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A career in garden maintenance

A Career in Garden Maintenance

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Topics:
1. Introduction
2. Benefits of a career in garden maintenance
3. Disadvantages of a career in garden maintenance
4. Get qualified
5. Benefits of paying tax and being insured
6. Your customers
7. Your work
8. Offering a professional garden maintenance service
9. Plan ahead
10. Equipment
11. What to charge
12. Advertising
13. Your Health
14. Further Support

1.  Introduction

Gardening can be a profitable business and provide a good work/life balance when managed properly.  

This simple guide will help anyone who is looking to start a career as a domestic maintenance gardener. To be successful you need to be one of the best! Although there is no minimum criteria required to start a garden maintenance business you should seek some training so that you can stand out from well meaning amateur labourers. For this reason, members of The Gardeners Guild must have at least one horticultural qualification. This guide will help you make your gardening business profitable and appealing to your customers.

2.  Benefits of a career in garden maintenance

There are many benefits to a career in garden maintenance:

- Regular, reliable work - whatever you earn this month you will likely earn again next month.
- Developing a good relationship with your customers – seeing some of them every week.
- Healthy, enjoyable, challenging, outdoor work.
- Flexible working hours.
- Potential to earn a good wage.
- Practically recession proof – a maintenance gardener’s customers are typically retired and have fixed incomes.

3.  Disadvantages of a career in garden maintenance

You need to be aware of the disadvantages so that you can plan to avoid them:

- Less work during the winter.
- Some days lost due to bad weather - but not as much as you might think.
- Competition from casual labourers.
- Labour intensive work.
- Unpaid travel time between work.
- Supplies, equipment and tool maintenance is expensive.
- The cost of repairing damage to your tools or customers property is usually higher than you would have earned doing the job. For example, charge someone £10 to cut a small lawn only to have a stone flung from the mower smashing a window (the tip of a mower blade spins at 200mph!) - a new glass pane in a patio door can cost in excess of £400.
- Danger – as well as hiring a gardener to do a job that the customer physically can not do themselves or that requires special equipment, you may also be hired to do a job that is dangerous or difficult to access.

4.  Get qualified

Get qualified and be proud to be a professional maintenance gardener. While no single qualification covers every aspect of horticulture, achieving any nationally recognised horticultural qualification is evidence that enthusiasm for gardening has resulted in practical skills worth paying for.

As mentioned before there is no minimum standard required to work in garden maintenance. However, you need to be competent. Most of your customers will hire you because they can’t physically keep up with the garden maintenance themselves and not because they don’t know how. A customer will quickly notice if you don’t know what you are doing and won't value your labour.

If you want to be successful you need to be the best – qualifications will help you. The more qualified you are the easier it will be to justify your fees.

Do your circumstances allow you to do a full-time course? If so, contact your local college and see what’s on offer. If not, it is possible to do an RHS correspondence course and some colleges will do day/part time courses on various topics.

You can also seek training for use of particular equipment such as pesticides or chain saws. A NPTC license can be gained in 2 days and City and Guilds offer part-time courses (also available on a correspondence basis). (Visit our Training and Skills page). Training isn't expensive (often starting at £125) - and once you have the qualification you have it for life. A qualification can cost less than the price of a good lawn mower! Any nationally recognised horticultural qualification is acceptable for membership of The Gardeners Guild

5.  Benefits of paying tax and being insured

Though no one likes doing it - there are many benefits to paying tax and having an accountant:

- It shows you are professional and dedicated to gardening as your career.
- Your accountant will prepare an accounts report – essential if you ever want to get a loan / mortgage.
- An accounts history will help if you ever want to sell your business.
- Your accountant will ensure that you make best use of any tax deductable expenses – even some you may not know about.
- Your accountant will want you to pay all your earnings into your business account. This is a good idea as your bank will often grant an overdraft equal to the amount paid into the account each month. This will help with your cash flow during the winter.
- You don’t get in trouble with the Inland Revenue. If you don’t keep good accounts they can decide how much they think you earned and tax you accordingly – even if you earned less! It will be up to you to prove them wrong.

You will need to call the Inland Revenue and notify them that you are self employed.

Insurance is also essential. Accidental damage to property is all too easy and common. The cost of repairing damage will often exceed the amount you were earning. For example, replacing the glass in a conservatory door broken by a stone flung by the grass strimmer can cost over £200 to replace but you may only earn £10 to cut the grass. The customer is entitled to recover those costs from you whether you have insurance or not. Insurance protects you as the tradesman from being presented with a repair bill you cant afford to pay and gives the customer confidence that any damage will be repaired if and when accidents happen.

You will need to contact an independent insurance broker to arrange this cover. Insurance starts from around £20pm.

6. Your Customers

Some private residences have bigger gardens than the shared gardens around flats and residential estates - so it is not unusual for even an individual gardener to work on communal gardens, commercial grounds and public spaces. 

