Although mulching can improve the look of a landscape, providing the service to clients is also beneficial for the soil, plants and trees. The mulch serves as protection from the elements, a way to retain moisture, and it also provides nutrients for plant growth. Landscape contractors know that mulching is a valuable and customer-pleasing add-on service, but how companies implement and charge for the service ultimately determines its profitability.
With multiple benefits to mulching, the service is a vital part of Tommy Randall’s business. “Most of our maintenance customers get this service, and all of our landscape installations get this service as a finishing touch,” says Randall, president of Randall Landscaping, Salem, New Hampshire. “A nicely mulched property really makes the landscape pop.” He adds that implementing mulching services into your already-established maintenance schedule can be both challenging and simple.
The simple part: Randall says it didn’t take much to add mulching services to his business, which he founded in 2007. “All I needed was a truck, a wheelbarrow and some hand tools,” he says. “This is a very easy service to add.” In other words, it doesn’t take a lot of capital. But, he soon learned you can only mulch so many properties with wheelbarrows and shovels.
After awhile, Randall implemented a more efficient way of mulching. Some of the properties his company maintained could not accommodate wheelbarrows, such as on hillsides or ornamental beds within retaining walls. These jobs were too difficult or inaccessible for Randall’s crews, so he subcontracted these properties to a company with a mulch blower.
Let a blower do the work
Seeing how much easier it was to put down mulch with a machine, Randall purchased a small Finn Bark Blower. This allowed his company to work on its own schedule instead of dealing with a subcontractor. “These machines are far from cheap,” he says. “Depending on which unit you buy – tow-behind or truck-mounted, new or used – you can easily spend $40,000 to $100,000 and up.”
When providing mulch as an add-on service, contractors need to make sure they can get an appropriate ROI for their investment in equipment. This depends on several factors, including how much mulch companies put down each season and how efficiently they can do it. Randall says the service is profitable for his business, because the unit allows his employees to do twice as much work in the same amount of time compared to using wheelbarrows. Even with extra costs for the machine’s fuel and maintenance, Randall says the bark blower is more than paying for itself due to the amount of labor it is saving.
Even so, Randall says his company is selective about the mulch jobs it takes. For example, it’s not cost-effective for his guys to put down just a few yards of mulch, or to travel to a job that is more than an hour away from its main service area.
Randall says revenue from mulching grows from year to year in line with his company’s installations. Currently, the company installs more than 1,500 yards of mulch each season.
Randall’s company uses a two-step operation, employing two crews for bigger mulching jobs. The process starts each spring with a cleanup crew removing dead plants, twigs, old leaves and other debris from around all of the beds. This is the most labor-intensive part of the mulching process. After the beds are cleaned, the company sends in a dedicated two- or three-man mulching crew and the mulch bark blower. “This system works out pretty well for us and the guys can consistently blow 50-plus yards a day,” Randall says.
Selling and installation season
When to provide mulching services can be tricky as owners are faced with several decisions. When should clients have their plant beds mulched? When should the mulch be refreshed? Typically, Randall installs mulch starting in the spring and into the summer. After New Hampshire’s long cold winters, his customers are eager to see their properties cleaned up and brightened with a fresh layer of mulch. But, his crews put down mulch throughout the year since all of the company’s landscape installations usually get mulch, as well.
“We will mulch anytime a customer wants the service as long as it fits into our schedule,” Randall explains. “We have even mulched in December and March, with no snow on the ground, of course, because the customer wanted it done for a particular reason.”
As well as being the optimal time for mulching, spring also tends to be the best time to sell the service. Some of Randall’s clients will want a mulch refresh, but most are content with a one-time application.
“Mulching service is not a hard sell to our customers, and they almost expect their landscape contractor to be able to provide this service,” Randall says. “For commercial and condo clients, mulch is always included in their contract and most of our residential maintenance clients ask us to install mulch for them every year, without even having to try to sell it to them.”
Pricing for profitability
The biggest challenge in providing mulch services for Randall has been figuring out how much mulch a job will require and pricing every job to make an acceptable margin. “A customer typically wants a total price to do the job and if you are off by 5 yards that’s not going to be a good thing,” says Randall. “The material costs money so you will either be eating that cost or passing it along to the customer who will not be too happy about that.”
Not estimating or pricing mulch yardage correctly was one of the biggest mistakes Randall says he made at first. “You don’t want to under- or over-estimate the amount (of mulch) so you should spend the time and measure the beds carefully,” he explains. Even with careful measurements, Randall warns contractors to take existing plants and trees into consideration. Their presence will affect the amount of mulch required for each job.
Randall says he prices the service mostly per yard of mulch installed, with edging and pre-cleanup being an extra charge. He always carefully figures in hourly labor rates for each job, as well. “On one job you can have wide open beds and on another you may have beds loaded with perennials and annuals,” Randall explains. “You want to price the beds with flowers higher because of the time spent trying to work around the obstacles and being careful not to damage anything.”
Now that Randall has a mulch bark blower, the company can get a job done in half the time as before, or compared to another business, and still maintain similar pricing. Be sure to take property differences and accessibility into consideration when pricing, as well, Randall advises. No two properties or mulching jobs are exactly the same. Some properties are much harder to access and work around than others.