Out with the old . . .

Do you remember the introduction of the Weed Eater? This was the first string trimmer to become widely popular. If you were around then, it's almost certain that you took notice. (If not, congratulations: you still have more than half of your life expectancy in front of you.)

At the time of its debut, the Weed Eater really was considered a marvel. It was unique, easy to use and, most importantly, a tremendous labor saver. You no longer had to trim by hand. Anyone much less than 40 years old might find this hard to believe, but before string trimmers, hand shears were the standard tools for trimming grass around sprinklers, poles and tree trunks. Hand trimming was as bad as it sounds, and relief from such tedium was a wonderful, welcome thing.

Of course, grounds-care equipment has evolved in many other ways over the past few decades, and this evolution is not slowing. In fact, if anything, it's speeding up. Most commercial equipment scarcely resembles what was used 20 or more years ago. And with the onset of robotics, GPS and other digital capabilities, it's likely that change will continue to be rapid and profound.

The point of all this change is to increase efficiency and productivity - doing more and doing it as well as or better than before with fewer people. This means lower labor costs, a critical factor in today's tight labor market.

Obviously, hand labor will continue to be necessary in our industry for the foreseeable future. However, a relatively new category of equipment, the so-called "mini-loader," is helping to further reduce this need.

There always seem to be those tight spaces where machines don't quite reach. The trench that you must dig by hand where it comes too close to a structure for the trencher to reach. Or the bed between the sidewalk and the wall that you have to level with a rake and shovel. The list of such tasks is nearly endless. That's one reason why mini-loaders are so useful. They can fit in many of these niches and eliminate the handwork that otherwise would be necessary. Another reason is mini-loaders' versatility. With numerous attachment options, mini-loaders can perform myriad tasks, eliminating the need for multiple dedicated pieces of equipment.

In retrospect, mini-loaders' appearance seems inevitable. Skid steers largely have replaced tractors (in landscape construction, at least) and offer many of the same capabilities and attachments but on a much more nimble machine. Miniaturization and some ingenious modifications then gave rise to the current breed of machines, which can do nearly anything a skid steer can (albeit on a smaller scale) and in tighter spaces. Learn more about these amazing machines in "Small equipment: Going where no machine has gone before," by Michelle Byrne Walsh, beginning on page 10.

One task that isn't likely to be mechanized is building rock walls. Discover the correct techniques for putting together rock walls in this month's "How to" by State University of New York instructors George Crosby and Steve Mullarkey, on page 28.

Although your operations might be winding down for the season, don't relax too much just yet. Now's a great time to get a jump on the next season by properly putting your landscape "to bed" for the winter. Take a look at "Fall into action," provided by horticultural consultant Karen Kerkhoff, on page Contractor 1.

This also could be a good time to look into adding to the services you offer your clients. Landscape lighting can be a highly profitable line of work. However, like any service you offer, it's better not to do it than to do it poorly. Warren Gorowitz of Ewing Golf explains the basics of landscape lighting in this month's "Equipment Options," on page 24.

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