George Lohmiller thought the COVID-19 pandemic would halt work for his Hancock firm, Our Town Landscaping.
Instead, with people stuck at home, he said, demand for landscaping projects soared. The year 2020 turned into the company’s most lucrative since Lohmiller founded it more than five decades ago.
“We were so bummed out in the beginning,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, we were essential workers.”
With the recent onset of warmer weather, local landscapers like Our Town are swapping out plows and snow-removal equipment in favor of tools for more temperate projects and saying they expect another busy year.
Our Town Landscaping usually employs 12 people in summer but has only four workers — plus office staff — in the colder months, according to Lohmiller. He said many of his summer employees attend college or work at ski resorts in the winter.
In addition to removing snow from residential properties with the company’s snowblowers and two plows, Lohmiller said that time is typically spent fixing other equipment.
“You can’t keep 12 people around to plow snow,” he said. “[The winter] gives you a little break.”
With the ground starting to thaw, Our Town Landscaping began its transition to spring operations last week, according to Lohmiller. First on the agenda: pruning apple trees.
The company’s landscaping work also includes stonework, shrub and tree planting, lawn care and waterfront projects, Lohmiller said.
Stonework often starts in the fall and early winter, he explained, when workers can prepare bases for rock walls and may even begin building the structures. Lohmiller said those projects are often among the most profitable because they can be quite lengthy, limiting the number of jobs the business can take and thus raising demand for its services.
At KDI Landscaping & Grounds Maintenance in Rindge, the staff of about 10 workers remains involved all year, according to owner Isaac French.
In winter, the company removes snow for residential and commercial clients, which French said includes Market Basket in Rindge. KDI crews work fewer hours in winter, given the frequent gaps between snowstorms, but he said the business’ revenue stream is fairly steady year-round.
French said KDI, which does hardscape work like installing patios, walkways and stone walls in addition to lawn and garden maintenance, has already started some of its spring projects.
Like Our Town Landscaping, his business stayed busy in 2020. French attributed the boom to a combination of factors, including people spending more time at home during the pandemic and also many having received relief money from a federal stimulus package last spring.
“Our sales went through the roof last year,” he said. “A lot of people are at home. They’re sick of seeing their yard like that for so many years.”
With projects already lined up into the summer, French said he expects another successful year. He urged clients to “be as patient as possible,” however, explaining that the pandemic continues to delay many materials shipments by multiple weeks.
Lohmiller said he expects staffing to be the biggest challenge for Our Town Landscaping this year.
He predicted that expanded unemployment benefits — the extra $300 per week in federal relief that will be issued to anyone receiving jobless aid through early September — may deter some people from seeking work if they can earn more from that assistance. Lohmiller, who had six employees as of Wednesday, said he has not actually spoken to any candidates who suggested that as a possibility but that he has heard other landscaping companies voice similar concerns.
French said, however, that he does not expect to run into any staffing issues this year. Explaining that he often asks KDI staff members to recommend potential hires from among their friends because “they know what I want,” French said he rarely has trouble finding new employees.
He said weight restrictions on local roads, intended to keep heavy vehicles from damaging the pavement during freeze-thaw cycles, are the main obstacle in transitioning to spring operations because KDI vehicles occasionally exceed the typical 6-ton limit. To ensure its work early in the season is accessible, the company often takes jobs in Massachusetts or that require using state roads, neither of which have weight restrictions, according to French.
“The season’s already pretty short,” he said.
The local weight restrictions are usually lifted by mid-April, French said, expressing hope for another strong landscaping season.
Lohmiller, however, isn’t quite ready to declare winter over.
“We’re putting our plows away,” he said. “But not too far [away]. You know how it goes.”