Reaching beyond “blow and vac” with packaging and sustainability. By Tom Crain

When the morning air feels crisp and cool and your lawns start to regenerate, regular wind gusts make leaves float to the ground and your garden beds start withering and become raggedy, its time to move into fall cleanup mode.

Fall cleanup presents a great opportunity to not only rejuvenate your customers’ lawns, but also to cross-sell additional services. It’s also time to get a good jump on client marketing for the following spring season and demonstrate to your customers some important sustainability practices in re-purposing the leaf litter and end-of-season vegetation.

Make a bundle through proper bundling of services

Typical fall package services include leaf removal, pruning of shrubs and the preparation of turf for the winter season, according to Steven Cohen, principal of GreenMark Consulting Group, a Richmond, Virginia-based landscape-snow industry consulting, coaching and advisory firm. Other popular services cited by Cohen to enhance the revenue stream can include gutter cleaning, removal and storage of outdoor furnishings and equipment, driveway sealing and power washing.

The fall cleanup package for Richmond, Virginia-based BWS Landscaping consists of everything from leaf removal to removing summer and installing winter annuals, planting spring bulbs, transplanting shrubs, cleaning gutters and providing lawn restoration services. “We consider this the last big push for the year so we work as many enhancements into the package as possible,” says Owner Brad Swortzel. “Not all of the items are conducted during the fall cleanup as some are done in the winter months. It has been a great opportunity to get new clients on board for the following year. One of the reasons we push the bulbs, is that it is a natural transition to talk about our spring services.”

Seasonal Chores in Minneapolis bundles its fall cleanup services that include aeration, weed control and fertilization as an add-on for its weekly mowing customers with a 15 percent additional discount for any new weekly mowing customers. Co-owners Luke Morrison and Greg Gerst find fall to be a good time to remind their customers about all of the services offered beyond weekly mowing. “Many of our customers aren’t aware of all the services we offer while others have been using an alternative contractor for some of their outdoor maintenance,” says Gerst. “Fall is the best time to get out there and upsell additional services beyond weekly mowing and remind customers about the advantage of using one contractor for all of their outdoor maintenance needs.”

Cohen advises landscapers to sell fall cleanup services in one of two ways: as part of an all-inclusive service package or as an a la carte service offering. “All-inclusive simply means it’s part of a contract package including grounds maintenance services as part of a ‘package price’ typically paid for over an eight- or 12-month contract period,” he says. “This is a great way to market landscape services and tie in such service as snow and ice control at the same time. A la carte fall services are chosen by clients based on their needs and paid for at a line item cost. While the all-inclusive package is always the best and easiest to manage, a la carte services can actually increase revenue opportunities based on service intervals.”

Sports Turf Manager Robert Anthony cautions landscapers about the proper management of leaf removal during fall cleanup. “While it does generate additional revenue, leaf removal is also time-consuming, and complete removal is not necessary,” he says. In his nearly 40 years providing services, including at the University of Maryland and Southern Methodist University, leaf removal was always a wash. “Come spring, wind will have put leaves where they were already removed anyways, and snow and ice will have created havoc. I always encouraged my customers to leave some leaves in the beds for rootzone protection and soil amendment through decomposition.” (For more information, see the sustainability section of this article).

For Robert Wong, owner of R. Wong Landscape in New York City, fall is also time for bed preparation and planting bulbs and fall annuals. Wong always hopes for a nice long fall season because it takes him until mid-December to finish everything for his clients. “I try to create my perennial borders in the fall as well as shred leaves for mulch,” he says.

Fall cleanup equipment moving beyond vac and blow

Just like with any landscape job, having the right equipment for fall cleanups is imperative in performing the work adequately and in a timely manner. “While in the old days this was limited to a spring rake and a tarp, today’s modern equipment helps deal with this seasonal chore quickly and efficiently,” says Cohen. “For the commercial contractor the typical equipment line-up includes backpack blowers, wheeled push blowers and large leaf loaders. Some small contractors like to still use shredding or non-shredding vacuums or even mulching mowers, which are ideal for small residential properties.”

“Besides the normal hand tools we use for everyday tasks, a vacuum is the most efficient piece of equipment during the fall for us,” says Swortzel. “The large walk behind blowers and vacuums are our most used equipment.”

Many vacuum collection systems, which several commercial mower manufacturers now offer, are bulky and unwieldy, prone to clogging and difficult to empty. That’s why before leasing or purchasing a unit, its advisable to ask your dealer(s) about what makes their brands better suited to the task of debris cleanup than their competition.

Showcasing sustainability maintenance practices

When it comes to fall maintenance practices in sustainability circles, there’s more to it than blowing or sucking up the leaves and dead plant material and hauling it off to landfills. Sustainability advocates have all kinds of alternative methods to leaf and dead plant removal keeping customers happy and the environment healthy, as well as saving you time and money.

Keeping the soil covered with mulch or cover crops, particularly for residential customers’ garden beds during the winter is a good way to maintain tilth and prevent runoff, as well as adding nutrients. Leaves that fall on lawns and hardscapes can be swept into shrub borders or vegetable gardens to mulch them. That works nicely on larger landscapes, too.

Thomas Christopher, consultant at Hartford, Connecticut-based Smart Lawn places a gator blade on his mowers, shredding fallen leaves in place rather than gathering them and hauling them away. “Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been doing this for a number of years and has watched the organic content of the soils below its turf steadily increase, leading to healthier grass,” he says.

Ron Hynd’s fall cleanup team maintains a 703-acre industrial campus with more than 35,000 trees planted in a band that surrounds the GM Tech Center Campus in Warren, Michigan. Over the past couple of years, his team has taken a sustainable and unique approach to managing the falling leaves that has also contributed to great savings in labor and disposal fees. “As you can imagine the amount of falling leaves can be overwhelming,” explains Hynd, ground maintenance manager. “To manage them, we put up snow fencing early to trap many of the falling leaves. Rather than picking all of the leaves up and hauling them off site, our mowing crews run mulching mowers over the piles behind the snow fence and on their final pass open their mowing chutes, blowing the mulched leaves back into the forest areas.”

Rocco Fiore & Sons, a at Chicago-based landscape management company, recently made a large investment in a large vacuum/shredder, the Smithco Sweep Star, to manage fall debris in large areas such as sports fields and campus environments. “It literally sweeps the turf clean with rubber fingers and mulching them somewhat,” explains Mary Albanese, account manager. “It has a huge capacity that can easily be dumped into specific compost piles in different stages of decomposition. You can also create and excellent leaf mulch by turning the pile over the winter.”

Regina Edgar Irizarry, landscape designer for DesignJones, Baltimore, Maryland, leaves seed heads and stems standing through fall and over winter. “Other than discarding diseased leaves and plant material, and maybe cutting back very large grasses that would topple over winter, less fall cleanup is actually better for overwintering pollinators and small wildlife,” she says. In addition to structure and aesthetic interest for us, the vegetation can often provide cover, habitat and in some cases food for insects and small wildlife. Instead of cleaning up in fall, perennial vegetation can be cut back and composted just before new growth begins in the spring.”