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Starting a gardening or landscaping business?

This series isn't just for landscapers and gardeners starting out: it's also a refresher for existing businesses

Welcome to the first section of my course - How to start and run a garden and landscaping business.

In this first section, we'll take a look at what your reasons are for wanting to go into business in the first place but also how to consider some of the tough questions, such as - Am I physically and mentally prepared for the weather and the financial aspects of being my own boss?

This first lesson is geared to those people who are thinking about or have recently started to trade but I hope some of the points may be of help to anyone who has been trading for a while.

Don't worry if this first post doesn't answer all of the specifics as we'll go into greater detail shortly. If you have any questions or would like to leave a comment regarding anything that's mentioned then please feel free.

Why start a garden business?

A plethora of TV gardening programmes have tended to create a misty and romantic notion that a garden makeover or a complete landscaping project is quick, easy, fun and may be achieved on low to modest budgets. This has unfortunately led to unrealistic and undeliverable ambitions by the consumer who is now under the impression that gardens are quick and easy and the employing of a gardener or a landscaper is cheap.

Consequently, the stark reality is that gardening is still often viewed - despite the ongoing work we are all doing on Landscape Juice - as a second class profession. It is also significantly undervalued compared to many other skilled trades, it's totally unregulated, hampered by the vagaries of the weather and is blighted by a common impression that everything can be renegotiated for cash.

I hope, after reading this lesson, you will form a realistic view about gardening and landscaping, that leaves you under no illusions - despite this industry being so rewarding - of the challenges faced when starting and running a profitable business.

Why do you want a garden business?

So here we go, straight in and here are some of the reasons why people want to enter the horticulture profession (in no particular order):

They've:

  • Recently qualified from a horticulture college having had a long term aspiration of becoming a gardener or landscaper.
  • Have gardened as a hobby and/or created their own garden and cannot resist making it a career move.
  • Always wanted to work outdoors but never had an opportunity.
  • Cannot find other suitable work and gardening is a last resort.
  • Had children who are now in full time education or have left home and they now have the time.
  • Worked in the industry as an employee for a short/long time and want to go it alone.
  • Want to be their own boss and why not as a gardener?


So what about you?

Whatever your reason, you have to determine if you want to go into business for the right reasons but bear in mind, what might be right for someone else, might not be right for you and you have to weigh up everything based on your own personal set of circumstances.

The decision is however the most important one you'll make at this stage of your new career and if your mind isn't in the right place or your motives are wrong, then there's a very strong chance that your business will fail.

There are so many other aspects of a garden business that have to be considered at this important stage and the following is designed to put you off - if it doesn't put you off then there's every chance you're, mentally at least, equipped to get started.

It's good to talk


Talk to as many people as you can. Whether they're people you know already who work as a gardener or landscaper or people who you feel might be a potential (not necessarily of your future services) consumer.
Listening to someone who has already been at the stage you are at now will be a great help in focussing your mind or stimulate further debate or flag up more pertinent questions.

A good starting point is on the Landscape Juice Network forum.

Be tough with yourself

I'm sure we've all done it. Convinced ourselves that something is a good idea yet deep down, there are strong feelings of insecurity and doubt, possibly already knowing, whatever you're about to try and undertake, is really not in your best interests?

Sure, even if risk and disadvantage is against them, some people have the ability to be single minded enough to turn a negative situation into a positive one. Ask yourself why you want to become a gardener or a landscaper. Is it something you'll feel you would be good at?

Could you hack working in the outside world: gardening might well be a great pastime when you can please yourself, pick and choose when you work, and dodge the rain and foul weather - including snow and ice - but when you come under the commercial pressures of working to a timetable and delivering a quality service and value for money, then you have got to seriously ask yourself if you can cope as it's a different ballgame entirely?

If you've got a mortgage or rent to pay then you'll need to be confident that you'll be able to meet your obligations during times of disruptive weather conditions. If you easily buckle under stress then being snowed-in during January (as it was the case for most of the UK in the winter of 2010) not having significant capital to meet your financial needs can be mentally debilitating. Ask yourself, can I do this, do I want to do this?

Are you equipped, both physically and mentally, with the demands of running your business? You'll not only have to work physically hard carrying out the tasks on site but you'll also have to deal with people and hold your own in what can be a harsh business environment: remember, the client will want the best possible service for the price they've agreed to pay and you'll want to receive the best possible price for the service you've agreed to provide - it will be all down to you.

On paper, negotiating a daily, weekly, monthly or yearly schedule for selling your time and expertise seems simple; talk is cheap and it's easy to give the client the impression that they'll be getting a lot more from you than you'll ultimately expect to give.

Negotiating is tough at times and you'll often feel caught in the middle. You'll have to negotiate the best possible prices and discounts with suppliers as well as resists pressure from potential clients to give away too much. Can you do this, do you want to do this?

Setting up a business costs money


You might have a strong plan and a certain amount of work already in the pipeline but setting up and running a business costs money.

I would suggest that if you are setting up as a single person enterprise then you keep strict control over your debtors and insist, where possible, that you are paid on the day you do the work. Unless you are anticipating taking on commercial contracts then there's no real benefit. or sense, in letting your clients have any form of credit.

