From landscaping and mowing lawns in Westerly in high school, Frank Crandall founded the Wood River Evergreens tree farm, which grew to a $3 million business that included landscape design and construction services in the mid-2000s. The University of Rhode Island graduate went totally organic in 2005, but has since closed Wood River and become a horticultural consultant. The author of “The Essential Horticultural Business Handbook,” Crandall took some time to talk about plants, trees and landscaping in advance of speaking at a Jan. 18 conference in Charlestown.
PBN: Since you started Wood River Evergreens back in the early 1970s, what has changed the most about gardening and landscaping?
CRANDALL: First, the relative size, complexity and cost of landscape projects has increased tremendously. When I first began landscaping the typical project would involve installing a lawn, brick walks and patios, foundation plantings and some fencing or evergreen screening. Projects ran from several thousand dollars to maybe $20,000 for an extensive project. In the last 10-15 years the intricacy of projects has increased and now include landscape designs, lawn installations, perennial gardens, mature foundation and yard plantings, substantial out door spaces, driveways of crushed stone, macadam or pavers, landscape night lighting, irrigation systems, automatic controllers for lighting, sprinklers and pools, cedar and vinyl fencing, raised vegetable gardens, ground covers and mulches and considerable after-care maintenance services for the installed landscape. Projects can range from $10,000 to more $300,000 for those that include all of the previously mentioned elements!
Secondly, landscaping has transcended from a basic lawn, plantings, walk and patio plan to a carefully designed landscape project involving many components including accessory landscape structures, pools, large outdoor living spaces, mature privacy screening, technological, sophisticated automated lighting and irrigation controls, along with specialty gardens including perennial, water and vegetable gardens.
Thirdly, in the last few years customer requests for more eco-friendly, organic and sustainable products and techniques has increased significantly. This trend will continue, especially as states and communities pass laws and ordinances banning the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers which will require organic products and methods.
PBN: In 2010, you closed Wood River Evergreens after some financial setbacks. What did you learn from that experience that you think others in the industry should know?
CRANDALL: Unfortunately, in October of 2010 I experienced a perfect storm of financial setbacks: severe flood damage to my properties (nearly $100,000), no new landscape projects from July to September, exhausting my personal and company savings and with a high debt load and falling property values left me no choice but to close my 38 year old business Oct. 1, 2010, enter receivership and personal bankruptcy.
There are numerous lessons I have learned from this difficult experience which I will share with not only horticultural businesses but all types of small businesses going through economic challenges.
As my accountant has stated to me: Business = Risk. A business’s survival and longevity is not guaranteed. Every business has a finite lifespan, even if you are doing many things correctly to operate your firm.
Loyalty to your employees is important to build trust and dedication, but not to the point of jeopardizing your company’s survival. Ultimately, not reducing staff when economic conditions dictate, will benefit no one.
Look ahead and try to anticipate future economic conditions so that you can make decisions before it becomes life or death for your company.
To the best of your ability keep your debt load manageable. A high debt load made it impossible for our business to succeed when sales decreased significantly.
Communicate with your bankers, accountants and advisors on a regular basis so that everyone is aware of changing conditions in the firm and the potential for significant changes that may be needed in the future.
Draw a line in the sand regarding your willingness to use personal funds to keep the business going, and do not cross that line. Unfortunately, I know this is much easier said than done … this should have been one of my first steps as sales began to seriously decline.
PBN: After many years in business, you went organic. How difficult was that and can organic nurseries and landscapers compete in this market?
CRANDALL: After taking the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) 5 Day Land Care Course in 2005 I immediately made a plan to convert my landscape company and nursery into a completely organic entity over a five-year period.
Ideally, I wanted my business and farm to be a model for other companies to see how an organically-based business could succeed. Even though I made progress in the conversion it was not easy or smooth. Personnel issues, difficulty in producing quality compost tea consistently, the reluctance of some of our long-term clients to embrace organics and the substantial costs to transform the company ultimately slowed the process. The closing of WRE brought the organic conversion to an end.
Initially, organic based lawn care, plant health care and landscaping services were more expensive but after an approximate two-year transition from traditional to organic care most lawn care and plant health care programs were less expensive than traditional treatments. It was much easier to market organic programs to those who initially requested organic. It was more difficult to convert (and convince) existing customers who were much more impatient for immediate results and not as accepting of the transition period which may have less than perfect results.
PBN: How has the recession changed the nursery and garden business?
CRANDALL: The recession has had severe effects on the nursery and landscape business. Since 2007, gross sales in Wood River Evergreens had declined more than 50 percent (from $2.2 million to $1.1 million). The number and size of landscape projects dropped precipitously. The quantity and size of trees and shrubs used in projects decreased significantly. Overall, clients cut back significantly on projects and less drastically on maintenance services. Consumer confidence in the southern New England market declined to as low a level as I have ever seen in my 38 years of being in business. There were few if any new homes being built, leaving only the renovation landscape market and basic landscape maintenance services as the main segments of our business. Fortunately, our existing clients were able to step up and keep us going with landscape upgrades, garden maintenance and property improvement projects.
Despite the fact that many of our governmental officials speak to the importance of small companies helping to lift the economy out of the recession...the actions taken so far have not alleviated the major challenges facing small firms. Until there is a true, comprehensive and substantial effort to assist small businesses their capacity to add jobs and become the catalyst for economic recovery will be held in abeyance.
PBN: What’s the first thing homeowners who don’t know much about gardening and horticulture should know about those subjects in order to properly take care of their property?
CRANDALL: When it comes to gardening and landscaping the first thing to do is survey your property and have a soil test completed for lawns, vegetable gardens, perennial beds and planting beds. So much of plant and lawn success is related to the specific chemical and biological makeup of the soil; soil ph, organic matter, nutrients, soil texture and structure. Armed with data about your soil and a site analysis a homeowner then can move ahead with soil improvements (if needed), plant selection (sun, shade, moist ground, dry conditions, etc.) and a plan to landscape their yard. Regardless of the extent of the gardening (perennial bed, foundation plantings, screening, patio or walkway) it makes sense (and cents!) to sketch a simple design so you can organize what you will be doing, take measurements in order to purchase the correct amount of materials so that the results will have a professional look, the plants will survive and thrive because they are the right plants for the right spots!
If the scope and complexity of the landscape project is substantial seeking advice from professional horticulturalists who are trained, licensed, insured and experienced in this field would be an appropriate option. One major advantage of having a professional complete a design for you is that the project can be completed over time, spreading out the costs.