The blazing sun.
A clear blue sky stretched across the horizon.
A cool breeze and the faint sound of bees buzzing around the colorful flowers: petunias, billowing hydrangeas, geraniums and lavender.
If you’re a gardener, or you have a wonderfully green thumb, this scene most likely describes your perfect day out in the garden, right where you know you belong.
Gardening is a growing fascination for many people, both young and old. The business is growing at a healthy pace, from €39.7 billion in 2014 to €40.5 billion in 2015 in the UK and from $246.6 to almost $256 billion in the US for the same period.
It makes perfect sense then that if you love to be outdoors and have a penchant for gardening perfection, you’d try to make a business out of your hobby.
Good idea. But that naturally leads to a very important question:
How do I start my own gardening business?
And even more importantly:
Once I start it, how do I survive?
Today we’re going to be looking at those all-important questions in terms of the pluses and minuses associated with the gardening business, the knowledge required, finding and keeping customers, your business specifics, and the equipment needed.
The Good and the Bad
Everything in the universe has its good and bad, and the gardening business is no different.
The biggest positive is that you’ll be doing something that you love: dirt underneath your fingernails, young green shoots, stepping in or around some dog’s poop. In one word, happiness.
Besides that, you’ll have pretty regular work. Your income will be relatively similar month after month, as most of your customers will be retirement age with fixed incomes and a love for routines and dried plums.
You’ll probably also have a pretty good relationship with your customers—you’ll see them often enough, and if they care enough about their garden to have it properly maintained, they probably love each flower and stalk of grass like it was their own child.
And they’ll appreciate you for your hard work.
As far as money, the potential is huge. As with all freelancers, it’s possible to increase or limit your income based on how you feel at any point—hopefully in a stable way—because of the flexibility of the work.
Also, you’re getting great exercise while you’re at it—after all, it’s not just watering and adding fertilizer. Being a gardener includes lots of physical exercise, even abiding your boss to Mordor on a jewelry-disposal mission.
But, there are some downsides.
Depending on your location, you’re going to have some lull periods during the winter and loss of work during bad weather.
In addition, the equipment can be quite expensive, although you’ll probably want to start with used rather than new—anything ranging from garden scissors to gas-powered lawnmowers.
The other thing is that, well, the physical and health benefits of the job are great, but there’ll be days when your back or your knees just don’t want to take it anymore. It’s quite labor-intensive.
Speaking of which, you may also be asked to do some pretty dangerous stuff, such as pruning a tree that’s 25 meters tall and sits between two angry-looking electric wires.
And if you’re in such places as Australia, you could get bitten by a spider, or a snake, or a toad, or a shark, or—well, if you’re in Australia, you could pretty much get bitten by anything.
Don’t leave your home, Australia.
And lastly, there are lots of casual workers roaming around like the Walking Dead, and they’re apt to take over your gardening territory with lower rates and probably more flexible schedules.
If this were the Wild Wild West days, you could probably solve this with an old-fashioned duel at noon in front of the church. But we’re a civilized society now, so you’ll have to adapt to the new market.
What you need to know
All that stuff, I’m sure, you know quite well. So what do you need to start your business?
Well, as with any field you’d ever go into, you’ll need to actually know what you’re talking about.
As far as casual gardeners go, many don’t have professional qualifications at all. Granted, you may be brilliant at it, but your customers won’t have any assurances that you’re truly good at it.
Then again, in gardening it’s quite easy to see whether someone is good at it or not. If there’s a sudden Old-Testament style blight on your customer’s garden, and only his, it’ll look very suspicious.
Getting training and qualifications in horticulture will put you heads above the rest. These will help cover you for all other areas of gardening.
For example, you know how to grow tomatoes, great, and your roses are doing lovely, but will you be able to repeat that success with other people’s apple trees?
It’s best to cover yourself with some basic or more advanced knowledge, and there are many flexible schedules and night classes to help busy adults study.
There are other certifications in pesticides and chain saws that you can get over a longer period of time, and it will increase your knowledge of the subject you love—and most importantly, your reputation and your customer’s loyalty.
Finding your customers
There’s surprisingly a lot of variety in the type of customers that you can get in the gardening business.
The predictable group is of course the senior citizens as mentioned above, but there is a growing number of younger people who love their gardens but don’t have time for the required upkeep.
That being said, your customers will largely be from the older generation, and as a generally more friendly and talkative group, they’ll be happy to share tips and stories with you—another reason why you should know your stuff.
Other customers may not be individuals at all, but instead you’ll have contracts with apartment buildings, residential estates or property management companies.
This can include also communal gardens, public spaces, and commercial grounds.
Because you’ll be working as a smaller or independent contractor, your service fees will be more flexible than the larger maintenance contractors.
City governments are always eager to assist local contractors, and it may be useful to check government institutions and inquire on their gardening needs.
When you get started, you’ll decide (either by yourself or based on market conditions) the amount and size of your projects.
Some gardeners work with only 4-6 customers with large gardens, while others have 50 or more lawn customers, or 25 customers that require everything to be done in their garden, from A to Z. These could be weekly, every ten days, twice a month, or whatever you agree on.
