” Clinton says. “But, when I shake a person’s hand, that’s my word. If I say I’m going to do it, it’s going to be done.”

Most of the work is obtained through word-of-mouth, and very little advertising is done except for the lettering on the truck. Often, someone will see employees of Cougarscapes/Weeds Gone Wild working at a neighbor’s property and request their services, Clinton says.

Clinton’s future plans include becoming more knowledgeable and consistent in his company’s approach to services, such as tree care. “We’re going to be able to know what chemicals are out there, what the environment needs in order to maintain it so we don’t have to use so many chemicals, and what we can do to do biological control,” he says. “We’re going to be more informed. We’re going to be where we are now, but we’re going to have more stability.”

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.