The nicest landscape in the neighborhood isn’t worth much if it ends up at the bottom of a gully. Anytime there is a slope, excess water, exposed soil — or a combination of these — erosion is a threat. Landscape contractors can solve most residential erosion and drainage problems that don’t involve serious engineering and heavy equipment. Erosion control typically isn’t a hard sell. Clients know they need it, says Chadd Brummett, owner of Brummett Enterprise in Bloomington, Indiana. “Usually they have water coming into their basement or destroying something on their property,” he says. Calls tend to pour in during the spring or after extended wet periods, Brummett says. But often problems originated long ago: “After we get 6 inches of rain in 24 hours, they call and say, ‘We just had an erosion problem.’ But I can see it’s something they’ve had for a long time, and it just took some really bad weather to get bad enough to call us.”
Erosion control is more of a “need” expenditure for customers than a “want,” the way a paver patio or an outdoor fireplace might be, agrees Scott Mitchell of Mitchell Lawn and Landscape in St. Louis. “There’s no ‘wow factor’ with erosion control, but you are solving a problem,” he says.
He has seen an increase in this type of work over the last two years, mainly driven by the weather. “With all the rain we’ve had in St. Louis, the phone has been running off the hook with drainage and erosion problems,” Mitchell says.
Brummett adds that erosion control represents a growing part of his business, and more calls seem to be coming in all the time. “The weather has gotten so much more extreme and unpredictable, and we’re getting larger storms and more rain,” he reports.
Problems and solutions.
Robert Swartzlander, owner of Royal Landscaping Services in Lillington, North Carolina, says erosion control makes up half his business. Problems — and solutions — are wide-ranging. “The spectrum is huge,” he says. “You can sometimes correct erosion-control problems with simple grade work. Sometimes it requires drain systems. In extreme cases, sometimes it requires retaining walls. It just depends on the severity of the erosion and the site.”
Most issues that Swartzlander sees in his state stem from poor construction practices and site preparation. “The builders here start building on the top of a hill and then the last two or three homes in the development get all of the water,” he says. “What’s more baffling to me is that I don’t think there’s a general contractor in the state who owns a laser for grade work. I see a guy on a machine on one side of the yard and a guy lying on the ground on the other side giving him ‘up’ or ‘down’ signals with his thumb. I’ve been doing landscape construction my whole life, and I’m pretty good, but I can’t grade without a laser.”
One thing Swartzlander tries to do is solve erosion problems right at the source, which is sometimes as simple as controlling the flow of water coming off a roof. He says the black corrugated pipe typically connected to downspouts on homes is usually not sturdy enough for the job. “That stuff collapses over a few years, and the little part that sticks out of the ground to connect to the downspout gets broken down by UV rays and completely disintegrates when it gets hit by a lawn mower,” Swartzlander says. “If the connection breaks, water will just continue to pour onto the ground beside the house; if the pipe collapses underground, it might be a season or two before you even know, but then you’ll walk across your backyard and fall into a trench. Either way, there’s erosion happening.”
To avoid these problems, he uses PVC for downspout systems, which holds up better both above and below ground. “A lot of landscapers don’t want to do that because they don’t want to take the time to cut the fittings and put the 90-degree elbows and the sleeves on,” Swartzlander says. “It’s cleaner, and it’s really the right thing to do for people. For homeowners who use us for their downspouts and erosion control, we offer a lifetime warranty.” Using PVC might cost the customer a little more, but for those who have had water destroy their basement or yard, the price never becomes an issue, he adds.
In St. Louis, heavy clay soils often create puddles in backyards as well as leaky basements, Mitchell says. Also, many hillside homes are missing the retaining walls they needed when they were built. “That means we need to modify the landscaping in some way, often either the installation outcroppings of boulders or retaining walls to help slow down surface water,” he says. “We might have to do surface grading or put in catch basin drains. What we try to do is get the water that’s causing the erosion off the surface as quickly as possible and into a pipe and diverted to a drainage ditch on the back of the property or a sewer inlet or out into the woods.”
