Spring is Springing. It seems a timely moment to deliver some “state of the landscaping career” thoughts, wherein I speak of whether landscaping as a trade is a reasonable career option for anyone who might be curious.
You could do worse, is always my conclusion. 😉
Can Landscaping be a career choice? Is it a good one? I have to confess to have seen both sides of this argument, from the bone-weary returns in the evening to that thankful hot shower and some surcease from the lifting chores of an average landscaping day to the cashing of a very profitable check from a delighted customer.
Landscaping’s finest hour can be upon completion of a project. All the snarls and problems involving solution and plain dogged determination mean a tableau of a front yard which invites some honor and regard for beauty itself. Some people prefer the beginning of projects – I am being serious – the destruction and rendering of some formerly-passable landscape to bare dirt does indeed have a certain appeal. Of course, in another life, they would spend time behind bars. Naturally, I know nothing of these things. 😉
I began landscaping by mowing lawns in Vancouver, British Columbia as a Summer job while attending Vancouver City College. I kept with the company as school commenced, then basically had no choice but to continue the work when I got turned down for a student loan for the semester because I applied late. I stayed with that little company for 8 years, it turned out. I fell in love easily with Vancouver. It has to be the single most scenic town in North America and among those anywhere in the world.
(click all images to enlarge)
In the 15 years I lived there, not a day went by where I did not appreciate the clean air and the marvelous sense of Nature which surrounds this bustling but beautiful city. But they also had something else to draw my interest – many English people and an overall appreciation of gardens and garden design. This place is a wonder of plenitude and greenery. Things grow at a tremendous rate, taking advantage of the “Pineapple Express”, the warm currents which bring a bit warmer weather to such a Northern clime. And having said that, it’s also what supplies water – in buckets – a near constant rainfall from September until May. It dusts the surrounding mountains with snow, providing an unheard-of ability to be skiing not an hour out of town and totally accessible by public transportation. With the advent of night skiing up on Grouse Mountain, it gives a chance to seem to be teetering over the edge of the world, about to fall down into the big wide open urban landscape below – at day or night. Below is a view from the mountain, where you can eat and watch the sun set, then party.
During the 15 years I worked there, I went from just mowing lawns and drinking beer at night to actually taking it all seriously – and still drinking beer at night. 😉 The little company had begun as a maintenance-only business then expanded slowly into landscaping construction – with an eye towards more. When the owner died, the wife of the owner and the Hungarian lead man asked me to help out and to move from lawn mowing/maintenance to landscaping. I was curious about it and made the move. It was the beginning of an interesting process where I actually took what I was doing fairly seriously and began studying it more. Now, in maintenance, I had the good fortune of dealing with all sorts of fabulous places – just marvelously designed and teeming with plants I came to know and to maintain. I learned of acidic levels for Rhododendrons and Azalea’s, the Hydrangea story, details and necessities of all the many annuals and I planted bulbs til the cows came home. I learned about pruning and trimming hedges and shaping plants. I had learned about roses and odd things, like Palm Trees, believe it or not, which could carve out a protected existence up there. But with the landscaping, I entered an entirely new phase.
So I began helping with the bidding and how to acquire work on a commercial level. As we acquired work, I also did it – I mean all of it. My Hungarian friend Alex was a super landscaper and strong as an ox, so it became a labor of love in many ways because I liked him and vice versa. He told me stories of WW2 and being a POW in Russia, then serving in the Hungarian Army later and leaving in 1956 with the Russian Invasion there. Loquacious and quite satisfied with where he had landed in life itself, Alex and the business used me as a front man for projects owing to his broken English. I thus met people. I also recall actually negotiating my first contract for the business. Sitting in front of someone who wanted to cut down the price – in spite of our being low bidder! – I carved out a face-saving bit of the project and made it look as though he had saved his business some money. It was pretty cool and I recall nervously sitting and waiting for his assent. A bolt of sheer electric shock went right up my spine when he said he thought it was a terrific solution.
I got better, too. I toiled with Cotswold Landscaping like this for another 3 years then I got edgy and decided to go out on my own. This is actually the point of the entire thread, by the way 😉 . With a partner and no money, one Spring I decided to give a try to running our own business. We had his Mom – he was local – cosign for a truck and we went from there. A local dentist was an old client who adored John – my partner – and he gave us a monster hedge to trim. This was a $500 project – enough to buy a weed eater and some more tools. Essentially, everything we owned we bought with money we earned. The business expanded with maintenance contracts and from the usual Spring Rush where we dropped small ads at doorsteps and got enough responses to continue on. By the second year, we began acquiring landscaping projects – which was all my purview.
Eventually – actually that year – we split up and the landscaping business became something entirely new and bigger and John stayed with maintenance. As the years have passed, it became yet other landscaping businesses with varying success, and in different locations. What did occur with me was a meeting of my own ambition with constant challenges to learn more and to not only appear competent but to actually be competent at installing superb landscapes. It also sent me into a designing frenzy which I will deal with in another post.
My point in all this is to illustrate the path. By using myself as an example, this is somewhat typical of how landscape businesses form. Most landscape businesses we see out there began similarly. I know this because I have obviously been close to it all. Other start-ups have included everything from people who knew nothing about the trade but whose families or who themselves were once General Contractors who saw a need and stepped in by hiring appropriate personnel. (In fact, one of the more successful businesses I know of began this way). Other routes I have seen are people with degrees in either horticulture, landscape architecture and similar programs – even AA degrees from Junior Colleges – and who entered the market with a very conscious plan based on marketing and a sensible approach to business per se. These fortunate few gained from programs with the virtue of basic economics courses and which, Lord knows, I wish I had gone for.
The love of the field finishes a poor second to all sorts of concerns when businesses form. But that same love of the trade which generated one’s interest to begin with makes one heck of a marketable person, at the same time. Landscapers all search for good and knowledgeable people. Indeed, these are those business’s primary asset. A good foreman can make good money when he lands in the right place.
People underneath me have also gone on to some success beginning businesses. No one is going to stop ambition. The primary elements to it all often depend on knowledge and a hell of a lot of moxie. But the more primary issue by far is in getting lucky with timing. Recessions peel off landscape businesses like nothing. I have sweated through 3 now and each one of them left either me or hordes of others languishing in search of the big market they once saw laid out like a Golden Road in front of them. If there was ever any advice I would supply an aspirant who wished to begin his own landscaping business, it would be to take full advantage of any marketplace which was responsive and then to solidify all that as soon as possible and as often as possible. It pays to clear debt yearly, if possible. It pays even more to save. Investment is one thing but saving for a rainy day means saving for a bunch of rainy days. When the market fails, it takes years, not weeks for it to rebound.
But this is the case in all businesses as well. I just know landscaping, personally.
A Winter look at a landscape/waterfall in Reno: