Texas landscapers, battered by 2011’s drought and heat, see 2012 rebound

by Carol Brzozowski

In a perfect world, with spring’s arrival the grass is greener, flowers are in bloom, trees need trimming, and landscape companies are ramping up to service clients’ properties. But in Texas, landscape professionals were wary this year, hoping this season was not a repeat of the last, which brought death to landscapes statewide. Drought and heat dominated much of Texas in 2011, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for 100 days there.
The summer heat didn’t slow down a great deal,” says Johnette Taylor, president of Roundtree Landscaping, Dallas, and also landscape director for the state board for the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association (TNLA).

Roundtree Landscaping provides services in design, installation and maintenance, primarily for homeowners but also for commercial clients. “When you’re not watering, things aren’t growing very much,” she says. “You’re not mowing. You’re not really able to maintain your business the way you’re used to. People have to really think very differently in our industry about what they’re planting and how they’re going to do business in the future.”

Widespread effects
Taylor points out the drought affects every entity in the state’s green industry, from landscape professional to growers to companies that sell and service landscape equipment and mowers.

In an early 2012 drought update report, George W. Bomar, Texas state meteorologist, said drought rarely has been as devastating to the state’s landscape and economy as it was from late 2010 through 2011. And the outlook is not very promising either. Most climate projections don’t show much change in Texas precipitation over the next few decades, says John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University.

The heat of last year’s past summer and early fall in Texas was unrelenting, and water supplies-whether from reservoirs, lakes or aquifers-dropped alarmingly in many parts of the state. Water restrictions pitted one group of water users against another. Cities began requiring water audits and hastily put together water conservation plans. Government and educational institutions joined to address the challenge that will only grow as the state’s population continues to grow.

Aging and inadequate infrastructure in many communities compounded the problem. The state water plan says that Texas will need $53 billion to replace and improve its water supply, especially if it hopes to meet future demands. It’s money the state says it does not have. As a short-term solution, water authorities across the state are encouraging (in some cases forcing) conservation.

Every drop counts
Irrigation is one of the most contested uses of water, especially during a drought. Water restrictions generally begin with landscape water because the water that’s used to keep lawns and landscapes healthy and growing is very visible to the public. In Texas, each municipality with a population of 20,000 or more is required to have a water restriction plan in place, says Jim Reaves, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for TNLA.

Earlier this year, 1,000 water purveyors, or one out of every four in the state, asked their customers to reduce outdoor watering by 20 to 25 percent. Of those, 642 were under a mandatory schedule in which the utility mandated restrictions for watering once a week only; the other 368 are in voluntary restrictions. The welter of watering rules across the state is very confusing.

 “Every city’s water restriction levels are different,” he says. “We can have one city butted against another city and their Stage 2 restriction is completely different from the Stage 2 next to it. Stage 3 may be no outdoor water in one city and it may be once a week hand-watering in another city.”

Survival of the fittest
Steve McLaughlin, owner of Greenscape Landscape Maintenance and Development, Fort Worth, says his company had to “bite the bullet” during the drought. The residential landscape development and maintenance company serves an 8-mile radius in southwest Fort Worth with more than 32 employees during peak season.

“We did not put ryegrass down on any of our properties this last winter,” says McLaughlin, a master nursery professional and a certified landscape professional. “It’s a cool-season grass and generally we get paid to mow all winter. I thought it was an imprudent use of resources; therefore we did not do it. I lost a substantial amount of money and sales as a result, but I got some good will with customers.” The primary turfgrasses in McLaughlin’s area is St. Augustinegrass and bermudagrass.

“Both of them suffered, probably St. Augustine more than the bermuda. The bermuda is hardier and will recover more quickly. With St. Augustine, once it’s dead, it’s toast,” he says.

“If there are any weaknesses in the turf this last season, the heat as well as the water issue can cause that grass to suffer more than any other grass which is healthier. As a result, in these stressed areas there is a plethora of weeds growing.”

McLaughlin says weed seeds can lay dormant for years, waiting for proper environmental conditions to occur to cause them to germinate. “Wherever the grass was not really thick and beautiful and the area was covered with different kinds of weeds.”
Last summer’s incredible heat compounded problems for landscape plants, even some native and adapted species, says McLaughlin. “What we had this last year was much more than some of them could handle,” he says. “If they were stressed, they capitulated.” McLaughlin adds that although the Fort Worth market sustained some tree death because of the unusual conditions, it wasn’t as bad as some other regions of the state, such as Houston.

Industry responds
In responding to the drought, the industry has done a good job of promoting water conservation and water management, says Reaves. TNLA joined a coalition that included Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples to launch the Texas Water Smart Campaign.

“This is the first time in the industry in Texas where growers, landscape contractors, suppliers and retailers have partnered with public entities to educate the public on water conservation,” says Reaves. “In our experience in north Texas, a lot of our members and non-members are more aware of the seriousness that drought can cause.”
Therefore, it’s become incumbent upon the industry to pitch in on the efforts by advising clients to take measures such as installing smart controllers and instituting best management practices.

Some areas of the United States that have had longstanding water shortages have turned to such programs as "cash for grass," providing incentives for people to remove turfgrass and replace it with landscapes of stones and native plants or with artificial turf.
Taylor doesn’t favor that idea.

