When most people think of property development planting is the last thing on their mind but a breakthrough planting technique by AWX Group-subsidiary Timberwolf Planting is set to deliver big savings to Australia’s developers.
That is because property developers are among the biggest planters in the nation, exceeded only by the forestry industry in the number of trees they plant each year.
Timberwolf’s innovative new contract planting model - based on the reforestation experience of a couple of young Canadians – has boosted the daily planting rate of its workers from a little as 200 plants per person to more than 3000, while slashing the time taken to do some jobs from weeks to days.
Using a specialised shovel and bag technique adopted from the commercial reforestation sector, which is widely used in Canada, Timberwolf has slashed the time taken to plant commercial landscaping jobs to a fraction of what they had been.
Planting using the forestry technique[/caption]Developers of master-planned communities, in particular, need planting for an almost endless range of situations ranging from traditional streetscape planting and parklands to more specialised features consistent with Water Sensitive Urban Design such as rain gardens and constructed wetlands.
According to Devine General Manager Communities Andrew Brimblecombe, these landscaped green spaces are one of the key selling points for a new development.
“It’s not the largest cost, but in some respects it’s the most important cost because it’s the most visual,” he said.
“They see the playgrounds, the verges, the street trees and the parks, and that’s a big part of what brands the community and can set it apart from its competition.
“It’s the presentation of the open space and attention to detail that makes the biggest impression.”
According to market estimates, urban and suburban developers on Australia’s East Coast alone plant a staggering 20 million plants per year, ranging from trees to shrubs and grasses.
Mr Brimblecombe estimates that landscaping accounts for 10 – 15 per cent of the cost of delivering a typical master-planned community, excluding land acquisition costs.
Devines Andrew Brimblecombe at newly-planted estate[/caption]Timberwolf’s General Manager Andrew Forrester, and National Operations Manager, Robyn Kelly, are the two Canadians who helped introduce the shovel technique and forestry planting culture to commercial landscaping in Australia, after signing up for a part-time planting job and recognising the improvements that could be made within the industry.
In the course of completing a degree in biochemistry in Canada, Mr Forrester become an experienced planter, moving up the chain of command to manage reforestation projects involving large crews of workers and tens of millions of trees.
When Forrester moved to Australia to study medicine, he sought out part-time planting work and was astounded at what he found.
Instead of individual workers planting thousands of trees per day, as was the case in Canadian reforestation, he found crews of workers that were stuck within a painfully inefficient and slow work system.
“Instead of individual workers being responsible for digging, fertilising and planting a tree, there would be an entire planting crew responsible for planting one tree – one person setting out the tree where it was to be planted, another person using a noisy petrol-operated auger to open the hole, a third to place fertiliser in the hole and fourth, finally, to close the hole around the plant,” Mr Forrester said.
“All in all, planting one tree could involve up to four workers and meant that the daily production per person typically did not exceed a few hundred trees.
“Paying the workers per hour further encouraged the process to take longer because planters made more money the longer the job took to complete.
Ms Kelly said it was not just the planting technique that was problematic, it was the entire planting culture.
“The Canadian reforestation culture is built on grit and hard work; tree planting is considered to be an iconic occupation, one that is typically undertaken by university students throughout their summer break in order to save enough money for the upcoming year of study,” Ms Kelly said.
“The conditions are arduous; you live in a tent in a bush camp, hours away from civilisation for months at a time and are expected to work hard every day, no matter the conditions. This breeds a strong ethos of camaraderie and commitment to the job at hand.”
Planter at work in Canada[/caption]Equipped with their extensive knowledge and experience in Canadian reforestation and project management, Forrester and Kelly were keen to introduce their planting technique and culture to the Australian planting sector.
Using large bags full of plants attached to a belt and a specially designed forestry shovel, it didn’t take long to prove the technique and culture’s worth in the Australian setting.
After seeing them in action, AWX Contract Planting was convinced.
Forrester was made General Manager and Kelly was made Operations Manager and the business was reborn as Timberwolf - named after one of Canada’s iconic forest animals.
“Timberwolf planters, using the traditional reforestation technique and equipment can plant one tree, using just one person, within five to ten seconds. This allows thousands of trees to be planted per person per day,” Mr Forrester said.
“Paying our planters per tree, with important quality checks incorporated into the process, encourages hard work and excellence.”
The business now has planters on piece rates who regularly plant 2-3,000 plants per day, with a standing record in the company of 6,710 plants for just one person.
One of Timberwolf’s first major projects was at North Shore, Townsville, where they worked for landscaping firm JMac Constructions.
The project was planting out a large stormwater management drain in a residential development overseen by Stockland Property Group.
Planting at North Shore[/caption]“JMac estimated their guys would take eight weeks, our closest competitor quoted five weeks, and we went in at the last second and did it in a day and a half,” Mr Forrester said.
The 43,180-plant project was completed with a ‘pack’ of just 10 planters.
JMac’s Project Manager for the North Shore site, Steve Falvey, was astonished.
“The Timberwolf team took the planting project entirely off of our hands,” Mr Falvey said.
“We left at close of business Friday afternoon and returned Monday morning to over 43,000 plants in the ground. Most importantly, the quality of planting was exceptional.”
As well as significantly reducing JMac’s overall costs on the project, the efficiency of the works allowed them to avoid complications that protracted planting time frames often run into with the wet season.
The gardens had to be prepared and plants had to be in the ground early enough to ensure adequate time to establish, otherwise they would be swept away with the torrential rains.
“Completing the planting in a short timeframe had a direct impact on the success of the project because it allowed the greatest possible amount of time for plant growth and establishment before the rains,” Ms Kelly said.
By condensing the project timeframe from two months to just two days, JMac Constructions was also able to realise substantial savings.
“The maths is simple: weeks of subcontractor supervision, water truck hire and other labour costs can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs,” Mr Forrester said.
“If you do the job faster, you save on these costs.”
In addition to these clear quantitative benefits are the more qualitative ones, such as flexibility in project scheduling.
Rather than completing planting works piecemeal throughout the duration of a project, a process that can lead to multiple headaches and inefficiencies, developers can take care of the entirety of the planting – generally at the end of the project - in much shorter timeframes that are easier to fit in with other aspects of the construction.
Timberwolf has now planted well over 2 million plants since last September and has its sights set to nationwide expansion. It is currently working on large development projects in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory.
With increasing demand for green space within cities, and regulatory processes becoming increasingly stringent, it seems likely that the efficiency of planting will become a growing challenge for developers in the future.
Thankfully, this is one area where improved techniques are poised to more than offset the cost of the regulation burden.