Nobody says it’s fair, but while COVID-19 and the restrictions necessitated by the global pandemic have had a devastating effect on some industries, it’s been a boon to others.
Even as restaurants, bars, concert halls, movie theaters, gyms and the like fight for their lives, people in any businesses connected with outdoor living and home improvement struggle to keep up with skyrocketing demand for their services. It’s yet another way the global health crisis has upended life in the past 10 months.
The landscaping industry is one of the inadvertent beneficiaries of the pandemic. Beginning last March, people suddenly started spending huge amounts of time at home, often with school-age children. Just as suddenly, they stopped spending money eating in restaurants and going to concerts and movies. Most of all, they stopped taking expensive vacations or doing much traveling at all. The result: more money available to spend on improving their living spaces, inside and out, and more reasons to do it.
“We’ve never had so many calls,” said Daniel Keeley, principle of DK Design in Springdale, a company that designs and installs all manner of outdoor projects throughout Northwest Arkansas. “We’ve always had plenty of work, and we’re always busy, but I would say we’ve had more calls in the past nine months than I ever remember.”
DK Design’s projects since mid-March of 2020 have ranged from simple jobs to large master plans for whole backyard renovations. Keeley says he has seen an uptick in projects geared toward occupying and entertaining children, like in-ground trampolines, play spaces and vegetable gardens. For the most part, he says, the sorts of things people want done to their outdoor living spaces during COVID are pretty similar to what they wanted before.
“The scope of the work is about the same,” he says. “There’s just a lot more of it.”
Buddy Olsen has been in the landscaping business since the mid-1990s and owner of Horticare Landscape Companies in Little Rock since 2005. He saw a big uptick in business last year, one that has continued through the fall and winter. He currently still employs all the landscapers he had in the summer, where ordinarily all but a few would have been furloughed until this coming spring.
“Initially, everything dried up because no one really knew what was going to happen, and people were worried about losing jobs,” Olsen said, looking back to last March when things started shutting down. “Lots of people who didn’t lose their jobs are doing stuff to their yards. Anything that can give them entertainment outside. They’re putting their TVs out on the back porch. They’re putting in more pots, more beds with flowers, just to make it a more appealing place to hang out.”
Since the start of widespread quarantining, outdoor projects his company has undertaken have gotten more elaborate, Olsen said.
“Before, they would probably just do a basic stone patio. Now, it’s going to have a fire pit. Before, it was wood only. Now, more customers are going for a fire pit that uses natural gas, so it’s a continuous flame, and they’re not having to build a fire in it.”
Tyler Burns started Ground Effects Landscaping in Bella Vista in 1996 and does custom residential landscaping all over Northwest Arkansas, particularly in fast-growing Bentonville and Rogers. He says he is always busy, but even more so since last spring.
“We had about an 18 percent growth in 2020 over 2019,” Burns said. “Customers were constantly telling me that they’re not going on vacation. They’re going to take vacation funds and spend them at home.”
He said most of his clients are professionals who can easily work from home and are not worried about losing their jobs. “Nothing has changed for them except for their commute to work. They’re at home now. Their families are at home now. They have more time to look out their windows and and talk about doing those outdoor projects that they maybe thought about for a long time but never did.”
Burns said that while the projects generally are the same now as before the pandemic hit, COVID has had a big effect on the price and availability of materials. Wood, for instance, in some cases has gotten harder to find and much more expensive, as mills shut down when the pandemic began and were unprepared for the surge in demand that followed soon after. He says that some nursery stock has been harder to find, depending on the plant.
Jason Garner, vice president of Antique Brick & Block, said the supply chain has been greatly affected by COVID. His company distributes brick, block, stone and similar building materials, some of which the company manufactures in its plant in Little Rock. Started in 1979, Antique Brick sells materials to commercial and residential contractors, architects and engineers, home builders, designers and landscapers throughout Arkansas as well as Mississippi, Tennessee and parts of Oklahoma.
“Everybody in manufacturing, including our company, has had to be conscientious about the safety of its employees,” Garner said, adding that safety protocols inside their facilities, which are often difficult to maintain, plus increased demand for certain products, has resulted in big supply chain problems and longer lead times on deliveries. “Where customers have gotten used to ordering and having almost instant shipments, we’ve had products that have had lead times go from one week to 12 to 16 weeks in some cases.”
Garner points out another factor that has contributed to the surge in outdoor projects — historically low interest rates.
“There’s pretty sound data to show that investment in outdoor living provides a substantial return on investment when you go on the resale market,” he said. “Obviously, there are caveats to that, but I think that’s one more thing that has spurred people on. They’re making an investment in their homes. They’re making an investment in themselves. And they’re going to have an enjoyable space to live in when it’s all done.”
Keely said outdoor living trends have been the perfect thing for COVID, summing up the overall effect the pandemic has had on landscaping and landscape design. “The trend has been to be outside and to connect with nature, but we want to be comfortable. We want a place to spill over when we have more people over. We want an urban farm situation. All these things have been trends. COVID has just amplified these trends and shown why these things are valuable.”