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What to know about the challenges of installing drought-tolerant landscapes (and the effects of the DWP rebate program)


September 20, 2015 by Hope Gardens



Greetings! At Hope Gardens, the past six months have been an exciting time of growth. The DWP rebate has opened up the possibility of full-scale landscaping to hundreds of people who otherwise would not have considered swapping out their soul-sucking sod for a drought-tolerant, wildlife-attracting paradise.

We have had the opportunity to work with dozens of families and it is with great respect that we enter their properties and spend a week or so transforming their living spaces.

While the rebate has brought an influx of new clients into my business and jumpstarted a great discussion and interest in alternative landscapes, it has also in some instances, because of the rebate’s promise of “free” money, set an unfair and unrealistic pricing standard for custom landscaping.

The rebate has fluctuated between $3 – $1.50 sq foot of turf removed. And the perception about what a reasonable budget should be has moved with that number. There’s even a rebate cap now of $6000 and the hope is that all jobs, no matter how big or complicated, would be able to fall within that number.

Attempting to meet the needs of this inspired group of consumers has been a labor of love. It’s also a lot of labor! The move to raise the minimum wage, the toil of such back-breaking labor, the incredible demands of client work have made the time and energy spent on landscaping skyrocket. Prices have also jumped due to high demand for materials like hardscape, native plants and even drip irrigation. Add to all that, the task of bringing a job in on a short time frame where thousands of dollars of “free” money are at stake and I start to hum the Mission Impossible theme song.

I write this now and with some urgency, as the last two jobs my crew and I have done produced beautiful, unique, successful gardens that met DWP requirements and that I am whole-heart proud of. They didn’t however produce much profit and to stay in business, I need to make a profit, of course.

The lack of profit has mostly been a result of my absorbing higher labor costs and cost overages which I can’t continue to afford to do. I am hoping with this missive to set positive expectations and give you a chance to ask questions before we begin.

As I pointed out, the rebate has inadvertently placed a ceiling on budgets that isn’t reasonable. On one side you have Turf Terminators that uses your entire rebate to put in an immature, cookie-cutter, environmentally-taxing landscape “free” and on the other end, you have Hope Gardens that puts in custom-designed, environmentally-responsible, mature gardens for around the cost of the rebate. One company made millions and one company is struggling financially.

I have committed to finishing these DWP rebate jobs to the best of my ability but the tight budgets and time constraints leave us with little wiggle room. That being said, there are a list of disclaimers I need to communicate to accomplish this goal. I have formed this somewhat tedious list from the challenges I have had on past jobs. I want us to have a clear communication about expectations and I apologize for the length of this explanation. My mission is still an affordable budget for you and a beautiful landscape to boot so bear with us.

My estimates are estimates. Prices go up, labor can take longer than anticipated. I charge by supplies used and hours logged. The budget amount cannot be set in stone. I am not agreeing to do the entire job for this price “no matter what.” I will let you know when overages occur. Every evening during the course of your install I will update your Freshbooks account budget which you should have a link to in your emails.

A project as complicated and multi-faceted as this should have a contingency built in. A contingency is a line item, usually set at 10-20% of the entire budget, that is added on to the budget in case anything should go amiss. I don’t add this is to my budgets as it makes people nervous that it is some kind of slush fund. I don’t want to go over budget and don’t plan to, but I think if you cannot afford to potentially go 10-20% over the estimated cost of the job, if that would break the bank, I would not attempt the project. Please understand, we don’t regularly go 20% over the budget. But it is standard process with most multilayered budgets to assume the possibility.

Any additions to the job will mean additional costs. Be this added plants or design features or anything extra you ask my crew to do. Trimming trees, moving materials, helping around your house in any way, if it is not on the budget or in the written plan, if you choose to go outside my recommendations, it will cost extra. For example, if  I recommend 2” of mulch and you decide you want 3”, that will cost more. A way to keep costs down is to stick to the plan.

Our crew works by the day. I try very hard to accurately estimate how much time we will spend at your property. If added or extra work pushes us to another day, the entire day rate will apply. If you can let me know in advance what you would like to see done, what your expectations are, I can properly plan the job. Communicating late in the game, causes the worst overages. Now is the time to envision your landscaping. Before we begin. There are always changes to be made and often we are happy to incorporate minor changes as we go along. As I address in a second, I am totally willing to make minor changes as I go along. But major changes cost money.

To keep budgets low we need to complete jobs quickly. Also, most of you are on tight time constraints with the city. That does not always give us a lot of time to talk during the install. I make myself available by text and email for most of the hours of the day. So feel free to contact me with questions and concerns as we go along. This is a partnership and your input is very important. Texts are best as I’m usually in the field, in the car or out shopping for you. Phone calls should be for urgent questions only.

All of our gardens are unique from design to hardscape to plant choice. Due to the normal limits in inventory at nurseries by reason of seasonal appropriateness and demand, I need to make plant choices on the fly. I provide a long and varied list of plants to choose from and we can talk about likes and dislikes and color schemes and style but in the end, exactly what plant goes where will be a last-minute decision based on plant availability. You won’t be stuck with plants you don’t like I promise. I always choose plants I know you like and don’t pick plants you don’t like. Just the specifics remain malleable.

