Help me start a landscaping business!
November 4, 2009 4:59 PM   Subscribe

I am thinking about starting a landscaping business. I don't really have direct experience in the field. Looking for resources.

Hello there,
I am in my mid twenties, moved to a midsized city in Texas about two months ago. As you probably know, our economic condition is not the best these days, which made looking for a good steady job pretty frustrating. To sustain myself I did a bunch of small gigs including small landscaping projects (Through craigslist mostly).

I am thinking about starting my own little landscaping business.

I volunteered in various organic farms for about two years; Have a modest knowledge about edible crops, organic growing methods, love and know my plants. I enjoy working outside, using my body, planting stuff,.

My selling point will be organic/sustainable landscaping.
* Trying to use native plants that require less water. Demand less upkeep and just thrive once established.
* Using organic methods, good soils, heavy mulching, sound irrigation techniques, maybe vermiculture in the future (earthworms castings).
* Showing people the beauty and functionality of edible perennials.
* Down the line get into Permaculture design, and just using Permaculture principles in people's yards.

I don't have a truck or heavy duty tools YET. So I'll have to start out doing smaller projects/rent truck on special occasions (to haul bulk soil/mulch).

Is any one here works/owns a landscaping operation? Any insights? Words of wisdom? Pros and Cons? Warnings?

Any good books on Landscape design? I know there are dozens if not hundreds, do you have any specific recommendations?

Any good software available? With design, plants for climate zones?

What would be cheap and effective marketing channels?

Thank you and have a great day,
posted by Sentus to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have no familiarity with landscaping, but if I were looking for a landscaper, I would be very interested in a company with an angle such as your organic/sustainable. It should distinguish you from other landscaping companies, and obviously serves as a testament to your passion for the industry.
posted by newper at 5:11 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would look into becoming a master gardener. Your profile doesn't list a location, so I'm not sure if that's an option for you.

Also, do some research into Xeriscaping.
posted by torquemaniac at 5:34 PM on November 4, 2009

Do you speak Spanish? You should, seriously, because if you have to hire temporary or permanent help for bigger jobs, that's where the job-seeking skills pool will be. Even a simple night course or something will give you enough to help you gain and hold the respect of hires.
posted by rokusan at 5:46 PM on November 4, 2009

I second the Spanish comment. I have had relatives in the landscape business.

You are unlikely to gain a lot of traction in your business if you don't speak Spanish. When you get hired for bigger jobs, people want to know how many men you can bring because the question is not if you can get the job done, but when and how fast and for what price.

The best way is to find a reliable Spanish speaker and make him a partner. He will focus on labor. You focus your efforts on marketing your business and expertise. He will appreciate that you can make the sales because he will want access to anything that is not the pain in the butt residential stuff. You want to have a pitch that includes your experience with your specific landscape methods and how you can match the guy who is cutting the lawn while making it sustainable.

You'll want to think about indoor plants as well in offices. Someone needs to water them. That can be you. Plus, indoor plants improve air quality.

You'll want to have good contacts with local nurseries too. So you can get plants for a lower price, markup and sell. And a garage to store your equipment. And knowledge of fixing lawnmower engines.
posted by abdulf at 6:13 PM on November 4, 2009

I know someone who does pretty much what you want to do. He has a degree in landscape architecture from a top university, and it still took him a long time, including working for someone else, before he could get his own business going. I don't want to be discouraging, and maybe clients wouldn't care about education, but it seems like it would be much harder for you if you're asking for book recommendations. Then again, I don't know anything about the subject itself, and maybe you can make it work, but that's just a data point for you.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 6:34 PM on November 4, 2009

I disagree with the naysayers - Landscaping is an incredibly easy business to get into. Start out doing small scale landscape maintenance and little bit of new plantings for he clients, over time focus on design + build stuff. Skip lawns, skip indoors - they both have issues as businesses - impossible to differentiate yourself so pricing sucks. Use your local ag extension to brush up on natives + figure out who grows them. Realize that there is a reason why exotics are so dominant though - people like the way they look even if they drive a prius. Design stuff is hard to give advice on as I have no idea what the native landscape in your part of the world looks like - but you would want to find people who work in that vernacular

Don't bite off more than you can chew on the whole organic/sustainable/natives angle. Not because it isn't a good idea, but it is hard to pull off in a commercial way.
posted by JPD at 6:51 PM on November 4, 2009

On a recent Anything you Ever Wanted to Know program on KERA (Dallas radio station) someone asked a similar question and a woman who works at Harvest Supply Company called in to say that her company helps gardeners and landscapers find organic/native plants, and even if you are not going to buy anything from them, they love to talk to people and help them. She recommended Redenta's Gardens and North Haven Gardens as sources for organic/native plants. Not sure where in TX you are, but maybe this can help you get started with the types of plants and resources for this growing region.
posted by CathyG at 7:35 PM on November 4, 2009

Best answer: I work in the business. I have worked at nurseries, designed and built gardens for a San Francisco design/build company, and currently do maintenance on my own while I get an LA degree.
It's going to be hard for you to make a living without clients/references or prior experience. I highly highly recommend working with a gardening company for at least six months (ideally a full year), because dealing with clients and working for an hourly wage is nothing like working on an organic farm. You're going to need to speak the language of the business in order to be able to sell yourself- why should anyone hire you when they can get a mow and blow guy for much less? Why should they pay more and wait longer for organic methods? I don't think you will need a truck most of the time if you can otherwise transport plants and tools; I have a station wagon and it's fine for everything but hauling debris (although if you're going to need to do that, that may be an issue).

You should know how to test soil pH and texture in the field. You can't properly troubleshoot plant ailments or apply nutrition (compost, green manures, organic fertilizers, whatever you are working with) if you don't know the pH of the soil.

You've got to learn to tease what clients really want out of what they say they want, and do it tactfully. If you don't draft or draw you're going to have to figure out other ways of communicating design ideas. Most people need a visual when it comes to gardens and won't be pleased when your idea of a naturalistic herb garden or whatever isn't the same as theirs, especially if you've planted it already. Don't use buzzwords like "sustainable" if you are trying to improve people's gardens- if they never water it and the existing plants are all alive, that's already a sustainable garden. Installing a vegetable garden isn't, if they have to pay you to take care of it. So beware of terminology that doesn't make your case.

You need to know how to troubleshoot irrigation of all sorts if people have it.

I've never really found books to be very helpful, other than the Sunset Garden book which is a great reference for California- not sure how it holds up in other parts of the world. Better is to take classes or apprentice. Pruning is not something one can learn from books- looking at a stylized picture of a tree is nothing like looking at a tree in real life.

Landscape Architecture by John Ormsby Simonds is pretty good in a big picture way. It's not about gardening as a business, but has all the deeper principles that guide human/earth systems. If you have been learning about permaculture, you'll find all those principles (and more) have long been part of landscape architecture.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:57 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the helpful comments.

Spanish is a good idea, but I think I'll need it more down the line when/if buisness will pick up.

Working in a landscaping/gardening company is also a great idea, but its pretty hard to find one. I'm not giving up, but I sense that for every opening there is like twenty eager applicants.

Any more nuggets?

Thanks again,
posted by Sentus at 10:03 AM on November 5, 2009

My dad has been a landscaper for 40 plus years and having worked for him I have to say it's a wonderful business. My advice is to find accounting software you're comfortable with so when the money starts coming in you can manage it. It may be years away away but paying employees, vendors, subs, etc., can be a nightmare if you don't have a solid plan in place or person you can trust to help you with it. Good luck!
posted by greensalsa at 2:57 PM on November 5, 2009

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