Landscaping is among the most visible industries on Martha’s Vineyard, where multi-million-dollar homes are surrounded by manicured lawns and kaleidoscopic flower beds. As development has spread on the Island, yard and garden services have exploded, employing a growing segment of Vineyard residents.

“When I started, there were only four or five of us,” recalled Michael Donaroma, who started his landscaping business in 1971. “Back then nobody had swimming pools. Nobody had irrigation. Nobody had lighting. Nobody had hot tubs. Nobody had fire pits, and nobody had pickleball . . . . It’s really changed a lot over the years.”

Mr. Donaroma’s perception of industry growth is borne out in the data.

Landscaping trucks are a common sight around the Island. — Ray Ewing

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 36 landscaping companies in Dukes County in 2001, a number that grew to 74 by 2022. Over the same period, employees more than doubled from 187 to 397, and more than $27.7 million in wages were paid in 2022 alone, according to official figures.

Landscaping now employs about 4.4 per cent of the Island workforce, its ranks growing 3.89 per cent each year on average since 2001 – more than triple the 1.17 per cent growth rate of the Island’s total workforce.

The figures do not account for work that may be done “under the table,” that is, not reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

Even with all that growth, Mr. Donaroma said, few landscapers have trouble with competition for customers.

“The business is so strong, we don’t fret about that,” he said. “We need to focus on getting what we got done.”

As a profession, landscaping has provided tremendous potential for upward mobility on the Island, with a lower barrier to entry than other businesses. The story is often the same: one man and his mower takes a few lawn care jobs on the side, builds up into other services, and eventually becomes a major Island institution.

Mr. Donaroma, who now has roughly 120 employees, started that way, cutting lawns with his grandmother’s mower before he started his nursery. (In addition to being a major Island employer, he is a longtime member of the Edgartown select board.)

Michael Donaroma began landscaping in 1971. — Ray Ewing

Jesse Fuller, of Fuller’s Landscaping, started with a pickup and a borrowed mower in 1997, and has since expanded his business into swimming pools, irrigation and septic.

Christian Miller also built his business from the ground up, previously working restaurant and construction jobs. After moving to Boston from Brazil in 1999, he eventually settled on the Island and started a landscaping and construction business in the early 2000s.

“The landscaping picked up right away . . . and I was able to keep both growing for a long time,” he said. “I don’t think this will ever stop . . . there’s no shortage of work here.”

Laborers are quick to find work and can make a healthy living in the business, Mr. Donaroma said, up to $70 an hour for lawns and $85 for irrigation work. Tradesmen and other specialists make well more than $100 an hour.

“It’s hard work, not everybody can handle it,” Mr. Donaroma said. “You’re outside in the elements. You’re crawling around on the ground and getting scratched and eaten and bitten. It’s hot and it’s cold and it’s windy.”

Christian Miller built his business from the ground up, previously working restaurant and construction jobs.

A worker shortage on Island, driven by high housing costs that accelerated during Covid, has driven up wages, said Jesse Fuller, giving laborers more bargaining power. Standing on the edge of his bright green lawn and crystal-blue fiberglass pool, with his Bichon Frise Frieda yipping in the background, Mr. Fuller spoke about changes in the business.

“Post-Covid, the first year or two afterwards, it was ridiculous,” he said. “I couldn’t keep an employee for more than a few months because every company was short and outbidding each other.”

High housing prices have also meant there are fewer folks “bouncing around” on-Island, Mr. Fuller said, referring to transient workers. It is no longer feasible, he said, to bring in workers from Boston or Florida for jobs either.

“I’m definitely nervous about employees going in the future years,” Mr. Fuller said.

Mr. Donaroma said he has also grappled with housing prices, which have pushed out college kids who used to fill his ranks as summer workers; roughly 60 per cent of Donaroma’s revenue is generated in May and June. Even with the high pay, he said, most workers cannot afford to put down roots on the Island.

“What we get now is the big immigrant push, who are willing to live five deep, or in the back of a car, or in a tent,” he said. “I actually find them sometimes sleeping in the back of my box trucks.”

For Christian Miller, the problem was clear from his first visit to the Island.

“When I moved to the Island I saw a housing problem, because I lived it,” he said. “I lived in a house with 20 other dudes, some of them I didn’t even know, but I had to live in it because I had no place else to go.”

Soon after starting his business, he said, he began acquiring properties for workforce housing. Around 15 of his workers also commute from the Cape, he said.

Jesse Fuller started with a borrowed mower in 1997, and has since expanded his business into swimming pools, irrigation and septic. — Ray Ewing

Mr. Miller says he has long depended on immigrant labor in the landscaping business, largely coming from the Brazilian community but also drawing on seasonal workers from Mexico and Jamaica.

“A lot of these people... are coming in for the summer to make some money and go back to their country,” he said. “They want to work, and they want to work long hours...They are hungry for work.”

Regardless of the uncertainties in the workforce, Mr. Miller believes the landscaping industry is here to stay, as summer residents seek to maintain and invest in their Island properties.

“It’s a safe place to put your money,” he said. “People love to come in and enjoy this beautiful Island...That’s just the nature of Martha’s Vineyard.”

As existing landscaping companies grow, new businesses also continue to emerge. Mr. Fuller guessed that 10 or 15 new businesses pop up each year, though only two or three stick around for good.

Mr. Donaroma is also betting on growth in the business. Last year he leased a 12-acre parcel on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road to expand his wholesale business supplying plants to other Island landscapers.

After 52 years in the business, Mr. Donaroma believes landscaping on Martha’s Vineyard is largely recession-proof.

“No matter how bad it gets,” he said, “these people aren’t going to mow their lawns.”