Perspectives Online

Landscaping adds much to our economy, says Extension horticulturist

The correct use of plants increases property values and provides natural filtration systems for water and air, says Cliff Ruth (above).
Photo by Art Latham

As our communities grow, the landscaping and nursery industries, unlike many other agricultural areas, are expanding exponentially and will continue to grow and thrive.

That's the expert opinion of Cliff Ruth, North Carolina Cooperative Extension area specialized agent in commercial horticulture and turfgrass, who works in the midst of such growth in Henderson County in western North Carolina. The county's status recently changed from rural to smaller urban, he says.

Ruth refers to the landscaping profession as the "green industry." Last year, along with other Cooperative Extension professionals and three state industry associations, he trained and tested more than 100 green industry professionals in three different certification programs. Much of the training was at the two-acre Plant Professional Landscape Garden at the N.C. Arboretum near Asheville.

The specialty garden, which Ruth helped develop, was featured on an "In the Garden with Bryce Lane" segment on UNC-TV last fall.

Ruth, who received the Kim Powell Friend of the Industry Award in January, recently commented on landscaping's economic benefits.

The green industry includes four primary components, all part of our economy's agriculture sector, he notes.

The first two - nurseries (or greenhouses) and sod farms - are production agriculture and generate receipts recorded as farm gate income, the money in wholesale dollars that farmers receive from the sales of commodities they produce.

The second two - landscape installation and maintenance companies - are agricultural services. Income from these two sectors is never included in farm gate income reports.

These industry components include a 500-business area network, as tightly interwoven as a root ball. The network creates jobs for more than 3,000 people in Henderson County alone, with a total annual payroll of almost $75 million, Ruth says.

"That's not exactly chump change," he says, "but it's seldom documented in economic profiles."

Population growth spurs land development, which generates the need for landscaping, which creates new green industry opportunities, including the demand for more plants and employees, Ruth says.

"The green industry's impact on the local economy is one of our region's best-kept secrets," he notes, "perhaps not as visible as a new manufacturing plant moving to the county, but a very important part of job creation and enhancement, as well as potential career development for area youth."

While the green industry doesn't produce food or fiber, the commodities it does produce go beyond aesthetics and include the two natural resources we all most often take for granted: clean air and water.

"Part of this industry growth relates to people's desire to live in healthy environments," Ruth says. "As our state continues to become more urbanized, environmental landscaping - sometimes referred to as 'urban agriculture' - will be a primary economic and environmental driver in all our urban communities."

Properly designed, environmental landscaping meets the environmental challenge in many ways.

"The correct use of plants not only increases property values by 15 to 20 percent, but provides natural filtration systems for water and air, cleaning both at less than 20 percent of the cost of mechanical systems," Ruth says.

He says the proper plants can also reduce energy costs by as much as 50 percent, with the direct savings realized by the property owner often paying for the installation in a few years.

"Environmental policies that require heat sinks, vegetated riparian corridors and stormwater mitigation will continue to influence the demand for high-quality, professionally installed plants and ecological communities," Ruth says.

Training professionals to work in the industry also generates income.

"Certifications or special education isn't required to be a landscaper, but certification often provides an established set of recognized credentials that often can increase an individual's employability in the landscaping trade," he says. For instance, more than 80 percent of the trainees at the landscape garden in 2005 are now industry employed.

Certification also may be important in helping a company meet guidelines for bidding on large projects or meeting insurance regulations, Ruth says.

"Since those who pass the exam and are certified will likely increase their earnings by an average of $2 per hour over the next year," he says, "the certifications' total gross economic impact could very well exceed $500,000 per year in increased earning potential and employee inputs."

- Art Latham