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Landscape Designers Ride Momentum from Early Spring

Going Yard

Amherst Landscape & Design Associates

One of Amherst Landscape & Design Associates’ many hardscape projects.

After several lean years during the recession, followed by the slow revival of the home-building and commercial-construction sectors, landscape designers are finally feeling like their industry is surging, with customers jumping on trends ranging from outdoor kitchens to landscape lighting to sustainable elements. A mild winter meant an early start for these professionals, who are optimistic the brisk business will continue throughout 2016.

It’s a simple question, just four words. But it speaks volumes about the optimism area landscape designers feel about the 2016 season.

“The golden question we’re hearing is, ‘when can you start?’ Not ‘let me get back to you,’ but ‘when can you start?’” said Stephen Roberts, president of Stephen A. Roberts Landscape Architecture & Construction in Springfield. “We haven’t heard those words much the last eight years, but we’re starting to hear them. People want to pull the trigger and go.”

That’s not to say the last few years haven’t been positive. Since the lean times caused by the Great Recession, the landscape-design business, like other construction trades, has been on an upward arc. But something seems different — even more positive — this year, Roberts said.

“We’ve seen an uptick in calls coming in, contracts have been signed already, and the backlog is stacking up,” he noted. “It seems stronger than the past few years.”

He admits the unseasonable winter — one in which the Pioneer Valley totaled well under two feet of snow and bare lawns, not mounds of snow, dotted the landscape throughout much of January and February — had something to do with that.

“Of course, we had the mild winter; last year, there was still plenty of snow on the ground at this time, and people weren’t thinking about landscaping,” he said when he spoke with BusinessWest at the start of April. “This year, with hardly any snow, people have been looking at their dreary landscape all winter and thinking about what to do.”

The warm weather also allowed for an early start to work, Roberts said. “We were able to get out much earlier because the ground wasn’t frozen; we could start excavating and preparing for construction. And because we got out into the community earlier, people saw the trucks, and that generated even more action.”

Steve Prothers, president of Amherst Landscape & Design Associates, senses similar optimism in the air.

“It’s exciting. There’s a lot of energy out there, a lot of excitement for the new season,” he said. “Of course, that’s true after every winter, regardless of the severity; come spring, people are excited to be outdoors, and they look to landscaping to make their property a beautiful and desirable place to hang out.”

Still, the mild winter and early onset of warm weather — give or take a couple late-season accumulations that melted quickly — gave landscapers about a four-week start on the time they usually start cranking up, which is typically mid-April.

“From what I can tell, this is going to be a very busy year,” he said. “That shows there’s a lot of construction going on. Landscaping is always the result of a lot of physical building and remodeling, and it’s kind of a snowball effect. We can’t help but benefit. As they go, we go. When they’re down in flow, so are we. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and maybe we’re a little insulated in this region, but we’re still affected by the ups and downs of the national and local economy.”

Roberts agreed that a strong flow of work among both commercial contractors and home builders over the past few years has definitely trickled down to landscapers.

“A lot of new construction is getting ready for landscaping,” he explained. “When the engineers are first getting busy, we’re usually two years out from them. But you’re seeing contracts being signed now for the landscape phase.”

At Home Outdoors

As a specialist in hardscaping, Prothers is in a good spot these days, as that aspect of landscape design has been on an upward track since the recession began to fade and people began reinvesting in their homes in earnest.

“We’re seeing a lot of landscape construction from people who are remodeling or expanding and want to expand their outdoor living rooms, using walkways, patios, gazebos, pergolas … anything that makes the space more inviting to hang out or entertain.”

Click HERE for a chart of area landscape design companies

He said water features and outdoor firepits have become especially popular with customers, not to mention kitchen areas where families can cook and dine outdoors — in some cases, poolside. Others are hardscaping around hot tubs and better connecting the poolside experience to the overall landscape — in both cases, making pools and hot tubs part of the entire outdoor-living experience, rather than standalone spots to enjoy a dip or a soak. “People want to feel like they’re spending vacation time in their backyard.”

Roberts agreed that demand remains strong for outdoor living rooms, cooking areas, and firepits. “Those are still high up on the want list for a lot of customers. And the trend is more toward gas features, which are easier to operate.”

Beyond the cooking aspects, he added, homeowners have moved well beyond lawn chairs and favor durable and weatherproof outdoor furniture. “They want to create comfortable, casual spaces. They want to gather and relax in a little more upscale environment than what they’ve had in the past.”

Steve Roberts and his dog, Max

Steve Roberts and his dog, Max, enjoy a moment at the firepit on the Elms College quadrangle, which his company gave a significant makeover recently.

They’re also increasingly looking to install artistic landscape lighting, also known as architectural lighting, a niche popular in the South that is coming into its own in the Northeast. As opposed to powerful floodlights, landscape lighting uses a variety of smaller accent lights to highlight the features of a home and yard.

“Outdoor lighting is being requested a lot more, with the LED lights available now,” Roberts said. “Those are more energy-efficient, and more people are gravitating toward them than in the past. They’re coming up earlier in the conversation, instead of something being added on in the future; people are asking for lighting up front.”

All these features reflect national landscaping trends, according to Corinne Gangloff, media relations director for the Freedonia Group, which studies landscaping trends. She writes that, “as part of the outdoor living trend, homeowners create outside kitchens and living rooms, and businesses extend outdoor areas to expand their seating space. Urban communities increasingly create ‘parklets,’ small green spaces that may feature flower beds, container gardens, walking paths, water features, seating, bird-watching opportunities, and statuary. Some communities have used these parks as a way to address the issue of abandoned homes in blighted neighborhoods, tearing down the structures and replacing them with this type of public green space.”

Other trends in this $6.3 billion industry, according to the organization’s 2016 survey, include heating elements, pavers, and environmental concerns, driving the popularity of solar-powered features, water conservation, and recycled materials.

“Sustainability is a growing concern and desire for homeowners,” writes Jill Odom, associate editor of Total Landscape Care. “As houses get renovated to conserve energy, yards will be redesigned to conserve water. There are plenty of design options that can be used to achieve this, but the two main options will be low-water-use plant material and better irrigation systems.”

Practical features are popular too, Roberts noted. “A lot of people want to add gardens and grow vegetables and fruit. I think there’s definitely a trend toward having some type of edible landscape aspects to their properties, even if it’s just an herb garden, just to have something to pick and throw on a salad. We see that as kind of a trend.”

Heating Up

While the hot choices in landscaping features might vary from customer to customer, Prothers told BusinessWest, the professionals working in the field report similar levels of enthusiasm for what the spring and summer of 2016 will bring after that remarkably mild winter.

“If it’s not overwhelming, it’s certainly steady work,” he said, noting that customers are starting to think about their spring plans sooner — as in the previous winter or even fall — and booking their projects instead of waiting, as they might have in past years. “They realize these jobs have a schedule, so they want to lock them in, and they’re thinking in advance.”

There are plenty of reasons for that, he added, but in general, people have a little more money to spend right now, and they want to invest it in their homes — specifically, in extending their homes outside. “There are a lot of larger renovation jobs taking place, which is great, but also a lot of older landscapes that were installed 30, 40 years ago, and are tired and need a little attention. People want something that’ll go the rest of distance they’re in their homes — or help them resell their homes.”

The almost complete lack of snow this year, while a relief for the average Massachusetts homeowner weary of long, harsh winters, did pose some stress to landscapers — Roberts included — who turn to snow removal during the cold months. But he’s not complaining about the flip side.

“We rely on that winter income for our overhead, and to give us a little cash going into the spring, and that money wasn’t there this year,” he said. “But, luckily, things are on the upswing now.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]