We'll go into business plans and cash flow forecasting in the coming few weeks but before you even get as far as putting too much on paper, ask yourself - do you have sufficient capital to see you through the first few weeks or months? There may be capital expenditure on tools and equipment (if you don't own these already) and potentially an investment in a commercial vehicle to carry your tools and materials to the sites you work.

The family car's all well and good but do you really want to be unloading tools and equipment and hoovering out soil and muck just so you can take your family out for the day over a weekend?

Saleable skills and knowledge

It's the same with any profession. You can only receive the right remuneration dependant on the experience and skills you possess. It doesn't matter one iota if you are unqualified in some or all of the aspects of gardening or landscaping but you have to be able to deliver on your promise. You'll be foolish and bordering on insane if you sell yourself as being experienced and skilled in certain aspects of gardening or landscaping and then expose yourself and let yourself down when trying to deliver the goods to your clients.

You also have to be aware that the price you can charge is pursuant to the knowledge and skills you already possess so you have to do some research into your local gardening markets and assess what's already being charged for the service you aim to deliver and then work out if you have the ammunition to provide those skills to receive the right compensation for the income you need from your business.

Don't take a chance - if you're not sufficiently equipped, both skilfully and with the necessary experience at this stage then your business might suffer from day one and not get off the ground.

Bad news travels fast and so does a poor reputation.

I hope this first post has given you some useful tips to help concentrate your mind and remember, if you want help on specifics then leave a comment below.

Phil Voice has worked in the landscape and horticulture industry all his working life. He qualified in amenity horticulture at Merrist Wood college, Worplesdon, Guildford and greenkeeping at Sparsholt college, Hampshire.

Running his gardening and landscaping business for nearly twenty-one years, from the age of nineteen, employing sixteen people, at its peak.

Phil has picked up some valuable experience - including the knocks and hardship - and skills. In this book he passes on some of this value to help you get started.

The book is not so much about the numbers but more about the mental approach and how to think business-like.

 


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Comments

  • If you do want to run and expand a gardening business. Another thing is you are also responsible for your employees and that is a hell of a responsibility on your mind - especially seeing them through the winter as well as yourself!
  • As much advice and info is really important. I am booked in with business link for a few days over the coming weeks.
    I look forward to the business plan next week.
  • A good, fair and balanced article. As with all things in life there is a balance between 'heart and head' never more apt than in business, keep the rose tinted spectacles off. Remember it takes a lot of effort, time and hard work usually over a considerable period to make a business successful and yet it takes very little effort to ruin one.
  • PRO
    Lisa - good point and we will cover employment in the second section of this course.

    Dan - good luck with business link. I don't intend to reinvent the wheel and part of this course will be linking to excellent resource sites such as Business Link.

    Antony - I like your last point and very true.
  • The flexibility of self employment is good, but it cuts both ways. Often we are working all day and then coming home to the preparation of estimates or drawing up of bills...the hours can be long!
  • This is great Phil, I can't wait for the next installments. I've been doing this for 7 years now after a mid life crisis. Its been terrific, people say I 've never looked so healthy. Now I have domestic, residential and commercial customers with contracts, an employee but I am getting stressed again.
    I also agree that the perception from the public is that its a low value profession, customers negotiating hourly labour rates for example and yet I think our profession must have one of the highest capital outlays of any with all the equipment that you need to buy and replace through wear and tear.
    I am looking forward to next weeks business plan discussion.
  • An excellent honest article - l've certainly experienced many aspects mentioned. The flexibility of self employment is excellent but there is constant pressure finishing one job, without letting the quality suffer, to get next customer who's desperate you start, finish that other design and estimate for another... then there's your accounts, billing to keep the cash flowing, order new materials... And so many of these can eat into your weekend and as Bob mentioned gets stressful. Having staff adds another minefield! Book holiday dates and stick to them to recharge your batteries.
  • PRO
    excellent article look foward to reading the next. When i started ten years ago i made the classic mistake of not having any capital behind me i bought what i could afford to pay for out right. This was my biggest mistake and it has taken years to address, the vans i purchased spent alot of time being repaired and if of the road i was not working, i would say if you cant afford to by a good van or truck think very very hard before taking the jump. How ever i am still here and now employ 4 thats a major head ache as well. I agree with a lot of the comments about being under valued and i find this realy frustrating. Would i do it again o yes when everything is going well it is a great industry to work in, and my staff our excellent.
  • IF you do start trading think about the other guys already trading do not jump in with both feet and start undercutting their price and be careful about bad mouthing the opposition if possible talk to them the article is right our industry is unregulated too many cowboys are in it for a quick £.Landscape juice has got a lot of people talking I work in conjunction with other small firms and we pass each other work I do quite well as i am qualified and i am often asked to assist with training we need as an industry to stick together and provide a quality service and earn the right to call ourselves professionals keep up the good work Philip , Jim
  • The most important thing to ensure when starting a business is to make sure you have the unqualified support of your husband, wife or partner. Running a business can take up more time than you can possibly imagine and the stress that accompanies it can put the most enormous strain on a relationship.
    Your partner is your biggest asset, if they can't offer you the support you will need then I would suggest you think very carefully about the value of your relationship and whether it is more important than your desire to start a business.
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