Generally in the beginning, you’ll be hungry and looking for any kind of work, but as your customer list grows, you’ll have the freedom to focus more on what fits best for your tastes and schedule.
Your business specifics
Now, finding customers for your small gardening business may be one thing, but keeping them (happy) is quite another one.
Besides the good wealth of knowledge you should be equipped with before you go knocking on their doors, there are other important requirements you’ll have to have in order to keep your clients.
Making a good first impression
To begin with, as they say, first impressions last the longest—and a lot longer than most believed. Here it’s important to focus on how you present yourself. You can do this by:
- getting a van logo: this makes you look quite professional, but also puts the community members’ minds at ease when a stranger comes to their neighbor’s home when they’re away. Also, it’s free advertising.
- wearing a uniform : another sign of professionalism, this can even be a t-shirt with your company’s logo on it. If you have employees, it also lets the neighbors know that you’re all one team.
- being open, friendly and easy to contact: generally, if you’re the local gardener, you are a community figure, and people should be easy and free around you, knowing that they can contact you when they need you. Also, it’s a good idea nowadays to have a website so that potential customers can check your services—and where current customers will be able to leave reviews.
Having a business plan
Not many businesses can succeed without a plan. This includes the basics such as knowing your competition and setting up a competitive strategy.
You shouldn’t be scared to approach your competition and ask for their advice, because people are usually happy to help you.
However, if you don’t feel comfortable contacting the competition then you can ask a friend to get some information about your competitor. Afterwards, you should use this information to set up your strategy.
You should also think of the long-term by setting up a plan for the entire year, on a yearly basis. This is especially crucial for a business that is impacted by the changing seasons.
For example, you can set up the year in this way:
Summer: focus on hedge trimming, perhaps some lawn care
Autumn: focus on leaf clearance and pruning
Winter: do the landscaping, hard pruning, and fencing
Spring: focus on planting, weeding, and other prep work
If you plan your year this way, you’ll be on your way to success.
Setting your rates
Besides that, you’ll need to figure out what kind of work you’ll be doing.
Will it be keeping your customer’s garden under control (maintaining) or ensuring a perfect garden (manicuring)?
For the lager part, garden maintenance is often charged at a fixed price, whereas a manicuring service is usually charged by the hour.
Check around at your competition for comparable rates. You can always lower your rates if you have no employees, but be sure not to lower them too much.
Also, don’t be easily swayed by the size of the garden. A large garden may seem like it will offer more revenue, but it could be a simple lawn job, whereas small gardens may be tightly compacted with lots of work required.
Beyond that, you’ll also need to implement a minimum charge for call-outs.
Because your travel time between jobs is unpaid, you want to make sure that the cost of travel and the energy involved is much less than the income from the job. This will also ensure that your clients only call you for larger jobs that are worth it.
It’s important to decide whether you’ll need hired help.
This question obviously depends on how much you think you’ll be able to make and whether the employee will have enough work.
If you already have a confirmed list of customers or are certain that there’ll be lots of work based on your research, you could go ahead and hire extra help, perhaps on a part-time schedule to be safe. You’ll need to decide how the work will be divided up—if your employee also needs to have qualifications, or if he’ll get the smaller jobs and you’ll handle the larger ones.
If you’re just starting out, there’s probably no reason to have extra help at the moment, but instead cross that wonderful bridge when you get there.
A gardener, like a carpenter, is defined by his or her tools. The tool may not make the man, but it certainly shows that he’s ready and able to do the job.
For your gardening business, it’s important to know whether you should buy used or new, and from where.
The things you’re likely to buy new—and high quality—are the smaller purchases, such as your spade, shears, small tools (weed fork, hand trowel, etc.), edging knife, Dutch hoe, shovel, rakes, pruning saw, etc.
These are the things that you should have in your arsenal from the get-go, as they’ll be necessary to do most jobs in your gardening business. Also, you’ll have them for a long time, so it’s best to spend a bit more and ensure that they maintain their integrity for decades rather than just a year or two.
For the more expensive things, it’s possible to go to an auction focused on farm machinery or car boot sales and fairs where people are willing to sell their used equipment at low prices.
You’ll definitely need a petrol lawn mower (one for cutting wet grass) and perhaps an old cylinder-type lawn mower for those customers who prefer their grass cut in stripes, as well as a trimmer.
These things are definitely not cheap, so it’s a good idea to get them second-hand in your beginning years.
However, you may look into getting these brand new if you have the financial capabilities, as they’ll likely last you many years. And it will help you look more professional and valuable to your customers.
To sum up:
Gardening can be a very lucrative business, with lots of benefits in:
- doing what you love
- getting great exercise
- having a stable and potentially large income.
But it’s also important to remember that:
- there’ll be some down periods during the colder weather
- the equipment can be quite expensive
- the physical labor can get difficult and even dangerous.
Get your qualifications if you want to stand above the casual garden worker, choose your rates well, and connect with your customers in your local area with a friendly and accessible style.
Get your business plan worked out and buy the smaller equipment new and see if you can get the larger and more equipment used. Lastly, decide whether you need to get any extra help as this could be great for a growing business but unnecessary if you’re just starting out.
Got any more tips and clever business advice for budding gardeners? Let us know in the comments below!