Drought across the country has landscapers scraping by

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With half the nation in the midst of a historic drought, the scenery is looking bleak for landscaping businesses.

Governments across the country have been restricting water use, causing business to dry up for landscaping companies that have been left unable to water lawns and gardens.

The turf industry in Colorado has laid off at least 50 percent of its 2,000 employees because of the worst drought since record-keeping began in 1890, said Brian Ridnour, president of the Rocky Mountain Sod Growers Association.

"This is going to wipe a lot of people out," Ridnour said.

On the East Coast, "a lot of our members are praying for hurricane season," said Melanie Hinkle of the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

This summer, 49 percent of the contiguous United States is in moderate to extreme drought, according to the Palmer Drought Index, a measure of drought severity.

Landscapers say the restrictions are unfair because other industries that rely on water, including car washes, often don't face the same limits. They say no industry is more environmentally conscious than landscaping.

Since Babylon

"Our industry has been out there since the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. For the most part we are very, very conscious about the environment," said Jamie Jameson, whose family has operated Brandywine Nurseries in Wilmington, Del., for 50 years.

In Rockland County, N.Y., just north of New York City, all lawn watering has been banned. Matt Horn, owner of Matteron Nursery, said he was even told he couldn't use water from his own wells.

"At the beginning of this year we were facing no watering of any of our plants," he said. "Our association and myself had to fight it. They were going to put us out of business."

In Denver, where all lawn watering must stop Oct. 1, some homeowners are taking to heart a humorous save-water campaign urging them to brush every other tooth and spray-paint lawns. Sales of a vegetable dye usually used by golf courses and sports stadiums to paint turf green are up.

A few landscapers are taking advantage of drought.

John Probeck, owner of Western Proscape, is making money replacing turf with landscaped gardens in the Denver area. His clients, which have ranged from the Pepsi Center to a Home Depot, are learning from Colorado's history of drought.

"It doesn't mean 'rocking' yards. It doesn't have to be ugly," said Probeck. "Forty acres of turf on a commercial site is asinine. Our biggest hurdle in talking with clients is persuading them that there is an alternative to bluegrass."

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