How To Find And Keep A Good Gardener

Posted on Jun 24, 2017

By Cass Turnbull

Periodically, people come up to me and say that they have a hard time finding and keeping good garden help. I can imagine it would be difficult. For one thing, how are you supposed to know if they are any good? You can’t just ask them, “Are you a good pruner?” It’s like asking someone if they are a good driver. Nobody says no. Personal referrals don’t help much. A lot of folks, including some of your friends, like the look of mal-pruning and overplanted or mis-sited landscapes. In fact, many people insist that bad work be done—as in, “Please top my birch and shear my camellias.” Lots of folks confuse hard working with skillful and knowledgeable. The Better Business Bureau can help you find out if a prospective business person is a crook, or has bad customer service, but they don’t test for skill and knowledge. As for small one and two-person businesses— well, they are not likely to be included in a commercial referral service or to have an online presence.

Maybe you found the name of a good gardener, but they didn’t seem interested in getting your business— they’re always too busy. And they charge three times the hourly rate of the neighbor’s guys.

If you want the straight skinny on how to hire and keep a good gardener, skip to the end of this article. But for some informative background, continue here:

First off, there are two different groups working in the industry. Gardeners have dirty knees; landscapers smell like gas. These two groups work in different worlds with different schedules.

Landscapers

The mow, blow, and go company, must schedule their visits to your yard once a week because that’s how often the leaves need to be blown. They do most of their work standing up and are skilled with power equipment—mowers, string trimmers, power hedge shears, and blowers. They pride themselves on mowing efficiently and quickly, with straight lines and good clean up. The boss’s dream is to acquire as many clients as possible in the same neighborhood. That cuts down the unbillable drive time. They avoid hand weeding, or anything that requires bending over. They spray weeds with Roundup or a hoe and prune with hedge shears. They like to fertilize everything as much as four times a year. They know practically nothing about pruning or horticulture and don’t really want to. There’s always a guy on the crew who feels he is an artist with the hedge shears. You suspect he might smoke pot.

Gardeners

Gardeners, on the other hand, do most of their work by hand and often on their knees. They don’t like to mow grass or do hedges. In fact, they want to enlarge your beds and get rid of some grass. They have small companies, and they use fan rakes, tarps, hand pruners, plastic buckets, and hand weeding tools. They like plants, not turf. They always wear a red-handled hand pruner in their holster, and sometimes even work in flip-flops and shorts. The gardener comes to your yard once a month or quarterly for 3-7 hours. Sometimes a gardener will stare at plants and then disappear into the shrubbery to prune them for hours at a time. They don’t push chemical fertilizer; they push mulch and organic products. They even move spiders so they won’t break their webs. They know the names of all the plants. They are sometimes are a little weird or lack communication skills, either talking too much or not at all. They seem unwilling to do many things you ask them to do and are always saying things like, “the plants like this” and “that hurts the plants.” You suspect they might smoke pot.

Hire

Hire somebody who has been in the landscape maintenance business for a few years, but maybe not twenty. Ask your friend who loves gardening for recommendations. See if the prospective gardener has attended a horticulture school. Walk around the yard with them and ask questions. You want a company that does not want to expand. They should know the names of 80% of the plants in your yard. You should tell them you want to top a tree. They should try to talk you out of it. If they are new in business, tell them you are looking for regular maintenance ALL YEAR round. If they’ve been in business for over seven years, they will say they are really busy, which they should be if they are any good. If you really want them, trick them by first asking for a consultation. After they have seen your yard, but while they are still on site, ask if they could possibly fit you in for a day of work, even if it is months away. Get the date right then. Put it in your calendar to call and remind them how much you are looking forward to their visit two weeks beforehand, and reconfirm two days ahead. Once you become a regular client, you will be on automatic.

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Keep

To retain your gardener and keep the quality of work high, I recommend the following. Include a sticky with your check that has a smiley face and says “Thanks! The garden looks great.” Be appreciative. Be slightly disappointed if they call to change dates. Give a year-end cash bonus and offer cookies from time to time. And know that there is satisfaction in having a gardener you can trust to know what you like, to know what to do, to do good work quickly and efficiently, who will care of your garden better than they would their own, and sometimes even be a friend with whom to share the joys of your garden.