Customers requiring help with their garden maintenance are typically people who are retired or are busy professionals. Garden maintenance is also required for gardens around flats and communal areas on many new housing estates. Sometimes these are managed by an independent property management company. However, to keep costs low the residents may form their own management company and look for local tradesmen.

Large, national maintenance contractors often have a high minimum charge which makes them unappealing to smaller maintenance contracts - but ideal for a small, professional, local garden maintenance business. For the same reason, there will be many opportunities for small commercial contracts.

The work you receive will often be through people you know - do you know anyone who lives in flats or works for a local business? 

The government is also looking to give small contracts ('small' being under £100,000!) to local traders. 

A local gardener can offer a friendly, personal service. Look after your customers and they will look after you.

In summary, local gardeners are regularly hired by:
Large private gardens and grounds
Small domestic gardens
Pensioners
Professionals
Busy families
Anyone with temporary or permanent physical limitations
Landlords/tenants
Estate and Letting Agents
Holiday lets
Housing and residents associations
Solicitors and estate executors
Flats with shared gardens
Property Management Companies
Care Homes
Commercial grounds
Private roads
Schools
Local councils for public spaces

7. Your work

Different maintenance gardeners operate in different ways. Some gardeners have just 5 customers with large gardens, others have 100's of lawn customers, others will have around 40 customers but do everything for them, others just do flats, some specialise in borders or even just climbers, some maintain ponds, some just do hedge trimming and some gardeners charge more but offer a 'be there in one hour' service for people who need a quick tidy up before a weekend BBQ!

The service you offer will evolve over time and depend on the people in the area you live. Think about the kind of garden maintenance work you want to do most and market yourself for those services. Of course, it is good to be flexible and offer a broad range of services as the kind of work you can do will vary with the weather and seasons. Gardeners who are choosy about the work they do often have that luxury because they are so busy.

8.  Offering a professional garden maintenance service

Every gardener is different but all trade on their reputation.

In addition to your gardening knowledge give some consideration to how you are perceived by potential customers. For example:

Insurance – this can cost as little as £20pm but tells your customers that you have their interests in mind. For this you will need to visit an insurance broker who will help you find the best deal.

Van Logo – This shows consideration for your customer and their neighbours. Neighbours pay attention to what’s happening in the street. A van with a clear logo will put their mind at ease as to who you are and why you are there.

Staff Uniform – This doesn’t have to be much – even just a T-Shirt with your logo. These cost around £12 each but look professional and give neighbours peace of mind when they see you in the garden. Staff uniforms and van logos advertise your business and make you more approachable – a good source of new business.

Easy to Contact – a good gardener will be easy to contact – a well known community figure. Ensure that your customers know your phone number and feel confident that they can contact you if they need you. A website will help or simply being included in the member register on this site.

Licenses – Chain saw license, use of pesticides and waste carriers license all indicate that you take the law, environment and safety seriously. They show that you are dedicated to garden maintenance as a career, that you are worth your fees and that you are obeying the law.

Clear Pricing Policy – If people understand your prices they are more likely to ask you to do work and recommend you.

9.  Plan ahead

Every gardener is different and the type of service you offer will vary according to where you live. However, here are some tips:

Timing is everything – as a gardener you are at the mercy of the seasons. Use this to your advantage:

Winter: Landscaping, hard pruning, fencing etc
Spring: Planting, weeding, feeding, fence painting
Summer: Lawns, hedge trimming,
Autumn: Pruning, leaf clearance, lawn treatment (aeration, scarifying etc), planting

Educate your customers and encourage them to delay work until the appropriate time.

Manicure or Maintenance? – Be clear about the kind of service you offer. Some customers just want their garden kept under control (maintenance) – others will want a perfect (manicured) garden. A garden 'manicure' service is often charged by the hour whereas many garden maintenance customers will prefer a fixed price. 

Minimum call-out charge – Much of your time could be wasted with unpaid travel time between jobs. Many tradesman have a minimum call out charge. This ensures that your customers only call you if they have enough work to make it worth your travelling to them. If they don’t have much for you to do – you still get paid. You must tell your customers that you have a minimum charge before work starts. It is best to do this in writing.

Don’t be fooled – a big garden does not necessarily give you more work than a small garden. A customer with a large garden may argue that you should charge them less because they give you more work. However, a big garden can be a very simple garden while a small garden can be well stocked and need more time and attention. In fact, when cutting lawns, smaller gardens can be more profitable. A big garden is only beneficial if you are guaranteed a certain number of hours work.

Lawn care – Lawn cutting is profitable for many reasons:
- You can charge a fixed price for each lawn rather than an hourly rate. Because your professional tools help you work quickly and efficiently, the faster you work the more you earn - easily £20 - £40 an hour.

- Your lawn customers will likely offer you pruning and planting work in the autumn / winter. In contrast, manicured (but not necessarily well stocked) gardens will likely have less work in the winter because you have been maintaining them all year. 

