Landscapers - how to survive a downturn

I often hear landscape companies say, maybe arrogantly, 'we do not do garden maintenance' in a kind of way that infers it belittles their status.

I think a lot of this attitude comes from a previous period when a gardener was viewed (and still is by some) as a servant or a job that someone reluctantly took up when no other employment was available.

Times have now changed and it is fashionable to be 'in horticulture' - the Chelsea'ette way to explain that you are a gardener.

Television and lifestyle programs in particular have really propelled gardening to a much higher profiled occupation and even bank managers, solicitors and city workers are giving up the 'stress' of the power jobs in pursuit of a more tranquil and sedate outdoor existence.

However, Landscapers, the engine room of garden construction, still find it hard to utter the words 'I am a gardener'.

This I find is extremely sad and when I look into this further it is plain to realise that the Landscaper is actually cutting off a potential strong arm of business.

How easy would it be to construct an expensive garden, pack it full of wonderful plants and lay a fabulous lawn and then provide that back up service of a maintenance service to your valued client?

It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that if a well heeled client is going to spend a great deal of money investing in a garden show-piece that they will want to have that investment protected and of course, enjoy this newly developed garden room to it's maximum.

Garden maintenance can bring a landscaping contractor some security during very lean times when new build projects may well have dropped off. It may not be as high margin as construction but it has a pretty fixed cost base and every hour is paid pro rata (unlike a construction job that has a profit devaluation point where every hour over your target reduces not only your profit on the job but your potential to move onto another new project as well).

Think long and hard about the opportunities that exist when work is becoming scarce and look to diversify your portfolio when the opportunity arises.

Views: 13

Tags: gardening, landscaping

PRO Member
Comment by Phil Voice on July 4, 2008 at 21:41
Thanks for the reply Sam and evidence that this approach can work - will your client be willing to spend the right sum on maintenance to the secure their new asset for the long term?

As an aside, you mentioned signatures in a previous reply to the post How are you finding the network?

I would encourage all members to link out directly from the post where you can.

For example, you mention your company name - The Little Town Garden Company - I would link directly from here and you always have the back up of your profile that will still send a potential client to your main site in an indirect way.
Comment by Andrew Fereday on July 5, 2008 at 0:05
My initial response to this was that seeing landscaping companies moving into maintenance is an unwelcome interference but I'm sure that's me being too reactionary. I have made a good business in garden maintenance, albeit one which has needed a lot of support from Cat and my Family (Many, many thanks are due for all the support...). My main concern is one with competition and my initial reaction was that new competition from established landscapers is unwelcome as it is an aggressive move on 'my territory' - the last thing I need is landscape companies coming in and stealing my work! After that knee-jerk reaction had subsided, I started thinking about the assumed competition and whether it is indeed competition after all...

My situation is that I have a cluster of long-term clients which will see me through a full working week quite comfortably. To all intents & purposes, these clients have effectively been 'taken off the market' to landscapers entering the maintenance market, as long as I do a good job and my clients are happy with the work I am doing - landscapers and new maintenance businesses will be competing for new contracts but as long as I can keep my clients, I'm at no net loss. Having had the experience of marketing myself to the type of client I want to work with, my business isn't really in any worse a position and when I look at my list of clients, none of them are 'new-build' gardens anyway. This does of course have an impact on my plans to grow the business and perhaps take on staff but I would need to do some proper planning for that and wouldn't be looking to expand until I get another couple of gardens under my belt anyway. The implications for new maintenance businesses however may be a little different.

I do think there is a misconception in the industry which has been led by television programmes like Ground Force and their ilk. For the most part, people worth dealing with don't want the whole garden makeover thing. They are happy to have someone who knows about plants to come in and take care of their garden, knowing when to prune, feed, spray and what have you. They also need someone who has a bit of an eye for planting so that when it comes to tweaking borders here and there, they don't end up looking like something in a Salvador Dali exhibition. Maybe a step back from the UKTV Gardens Channel is needed...

As for the impression that landscapers don't 'do' maintenance because it's beneath them, I've never come across this. If anything there's a snobbery in the other direction with gardeners saying 'I don't do hard landscaping (I myself must confess to having said this and the truth is that I don't do hard landscaping).

The main reason I went into maintenance was that (specifically in my geographical area) there were designers on the one hand and landscapers on the other with little inbetween - the designers would come in and create a new garden, the landscapers would do all the paving, fencing and construction and there was me left to fill the gap between the two and look after the plants. I've never even had an enquiry on a new garden so that sort-of blows my idea of market-placing out of the water doesn't it?

What I can say from all this is that there is a market out there for 'old-fashioned gardeners' and that if you position yourself well, it can be fairly lucrative. When you get a good client, keep hold of them. When you get a bad client, do your best to coerce them into being a good client. If that doesn't work, let them go.

PRO Member
Comment by Phil Voice on July 5, 2008 at 8:32
I remember when I started blogging about gardening and landscaping after Craig McGinty convinced me that I could put my experience to good use.

I was extremely concerned that there were many good blogs out there and I would not be able to compete. Indeed, after eight months I was still getting just thirty five visits a day.

As my writing style improved and my confidence grew, I got into the groove and the traffic rose week on week.

I could not get the thought out of my head that I had to try and compete with other bloggers until one day, Craig said to me; forget everyone else. Do your own thing and keep focussing on what you do and know best because ultimately, if your good enough, the readers will come.

I agree with Andy on the point of saturation if all landscapers decide to take up maintenance. However, I would say that because of the lack of horticultural training at colleges, there is not the plant knowledge available to sell their labour as a maintenance man apart from mowing and blowing (of course that is not true in every case).

The good gardeners will always rise to the top and I am certain never have a problem finding work.
Comment by Richard Lacey on July 6, 2008 at 14:35
I agree with Philips view on this one. We have designed 7 gardens in the last 2 years and now have maintenance contracts on all but one of them. They are a delight to take over for maintenance because we do the prep beforehand, little weeds and strong plants, no lengthy battles with ground elder and bind weed. Quite rightly, these contracts pay the bills between the lucrative design work. We also find that clients ask for more on many occasions, so more plants to put in from our own Nursery. These Clients are generally on the tread-mill we stepped off 3 years ago, and have no time to look after their investment, even if they had the inclination.

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