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Going the Extra Yard: Q&A With Sickles Landscaping Co.

Lawn care and yard design can be tricky business - from how much to water and when, to what to plant and where. We interviewed Steve Sickles of Sickles Landscaping Co. to fill you in on the who, what, where, why and how of growing - and keeping - a healthy yard looking good. Read what he has to say about:

·         The leaf-blower ban
·         The #1 secret for a healthy lawn
·         The coolest project he's worked on
This is high season for landscapers - how has business been this year so far?  

Being a seasonal business, you have to be prepared to ramp up from 0-to-60 really fast. Winter is relatively quiet and then all of a sudden we're flying. The phone usually starts ringing mid-March, and all it takes is one nice day in April and the phone is off the hook. Birds start singing and the phone starts ringing!


I have been in this business for more than 25 years and there is an art to satisfying the regular client base while also growing the business with new clients. We must keep the right amount of staff and equipment on hand, and also be flexible enough to adjust for the weather. Mother Nature is not always a good business partner!

Our goal through it all is to keep every one of our clients happy.  


Arlington is known as an eco-friendly community - are you getting more requests for 'green' landscaping practices?

About 10 years ago I started hearing more about the green movement. I do see more requests for fertilizers that are more environmentally friendly, organic lawn food, and grass varieties that require less water and/or fertilizer. I would say I had a small surge in green requests about five years ago, but it has leveled off a bit since then. I think 'green' has become very commercialized, and green marketing has made it confusing for consumers to understand what is truly beneficial to the environment, and what is false advertising.


How much do you rely on local resources when selecting plants, flowers and other resources?

Almost 100%. My main supplier for compost and mulch is Lalicata Landscape Products in Arlington. Wagon Wheel Nursery, and Shemin Nursery in Lexington are also included in my top go-to businesses. What's your number one secret for helping clients maintain a lush lawn?


The number one secret is water, water, water. You really need to water about two-to-three times per week, or about an inch of water per week. Set a timer if you have one for early morning - anytime between 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. is perfect. And you don't want to water at night because if the blades of the grass stay wet at night the lawn can develop a fungus.

And because so many people struggle with their lawns, what are secrets two and three?


Proper maintenance. You have to remember that your lawn is a living thing - it needs food, water, sunlight and oxygen. The lawn should be cut once a week - but not too short or it will just dry out. If you're not interested in a lot of fertilizing, you should at least apply a spring and fall fertilization, plus an application of Lime in the fall is important.

To sum it up: Water, maintenance and fertilizing are the most important components for a healthy lawn.


What's the first question you ask clients to determine their landscape style?

My clients aren't shy - they usually tell me!  After they tell me what they're interested in, I guide them through the options that would work best for their home. House style is important, as is what's fitting to the neighborhood. But at the end of the day, it is the customer's decision.


What are the biggest factors that go into deciding the overall landscape layout?

Again, it goes back to the house structure itself. Whether it's a Bungalow or a Colonial, a one-story or two-story - house style sets the stage for the surrounding landscape.


First, I look up. I look to the canopy of the trees to see whether there is shade or lack of shade - with particular considerations for summer shade situations.

Next, I look at the grades of the land. I do not encourage changing the grade of the land unless there are existing drainage issues - otherwise you can open a can of worms.  Ledge is also a consideration in Arlington, including soil conditions.


Finally, budget. Customers really need to determine their budget not only for the plantings, lawn, and design, but for the maintenance and care long-term. If you're going to maintain the yard yourself, be sure to budget for time. If not, be sure to budget for a yard-care service.

Given the attention it's been getting in town, we have to ask: What's your take on the leaf-blower ban?


This is a huge debate in town. I'm a member of the landscapers group in Arlington that's trying to overturn the ban. I understand there are many reasons for the proposed ban, but this isn't just about noise. This is, and has been, my livelihood for more 25 years.

Someone in a town meeting said, "10 minutes of raking is good for mind and soul." I think sometimes people forget that we're not a bunch of kids running around with some lawnmowers. We are no different than sales representatives, accountants, retail staff, or anyone else that provides a service. We are professionals trying to run a business and we need the tools that will allow us to do the best job possible, and give our customers the fastest, most efficient service.


Should we tell the pizza shops in town that they need to go back to mixing dough by hand because the electric mixers were too loud? Or, should we tell the farmers to go back to horse and plow because the tractors are too loud?

There is not a huge profit in landscaping. It is hard labor and we work within very tight margins. We always leave a yard - and the street - cleaner than when we found it.  Going back to brooms would make this near impossible. I hate the thought of passing along the costs of clean-up to customers. I have a lot of long-time customers - many elderly - and some who are on the brink of not being able to afford services. This will not only impact those people, but the people on their street and neighborhood if they are not able to physically keep up with their yards.


And on a side note, I find it interesting that gas blowers will be allowed on town-owned property. I'm not sure Arlington residents realize this affects them, too, as they will not be allowed to use a gas blower on their own property. It just doesn't seem fair.

Of course many people are asking, "What's next?" No chainsaws? No gas powered lawn mowers? No tractors? We should all step back and think about the possible snowball effect that could take place if we start down this path.


What's the coolest or most unique project you have worked on?

About 20 years ago in Maynard we built an exercise trail, or 'fit course,' through the woods a on a 20-acre piece of property. We worked all through the winter on 13 or 14 stations, and we did it all by hand.


We cut trees and cleared the path, we dug all the 4 foot holes for each of the stations, we mixed the cement by hand, brought in the water by hand, put the wood chips down through the woods, graded an embankment by a pond and built steps.  It was tough work, but it was fun -- and it was a nice way to spend time working through the winter.

Steve Sickles

Sickles Landscaping Co.

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