A Green Industry

Excavation contractor helps lay the groundwork for a growing green infrastructure industry.

by Michelle Peal, NJLCV & Lucia Ruggiero, American Littoral Society

Ernie Davis, third-generation owner of Davis Lawns and Landscapes, is at the forefront of a new green infrastructure movement in landscaping, a facet of the industry that, by his own account, has been on the rise in recent years.

“I see an industry forming, a lot of people want to turn a blind eye,” says Davis, noting that, “green infrastructure is going to be important.” Unlike traditional, gray infrastructure that works by piping excess rainwater into the nearest river or stream, green infrastructure mimics nature by capturing water and slowly releasing it into the soil. It filters out pollutants, creates habitat, and protects communities from flooding during heavy rain events.

Davis has been constructing and installing green infrastructure projects such as rain gardens and bioswales for over two years. The projects generally consist of native plants typically found in wetlands or near bodies of water with deep roots, facilitating the uptake and infiltration of rainwater back into the soil. He’s also worked on bioswales, which are more focused on redirecting rainwater, usually to a rain garden or storm drain.

Since Davis’ first green infrastructure project, a rain garden at Salem High School contracted by the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary Program in 2019, he has garnered a good deal of experience in the field. His work with the South Jersey Landscape Makeover Project includes 11 projects in the year 2021, equating to 100,790 square feet of combined total drainage and an 829,069 gallon per year reduction in stormwater volume.

The South Jersey Landscape Makeover program employs contractors to construct green infrastructure and landscaping projects at businesses, homes and municipalities within the Kirkwood Cohansey Aquifer in South Jersey. Design professionals from Rutgers University act as consultants, and the program also offers financial incentives and free educational webinars for installation of rain gardens and other projects.

These types of projects have had noticeable impacts on Davis’ business, which reported a 30 percent increase in sales over the past two years. Davis has hired a new employee and currently plans to hire another. And it’s not just the money that drives him to work on projects like this:

“Green infrastructure has opened doors for my family and business, and I enjoy being part of something new and good for the environment,” Davis adds.

Davis isn’t the only one picking up on the rising demand. Christopher C. Obropta, Ph.D., P.E, extension specialist in Water Resources at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program (RCE Water Resources Program) says, “The demand has increased year after year as these systems are becoming more popular. Demand has also dramatically increased because of new stormwater regulations being implemented.”

The question that remains is whether the landscaping industry can keep up with this demand, and whether contemporaries of Ernie Davis can help. “While many traditional landscapers and contractors have the skills to do this work, a lot of them don’t have the experience,” added Obropta. He notes that many of the green infrastructure projects undertaken by the RCE Water Resources Program require their staff to be on site to educate and guide contractors on the scope, design and purpose of installations such as rain gardens.

Christine Nolan, of South Jersey Land and Water Trust, has worked with Davis on nearly every project in the past two years and says she wants to see more contractors like him in the field. “Ernie has the right attitude,” she says, and describes how he takes the time to partner with engineers and designers to make sure every project is a success. Nolan’s hope is that there will be a certification body to train more contractors to do the work. “Not just rain gardens, but the entire industry, naturalizing detention basins, rain barrels and bioswales.”

For more information about the South Jersey Landscape Makeover Program, visit sjwatersavers.org/makeover.

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