Creating lofty landscapes in the heart of New York City

Operating a landscaping business in New York City can offer its own unique set of challenges. Just ask Sal Bacarella. For the past decade, he’s been greening up the nation’s largest concrete jungle with his company Garden Works, whether on the lower riverbanks of the East River or on a 50-story rooftop terrace.

A Garden Work’s crewman mowing one of the nine New York City Little League ballfields that the company maintains.
Photos courtesy of garden works

One time, Bacarella had to secure half-a-dozen permits from numerous city and state agencies requiring dozens of signatures just to plant a solitary tree on an upper eastside Manhattan lot. After that frustrating exercise, he hired a full-time worker just to manage the city’s permit system. And, the crazy hours—anywhere from midnight to mid-morning—to get his workers out to ensure that their vehicles don’t get tied up for hours in mid-day midtown traffic or nabbed by traffic enforcement officers for blocking lanes of traffic just to prune a hedge.

Although the big city can be a hassle for any small business, Bacarella says that the rewards far outweigh the adversities. “When you figure out how to minimize the hassles, the city offers some of the most lucrative, challenging and unique landscaping projects that you can’t find anywhere else,” he says.

When Bacarella was a month old, his family migrated from Sicily to Queens. His father, Giuseppe, built a lucrative landscaping business called Designscape serving Queens. Since he was 9 years old, he worked for his father part-time all the way through high school and on and off during college. But, it was the job he had at his friend’s auto body shop that he attributes to acquiring his business sense and tech skills.

In 2001, at the age of 21, Bacarella broke away from his father’s landscaping business to start his own. With a red van and a lawnmower, his first set of jobs involved a small residential cluster in the tony Whitestone/Beechhurst neighborhood of northern Queens, first mowing, and then planting. “Once I ventured off on my own with Garden Works, I really started to enjoy the work,” says Bacarella. “I was hands-on while still involved in the business end and doing more designing,” he says. “My dad was very supportive through it all. There were even times when I bid against him for landscaping jobs and times that he would turn accounts over to me when my business was slow.”

With steady growth around 30 percent and $3 million in revenues, Garden Works operates three divisions—irrigation, maintenance and installation—mainly covering the three boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Bacarella’s 30 employees service nearly 90 clients, mostly commercial, including Mt. Sinai Hospital, New York University and Pace University.

Garden Works installed boulevard trees and rooftop garden landscaping features for 34 Berry Street, a new condominium complex in Williamsburg.

Garden Works’ mission is to create a landscaping company bringing neighborhood groups, civic agencies and associations and local businesses together to beautify New York City, making it more sustainable and green. “We install more outdoor living spaces for New York City’s loft terraces, condo rooftops and specialty gardens than anyone else out there,” says Bacarella. The professional staff collectively possesses up to 50 certifications in such specialty areas as LEED, greywater irrigation and even marine biology as a result of its coastal wetland restoration projects.Bacarella insists that Garden Works is the greenest landscaping company in the entire New York metropolitan area. “Every landscaper claims to be green, but Garden Works was the true pioneer in installing green roofs and greywater and low-drip irrigation systems in New York City long before most other landscapers ever even heard of them,” he says.

For the past three years, the installation and maintenance of green roofs has been a major growth area for Garden Works. The business exploded when the city and state started offering tax credits for them. In addition to green roofs and greywater and low-drip irrigation systems, Garden Works eliminated pesticides, switched to fertilizers that are all-organic and recycles its yard waste and turns it into compost.

Bacarella uses many clever strategies to turn his clients a dark shade of green along with him. About four years ago, he made the complete switch to organic fertilizers even though many of his customers resisted. Without them knowing, he slowly introduced organic fertilizers to his client’s landscapes over time. As soon as his customers turned in an “A” in the “Effectiveness of Fertilizers” category on their report cards to the company, he then told them that organic fertilizers were used. “We achieved the same goals without using traditional fertilizers,” he says about the switchover. “As soon as our clients were convinced of that, they embraced organic along with us.”

The company’s Bobcat skid-steer loader and dump truck run on biodiesel fuel.

When it comes to his own company’s sustainable operations, Bacarella is close to being paperless. “Even our service tickets are becoming completely computerized,” he says. Garden Works has converted its entire fleet and motorized equipment to alternative fuels. Dump trucks, tractors and bulldozers all run on biodiesel and pick-ups and vans on E85 ethanol.

Garden Works has forged a close relationship with The New York City Parks & Recreation Department (NYCPRD) that recently awarded it a high-profile sustainable landscaping project for the grounds of Valentino’s on the Green in Queens. Valentino’s is a refurbished mansion-turned-restaurant on a public golf course, once a residence for Rudolph Valentino and later a summer retreat for the former flamboyant New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Sustainable landscape elements include a low-drip irrigation system, xeriscape planting, use of local stone for a river rock wall and recycled plastic bottles for the patio surface.

Garden Works is also known for a highly-touted “meditation” garden developed for the Olive Park Condominiums in Williamsburg that was featured in the New York Times and New York magazine. This rooftop garden reflecting the international flavor of its residents features a reflecting pool with wood imported from Brazil, stone imported from Israel and beach pebbles from Mexico. The Zen landscaping project was completed in a month for a quarter of a million dollars.

As with Valentino’s and Olive Park, Bacarella incorporates Feng Shui methods into all of his landscaping. These elements attract a high-end group of customers. “We see colors, shapes and sizes altering the flow of energy with the potential to attract wealth, peace and happiness into a home or business,” he says.

Bacarella attributes his family with instilling a strong community service ethic within him. He finds it important to give back to his community, estimating that his company is involved in as many community projects as commercial ones. Garden Works teamed up with the Coastal Preservation Network to raise money for and replace nearly 200 mature trees in Queens that fell during the September catastrophic windstorm. It also maintains nine Little League ballfields around the city, and donates labor and materials to upgrade the grounds around low-income housing developments. Every year, the company hosts the Halloween Fall Festival fundraiser at a major city park that consistently draws at least 3,000 people.

Bacarella is also involved with a landscaping company in Arizona, operating quite differently than Garden Works. In the next few years, he is looking to franchise his landscape design operations in other states including Arizona, Florida and California through his LandServ Group of Companies.

“We are fortunate in that the recession has not affected our business,” says Bacarella. “We are on track to have our most profitable year. I attribute this to hard work, motivation and a great crew of people working with us.”

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.