Same issues, different approach

Angus Lindsay looks at how they do things in the US

Angus Lindsay

I was recently lucky enough to visit the States for a glimpse at the next generation of mowing machinery. As part of this visit I met with several landscape contractors from both the US and France and took part in a discussion forum on the factors affecting our industry. Interestingly we are all facing similar problems, but are at different stages in how we are addressing them. Maybe it’s just me, but the first thing that hits you when you visit the States is how much space there is and how much bigger everything is – the roads, the trucks, the people and even the grass!

‘Big grass’ may seem an odd statement but in the main US contractors tend to cut much higher than we do, with mulching the norm. Grass collection is a very rare operation, only used in private gardens – and even there mulching tends to take precedence.

Rotary mowers are everywhere, with cylinders reserved for golf courses. Flails are used for highway mowing where there is a greater likelihood of damage from debris. Whether on highways, open spaces, gardens or roadsides, grass cutting frequencies can be up to 30 cuts per annum, with one contractor mowing grass in a retail park 45 times. Maintained to heights of 75-90mm, the grass looks fantastic with very little in the way of arisings. The high frequency of mowing means that what little arisings are generated drop into the base of the sward; the taller grass retains more moisture and is overall much healthier. Grass in general is treated very much as a plant rather than just a green covering; contractors have a considerable knowledge of different grass types in relation to their use and durability and manage them accordingly with maintenance requirements agreed before the first roll of turf is laid.

Refreshingly, this seems to be the trend with landscaping projects in general with the maintenance programme being agreed at the inception stage before any construction takes place. This then ensures that slope angles are manageable, planting schemes are realistic, and trees, when mature, fit the environment they are planted in. Previous projects have seen significant and costly problems: for example, from the use of manufactured top soil with such high pH levels that the trees planted in it died, or gardens established in such a way that they were in permanent shade. In the States, there seems to be a lot more communication, co-operation and education between client, architect and contractor to ensure that things are done right first time and that the end product and its future needs are addressed at the beginning of a project.

Whilst this all may seem a breath of fresh air, the climate in the States is of course, different to ours and so they manage their regimes accordingly. They also have considerably more space than we have so they can utilise more ride-on machinery. Having said that, they do still use a significant percentage of walk behind and stand-on rotary mowers (especially in cemeteries).

However, they face similar challenges to us when recruiting staff. There are strimmer pilots and ride-on jockeys aplenty, but finding experienced supervisors and managers is a major issue as, like the UK, they struggle to attract people of management calibre into the landscape and amenity industry. In an effort to address this, several have embarked on a “grow your own” scheme to train their next crop of management, which is the same approach we take at The Landscape Group. One contractor in particular starts trainees ‘from the dirty end up’, no matter what their qualifications, so they get an appreciation of what the job entails from conception through completion and on-going maintenance.

Angus Lindsay

Group Head of Assets and Fleet

Angus writes a monthly column in Pro Landscaper Magazine – read more at http://prolandscapermagazine.com/