Manuel Johnson provides whatever service his clients need
Manuel Johnson has built his business, Johnson’s Lawn Service, in Paragould, Ark., by focusing on dependability and providing the equivalent of one-stop shopping. Johnson assures that dependability in several ways, including meticulous attention to detail in the lawns he cares for and in his equipment. “I learned early that when I pulled into a job, I had to be prepared to do everything that was needed. My clients like to deal with just one person. My equipment just wouldn’t let me do that. I talked to the bank and got a loan,” he said. “I invested about $110,000 to get started with equipment that let me do what I needed to do.”
Johnson establishes new lawns, mows grass, manages flower beds and trims trees and shrubs. He also cleans out gutters, clears leaves and does just about anything else that comes along related to lawn care. His success is closely tied to his willingness to make the initial investment in appropriate equipment and his willingness to work the long hours required to build a solid client base.
The yards in Johnson’s client base range from under an acre to more than 11 acres, and are located throughout Greene County. He maintains about a half-dozen business lawns with the remainder residential. Greene County is divided by Crowley’s Ridge, with a mix of flat-land gumbo soil supporting major cotton and soybean production to the east, and extremely rocky, clay soil featuring hills and gullies to the west. Named for an early settler to the region, Crowley’s Ridge itself contains a windblown soil called loess. Lawn soils vary greatly among Johnson’s clients, but warm-season bermuda, tall fescue and zoysia grasses generally do well in all the local soils. The greater significance of Crowley’s Ridge is the terrain of lawns to the west, which have steep banks and gullies.
Johnson used to work with his father in car sales. “My dad owned a late-model used car lot,” he said. “As my dad was getting older, I knew I didn’t want to take it over, so I started looking around at different work. I had always been an outdoorsman, enjoying hunting, fishing and doing most anything outdoors. In 1998, I was clearing out 22 acres that a woman had just purchased. It was in tall timber, and I took out all the scrub brush and left the timber. She asked me if I would put in a yard for her, too. I put in a 1-acre yard of rye and fescue. Other people learned I was doing yard work, and it just went from there.”
Johnson emphasized that his early years were a trial and error learning process. “The first year, you almost sink, the second year you just float and you get more customers,” he said. “By the third year, you’ve got to turn a profit.”
Caring for lawns
Johnson has learned the ins and outs of manicuring lawns and scheduling the 46 lawns he cares for. “The only thing we don’t do is apply chemicals,” he said. Even that task, though, is coordinated by Johnson. He schedules the fertilizer and weed control applications through Adams Nursery and Northeast Arkansas Turf Care, both in Paragould, and Sartin’s in Jonesboro.
While manicuring lawns is a primary focus, Johnson completes the high number of other tasks associated with lawns. “We have one lawn with a concrete driveway .25 mile long, so that’s .5 mile of edging,” he said. “We planted petunias in the spring and took them all out replacing them with pansies this fall. We’ll plant from around 800 plants up to around 1,400.”
While fescue and zoysia grasses are used in the area, most of Johnson’s clients prefer the plush look of bermudagrass despite it’s early fall dormancy. “We’re changing some of the fescue yards over to bermuda just because our clients want that plush green bermuda,” he said.
Johnson said that just learning how to cut grass properly was a major undertaking. “I knew how to cut grass, of course, but cutting it so it looks perfect required some trial and error.” He started mowing with an inexpensive, walk-behind mower. “That lasted about three months,” he said. He started using John Deere mowers in 2000 from Legacy Equipment, formerly Kirk Equipment, in Paragould, and is now using his 11th John Deere, a JD 960.
“I had to start early to get through all the yards,” Johnson said. Arkansas summers are hot and dry, but despite dry fields, humidity is extensive, and most of the lawns are irrigated, contributing to lawns remaining wet well into midday. “I found that if I was going to cut wet grass I had to have a bagger mower, so I bought my first Wright diesel mower in 2001 from Jonesboro Tractor,” he said. “We’ve had five Wrights.”
He started using Honda Hydrostat mowers in 2003, purchasing from Lyle’s Engine Repair, Paragould. “It’s smaller, and I like to use it when we’re on soft yards. We’re using our fourth Honda,” he said.
The extremely rugged terrain calls for various approaches. “My trailer carries the three types of mowers we use. The Wright diesel can be used to bag, discharge or mulch,” he said. “The John Deere gives us more power, and I like to use the Honda Hydrostat on soft yards to avoid making ruts in the yards. Sometimes we’ll have all three mowers running.”
Johnson said, “I don’t use turf tires. I use knobby tread tires for more traction on our gullies and banks.”
Equipment care is a major focus for Johnson. “I never wash a piece of equipment. If you get water into any of those electronics, it’s a major problem,” he said. Instead, he opts for high-powered blowers to clean the equipment. “I always try to turn over my equipment after about 1,500 to 1,800 hours,” he said. He uses all Stihl trimmers and edgers.
Johnson has increased his prices only three times even though recent overhead costs have increased. “We have had to learn to work more efficiently,” he said. “We have to use the right equipment to do the job efficiently to keep costs down.”
Johnson bills his customers only for the number of times he actually mows grass or does other work. “I get paid only when I work. If it rains on the day we’re scheduled to do a lawn, we don’t go back to do it, but if it rains the second week, then lawns are rescheduled, so nobody’s lawn goes more than two weeks,” he explained.
Tree and shrub trimming is an essential part of maintaining manicured lawns. Bradford pear trees are very popular in northeast Arkansas, presenting a cloud-like appearance when in spring bloom. “They’re very popular and beautiful, but they aren’t strong trees,” Johnson said. “You have to trim them back hard to avoid branches catching the wind and breaking off or splitting the tree.” Each fall, Johnson collects the abundant leaves on the yards and disposes of them on property owned by his family.
Johnson’s wife Carmon, a supervisor at Monroe Auto Equipment manufacturing facility, has worked with her husband from the start. Their daughter, Candace, a junior at Arkansas State University, began working in the lawn care business as a teenager and continues to help out when she has time available. “Occasionally, I’ve subcontracted with other people to do some mowing when I’ve gotten behind, but they’re people I know well who are just as particular about their work as I am,” he said.
“We’ve been very lucky,” Johnson said, citing the expanding northeast Arkansas industrial base as bringing in a number of new clients. “I think Paragould is about 40,000 population now, and Jonesboro, 17 miles away, about 60,000. The recession hasn’t hit Arkansas as hard as some places, and there are a lot of new industries that have brought in people. My clients depend on me and really want to deal with just one person for everything about their lawns,” Johnson said.
Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.