Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Maintenance Gets No Respect

2nd Speech to Networking Toastmasters, 4/1/2013

Maintenance gets no respect.  On website drop-down lists of occupations, from the IRS to Linked In, there is no listing for gardening or landscape maintenance.  I am the perpetual “Other.”  This goes to show how much the kind of people who create such websites think about property maintenance.
Maintenance isn’t fun or creative to most folks; it is drudgery.  It comes after the excitement of building something new.  It doesn’t directly contribute to making money, so when money gets tight, it is the first thing to be cut.
But it is the last thing that should be cut, and the first thing that should be done.  I have had customers who don’t like me to weed unless they tell me to, because they want me building new beds and planting, and they don’t regard weeds as threatening until they are taking over.  But it is far easier and cheaper to pull a few weeds before they take over, than to ignore them and clean up a major infestation the next year.  Building can wait; maintenance must be done first, lest you build more than you can maintain.
The other day, my apprentice was working and a young man walking by asked him, “What are you doing?”  “Pulling weeds,” he said.  As they walked away, the youngster said to his companion, “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”
We have developed many labor-saving devices, like weed whackers, riding mowers, herbicide sprays and mulches that make people think that they can get away with not pulling weeds.  And yet, weeds are taking over our town.
It’s because none of these things can replace weeding.  Cutting doesn’t stop weeds from going to seed, it just makes them seed out low.  Riding mowers allow workers to ignore goatheads as they mow, spreading them around and to other properties.  Glyphosate, AKA Roundup, is a heavy fertilizer of annual and broadleaf weeds; it kills one generation and fertilizes the soil for the next.  Spring weeds seed out before they die, not reducing their seed load. 
But weeding is the most expensive part of maintenance, and few commercial crews do it.  I suspect that most maintenance contractors have never actually done the work; they just hire guys off the street, or better yet, the developmentally disabled, and give them minimal training with cutters and herbicide, because they don’t understand or respect their own profession. Their workers care as much as their bosses care, and their bosses care as much as the customer cares.  If they get no criticism from their customer, they slack off and ignore their contract.  They may not even look at the property after they get the contract, leaving it wholly to their crews.
Our Community Corrections work crew bosses mis-train our miscreants, discouraging them from picking up the smallest litter to cover more ground, and not having them weed or pick up litter before weed whacking and mowing.  Many of these go on to work on commercial maintenance crews.
Mexican work crews actually pull weeds and pick up litter, being short and better built for bending.  They also tend to keep the soil bare.  All but a few crews clean up leaves rather than use them for mulch; most mulch with soil-killing fine bark that makes a fine seed bed.
Other people’s servants judge your maintenance further than you may think you are responsible for.  Many customers and maintenance people figure that their responsibility stops at the curb.  Leaves rotting and grass growing in your gutter looks neither professional nor respectable.
But even people who care about such things don’t necessarily think about them, because they sneak up on one.  Beauty attracts the eye; ugliness repels it.  A new landscape gradually become less beautiful and stops attracting notice; as it becomes ugly, the subconscious avoids noticing it at all, especially when the problem is widespread.  It blends in to the general mediocrity, not a good thing for advertising your business.
Grants Pass built a new Public Safety station.  They apparently got a landscape architect to design for low maintenance, with strawberry ground cover in place of lawn.  But they handed the design to an ignorant contractor who used cheap, soil-killing fine bark mulch around the shrubs and Jo Gro on the lawn area.  They then gave it the same maintenance as most other city properties: cleaning up all the oak leaves that would have suppressed weeds; mowing; and not weeding at all.  Their ground-cover lawn became a mowed weed patch, with a few strawberry plants showing the original intent.
The City hires people to supervise their building contractors, but not their landscape maintenance contractors.  Those are allowed to ignore their contracts and do lousy work, because the city has failed to take landscape maintenance seriously as a profession or as a necessity.  If you don’t respect the necessity for maintenance and the skills it requires, your maintenance servants won’t respect you, your property, or their contract.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener    541-955-9040

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