Every time a client calls, Martin Alamillo gets nervous. Since last summer, more than 10 of his clients have discontinued their weekly gardening service. Several are behind on their payments, including one woman who owes him nearly $1,000.
Alamillo and his two crews are still out mowing lawns, blowing leaves and picking weeds, but he estimates that business is down as much as 20%.
While the economic crash has affected businesses from real estate to retail, gardeners like Alamillo have been among the hardest hit as homeowners looking to save money dust off their lawn mowers and take care of their own yards.
Gardeners, like housekeepers and pool cleaners, are seen as extras when people's houses go upside down or when they lose their jobs, said John Husing, an economic consultant based in Redlands.
"You can cut your lawn. You can clean your house," Husing said. "These are those little extra goodies when you are feeling flush. They are also some of the first to go away when you are not."
Husing has kept his gardening crew but recently told them to come every other week rather than every week.
"All they do is blow the leaves," he said. "We decided we needed to look at our budget and decide what to cut."
Tens of thousands of immigrant gardeners work in Los Angeles County, said Alvaro Huerta, a UC Berkeley urban planning student working on his doctoral dissertation on such gardeners and their economy. On average, Huerta says, the gardeners earn between $20,000 and $30,000 annually, cutting lawns and doing regular maintenance work, though many also have weekend jobs, doing such work as installing sprinklers or planting gardens. Their assistants often earn less.
Gardeners started feeling the pinch as soon as the housing market began to collapse, Huerta said. "A person loses their home and there goes another job," he said.
The spike in gas prices was the next blow. And now, with companies closing and stock values falling, homeowners are trying to save money wherever they can. To attract new business, gardeners are increasingly going door to door, leaving business cards in mailboxes and asking clients for referrals, Huerta said.
Salvador Munoz said he has held onto most of his longtime clients around his home in Inglewood but hasn't been able to add new business. Munoz, who has one assistant, said he earns enough to support his family but doesn't have a financial cushion. Munoz would like to raise his rates but knows that if he does, he risks losing clients to gardeners willing to work for less.
"There are a lot of us -- too many," said Munoz, 66, a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated from Mexico in 1976. "There is a lot of competition."
Sergio Salas, 39, has owned a gardening business in Westchester for two decades and employs three of his brothers. Salas has lost about 15 clients in the last few months and expects to earn 25% less this year than he did in 2008. In response, Salas has cut his family's expenses, in part by canceling his cable service and his newspaper delivery.
Knowing that any new business will come by recommendation, Salas said he is concentrating on maintaining the relationships he has with clients and doing a good job.
His wife, June, who manages the family business, said the drop didn't come as a surprise.
"The people who are last paid are the gardeners and the housecleaners," she said. "They have to have their electricity, their gas, they have to have food, and they have to pay their mortgage. Those are the priorities in the home."
Alamillo, 43, began working as a gardener soon after arriving from Mexico in 1979. After being trained by a Japanese gardener and working as an assistant for a few years, Alamillo bought a used lawn mower at a swap meet and started his own business, adding clients one by one.
The business continued to expand, and Alamillo, also a U.S. citizen, bought a small house on an acre plot in Sylmar, two trucks and even horses to participate in Mexican rodeo competitions. Alamillo has four regular employees and a handful of occasional workers. He has more than 100 regular clients in San Marino, Alhambra, Burbank, Los Angeles and South Pasadena, some dating to the 1980s. Those are his most loyal clients, he said, even when money is tight.
Maintenance work on his route pays the bills, but Alamillo said he makes more money on landscaping jobs -- trimming trees, planting trees, building patios. And that's exactly where homeowners are cutting back, he said. Alamillo has given about five job estimates in the last few weeks, but none of the potential customers has hired him.
Alamillo estimates that he earned about $40,000 last year. Anticipating $5,000 to $10,000 less this year, Alamillo put a for sale sign on one of his two trucks. He and his wife, a teacher, who had started an expansion on their house before the economy started to tank, are also thinking twice about expenditures. If the economy continues to worsen, Alamillo said, he may have to lay off one or more of his men.
"I am going to wait until the last minute and see," he said.
Despite the pressures, Alamillo said he was thankful to have a job. One of his brothers, a gardener in Colorado, hasn't had any work in three weeks and is considering returning to California.
"I am worried, but I have faith," he said. "I believe in my work and I believe everything is going to be OK."