“I’d rather see the real turf because of the cooling effect and erosion control it offers,” she says. “The thing with turf is if you’re using native turf and native grasses, they really do survive. In Dallas, when we had over 100 days of 100-degree weather, the city wasn’t watering the medians and the turf was as crispy and brown as anybody else’s. With the rains of spring, the turf is green. The native grasses do come back. We promote right plants in the right place.”

It’s an idea the TNLA promotes as well, Reaves says.

“We support native and non-native plants,” says Reaves. “It depends on the part of the state. Natives do well in the south part of the state and do horrible in the north part. Texas is so big and diverse that some high-water-use plants will do great in east Texas because they get a lot of rain. They may be horrible in Austin, but that has to do with soil as well.”

Challenges create opportunities
The drought has created a win-loss situation for the industry, says Reaves. “It’s hard for homeowners to keep their landscapes alive once we start going into strict water restrictions, but on the other hand, people are replacing all of this plant material that died last summer so we’re selling quite a bit more, too.”

Like others, McLaughlin is finding a revenue stream in responding to client requests to cut down dead bushes, pull them out and start the process of planting ones that might be more tolerant to whatever Texas conditions might be in the not-too-distant future, he says.

As his company compensates for lost sales by replacing dead landscaping material, “we’re going to be careful and to suggest things which will have a better chance of surviving and perhaps with less water than we’ve historically had,” says McLaughlin.
Reaves’ advice to landscape professionals is to understand drought before it manifests itself in any particular region.
“You need to have a good understanding on the seriousness of what weather can do to your business,” he says.

Businesses have all types of disaster management plans; they should consider one for drought.

Taylor’s advice is to reach out to water purveyors now before an area experiences drought to discuss drought management strategies.

“It’s a lot better to talk about it beforehand than to have the drought restrictions put on you,” she says. “You really want to partner with your water purveyor because their mission is to provide safe water for everyone. Obviously, water for drinking, cooking, washing and sanitation is a higher concern for the public than water to irrigate lawns and landscapes.
“If you can reach out to the water purveyor in your municipality to make sure you’re managing water right all of the time, that’s one of the best things you can do,” Taylor adds. “The main focus should be making sure property owners are educated to use water in the right way so we all save water for the future.” She and other landscapers interviewed for this article point out that, strangely, many homeowners lose plant material at the height of a drought, not because they water too little but that they water too much.
Landscaping industry professionals have become increasingly savvy about smart irrigation systems, Taylor says. “Every industry has its bad eggs, but I think for the most part landscape professionals are fairly well-educated and are continuing to learn. I don’t think this has been a big surprise in the industry. It’s been hard for consumers in the past, but I think it’s changing.”

Cautious optimism
While Texas landscapes took a severe hit this past season, things are looking better as a result of recent rainfall, says Reaves.

“A lot of grasses in Texas-the bermudas and St. Augustine-will go dormant and go brown and once the water gets back on them, they’ll come back full force,” says Reaves. “I quit watering my yard last summer. It’s green as all get-out right now.
“We have probably never prayed for rain more than we have in the past year or so,” he adds. “We’ve been very blessed in the last month or two.”

But landscape professionals are concerned over what could be a false sense of security especially among property owners who, hopefully, will not return to their water-wasting practices.

“We’re getting rain, which we’re thankful for, but it’s hard to sell water conservation when they’ve got puddles of water still standing there on their driveways and yards,” Reaves notes.

Public education is critical, landscape industry professionals say. Landscape contractors and professionals are advising their clients to follow water regulations as set forth by municipalities.

“Water when you’re supposed to, water deep and less often,” Reaves says. “If you overwater, the root systems don’t go deep enough and at that point, your grass is susceptible to dying.”

McLaughlin is recommending his clients have their irrigations systems checked and corrected for appropriate coverage so there is a minimum amount of parched surfaces.

Going forward
Drought doesn’t mean “you don’t have landscaping going forward, but it does mean that you really need to think it through,” Taylor says.

Taylor believes people do want to preserve the environment through preserving water. “They see what we’ve done in years past and some of the mistakes we need to correct,” she says. “I see changes to more native plants and maybe planting more perennials than annuals. Maybe they can keep plants they love but shouldn’t grow to having just one of them close to the back door where they can water it themselves. They’re changing their thinking, which is really good.”

The landscape in Texas spoke for itself in terms of what is able to survive there, and what is not.

Going forward will entail making landscape changes to replace what probably should not have been planted in specific regions anyway because they don’t have the best chance for survival, Taylor says.

The bottom line for Texas landscape contractors is that Texans embrace well-manicured and aesthetically pleasing landscapes.

For example, the recession didn’t have a dire impact on the landscaping industry in Texas, Reaves says. In a Texas A&M University study of the landscape industry in 2009, the economic impact to the state was $14.9 billion. In 2010, it jumped to $16.9 billion.
“We’re thinking a lot of people, instead of traveling and spending money on vacations, stay at their house and make it more beautiful,” says Reaves. “We’re thinking at that point, they started putting more money into their landscapes. We can’t explain a $2 billion increase with the downturn of the economy.”

“None of us wants to see the consumer quit gardening or see landscaping go away or start thinking it’s too hard,” says Taylor. “Landscaping does so much for the environment as far as air quality, erosion control and aesthetics. We’re looking at ways to help consumers with drought-tolerant planting, new irrigation technologies and the like so they can continue to plant even in a drought, but doing it smartly so they’re not wasting water.”
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.