Story and photos by Autumn Alexander
The fleet arrives fall, winter, spring or summer, but especially summer. Stroll the local sidewalks or drive Walla Walla Valley neighborhoods and inevitably one’s gaze encounters small crews of industrious landscape gardeners working alongside truck and trailer rigs.
Except for quick lunches in the trucks’ cabs, these workers are in motion: mowing, thatching, edging, pruning, fencing, clipping, sweeping or blowing away the detritus of shedding landscapes, large and small.
These whirlwinds are not your garden-variety gardeners. These are business people serving homeowners who don’t have the time, equipment or know-how to tame their properties’ growth underfoot or overhead. Among these worker bees are experts such as Victor Ferral of Milton-Freewater, the proprietor of Victor’s Lawnkeeping.
“I do it all,” the quiet 66-year-old says, speaking through his COVID-19 mask. “A little bit of everything. It’s not a very big business; it’s small, but we’re progressing.”
Son Alexis, 21, works part-time alongside his father when he’s not concentrating on his full-time job as a local software engineer. With Alexis fleshing out Spanish and English to add to the conversation, Victor laid aside the press of their spring schedule for an hour to talk to Lifestyles.
LS: How does your business operate?
Victor: We have three trucks and trailers and six employees plus Alexis and me. Right now, we have about 20 customers in Walla Walla and 20 customers in Milton-Freewater. The crews work seven days a week during the busy season, six days a week in the off season, though we work all four seasons — even shoveling snow or laying down sod we get from Hermiston in winter.
We just do whatever the owner wants us to do. We give free estimates, and we don’t require contracts. We could be putting up a fence or pruning, trimming, cleaning up a garden, working on patios, installing sprinklers. If someone is going to sell a house, we work on everything a little bit. We might recommend thatching and aerating so grass is not so compact, and that gives it room to grow. I think we do it all. I have double goals: To have a happy customer and to make happy all the people who see the garden.
LS: Is the work dangerous? What do you do with all those clippings, too?
Victor: Well, we don’t use chemicals. And we do use ear protections.
The clippings? We actually have a customer who lets us dump it at his place.
LS: What kind of schedule does the business keep?
Victor: We’re really busy in summer. Each crew does four to five gardens a day. One Saturday, we did 40 gardens! We work from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., especially March through October.
LS: How do you begin with a new customer? How much do you charge?
Ferral: Guidance comes from the owner. Prices depend on the project, how often an owner wants work, maybe mowing on a schedule, usually Thursdays and Fridays so the lawn looks good for the weekend.
LS: Where did you learn this business?
Victor: When I first came here, I worked for a company in College Place. Then I went to Walla Walla Community College for landscaping. Then I worked at a landscaping company.
LS: Where did you grow up? Do you have a family?
Victor: In 1980, I moved to College Place from Vera Cruz, Mexico. I came with nothing.
Alexis: Yes, we have family. I have one older brother and one older sister. And a younger sister too. As long as I can remember, the business has been here.
LS: What’s in those trailers you take to the jobs?
Victor: There’s a 16-horsepower mower, plus other mowers, trimmers, rakes, shovels, pruning shears, blowers, edgers, gas cans, brooms and blowers, trash bins and much more.
LS: That’s a real load of equipment. Did you start the business or buy it from someone else?
Victor: The service is 16 years old. I built it with my own merits. I began with just small machines: a small truck, two mowers and one blower. I’ve just kept trying to invest in more. My wife, Alicia, does the paperwork. I train all my workers.
LS: Is there anything about the local soil that makes gardens grow well? Or not? What about trends in gardens?
Victor: Different kinds of flowers will grow here, but petunias are the easiest. The land here has a little more clay than other places. But we can fix it with topsoil and a little more sand.
We see more people now with just a couple plants, decorative rock, low maintenance. Even then, there’s always something to work on.
LS: Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected business?
Alexis: For the most part, the job hasn’t changed. It’s been normal if not higher. People are home, looking at their gardens.
LS: Your work obviously keeps you very occupied. Do you have time for fun?
Alexis: Sometimes, we might take a couple days to travel a bit. We don’t go far though. And my father, usually, in his free time at our house … he gardens.