Business & Real Estate

Drought dries up ‘mow and blow’ work, workers branch out

To stay in business, some basic lawn service companies are moving beyond mowing grass.
To stay in business, some basic lawn service companies are moving beyond mowing grass.

On a warm, sunny day in Citrus Heights recently, Gary Cook looked around his mostly empty lawn supply store.

“This place should be packed right now,” he said.

Cook, owner of Citrus Heights Lawn & Mower, makes his business selling gardening tools and repair services to small gardening businesses, local municipalities and school districts. He also offers lawn maintenance services, including mowing.

But in the past year, the store’s revenue has dropped 12 percent, he said.

Why? He pointed at the yellowing grass field at the middle school across the street.

“They’re not using their equipment so they don’t have to come in and buy,” he said. “Nobody’s watering. All the grass is dead.”

Cook is among the small lawn companies whose business is slowly drying up along with their customers’ grass in California’s fourth year of historic drought. With outdoor watering restricted to once or twice weekly throughout the Sacramento region, many residents are forgoing their traditional green lawns for drought-tolerant plants or simply a patch of dry grass, leaving “mow and blow” lawn maintenance businesses with fewer customers.

To stay in business, some basic lawn service companies are moving beyond mowing grass to ripping it out and replacing it with drought landscapes and installing drip irrigation systems in place of sprinklers.

They hope to share in the success of landscaper design and installation firms, which are experiencing an increase in demand for drought-tolerant lawns, thanks in part to the Cash for Grass rebates offered by many area municipalities to residents who convert their lawns.

The economic impact of such businesses is hard to gauge, since many of the companies are small, with few employees. “Mow and blow” businesses tend to operate independently and not all have business licenses, making them hard to count, said Sandra Giarde of the California Landscape Contractors Association, which represents licensed landscaping professionals. Two online search engines listed hundreds of small lawn services as operating in the Sacramento area.

Cheryl Buckwalter, director of the nonprofit Eco Landscapes, which advocates for environmentally friendly gardening, said opportunities for businesses who use conservation techniques are “huge.” Buckwalter teaches classes for professionals and homeowners on the techniques.

“We have more and more people asking for this type of landscaping and needing to conserve water,” she said.

Danny Gerwer, owner of DMG Lawn Maintenance Service based in Loomis, said he’s seen business increase 25 percent in the past year as demand for landscaping services has jumped.

“We’re tremendously busy,” Gerwer said. “People are taking out yards, changing sprinkler systems to more water-efficient sprinklers. There’s a lot of landscaping being done.”

Art Ballard of Sacramento-based Creekside Landscaping said his revenue has dropped 10 percent to 15 percent in recent months from a loss in lawn maintenance customers, but his business has been able to rely on lawn conversions instead. Ballard employs about 16 people seasonally.

“Down the road, I guess if we continue to have drought, maybe we’ll have to reinvent our business,” he said.

Ignacio Cortez, owner of All Lawns gardening service, said he already considers water management on the job, for example, by helping his customers adjust their sprinklers. He has also done a few lawn conversions, which he calls “a one-time deal.”

Cortez said in the past two months, he’s lost 15 of his 200 lawn maintenance customers.

“(Installations) pay more, but it’s not year-round,” said Cortez, who has four employees and serves the greater Sacramento region. “Maintenance, it’s a monthly thing and it pays your bill every month.”

Cortez and others cited predictions of El Niño and hope it will bring enough rain in the fall to boost lawn maintenance work in the next year.

“I’m not hurting for work, not yet, but we’ll see next year,” he said. “Hopefully it rains.”

Cook, the owner of the lawn mower store, hopes for rain, too.

“If we don’t get rain next year, I don’t know who’s still going to be in business,” he said.

Jeanne Kuang: 916-321-1188, @jeannekuang