Success in San Francisco


Landscaper builds her reputation

Photos Courtesy of Janet Moyer Landscaping.
Janet Moyer Landscaping specializes in creating sustainable landscapes and workswith native plants and new irrigation technology to help clients save water.

San Francisco lots are notoriously cramped spaces in which to work, but to Janet Moyer, they feel downright roomy. The former dental assistant left that profession—with far tighter confines—nearly 20 years ago, and started what has become one of the Bay Area’s most successful landscaping firms. In fact, San Francisco Business Times last year ranked Janet Moyer Landscaping ( as one of the region’s “100 Fastest-Growing Private Companies.”

For Moyer, the best reward is just the opportunity to work in the landscaping business. “I’d always loved plants and gardening, and a friend asked if I could help with his garden. I did that on my days off and found that it was very satisfying,” she recalls. “So, I started taking classes and things just snowballed from there.”

After informally helping a few more friends maintain and renovate their landscapes, she left dentistry and opened a landscaping business. “I had enjoyed being a dental assistant, especially the detail-oriented aspect of it, but landscaping and making beautiful spaces was so satisfying that it was an easy decision to make,” she says.

Right from the beginning, Janet Moyer Landscaping has been a full-service company, providing clients with design, building and maintenance services. “We don’t design just for design purposes; we do the entire project, and we only maintain the gardens that we install,” she explains. “That’s turned out to be a very good profile, especially in this current economic environment. The maintenance clients are really pulling us through with repeat business,” says Moyer. “We also find that it is our best source of referrals for new business.”

Janet Moyer left a dental career nearly 20 years ago to begin a full-serving landscapingbusiness. It’s still going stronglast year a local publication ranked Janet Moyer Landscapingone of the é100 Fastest Growing Businesses_ in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Maintaining only landscapes that the company has designed and/or built is also a plus because the company is never challenged to maintain a poorly conceived or constructed landscape. “It’s so frustrating when you come into something like that and try to maintain it. It’s like you can never get ahead,” she says.

That said, because San Francisco is an older, established city where every square inch has already been built upon, most landscape construction projects that Janet Moyer Landscaping takes on involve some existing design elements and plantings that need to be worked in or worked around. “We rarely have totally new construction, so there’s usually something in the garden that we need to take out or decide what parts we want to reuse,” Moyer explains.

Once she gets input from the client, Moyer personally oversees the creation of design plans. The company uses VectorWorks CAD software for the design. “We’ve done all sorts of gardens,” she points out. “They’re about as personalized as cars, everyone chooses different things for different reasons.”

Moyer has seen an increased demand among customers in recent years for water-conserving landscapes. “For the past two years we’ve been installing Smart Water Management systems that adjust every day, and we’re seeing fantastic results. Customers are saving lots of money, and they’re very easy to use because they don’t need constant adjustments.” Not only does Janet Moyer Landscaping add the Toro systems with all new jobs, the company is “backpedaling” to add them to prior installations, and now has about 70 percent of its customers using the technology. “It’s a pretty easy conversion. With the controller we use, you just unplug the faceplate and plug in the new one. It’s about a 10-minute job,” she says.

In 2007, Janet Moyer Landscaping won a California Landscape Contractors Association award for a project in which the company renovated a client’s yard and saved them 60 percent on their water bill. “Their children had gone off to college and they didn’t need a lawn anymore. We took that out, replaced it with drought-tolerant plantings, a patio and added the new controller. The savings were tremendous,” she says.

The company’s three installation crews generally work in groups of two. “When necessary, we can pull crews from one job to the other, or, very occasionally, we’ll use day workers,” says Moyer. The only two types of jobs that generally are subcontracted out are tree care and concrete work.

One of the biggest hurdles faced is the small, often sloped, San Francisco sites. “I would say that almost all of our jobs present access challenges,” says Moyer. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that most San Francisco landscapes are in the back of houses. “There are very few front yards here,” she explains.

For these reasons, the equipment that the crews utilize is somewhat different than that seen on typical landscaping projects. “We have no backhoes or anything like that. We used one once and we rented it,” says Moyer. “We can get vibratory plates and that sort of thing in through tight entryways, but soil removal, for example, is done in 5-gallon buckets. Last year, we had a project where we had to carry everything in and out through the house, through the living room and kitchen, up and down two flights of stairs inside. We rented a crane for a day to get some supplies to the back yard, but everything else had to come in and out through the house. It’s definitely a specialty niche working here; it would seem very strange to many landscapers.”

Janet Moyer Landscaping runs two maintenance crews, which travel in vans, rather than tucks and trailers, in order to navigate the tight, steep San Francisco streets. The maintenance workers also face access issues on jobs. They rely on 18-inch Toro walk-behind mowers, rather than large zero-turn units, to get through tight doorways and entry areas.

“We try to make things sustainable. We don’t overcrowd plants; everything is on a drip irrigation system; we don’t plant plants that are too big for the space and have to be maintained constantly. Everything we do is about sustainability, or we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the maintenance on all of the gardens that we install,” says Moyer.

éI would say that almost all of our jobs present access challenges,_ says Janet Moyer. In some cases, materialsand supplies must be brought directly through customers’ houses to reach the back yards.

Some clients prefer to maintain their own landscapes. “For people who really enjoy taking care of their own gardens, we’ll get them all set up. We’ll teach them how to prune, show them what fertilizers to use, and maybe we’ll just pop in a couple times a year to make sure everything is OK.”

Sky-high San Francisco housing costs pose another challenge to companies working in the city, says Moyer. “Paying our employees a wage where they can live in San Francisco or nearby can be a challenge,” she explains. In addition, the city requires businesses to provide sick pay and health insurance for employees, adding further to the cost of doing business. “It’s a burden. When I read surveys, our wages and pricing is usually higher than any other place in the country, but our customers live in San Francisco, so hopefully they recognize why that is.”

The company itself operates within the city limits from a facility it moved to about five years ago. “We have a storefront that we use for display purposes only, we don’t sell from it,” explains Moyer. “All of our vehicles and equipment is stored inside, we don’t have any outdoor space.”

One advantage that San Francisco does offer is a relatively compact geography, just 7 miles by 7 miles, allowing crews to travel from one end of the city to the other relatively quickly. Still, schedules are prepared so the maintenance crews (each of which handles about 50 clients) work within the same general area each day. “We do scheduling the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper,” says Moyer. “We’re able to put together a schedule that minimizes travel. Our entire fleet puts on only about 10,000 miles a year total. Of all of the vehicles, the Toyota Prius that I drive around to client meetings probably puts on the most miles.” That fact, and all of the hand work that’s relied upon, were fortunate facts when fuel prices were skyrocketing, she adds.

The company designs, builds and maintains landscapes for clients, which is no small challengein the small, often steep, yards of San Francisco.

When Moyer first began her company, she would often hear comments about how unusual it was to see a woman working in landscaping. “About 10 years ago we questioned whether we should change the name of the company to something generic like ‘Green Gardens Landscaping,’ but we decided not to change it because most of the customers who contact us are women, so we do find that it’s been an asset to keep it in my name.”

Moyer hears fewer surprised comments these days, in part, she says, because local horticulture classes are made up mainly of women. Perhaps some of them will follow Moyer’s lead in the landscape business.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.