Turf Magazine - March, 2014

SOUTH FEATURES

Keeping it on Site

Fockele Garden Company builds upon sustainable successes
By Carol Brzozowski


Fockele's services range from the traditional, such as pruning, to those that preserve and enhance natural areas.
Photos courtesy of Fockele Garden Company.

While many landscape companies struggled with the ramifications of the Great Recession, for the Fockele Garden Company in Gainesville, Ga., the onset of the economic downfall was the other shoe dropping. That shoe was a vicious three-year drought in Georgia that was just ending as the Recession dug in.

"The drought really was difficult because of its effect on volume and then it was followed immediately without any break by the Recession. It was all difficult," says Mark Fockele company president. "We're satisfied things are improving. I just wish things would improve more rapidly."

Fockele heads up an award-winning company, but he does not rest on his laurels. He's always looking to make improvements.

The Fockele Garden Company took root in 1990 after Fockele, who had a general small town law practice for a decade, felt that the walls were closing in on him. "I didn't like being inside all of the time, so I changed careers and started this little landscaping company," he says.

The Fockele Garden Company provides design/build, maintenance and water technology services such as rainwater harvesting and stormwater management. During Georgia's drought years of 2006 to 2008, property maintenance for clients encompassed a great deal of rainwater harvesting.

"We installed a number of rainwater harvesting systems and that helped," says Fockele. "Our approach to turf is quality over quantity. We tend to reduce turf's square footage and put that money into increased quality in the remaining square footage. Sometimes you can handle that with harvested rainwater. A huge amount of turf is not practical to maintain with rainwater harvesting because the cisterns have to be large enough to store enough water to do that."

The Fockele Garden Company

President: Mark Fockele

Founded: 1990

Headquarters: Gainesville, Ga.

Markets: North Georgia, greater Atlanta, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina

Services: Landscape maintenance and design/build services

Employees: 40 at peak season

Website: www.fockelegardencompany.com

The company creates gardens, many of them with water features, for the commercial, residential, health care and public sectors. "We also focus a lot on onsite stormwater management and do a lot of water features that people find interesting and appealing," he says.

Because of Fockele's interest and expertise in water efficiency, the company has also become expert at creating and maintaining sustainable landscapes featuring drought-tolerant plants, bioswales, open drainage and other on-site stormwater methods promoted by the Low Impact Development Program, LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative.

"Our business philosophy is founded on recognition of the fact that no landscape is finished upon the completion of the installation phase and that without properly focused and informed landscape management practices, it is impossible to develop the result promised by the design," adds Fockele.

Fockele takes a personal interest in stormwater management because of his love for the outdoors.

"I love to hike in the mountains in north Georgia. One of the things that really bothers me so much is what stormwater has done to the creeks, streams and the rivers in our developed areas," he says.

"We've turned the natural water courses essentially into ugly, deeply cut, dirty, trashy open sewers. Just the sheer volume of stormwater is doing most of the damage. Wherever we can, we try to reduce the amount of stormwater leaving whatever site we're working on in as to not make it worse through excessive stormwater run-off."

Moving toward organics

Another industry concern is stormwater run-off carrying chemicals off of the property with it.

Fockele takes a hybrid approach to correct that problem. "We try to use chemicals as little as possible," he says, adding that he sees a growing independence from chemical use in the industry going forward. "We are on the cusp of introducing our own compost tea program. We're moving in that direction more slowly than I'd like, but at least we're moving."

The company employs 40 people during the height of the season.

Fockele looks for employees who are friendly, communicate well and follow through. "Our customers are always commenting about how delightful, friendly and hard-working our crews are," Fockele notes.

The company has earned a number of awards throughout the years, with one of the latest being a 2013 Grand Award for commercial maintenance through PLANET.

The award was given for maintenance work performed at a continuing care retirement community, where the landscape was plagued by more than a million square feet of weedy fescue, trees and shrubs left to "fend for itself" for five years, the PLANET award notes.

The management company for the retirement community engaged in a maintenance program in 2008 with The Fockele Garden Company, which brought the landscape in line with the goal of creating a look that would embody "the grace and elegance of the South".

A full-time crew on the site daily accomplished that goal.

Fockele's law background brought to the table an ability to assess risk and understand contracts, including recognizing the pitfalls that one finds in legal contracts.

"It also contributed a linear, logical way of thinking that has been useful in decision-making," he adds.

One of the mistakes that landscape contractors make is "shoving a great big contract with a lot of pages and a lot of small print at a client and wanting them to sign it," Fockele says. "Customers appreciate a short and sweet contract in nice big readable type."



The company employs friendly people who communicate well and follow directions.

Meeting the challenges

Job volume during the winter season is Fockele's biggest challenge. "We're taking advantage of every opportunity we have and hoping for the best," he says. "It's the traditional lull during the winter time and it's impossible. Lots of rain and lots of single-digit temperatures that keep the ground frozen and then with snow and ice makes it hard to sell and hard to install."

To address that, the company sets up large canopies or tents under which crews will work on landscape construction projects, such as fountains, stone walkways or steps.

While Fockele has spent the last several years trying to maintain the business he's created in the face of drought and recession challenges, his present focus is to "remake the company from the ground up," he says.

The company is engaging in intensive efforts to evaluate every company operation, streamline procedures and improve data collection.

The fuel for that fire is coming from the Leader's Edge Peer Group.

"It's a group of owners of mid-sized landscape companies from all over the country," says Fockele. "The group is organized around that very purpose, understanding the possibilities as exhibited by other companies in the group and then maximizing the capabilities of my own company and maximizing the improvements I can build into my own company based on what I've learned from others."

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.