Lush economy feeds landscaping rush


In a plush green yard in West Friendship, flat gray stones form a walkway and are neatly piled into small walls around a garden of bushes and flowers.

Such amenities are common these days, said the property's landscaper, Rob Boswell of Budding Branch Landscape and Design. Three years ago, however, most homeowners would have chosen a less expensive concrete sidewalk leading to their house, rather than a fancy stone one. They probably wouldn't have opted for the walls around their garden either, Boswell said.

But in a thriving economy, with new homes going up on acre after acre in Howard County, more people are spending more money on their lawns, and Boswell is profiting from it.

He's not the only one.

Howard County is following a national trend of an increasing demand for residential landscaping services. But what some in the industry here are seeing is that the landscaping work is getting more luxurious - a notion that is not necessarily sweeping the country, according to a national survey.

Americans spent $17.4 billion on professional landscaping, lawn care and tree services last year - about $6 million more than in 1998 and $2.8 billion more than in 1997, according to a national Gallup survey sponsored by five lawn and landscape trade organizations.

"It's the combination of the people wanting to use their leisure time in other ways and the fact that the economy has been so good," said Bonnie Van Fleet, spokeswoman for the 2,000-member Associated Landscape Contractors of America, or ALCA, one of the organizations that sponsored the poll.

But while the Gallup survey says the average amount that Americans spent on lawn care dipped from $855 in 1998 to $660 last year, some Howard County landscapers say they're getting more expensive projects than in years past. And the prices they quote for those projects fall well above the national average.

Just ask Christopher Cahill. His 32-employee company, Botanical Decorators Inc., does about half its business on Howard lawns. In the past two years it has completed three landscaping projects in the county that cost more than $400,000 (though it will landscape a lawn for as low as $10,000).

"It's very inclusive - not just plants anymore," Cahill said.

Indeed, for $400,000 you get a lot more than shrubbery. A job of that size includes a pool, lighting, a sprinkler system, wrought-iron fencing, a courtyard and then some.

Cahill, whose business was based in Howard County for 25 years before moving to Montgomery County a year and a half ago, has seen substantial growth in the industry during the past four years - both in the number of yards he's landscaping and how elaborate they've become.

"We're just not seeing quantity, we're seeing higher quality within that quantity," he said. "It's definitely today an architecture extension of the home."

Howard County resident Jeff Bourne, vice president of operations for ALCA, which is based in Virginia, said that given the financial boom here, he's not surprised the county comes out high on the scale on landscaping spending.

"If you look at all the other economic factors of Howard County," he said, "you would find that they would be ranked at the very highest around the country."

A lawn in West Friendship that Boswell is working on, for example, has two phases beyond phase one's bushes, stone walls and walkway leading to the front porch. Phases two and three include a patio with a built-in grill off a lake in the yard and a goldfish pond with running water.

The first phase cost $23,000, slightly more than an average job by Boswell. Three years ago, the company's average was about $5,000.

The trend is also reflected in Budding Branch's annual sales, which jumped from about $350,000 in 1998 to almost $500,000 last year to an estimated $700,000 this year.

Boswell, who grew up in Virginia, has been in the landscaping business since 1984. Back then, he worked for his uncle's Montgomery County company during summers and while earning his bachelor's degree in environmental earth science from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va.

After graduating, he worked for his uncle and several other Virginia and Maryland landscaping companies before starting Budding Branch in 1995.

From the day he opened his business, Boswell has never been short of jobs, but now the company is earning more than ever. "People have a lot more money to spend," he said.

Van Fleet of ALCA says it's because homeowners have more disposable income, and they're spending the money on their lawns. The investment, she said, makes for a prettier view from the street and a more valuable home in the long run.

Jon Cook, owner of Low Maintenance Landscaping Inc. in Ellicott City, says the 30-second "eye appeal" that potential homebuyers see when they drive up to a house can make all the difference.

"If you ever want to sell a house, it just looks better," agreed Helga Zipfel, one of Cook's clients.

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