This is a column by landscapers, for landscapers. In it, you’ll find knowledge, views and insights from professionals just like you, who are currently working in the industry. This issue, three landscapers who began in the 1980s tell us about developments and trends they’ve experienced over the years
Q. How has landscaping changed over 40 years?
Total Landscape Creations Ltd
Interviewee: Neven Millar
Location: Central Auckland Years in business: 33
Our construction gear is just about all cordless now. Cordless tools are amazing and convenient to use, and not having noise and fumes is good, though with a battery, they don’t go all day.
The other big thing is the cellphone. When I first started, you had to phone everybody in your team in the morning before going to work. Now, you can do that whenever, and just send updates or instructions during the day while they’re at work.
The rules round the use of concrete and other hard surfaces have changed, with more consent required since the Auckland Supercity merger. Aspects of the Building Code that affect us are paving levels meeting the house, retaining walls, and decking. In Auckland, the percentage of permeable and impermeable surfaces on any one site is restricted to minimise rainwater run-off into sewers. This means you need to know the limits when you are discussing a project with a client, so you don’t agree to something and then later realise you’ve gone over the allowance of non-permeable site coverage.
There have also been changes in customer expectations. Today people in general are more environmentally conscious, so some customers don’t want you to use herbicides or chemical glyphosate on their properties. Some insecticides and herbicides we used 20 years ago aren’t even available anymore. An alternative to glyphosate would be organic weed spray, which is non-toxic and non-residual, but more expensive because it’s more effort – you have to spray it on, dig the soil out and take it away.
That’s the other thing: people don’t seem to be willing to work in their gardens as much as they used to be. Some aren’t into maintaining. Or maybe people just have more money to spend now.
Ray Barley Landscapes
Interviewee: Ray Barley
Location: Nelson Years in business: 39
Almost all my power tools are now battery-powered. The rattle gun changed a lot of things: in terms of construction, it’s so much easier and quicker to put a retaining wall together. It’s even easier than hammering sometimes. I could’ve done with that 40 years ago!
However, in my opinion, battery-powered tools can’t beat fuel-powered ones when it comes to sheer grunt. If you’re chainsawing through railway sleepers, you want to be using fuel-powered tools. Speaking of which, that’s a massive change – the cost of railway sleepers. They used to be as low as $4 for a handpicked one in Australia because they’d ripped up a railway line. They were still reasonably cheap for a time, around $20, but now some can be $100 and up. When I worked in Perth, we had to douse them in creosote, which I certainly wouldn’t do now as it can be a carcinogen.
Health and safety has definitely improved. I used to use an angle grinder to cut bricks in jandals when it was hot! I would certainly never do that now. Same with chemicals – I used to spray 2,4,5-T – also known as ‘Agent Orange’ – merrily behind the tractor, on the family farm. Now I’m even wary about Roundup. I take more care washing up and generally I do spraying later in the day, so I can jump in the shower shortly afterwards.
There are some improved materials. We used to build retaining walls out of half-rounds, which are a pig to deal with. Then they moved to edged half-rounds which were slightly easier, and now we use 200 x 50 H4 timber.
Over the years, lighting has become much cheaper and more available, and the range is outstanding now. In the old days, we had to use transformers and a power drop for low-voltage lighting. Now I can pick up a spot or a spreader light for $20. And LED technology is amazing. I’m having a lot of fun putting cylindrical LED bulb capsules in gin bottles. With LED, the power drop is so minimal you can keep adding bulbs.
Interviewee: Greg Corston
Location: Christchurch Years in business: 36
The first time I went to cut a cobblestone, I didn’t have any idea how to do it because I was using a bolster and we’d learned to cut with splitters. You would never think about that today – it’s all diamond-bladed saws.
When I started, cobblestone pavers had just started to be used. Prior to that, there was precast slab paving, but the moulds were bent and the pavers weren’t nice and straight. These days, we have our own little factory, where we make our own wet cast pavers.
Paving in general has gone up in price significantly, largely because of higher standards. In the old days, we would put crusher dust down and lay wet cast pavers on bedding sand. Now we would never dream of doing that. Everything now has site concrete first, then a mortar bed with pavers and pointed joints and a finish as good as tiles – whether it’s bluestone, pavers or cobblestone.
Paving isn’t the only thing that’s gone up in price. Pit run gravel used to be a dollar a cubic metre, and now it’s around $9 per tonne or more. We don’t use pit run anymore, we only use graded material.
Another big change is soil. Back in the day, once we could afford it, we got a 4WD tractor with a rotary hoe. We would rip the ground, rake and prepare the soil, and turn big areas with a leveller, almost like farming.
Nowadays we take soil off site, screen it, maybe add organic matter, and bring it back screened, so we know the last 150mm is perfect.
Today, we have a huge amount of equipment, but it’s taken years to accumulate. Back then, we could only hire, not own, but that wasn’t unique at that time. These days, equipment is everything – if you don’t own the stuff and have it there when you need it, you’re not doing a proper job.
My oldest son Charles has been working with us for six years. The difference for his generation is the kids have a double tip truck each. Everything is battery-powered – impactors, breakers, drills, and they all have diamond saws and a full tool kit. We didn’t have that – we couldn’t afford it!