I may also make design changes on the fly based on material availability and challenges we experience at the install, i.e. flagstone path may be moved slightly to incorporate tree roots, or even if I feel like it’s just not looking correct.

Fountains or seating or anything outside of plants and hardscape will be yours to procure. We are not currently doing lighting or electricity. In fact, we are so tightly scheduled we cannot do repairs on fences or other infrastructure at this time. We are happy to return in January to work on these extra projects however.

I take a lot of time to choose your plants and choosing the healthiest plant is my highest priority. Stil, plants sometimes fail. It can be a mystery why. An altogether healthy looking plant can decide it does not like being replanted and die. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee on plants. Sometime I can replace plants but that is at my discretion.

Irrigation is one of our toughest challenges. I sub out my irrigation to Carina Gordian who has been partnering with me for over four years. She and her brother Jose and their whole crew help me with both the irrigation and the demo and install. They are incredibly smart, kind and fair people.

I sub out the work because I am not an irrigation expert. Like electricity or plumbing, it is technical and you need a professional to know the ins and outs. I do a baseline budget estimate for your irrigation but the final bill will come at the end. This is the big variable on these jobs. We are changing your irrigation from a high-pressure water system to a low-pressure one. Many systems adapt easily. Some do not.

Many of us have older irrigation systems that have systemic issues that only show up once we try to convert them. We sometimes have to replace valves, joints, timers, piping. And we can’t foresee these issues until the old high-pressure heads come off and the drip is installed. The system needs to experience that stress before we can see how it will react.

This is the one part of the budget you can’t skimp on either. We can always use less plants, less flagstone, get a cheaper material but irrigation doesn’t give us those outs or opportunities for discount. It costs what it costs. And you have to have it both for your landscape and for the rebate.

I hate to be the harbinger of doom, but this is the hardest area for folks to comprehend. Some problems take time to diagnose as well. Sometimes one fix here leads to an issue down there. So please don’t misinterpret our trouble shooting for now attending to an issue. We try to do the least invasive, least expensive fix first. And then see where that gets us. We always get our man and always leave a working irrigation system. Just know like all your line items, irrigation is estimated. And it’s the one line item that gives us the most headaches. But it is necessary and an investment for your property.

Speaking of budgets, I do mark up items I purchase. This is not a scam. This is how all businesses operate. Markups keep business running. They aren’t profit. They pay for bookkeeping software, tools, water for the crew, gas in the mower and blower, phone service, graph paper and on and on. To save you money, I do not markup giant purchases that are delivered, like mulch or gravel drops. I pass that savings on to keep budgets low. Our markups are around 10-20% which is low/average for industry standards.

Here’s a major headache for us all: weeds. We place a professional grade weed mat down after we pick ax and rake up the sod. This is placed with hope and prayers. Any extra prayers are appreciated. In most cases, we remove thousands of square feet of sod and weeds from your property. Grass rarely comes back. Weeds always do.

Weeds grow roots up to 3 feet underground. And they drop seeds that lay dormant until your new drip system begins to feed them. I’m sure you’ve seen weeds grow through cracks in the pavement. Think about that and you’ll understand what we are up against. There is no protection against weeds. They are a part of life.

A weed killing spray is your best bet. It’s fast and efficient and I would get the kind you can pump and spray. You can also hand pick weeds out with a kind to the wrist weed removal tool and enjoy the meditative practice of taking care of your garden. You can also use white vinegar, boiling hot water…or a propane powered weed burner. 🙂 But I don’t recommend it. Use what works, and if you use herbicide use it sparingly and responsibly.

Regarding parkways: DWP requires you to install a groundcover on your parkway to get the rebate. Groundcover would not be my preference. As you know, parkways get a lot of foot traffic and it’s easy for the plants to get stomped on or kicked out.  Also they don’t have strong root systems which makes it even harder for them to survive. You can decide to leave this area out of the equation or plant it for now to make DWP happy and later plant something hardier. At least you’ll already have your irrigation system in place! Although we do our best to help the groundcover succeed, in the past six months I have noted that it fails about 25% of the time.

Depending on the weather, you may need to do some hand watering after the install. In extreme heat, plants have an uphill battle to succeed and some daily is a big help. The drip is there doing its job but sometimes plants need a more solid soaking, or their leaves rinsed off, or the general humidity raised. Be prepared to baby them at first if they are looking forlorn or droopy.

At this time, we do not have a maintenance service up and running. We are capable of it, just so busy with installs I can’t spare the crew to do it. We hope to have this part of the business up and running in January and can come help you at your garden  at that time.

I get a lot of questions about El Nino. Even if I knew how much rain we were going to get, I wouldn’t be able to say with any certainty what’s going to happen to our landscapes. The good news: we plant mostly 1-5 gallon plants so they shouldn’t be in danger of washing away and drought-tolerant plants in general have sturdy root systems so that’s good for erosion control.

A landscape is different than any other investment in your property. It’s alive. It’s unpredictable. It’s nature. I cannot offer guarantees for that reason, but I do guarantee that if you love your space and you take care of it and appreciate it, the rewards will return to you a hundred-fold. I have made it my mission to help people get the most garden bang for their buck and I want to help you too. I love our gardens and believe in what we are doing. I thank you for hiring Hope Gardens and look forward to working together.