Commercial Landscape Management: A New Business Model Solves Many Problems

Landscape horticulture is very complex and multidisciplinary. On the front lines of the biological economy of nature and the business economy of civilization this industry is plagued by real problems which derail the expectations and best laid plans of all. Many of these problems were started by architects or designers, who mean well but are never commissioned to write a management plan for their own work. One of my favorite UC Co-op agents (now retired) Dr. Pavel Svihra has described landscape maintenance as a "multilayered nightmare." This article attempts to explain the gulf between client expectations and contractor performance, and why the prevailing business model cannot achieve the clients' goals. A new business model is presented to bridge the gulf between the clients' rightful expectations of service and the contractors' obligation to deliver textbook quality maintenance and enhancement. Neither party to a contract signs a blank check, but the client frequently gets short changed because the contractors' business economics only permit so much service, and the client holds the "sword of Damocles" over the contractors head, forcing him to attempt impossible miracles without the budget to accomplish it. Such an arrangement is a LOSE-LOSE game which can be easily corrected by a new business model which creates a WIN-WIN deal for both parties and the landscape.

The contractor who bids to maintain a large commercial, corporate or institutional property needs to be simultaneously a good businessman and an astute horticulturist, or have a qualified experienced person on staff. The daily demands of business operation consume such time that the horticulturists' role never receives adequate time. This is why every contractor should have a horticulturist/arborist who functions as the person with the first word on all landscape operations.

Textbook quality landscape management respects the yearly life cycle of the plants and prescribes annual pruning, clean up and advocates "do-no-harm". Each ornamental species has a different calender date for the site which takes advantage of the annual "window of opportunity" to "do the right thing" thoroughly only once a year. The most efficient and horticulturally correct management program is referenced to this annual event. Many maintenance contractors fail to recognize and inform crew leaders of these facts. Enhancement is a legitimate part of the role for a contractor maintaining a newly installed or aging landscape. Without a management plan specifying the necessary operations (and forbidding some common mistakes) the result is plants weakened by over pruning(carbohydrate starvation), overwatering and soil compaction. Then, disease and pests establish to further weaken plant performance. The lowest paid people are in the best position to observe plant malaise but know little about it. If special attention is needed by plants in trouble the crew is unable to react proactively and protect the landscape investment.

The life expectancy of trees, shrub, and ground cover becomes shorter than the clients were told by the landscape architect or designer. Maintenance crews are sent out weekly without sufficient leadership to "do the right thing" and refrain from "doing the wrong thing" without a clue to the real needs of the plants, and concerned that they show the client they have been on site pruning or hedge trimming plants they proceed to cause most of the problems I witness. An additional burden the contractor inherits is that pre-existing conditions are gnawing away at plant health and are difficult to document. The life of landscape ornamental plants is far longer than the one year contract will allow the contractor who proactively works to refine and enhance the landscape. The bid-winner contractor inherits all the problems of the past with the lowest bid, and has virtually no chance of succeeding, and will probably lose the contract to some other contractor the next year. The clients needs are never met by such a revolving door, and the entire industry is destabilized. Replacement planting proposals submitted by the contractor are rewards for poor services at worst, and at best are opportunities to rethink the plant ecology of the zone. Replanting failed zones increases costs to the client when it could have been avoided by good maintenance up front.

A better contract will have a 3-5 year horizon, a management plan written by a consultant, an irrigation program which anticipates the ET for each week during the irrigation season, an inspection quarterly by an outside consultant who collects data for each zone and qualitative comments on plant health and developing problems. In addition, the new contract should have a penalty clause reducing payments for failing to perform in ways documented by the outside consultant, further ensuring the client gets what their paying for. The larger commercial and institutional properties have an enormous interest in smart maintenance, which "does no harm", performs with great efficiency and reduces costs to the client.

Employing an outside consulting firm has benefits for both parties. The client now has the sage advice of people who have no conflict of interest in any landscape operation or installation needed, acquires a clear understanding of the process of landscape and how complex it is, and is assured that any contractor proposals for work are thoroughly vetted for price and need, and if executed, are inspected for effectiveness. The contractor now has a burden lifted from his shoulders, he no longer needs to pay a highly trained horticulturist (but must still train the crews), he can focus on delivering good services which fit his business model, and has an ally to help navigate through the "multilayered nightmare" that is landscape horticulture.

There is an outside consultant ready and willing to set up a WIN-WIN program of landscape management for any size property: for hospitals, institutions, corporate business parks, multiple unit apartment complexes, commercial retail malls, and city owned parks. I have been associated with Greenleaf Mapping & Control Systems for 2 years and have helped several clients and contractors achieve a higher level of job satisfaction and cost reduction. Greenleaf was started by Dave McLeroy, who wrote landscape accounting software that documents the qualities of subject landscape by zone, specifies irrigation water by zone, and authors the contracts which produce the WIN-WIN result for both parties. The client receives fair services and the contractor is able to focus on delivering services which meet his capability. Performance deficits are documented and used against the contractor's invoices. Both parties build confidence and a lasting business relationship, and the Landscape Industry is stabilized. This model of landscape management has claimed the future now and is ripe for exploitation by large property owners and contractors alike. Here's a summary of the responsibilities of all parties' and how it creates a WIN-WIN business deal which improves quality, reduces water use, lowers the carbon footprint and net expense to the property owner, and stabilizes contractor microeconomics. The entire effort is tailored to meet the interests of all three parties, serve the need for a "Green" landscape certification, professionalism, beauty and property values.


Agrees to perform all landscape janitorial functions, turf, small tree and shrub maintenance procedures and follow the maintenance plan specifying the exact pruning and timing each shrub and tree will require to grow to maturity and manifest the designers goals. Accepts the important role of water management during the irrigation season and trains a crew member to perform observations and make weekly adjustments to the program on the timeclock. Performs necessary repairs to irrigation piping and heads to ensure correct functioning. Agrees to perform services for a 3-5 year period, and participate in a yearly review under consultants guidance. Trains crew to recognize symptoms of plant stress and notify crew leader.

Property Owner and Clients

Agrees to contract specifying a fixed $ sum paid monthly to Contractor for services. Retains consultant to oversee contractor performance on a quarterly basis and agrees to permit the monthly fee to be depressed if contractor performance is judged deficient, or up as other factors become known, such as large tree hazard abatement, repairs to hardscape, or other softscape renovations outside the maintenance contract. All extra work projects will be awarded to the contractor, not for outside bid, and evaluated by the consultant before and after execution by contractor. Agrees to pay consultant to create a management plan specifying the Best Management Practices BMP for the landscape for contractor to to implement.


Agrees to a retainer fee for services which include data collection to assess the quality of landscape maintenance, used to judge contractor performance and to note problems inherent to the existing landscape not caused by poor contractor performance. Writes the management plan directing the contractors' procedures and timing of. Copies all communications to both client and contractor. Continuously explores the process of "landscape" of the site and advises on changes to management plan and client on ways to improve the appearance and functionality of the landscape as per the area. Advises both client and contractor on appropriate chemical use as needed to control insect damage, suppress weeds, retard the growth of plants which have attained their maximum allowed size, and the use of fertilizers on turf, shrubs, and trees. Directly participates in the assessment of potential tree hazards and the work of other arborists who may be called in to perform defined work.