Things looked rosy for businesses in Oklahoma City in January 2007. Rosy enough for Jeff Ebbs to strike out on his own after six years working for a local, well-established landscape company. The U.S. economy, growing by more than 3 percent annually, was six years into a recovery following the relatively mild 2001 recession.

But the health of the economy wasn’t what it appeared to be. Ominous but largely ignored cracks were growing. The resulting implosion of the domestic housing market generated a contagion that spread worldwide and generated a massive international credit crunch. Welcome to the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Jeff, soon after starting his business and seeing all kinds of financial hell break loose, might be excused for wondering if he picked the right time to start a new landscape company focusing on irrigation services.

“Let’s just say it was very, very hard getting started,” recalls Jeff’s wife, Rebekah. Rebekah was working in retail and had to quit after six months to help run the company.

The first year they both did everything from planting flowers to putting down ice melt. Thus was born Urban Lawn & Landscape Inc., which survived the difficult startup phase thanks to the couple’s persistence and the experience Jeff had gained previously. The Ebbs also credit some much-appreciated business sent their way by Total Environment, his former employer.

Today, the couple continues to work closely together in Urban Lawn & Landscape, with Jeff doing most of the irrigation work while also overseeing operations. The company, now employing 17, has grown beyond irrigation to also offer a range of lawn and landscape services.

The region’s generally strong economy is driving increased demand for landscape services, and Oklahoma City’s hot, dry growing season and ever-rising water bills are keeping the Ebbs (and other irrigation service providers) busy.

“Reducing customers’ water bills has become a big issue in our market,” says Rebekah. Most of the clients in their service area are on odd-even-day watering schedules, and the cost of potable water keeps rising. There also seems to be more appreciation for water- efficient landscapes as well as native and drought-resistant adapted plants. This is understandable given that much of their company’s work is in and around the city’s downtown where there’s lots of concrete, and Oklahoma City summers can be scorching hot. Consequently, the couple is seeing a robust demand for water-efficient landscapes and also for hardscapes within their market.

“While we’ve been offering different kinds of landscapes and learning more and more about xeriscaping, even native plantings need to be irrigated during their first year of establishment,” says Rebekah. “Everything has to have water here.”

Seeking the same respect as other trades

The Ebbs, as busy as they are, have nevertheless been among the small group of professional contractors supporting and attempting to make the 3-year-old Oklahoma Irrigation Association (OIA) a more valuable resource for irrigation professionals. Rebekah serves as president of the OIA and her husband as secretary. The OIA is partnering with Oklahoma State University (OSU) and has established a good working relationship with local government officials.

One of OIA’s goals is to develop an educational path leading to a state irrigation certification program. Turfgrass and horticulture educators at OSU are helping with this.

“We are not looking to get outside of the national Irrigation Association in terms of what we are trying to do,” says Rebekah. “Rather, we feel it would be valuable to have a curriculum more in tune to conditions in Oklahoma.”

The OIA is also working with city officials to have landscape irrigators be viewed and treated equally in terms of rules and regulations as other professional service providers.

“Obviously, people don’t want a lot of regulations, and I agree. I don’t want the government in our business any more than it already is either,” says Rebekah. “But we need to be considered as a true profession. You have to be educated to do what we do, and, like other true professions, we need continuing education.

“To be looked upon like any other highly skilled trade, we need to have similar processes in place. And that’s what the OIA is trying to accomplish,” says Rebekah.