The company motto for Ringers Landscape Services is “Landscaping Today for Tomorrow,” and probably nowhere is that more evident than the work the company is doing for the local school district in Fox River Grove, Illinois.
What started as a maintenance contract has expanded into a long-term plan for the district’s elementary and middle school campuses. The heavy emphasis on sustainability has become an extension of the schools’ classrooms.
It’s also won a Merit Award with sustainability honors for partners Brandon Losey and Erik Ringstrand from the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association.
Losey says the relationship began modestly enough. Ringers was referred to the district by one of its teachers and was initially hired to do little more than cut the grass and maintain the trees. However, the two men were willing to do a little educating of their own.
“We started to see a lot more potential in the sites, and eventually we got ourselves in front of the school board,” says Losey. “We presented a five-year master plan on how they could create a more beautiful landscape, but also something that could be incorporated into the curriculum.
“It’s really a long-term idea, but we got them to believe in it.”
Fortunately, with Losey’s background in landscape architecture, he could put together a presentation so the board could visualize the potential for its landscapes. Once members were committed to beautifying the property, the company added educational components.
Losey describes what’s been done to date as a multistep process that began simply with renovating the two campuses — each of which sits on approximately 4 to 5 acres.
“To begin we just updated what was there,” he says. “The campuses were your typical 1970s and ’80s evergreens, yew hedges, not many perennials and big areas of turf that weren’t necessary.”
A good case in point was the elementary school entrance, which he describes as having little foundation beds and two patches of turf.
“We completely removed the turf and planted it with a Roy Diblik-style plant community,” says Losey, referencing the noted plantsman and designer who favors plants native to northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. “We planted perennials that have a lot of seasonal interest and a lot of color, but are low maintenance.”
Other projects have included installing a rain garden to address drainage issues, removing invasives, and creating a woodland garden with paths, big stumps and play structures made from materials found on-site.
“This will be year two or three for that space,” Losey says.
The rain garden also provides a good example of how the educational component of what Ringers is doing works.
“I drew up and laid out a sign about how the rain garden works, why it’s important and what plants are there,” says Losey.
The company has also incorporated tree tags that have scannable QR codes so the students and teachers can find out more about each tree, and other interpretive signage.
Ringers has also had both campuses certified as Conservation@School sites. The program, run through the Land Conservancy of McHenry County and Barrington Area Conservation Trust, focuses on using native plants, conserving rain water, managing invasive species and reducing use of chemical fertilizers and irrigation.
It’s enough that Losey says the company has gotten good buy-in from its public.
“Everyone has become a proponent of the idea behind the project,” he says. “The principals are very involved and excited about walking around and seeing birds and bees and bugs and life happening on campus. We’ve had very little push-back against the idea of a more naturalized landscape, and it’s a great group to work with.”
One thing the new landscaping has produced is teachers taking students outside for “brain breaks” where they talk about what they see.
Losey adds the next big challenge will be to bring a more structured educational component to the project. However, he admits that’s a bit outside the company’s level of expertise.
“Our idea is to pass this on to an interested group of students and teachers who can take it and run with it,” he says. “We’re already seeing some of that happen.”
From a business standpoint, the understanding and involvement of the larger community is also critical, he explains. Every year, the Ringers’ owners walk the site with the district superintendent and the facilities manager talking about on-site issues they see as a prelude to making a presentation to the school board.
“It might be that this area gets muddy or the kids are cutting through this space,” says Losey. “Then, Erik and I go back and develop some ideas and present them to the board.”
Currently, the company’s contract with the district ranges from $12,000-$15,000 per year “depending on what they’re willing to spend,” says Losey. That includes the maintenance, including organic fertilizing, which he says is a huge challenge on sites that size.
Getting people to believe in the idea and getting them excited about it is definitely the part of the project of which Losey is most proud. However, he says it’s also important to make it everything he’s envisioned it to be.
To do that, Ringers has had to be totally invested in what’s being done.
“We have a mowing crew to do that and other routine maintenance,” Losey says. “Then we have a dedicated crew that just takes care of the plants. That really is how you should approach a project like this; you must have a dedicated gardening crew working on-site almost weekly.
“Our staff horticulturist, Ken Williams, has been instrumental in the establishment and distribution of the sites’ mostly native plantings, which is the main component of the entire project,” he adds.
The execution and communication components of the job are another source of pride for Losey and Ringstrand.
“It’s easy to pitch something like this, but when you have to implement it, you have to follow through,” he says. “There’s been a lot of communication, although sometimes it’s a challenge to communicate effectively.”
The other challenge: working with a government board.
“It’s a matter of planning ahead,” Losey says. “They have certain timelines that things have to be approved by. It’s not like working with a residential owner where they can just say, ‘It’s OK; let’s do it.’ We always have to be thinking ahead.”
In short, it’s a relationship that provides learning for students and teachers — and for the Ringers’ partners, as well.
“When we started, we had ideas that we wanted to implement sustainable landscaping in our company,” Losey concludes. “This was really one of our first big opportunities, and we’ve learned a ton. We’ve made mistakes, but when we’ve made them, we correct them and make sure to get it right.”