Mitchell has used ground cover to control surface erosion and large pieces of natural rock to slow down the flow of water. “The faster the water moves, the more it’s going to erode the surface,” he explains. For erosion control on a short-term basis, Mitchell prefers to use a straw blanket held down with sod staples when seeding a slope instead of scattering straw on the surface. He also suggests that property owners go with sod rather than seed and straw.
Ki Jones, landscape manager at Davis Lawncare in Augusta, Georgia, says that as with other landscape features, the choice of products and materials for erosion control is up to the property owner. “Sometimes on a hillslope, they’ll just want us to plant lovegrass seed and cover it with some straw matting, which is made of a nylon with the straw woven in between,” he explains.
But for erosion-prone slopes, Jones prefers to use matting that degrades in about a year or less — just long enough to help establish the vegetation. He likes low-maintenance, heat-tolerant lovegrass rather than Bermuda grass, which can be difficult to mow on slopes.
Jones also observes that junipers are regaining popularity for erosion control.
Riprap is another good way to slow down water flow, he adds. “That way, when we get big downpours, we don’t end up having things wash out,” Jones says. He sometimes uses river rock for the same purpose if the property owner wants a look that’s a little more dressed up.
Erosion-control materials should suit the overall landscape design, Jones says, and what is appropriate will vary by region.
In addition to selecting the right materials, Jones recommends identifying areas that may be susceptible to erosion before a landscape is installed. “Sometimes I’ll get plans that call for sod, and then I go to look at the job site and say, ‘There is no way we can hold that hillside — you can’t even walk up and down this hill,'” he says. “That’s when I recommend other alternatives.”
In the 25 years Brummett has been providing erosion-control services, he says making a profit has become increasingly difficult because of the cost of the equipment. Contractors must have a lot of work to make a go of it. “It takes over $1 million in compact equipment to even think about doing some [bigger] jobs – at least to do the work on a professional level and do it well,” he says.
Newer or well-maintained equipment is a must to provide the precision grading these jobs often require. “If you’ve got an old piece of equipment that has a lot of slop in it, you won’t be able to be accurate,” Brummett says. “That’s where a lot of guys fail: by trying to use old, worn-out equipment.”
On a positive note, he says most jobs aren’t labor intensive: “Putting the [erosion-control] blankets out can be time consuming because you have to pin them down in a lot of places. But most of the work is just running equipment.”
Jones has had a different experience and often employs the same equipment used in other landscape installation work. “We use a skid-steer loader quite a bit to be able to move riprap around and to do grading. You might need a mini-excavator. A spreader for seed is important. As for materials, you mostly just need to buy matting and sod staples to tack it down,” he explains. A hydroseeder is a piece of specialty equipment that some contractors might need. “We don’t do enough hydroseeding to own one; we just rent one when we need it,” Jones adds.
Other than river rock, most materials used for erosion control are relatively inexpensive. But the jobs he has done have required a fair amount of manpower. “The work is just a little more labor-intensive than landscape maintenance because there’s sometimes just no machine that can do the work,” Jones says. “There’s usually a lot of handwork.”
Like any other type of landscape work, erosion control jobs can be profitable “as long as you know how to bid it out,” he says. For those new to erosion control, figuring out how long different jobs will take to complete to bid effectively may take some time, he notes.
He says erosion control can be a great add-on service for clients. “I can tell them that I can build their retaining wall, install their irrigation and then take care of that little erosion-control project over there. It helps you to offer them the total package,” Jones reports. “And they like it because if anything goes wrong, they’ve got one person to call.”
Part of determining whether a job will be profitable is taking into account its cleanup work, Mitchell notes. When working with wet soil, making a mess getting in and out is inevitable.
Overall, he says, it pays to do the job right. Preventing erosion is a lot cheaper than controlling it once it happens. But Mitchell warns that property owners and even contractors may be looking for low-cost shortcuts. “If you’ve got saturated clay soils and you dig that out to put in a pipe, you don’t want to just put that soil back in because you’ll just be defeating the point of the pipe,” he explains. Maybe this means using double-wall rather than corrugated piping, which tends to clog with debris. “We try to tell our customers to do it right the first time, even if it means paying 10 percent more upfront.”