When I meet with clients for the first time, we talk a lot about what style, design, color and other elements appeal to them. We also talk about whether they want a low-maintenance garden, or whether they want to put a lot of work into their own high-maintenance yard.
Consistently, however, I find that people do not even remotely understand what I mean by “maintenance.” I hear things like, “I don’t need a sprinkler clock,” or, more truthfully, “I don’t want to spend the money on a sprinkler clock” – and I immediately realize that I have someone on my hands who needs educating.
WHAT IS MAINTENANCE?
As a landscape designer, I also listen to lots of clients who see maintenance as the job performed by their overpriced “mow, blow and go” gardener who, they say, does “absolutely nothing.” But they’re thinking of just one of maintenance’s three key elements:
[ ] Irrigation. Every properly landscaped yard must begin with a proper irrigation system. This means installing enough heads to cover the area adequately and enough valves so that no one area is overloaded. This also means considering exposure of the various areas and the types of plants that will be installed in each. Furthermore, someone needs to check periodically to be sure the system is in proper working order (in other words, someone needs to make certain the heads haven’t shifted and are watering the car instead of the lawn).
[ ] Weekly maintenance service. Most people have problems with their gardener, but I have to say that the majority of gardens are well tended by the weekly mow, blow and go service. With few exceptions, most of these workers are underpaid and simply don’t have the time to do anything more for a yard. (Even though I tend to complain about them, I have a lot of empathy for gardeners. If you figure out how much they get paid an hour to work on yards, it’s amazing they’re able to keep doing this for a living.)
[ ] Specialty maintenance. Everyone thinks they’ll do this themselves – fertilizing, deadheading flowers, thinning out woody shrubs, pruning trees, shaping plants, cultivating the soil, pulling weeds – the list can go on for pages depending upon the unique nature of a garden. In a nutshell, these unperformed tasks are the things that cause clients to look out into their gardens and say, “My gardener is worthless.”
Many of you may not be that familiar with what I mean by “specialty maintenance,” so here’s a bit more information on this key service.
A few years ago, I met a woman whose entire business was specialty maintenance. She explained to me that she told her clients they needed a weekly gardening service that basically handled the mow, blow and go aspect of their yards – and that she would handle all the fertilizing, pruning and other tasks required by a particular garden.
She had very strict parameters about what was expected of the gardener and what she would do. And she had a very successful business.
I lost touch with her, but through the years I have increasingly experienced the need for this type of service, so much so that I even hired a specialty maintenance service for my own yard. (They say doctor’s kids get the worst medical care, and I suspect that many landscape designers’ gardens are among the most neglected. Now if I could just get around to replacing all the plants that died before I called in the service!)
If there’s anyone out there who is looking to work outdoors, independently, and make a reasonable living while not having to do the grunt work of maintenance, this is a great business. I have clients screaming to find someone who will come in once a month or even four times a year to clean up their gardens. Some even want someone to come by once a week.
A specialty maintenance service will end up getting much of the ongoing praise for a garden that looks great year after year. In fact, you might say that a garden needs irrigation and regular maintenance to look good, but it needs specialty maintenance to look great.
Most of your clients will probably look at these three key functions and start eliminating what they can – the “I can do withouts.” It’s your job to keep them from dodging any of these responsibilities: Their garden depends upon it! By saying they can do without any of these three maintenance requirements, they’re sentencing their garden to an unpleasant life of struggle and underachievement.
I may sound overly dramatic here, but I’ve seen this cycle over and over again. One yard I worked on where we had a “sky’s the limit” budget will serve as an excellent example. We placed many 36-inch-box trees, one rare 48-inch-box pine, some very expensive Japanese maples and a host of other unique plantings. The homeowner hired one of the best gardeners in the area, paying him to come twice a week with the expectation that he would take care of “what needed to be taken care of.”
We completed the yard two years ago and have since done minor fill-ins where plants weren’t doing well. In all that time, I’ve repeatedly tried to convince the homeowner that she needed to hire someone to do specialty maintenance, and she’s finally seeing the impact of not hiring someone for that purpose.
Her shrubs are already very woody and produce fewer leaves than they would be otherwise. Although a proper irrigation system was installed initially, no one has maintained it – and some plants have died from drowning while others have died of thirst. Lack of fertilizing has caused stunted growth in most of the plants, and overall, the yard looks strained and not well kept – despite the fact that it has a proper irrigation system and twice-weekly maintenance.
All in all, she’s probably lost about half of her initial investment in plants as a result of improper maintenance. Hindsight may be 20-20, but that doesn’t help when your client has invested a lot of money in a garden!
So what do you say right from the beginning to help your clients understand the importance of these three maintenance functions? I use one simple phrase: “Think of maintenance as insurance.” In other words, persuade them that they need to insure their investment in their plants.
By installing the proper irrigation system, I tell them, you insure your plants will be properly watered. By hiring someone to do regular weekly maintenance – someone who at least does a good weekly job with the mow, blow and go – you insure that the basic design and structure of the yard will be maintained. By hiring someone to do specialty maintenance, you insure that the details are taken care of – details that can make or break a garden.
If someone tells you they don’t want to spend the money on any one of these three elements, you either need to convince them otherwise – or be willing to take responsibility for the fact that the garden won’t do a good job of representing your work. After all, no client will blame the irrigation system, and few will lay much blame on the gardener or the specialty maintenance crew. Ultimately – and I know this from experience – you as the designer will catch the blame. And that translates into lost referrals.
I might go so far to say that if you can’t convince your clients of the importance of maintenance, you should pass on the job – or find an alternative. For example, if your clients have a limited budget and keep saying they promise they’ll put out the lawn sprinkler out every day and move it around for full coverage, you might suggest that they forget replacing the lawn for now. They could put that money into an irrigation system and a 50 lb. bag of fertilizer that will perk up the collection of greenery that now barely passes for a lawn.
It’s hard to compromise and scale back sometimes, but it’s often wiser to guide clients to redirect their budgets for a better outcome than deal with the consequences of maintenance-related failures down the line.
The point is, if you succumb to the uneducated financial fears of your clients, it will only backfire on you and affect your business. If your jobs don’t look good, it translates to lost referrals, a bad reputation and who knows what else. By contrast, if you develop a reputation for paying attention to details, you might become known as a pain in the neck – but your designs will look great and your clients will ultimately be happy with your work.
I have had many a client who couldn’t stand the thought of hearing my maintenance speech one more time, but came back to me a year or two later and said, “You were right.” We could all use one of those comments every once in a while!
Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].