by Thomas Berger
It is an unusually warm February morning in Southern Maine: 50 degrees and the birds are singing, even some insects buzzing around, a bit scary for the middle of winter. And in the news I read about the warmest January worldwide in recorded history. I wonder if I should order fig trees for my home orchard! The weather has become more unreliable than ever and farmers can’t count on the old traditional dates for seeding and planting certain crops. The same might be true for landscapers, who have to deal with unusual weather situations.
But where there is a problem, there is an opportunity. High winds will keep the arborists climbing and cutting and shredding. Torrential rainfalls will generate calls from customers who want trenches dug and drain pipes installed that end in beautiful rain gardens. Extended droughts will bring business to the irrigation contractor. Insect populations will also enjoy occasional roller-coaster rides and that again will be a blessing for the pest control businesses. But really, would it not be nicer to plan on reliable weather and design gardens we can count on for decades, even centuries? Instead of shredding trees that have been ripped apart in storms, arborists could satisfy demands for artful pruning, creating Niwaki trees that look like they have been growing for 500 years and will continue for hundreds more, because they don’t have to fear floods, droughts and insect explosions.
I chose this business not just for the money in it but for the work environment and the satisfaction it brings when looking at a completed piece of artful garden installation. I want to enjoy my gardens, and certainly also the work process of creating them.
The first really warm days in April make me urge for the garden – not any customer’s garden but my own! I love every second of being there, even if I’m tired and exhausted after a long day of landscaping. Garden work is therapy for me. Being out there with the soil and the plants, and promoting life – whether in the form of flowering perennials for the pollinator garden, or in the form of vegetables that will end up on my kitchen table – is deeply satisfying to me. I love the quietness, not having to talk to anybody, including – for a change – not having to talk to any customers. In my own garden I don’t have to care for anybody’s opinion. No justification, no sales pitch, no explanations. I am a free human being, establishing a relationship with nature.
Mid-April normally has me up and running, blood pressure raised, senses on heightened alert, like a lion approaching its prey. But after more than twenty years of installing uncountable patios, walkways, front yards and back yards I feel a certain tiredness entering my body physically as well as mentally.
My business always was very small. Even during my most ambitious times I never had more than four or five employees. Most of them were good guys and did decent work, but the very big part was always on me, of course. As the business owner I had to go the extra mile, had to have the ambition and the energy to do so. Once up in the morning, right out of bed, the tasks of the day took over my mind: make sure that Josh doesn’t forget to check the oil, send Peter to pick up the plants, don’t forget to stop by at the Jones….
From the morning meeting to the lunch break, and from the end of the lunch break to lifting the last shovel in the evening, a small business demands full focus, and the owner will be a manager, estimator, designer, marketing agent, financial officer, work-safety inspector, foreman, stone mason, equipment operator, mechanic, horticulturist, secretary…. That is a tall order for one person to fill.
I am calculating costs and benefits. With installations it feels like I put all my resources into the replacement of outdated equipment, buying new tires, and paying the insurance and workers comp bills, as well as a few others – a year-long race with payments due! Astonishingly, the basic equipment for a design office costs (nice printer included) no more than that new set of truck tires!
If I had to start again I would offer only one product, one that I am good at and that I can train my helpers to do well, independently, and efficiently. That could be “flatwork” for example – only patios, walkways, driveways…no walls, no ponds, not plantings. However, at the time I started the business, jobs were not abundant and one had to take what one could get.
Today, a specialization would work, but it would work especially well if a few partner businesses were willing to cooperate and take on the other parts, one for walls, one for plantings. Wouldn’t that be nice for all of them? It is actually much easier to just focus on one aspect, like stone walls, and move from wall to wall instead of having to switch to brick driveways for one week and to digging the soil and planting perennials the next. Each job requires different tools and equipment, different materials that have to be purchased, and different knowledge from the business owner and skills from the employees. Changing profession every week or so is exhausting for everybody!
The economy is booming, at least here on the coast. And that is an opportunity to change things! Did I say I would offer only one product if I had to start over again? Well, I will start over again! As the phone calls come in I can start sifting. And this year I sift all alone, because I let go of my employees (after finding new work for them). For design work, I don’t need help!
My goal for this “year of change” is not to get rich, but to pay the bills with the least mental and physical exhaustion. But just leaving the landscape installations behind and now doing only designs would scare the hell out of me. Instead, I count on friends, including the friendly competition. As I send “installations” out, I get “designs” back, and voila – I make money on the drawing board, at least a decent amount.
The weather has been perfect for installations. I am on my knees, installing bluestone for a pool patio. True, designs are not quite enough to pay the bills, at least not in this first year, but that’s where the backup plan kicks in. Occasionally sharing a job with another landscaper allows me to add income without having to deal with the full load of overhead, equipment, employees, and organizing. We keep it simple, share the profit in a fair way, and I got my income insurance!
Another design and another installation. But compared to running the business in the past, this feels like vacation! Never before did I have less stress and more time.
Everybody is waiting for rain! The weather is weird again, this time making it hard for all the new plantings. And with the grass not growing, I feel sorry for the mowing crews – not working full force must be a problem especially for a seasonal business.
Unpredictable fluctuations of the economy AND the weather insure that the stress never ends for us landscapers! But do I want to let myself get sucked into these business urgencies without end? After reflecting on 20 years of managing a small landscaping business, I have finally learned that I must add one important activity: Maintenance! However, I’m not talking about gardens but maintenance of Myself. It is easy to race through life, and suddenly look back after 10, 20 years and ask yourself: Where did all that time go? I can’t believe my kids are grown up! Why do I not enjoy going to my job site this morning?
We can’t run like machines because we are not mechanical. If life turns mechanical something has been lost. We will burn out like an old engine that has been neglected for too long. The belts will come loose and squeak, the oil will turn black and the spark plugs will no longer give off any sparks! When that happens, maintenance is overdue!
But I don’t think a good beer in the evening would be sufficient. What about the old dreams when we started the business? And how about some of the other dreams we had: love, family, happy children, good friends…? And some of our motivation: on one hand we wanted to make a living, on the other we also had a degree of idealism, wanting to make the world more beautiful, contribute to a balance with nature, and more. Have we fulfilled our own promises or has the reality of “doing business” diverted our attention to some totally different priorities?
It is finally raining, and everything seems to fall into place! Another design is finished, and more are scheduled. I am no longer in tornado-mode, which in past years lasted until the day before Christmas. Instead, I’m having an entertaining evening with my son, cooking dinner together, with awesome vegetables from our awesome garden.
Specializing seems to work!
About the Author
Thomas Berger grew up in a small rural town in Germany. During his childhood he was an avid collector of shells, bones, sea creatures, and fossils. He also gardened with his father and kept bees and sheep which led him to study agriculture. As an adult, Thomas worked on farms in Germany, France, and Australia, and joined the German Volunteer Service in 1984, working in an agricultural project in Niger, West Africa. In 1994 he moved to the United States, where he started a landscape design and construction firm, Green Art, and received an award of excellence from the New Hampshire Landscape Association in 1998. Thomas is a regionally known stone sculptor, expressing his love of nature through his art.
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