A few lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Good tools are essential for a start, but good doesn’t always mean most expensive. A cheap pair of secateurs may last a season or two in one private garden but in the hands of a “pro” they can explode after a couple of weeks, and we’ve shifted acres of prunings! Allegedly Felco make the best secateurs on the planet, and I sort of hankered after a couple of pairs of them at first, but the rather prohibitive price tag put me off. In the end I saw a company called Darlac at the RHS Cardiff Flower Show, and bought 4 pairs of secateurs, and some excellent extendable loppers, for roughly the same price as a pair and a half of Felco’s, and have been extremely satisfied with them. The loppers in particular are very heavy duty, whilst at the same time being light and very easy to use. I’d recommend them to anyone. (Mind you, it’s possible to be perfectly satisfied with a BMW yet if offered a Roll’s Royce, who would turn it down, eh? Are you reading this Messrs Felco!)

Plants are available from all sorts of places. DIY stores, Garden Centres, corner shops and online from a whole variety of suppliers. The quality and the prices vary enormously. The cheapest plants aren’t always the poorest quality, but are rarely the best, and the most expensive aren’t always the best quality, and in some cases can actually be quite poor. It’s important to know what a fair price is, and what a good plant looks like. In my experience many people don’t and end up paying too much, or too little, for a plant doomed from the day it was planted. I’ve purchased quite a few online with hugely varying results. Some have grown well, some haven’t grown at all. Some have arrived well packed and perfectly protected. Some have been bashed up and rather mangled. Some have been a real surprise. My Echinacea Purpurea “White Swan” turned out to be an altogether different variety when in bloom, which could have been a real disaster!

Too many of the places I’ve visited to buy plants are only really interested in selling things. I’ll want to know where you want to plant it, what your soil and aspect is like and try to advise on the basis of that how likely your chosen plant is to thrive.

Customers are individuals. Well, I knew that of course from my previous life, but up close and personal this truth becomes so much sharper. There is no substitute for understanding a customer’s needs, motivation, budget and expectations. From a sustenance point of view it also helps to remember who probably will and who probably won’t offer a cup of tea, and remember to pack a flask when visiting the latter! Some customers almost kill with kindness, and some don’t. It’s o.k either way, but also further proof that “Thank Heaven” we are all very different!

That builder who took ages to return my calls, then took ages to visit, and even more ages to produce a quote, and then didn’t come when he said he would (real story from this year, but it’s happened to me many times before) isn’t a bad person. He’s just too busy and reluctant to say “no”. How do I know. Lesson learned. If I have one client that client expects my 100% attention and will get it too. Add another one and there is a 50% expectation gap already. Add 10 more and the potential for disappointing someone increases exponentially. Business owners have to become expert jugglers very quickly, often without anyone to teach them, so hardly surprising that sometimes the balls get dropped. Thankfully, when I took a little longer than the clients were hoping, a sincere apology and a good job seem to have restored the status quo. I quickly learned to stem my kamikaze optimism on time scales!

Brilliant gardens full of interest and colour are free. Or at least that is what many people seem to believe. The budget initially allocated to this wonderful outdoor room is often woefully mismatched against what the customer would like to achieve. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s because gardeners aren’t seen as specialists (and they should be) or maybe it’s because even the most sensational garden newly planted will soon become a wilderness if not maintained. Whatever the reason, the most difficult part of the job can often be to help customers understand that a garden is never free, even if they do it themselves. A well designed garden, well built and planted, and then well maintained, will reward it’s owner with years and years of pride and pleasure.  An overgrown and unkempt mess of a plot is likely to depress it’s owner, knowingly or not, every time they clap eyes on it. If I’ve heard “plants are sooo expensive” once I’ve heard it a hundred times, yet the average price for herbaceous perennials is probably about £6 to £7 each, and for that it will bloom for years. On the other hand the money could be spent on a pint and three quarters of beer, a “reasonable” bottle of wine or a fraction of the average monthly cost of purchasing a Sky TV package!  What’s the definition of value then?

Honesty is always the best policy. This one is a little linked to both the previous lessons. It’s important not to try to mislead customers when timescales or budgets start stretching. The truth is the truth and customers are never daft. It’s also about what is and isn’t possible. I’ve seen several gardens this year which have been previously “landscaped”. Some were palpably substandard. However, this may not have been because the contractors simply weren’t very good, or lacking in horticultural knowledge and technique. It may have been because the customer budget and aims didn’t match, and rather than try to explain this, and perhaps risk losing the job, the contractors worked down to the price expected, but without admitting this to the customer. Inevitably this will end up disappointing  when the short cuts, cut backs and compromise plants start to evidence themselves. If what the customer wants can’t be produced to the standard required for the budget stated it’s very important to say so.

September 30, 2011 — Andrew Lay

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