Small progress

I recently read an opinion piece in which the author was skeptical of calls to reduce energy use to combat global warming. The writer took issue with environmentalists who insist we must use less energy. In particular, he disagreed with those who espouse the notion that in general, we really should be using less energy, regardless of specific environmental concerns: conservation as a virtue, for its own sake. The writer opposed this position on philosophical grounds, noting that greater energy use is one way to define human progress. After all, what does technology do if not allow us to harness energy to accomplish things greater than would be possible with mere flesh and bones? We create machines to perform tasks, and these require energy. The more we progress, the more we will rely on technology, which will in turn require more energy.

This got me thinking about “progress” in our industry. Traditionally, ours is a labor-intensive profession. That being so, technology has much potential to transform turf and landscape installation and maintenance, and that potential is coming to fruition. From zero-turn mowers to skidsteers to “smart” sprayers, machines allow one worker to do what used require two, three or even more.

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If you're like me, you might intuitively equate progress with machines that are bigger and stronger. However, some of the most innovative and labor-saving developments in our industry have come from machines that are getting smaller, not larger. Miniloaders are the most notable example, but there are others. For example, several manufacturers make excavators that look like their larger counterparts, but are very much smaller. You almost want to call them “cute,” but when you see what they can do, “awesome” seems more appropriate. The same is happening with track loaders and skid steers, all of which are being produced in smaller and smaller versions.

The reason these machines are so useful is that they replace hand labor and increase productivity. In our industry, that often has required smaller, not larger, equipment. You need machines that can cross turf without destroying it; dig a trench next to a foundation; pass through a garden gate; even fit into the back of your pickup.

Because labor is expensive, every trench you can dig with a trencher, every hole you can drill with an auger, every pile of dirt you can move with a bucket and every fence you don't have to tear down for access is a task you don't have to do by hand. That is progress boiled down to its essence.

So, what are you doing by hand that a machine could do for you? This month's issue focuses on earthmoving equipment; the kind that saves labor in the landscape industry, and I hope it answers that question for you. Our featured article on mini-earthmovers looks at this expanding category of equipment and the seemingly endless tasks they perform, beginning on page 12.

Skid-steer loaders are not really new, but they may epitomize landscape construction equipment more than any other kind. This month's “Equipment Options” gives you a rundown of skid-steer manufacturers, starting on page 22.

Though construction equipment can accomplish marvelous things for us, it also can have some unintended side effects. Construction damage to trees may take the form of compacted soil or it may result from direct root loss during trenching or excavation. This month's “How To,” written by the University of Minnesota's Dr. Gary Johnson, discusses the steps you can take to preserve valuable trees during construction.

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