Foreclosure and drought spawn a strange local business: lawn painting.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
On the corner lot of a once-pleasant, palm-studded neighborhood in East Salinas, an ash-colored tabby steps furtively across a dead and prickly lawn. Crouched low, triggered to pounce, he advances across a minefield of rotten newspaper bundles until he finds his prey. There, shaded from a vengeful sun by the T of a realtor’s cross, the four-legged feline vulture scrapes his raspy tongue across the carcass of a half-consumed lollipop.
The scene is drearier than a Cormac McCarthy novel. That is, until the grass man and his green wand cometh.
Brian Sharp spraypaints lawns that, for a variety of reasons, have lost their luster. “California is in its fourth year of drought,” he says. “That, combined with the foreclosure market, was interesting to me as an entrepreneur.”
Sharp, a business student at Hartnell College, witnessed the lawns in his community going fallow after owners began walking away from upside-down investments. Where others saw an ugly brown blight, Sharp saw green. With an investment of just a few hundred dollars, he created Presto Turf Sprayers.
“Golf courses have been doing it for years,” Sharp says as he sprays a fine layer of forest green on the brown ground where the cat had stalked its prey minutes before. “It is their secret salad. I just looked at the economy and connected the dots. I bought a backpack sprayer, some non-toxic, biodegradable paint, and started going door to door and calling the realtors.”
As one might imagine, the sight of Sharp painting a lawn green elicits quite a few comments and questions from curious neighbors and passers-by. “They just don’t believe it,” he says. “They think it’s unsafe or toxic. I tell them that it’s 100 percent eco-friendly, non-fetotoxic [safe for pregnant women and their fetuses] and pet-safe.”
It’s also a practical solution in a climate of dried-up funds, he adds: “The banks need to get people to buy the houses, but a dormant lawn takes time to re-grow. I call it zero-effort lawn care.”
Local broker Jeremy Rangle was one of Sharp’s first clients. “He offered to paint my lawn as a prototype and the result was great,” he says. “We use him for photography of our listings. His work makes for eye-catching lawns.”
Sharp claims that a coat of paint will keep a lawn looking snappy for up to six months. Next year, he plans to offer paint-on sponsor logos and special markings for sporting fields.
While shoring up unsightly lawns was the impetus behind his niche business, Sharp feels saving water is the most beneficial aspect of his work. “There are plenty of people with lawns that are toasted because there are water shortages, or water is too expensive to use regularly. My product keeps those people with water challenges in good standing with the neighbors and code enforcement types,” he says.
The Gonzalez native has a more traditional green thumb as well. He is a dedicated “cactophile,” a lover of all things succulent and drought-resistant. He maintains a stockpile of hundreds of unique cacti, and admires their survivability. “I love how frugal they are,” he says. “They do their best with the resources available to them.”
He has little time for his hobby, though, with a full slate of classes, his lawn painting business, as well as a full time gig running his family bail bonds business. He finds the mellow, solitary act of lawn painting to be therapeutic in contrast to his other work. “When I am painting, I don’t have to deal with shady characters, jail or bounty hunters,” he says. “They are the worst. Here, it’s just me and the grass.”
Using emerald-spackled drop cloths to mask off the concrete that wraps around the impressive-but-abandoned corner lot, Sharp traces the edges where lawn meets sidewalk with the focus of an artist. He is soon lost in his work, a conductor whose chrome baton flashes like schooling sardines in the fall sun. The nozzle is attached to a long yellow hose that reels from a homemade Frankentrailer apparatus, topped by a 50-gallon tank. He built “The Rig” when business became so steady that his back was getting sore from hefting the backpack around for days on end.
The only apparent victims of his work, besides his back, are his once-black Nike sneakers, which he considers to be collateral damage – victims of friendly fire in a larger fight to beautify soured tracts of land.
“It’s all about curb appeal. I want to help the community recover,” he says. At that, he turns, picking up the week-old newspapers that litter the brown patch he is about to turn green – and the discarded lollipop.