Why some property owners maintain their own grounds
Editor’s Note: There are many business owners and commercial property owners around the country that choose to handle their own lawn care and maintenance. While they aren’t necessarily competing with you for clients, they have decided to take care of the maintenance of their grounds, which means they are not hiring companies like yours to handle their properties. Last fall, we talked to a B&B owner to see why he has chosen to do it this way.
Whether it’s home renovation, car restoration or landscape maintenance, there are some people who would just rather do the job themselves than hire professionals. These are serious do-it-yourselfers who have a passion for the work that’s usually reserved for the pros. And, like professionals, these dedicated amateurs seek out the latest knowledge and the professional-level tools to help them do the job right.
John Bonenfant and his wife, Nancy, own The Victorian on Sunset Hill, a historic bed and breakfast in Sugar Hill, N.H. When they purchased the property in 2000, Bonenfant, a construction professional by trade, decided they would undertake the restoration project themselves. “The person who had owned it for the past 25 years had really done nothing to the property,” Bonenfant explains. “I used to ride my bike up the hill past this place. For the longest time it was for sale. No one would touch it because everything had to be done over—everything. We thought, being in construction, why not make an offer. So, that’s what we did.”
The impressive Victorian design meant that there was plenty of intricate work to do, including 110 windows to clean, over 1,000 spindles to address and plenty of trim to paint. “I like a house with some detail. When people look at it and say, ‘Wow, that took some time to do all that,’ I appreciate that,” Bonenfant says.
“It took longer and it took more money that we anticipated, but we thought it was worth it. The view here is just spectacular,” he explains. “We fine-tuned things over the years, and added on an innkeeper’s quarters.” The bed and breakfast is open on weekends or by appointment, allowing the Bonenfants to typically spend weekdays in Massachusetts and travel to New Hampshire on the weekends to service their guests.
As impressive as the building itself is, it’s the surrounding grounds that really attract attention, and again, the Bonenfants are responsible for the stunning landscaping that has been established on the property. “It was just like the house, it wasn’t kept up,” says Bonenfant of the initial condition of the grounds. “I thought, with cars driving by, if the outside looks nice, people will feel the inside probably looks nice as well.”
The couple does not do any advertising for their bed and breakfast, so the immaculate appearance of the grounds is their opportunity to promote it to those passing through the area. “I pride myself in that,” says Bonenfant, whose dedication to the appearance of the lawns might be inherited. “Growing up, my father was a stickler for cutting the grass and having the lines straight and everything perfect,” explains Bonenfant. “He was a big baseball fan, and he’d be sitting outside listening to the ball game on the radio and telling me if the lines on the lawn weren’t straight.”
These days, it’s Bonenfant himself who is a stickler for turfgrass perfection. “I wanted to have the nicest lawn in the area,” he explains. “Starting right after we purchased the property, I would get up at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings and I would lime the lawn and fertilize it. I didn’t want too many people to see me doing it, because not too many people in this area treat their lawns that way.”
In addition to all of these cultural practices, Bonenfant made one important change that greatly improved his lawn care program: purchasing a high-quality commercial mower. “My son got me a nice Exmark zero-turn mower,” says Bonenfant. “It’s got a nice stainless steel roller on it to give the lawn nice lines when we roll it, and it has a mulcher. It works terrific. It’s a lot quicker. Before, I was using a garden tractor, and it took forever to cut the lawn. Just in turning alone, I used to waste so much time with the lawn tractor.”
The commercial Exmark is also much more comfortable to operate over the hours it takes to mow the lawn to perfection, he says, “It’s larger, more comfortable and does a better job. Everything about it is worth the cost.” The precision of the mower also allows him to better control the cut of the grass. “I’ve always been a believer in not cutting the lawn too short. I mow it at about 3 inches in the summer,” Bonenfant explains, adding that the higher height produces a little more professional look and allows the striping to show up a little better from the rollers.
Because he’s at the bed and breakfast only on weekends, Bonenfant has only a small window of opportunity to get the lawns mowed, and he credits the improved performance of a commercial mower for helping him get things done on time. “I’m usually here only from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon. If the weather is lousy, I’m in trouble,” Bonenfant explains. He’s found that using the mulching kit on his Exmark mower has made the grass healthier and grow faster. “There are some weekends after a lot of rain where I mow it twice. I’ll raise the blades up so I don’t cut too much off on a Thursday, and then I’ll lower the blades a little and mow it again on Sunday.”
Bonenfant has used the extra time he’s gained to further enhance the lawn. “I mow in four different directions, so the lines look perfect from any angle,” he explains. “It’s very impressive.”
The same level of attention goes into the rest of the grounds. Bonenfant credits Nancy for the tremendous gardens that now define the building and surrounding landscape. “She does the plantings, and I do the lawn,” he says. “She is really into the plantings. Recently, she just installed a number of bulbs, which will look great next year. People ask us who we used for an architect and to maintain the grounds, but I tell them that we’ve done everything ourselves.”
The abundance of gardens and landscape beds does create the need for a lot of edging, says Bonenfant. He purchased an edger, but has found that a high-quality string trimmer works best for maintaining the edges once they’ve been established. “I have an Echo weed wacker, and I prefer to use that. I use the stainless steel edger to edge all the beds in the spring, and then I maintain them throughout the year with the trimmer, and they look really good,” he explains.
Beyond his father’s admonitions to mow in straight lines, Bonenfant had no landscaping experience before he decided he would maintain the grounds of The Victorian on Sunset Hill by himself. “I found that I really love it,” he explains. “It’s instant gratification. It’s not like building a house, where it takes months to complete. When I mow the lawn here, four hours later I can step back and say, ‘Hey, that looks nice.’”
The area behind the bed and breakfast was heavily wooded, and the decision was quickly made to clear some of the trees to improve sunset views. The area that was cleared is mowed every three weeks or so with the lawn tractor, rather than groomed as a manicured lawn. Bonenfant typically waits until late morning or early afternoon before mowing, in order to avoid awakening or disturbing guests at the bed and breakfast.
Despite the time commitment required to maintain the lawns to such a high standard, Bonenfant says it’s never been a consideration to hire a professional landscape company to handle the job. “I just enjoy it so much that I’d rather do it myself. It’s just like running the bed and breakfast, we’d rather do it ourselves. There’s more satisfaction that way,” he explains. “It’s very important to me to get the lawn mowed and looking great by Friday afternoon, because that’s when we get a lot of traffic driving by. It’s a labor of love, it’s not work. I just really want the place to look nice.”
Bonenfant has learned a number of lawn maintenance lessons over the years, like waiting until the dew has dried before mowing. “If the grass is wet, it definitely clumps, and that looks awful,” he explains, adding that he also doesn’t trim when the grass is wet in order to avoid becoming covered in clippings himself. “I’m a big believer in wearing safety glasses and that type of equipment, especially when trimming,” he says. Finally, Bonenfant points out, “I’ve learned that using the right equipment makes all the difference.” That’s a lesson for everyone, professionals and amateurs alike.
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.