Vary your work – Even if you focus on lawn cutting you will still be offered other gardening work. If poor weather stops you cutting lawns, a varied work schedule will give you the option to rearrange your diary to do a pruning job instead.

Cash flow – You may need to consider cutting your costs at home until work increases. Try to avoid having big bills during the winter when there could be less work i.e. vehicle tax and MOT. Pay all your income into your business account - this will help you get a bigger over draft for emergencies. Domestic customers generally pay quickly. Invoice terms generally require 30 days payment but are frequently late. Try to build up reserve funds.

Think of your business as a shop – Labour is your most basic service. However, as a gardener you can offer additional services such as waste removal (if you have a waste carriers license), weed killer, collect and deliver plants etc from local garden centres, lawn treatments or even charge for advice alone. These are extra services in addition to your basic hourly rate for labour. Having a clear pricing policy will give people the option to ‘buy’ these extra services from you as and when they need it.

Get paid on time - Encourage customers to either be in when you call or pay by standing order (direct debit is usually only available to organisations with a turnover of £100K pa).

Alternatively, you may use a PDQ machine. These are now completely mobile. The benefits include being able to take payment over the phone, payments go direct to your bank, receipt printed automatically for your customer, makes it easy for you to do your accounts.

These machines cost from £15 pm plus a small fee for each transaction (around 50p) which most retailers pass on to the customer. The customer benefits from this service as they needn't keep any cash in the house, have an instant receipt and can pay from an account that's convenient for them.

For more information do an internet search for 'PDQ machines'.

10.  Equipment

Safety – Eye/face protection, helmets, steel toe-capped boots, long sleeves, tough trousers, gloves, first aid kit. You will use all of these regularly and its well worth buying top quality safety equipment. You should also think about treatment for insect bites - Mosquitoes are most well known but spiders will bite if they fall down your top! Horse Flies are among the worst as they look like house flies but actually suck blood - sometimes biting off a lump of skin to eat later! They are common in long grass towards the end of the summer.

TIP: A flexible elastic trouser waist will be more comfortable as you spend much time bending and lifting.

Tools – Having your own tools shows that you have invested in and are dedicated to a career in garden maintenance. You can easily spend £3000 + on basic maintenance tools. Think about what you are likely to really need. For example, a mower, strimmer and hedge trimmer are essential but a chainsaw, chipper and stump grinder will be rarely used unless you really advertise those services.

Visit independent garden tool specialists:
- They will give you good advice
- They will stock spare parts for the equipment they sell
- They can tell you what other gardeners are buying
- Manufacturers often make two versions of their tools – a cheap version for the large DIY stores and a trade version for the independent stores. Although slightly more expensive they give much greater value for money.

Avoid tools that are a green colour – they are too easy to lose in a customer’s garden! Mostly this applies to hand tools as they are small and easy to lose.

Your tools will likely, on average, need replacing every 3 years either due to ware and tear, breakages, theft or, if they are green, simply getting lost! Remember to factor into your these costs into your income target.

Your van – Your van is probably your most expensive tool but one of the most useful with many different applications. Your van is also one of the best adverts you can have. Try to get a van with a divider between the cab and rear storage – otherwise your cab will be filled with flies, spiders and creepy crawlies by the next morning! Your van is also a source of income – even when not gardening you can use it to transport goods or remove waste etc. Gardeners who use their cars are missing useful extra revenue. 

11.  What to charge

Most tradesman aim to earn a minimum of around £150 per day. However, this may vary from region to region. You should increase your charges as the level of danger increases. You should also charge extra for weed killer, waste removal, carriage of goods in your van etc. You may decide to have one hourly rate for manual tools and another higher hourly rate for petrol tools. This will cover the extra cost of fuel, tool maintenance and increased danger to you. Again, people are happy to pay if they know why you charge what you charge.

Fixed price services such as lawn cutting, lawn treatments, weed killer etc will depend upon local competition and you will soon get a feel for what you can charge.  The cost of a lawn cut should normally be less than your minimum call out charge – otherwise your customer might as well book you for a couple of hours and find something else to fill the time.

You will likely earn more per-working-hour by quoting for each job individually. This is most common for the type of work you would only do once a year - hard pruning, soft landscaping, hedge reduction etc. However, if you want to quote per job for all your work you will have to spend more on advertising in order to find new customers and spend more time visiting customers to survey the site. Remember, you won't get every job you quote for and they may not use you again if they always look for the cheapest quote.

A gardener may therefore offer a:
- Fixed price service for very simple, regular work i.e. lawn cutting
- An hourly rate for general, regular garden maintenance with a higher hourly rate for petrol tools.
- Quote per job for irregular/annual work or regular maintenance contracts for flats/commercial grounds.
- Have a minimum call out charge
- Charge separately for waste removal, weed killer etc.

If you charge by the hour then separating costs such as fuel, weedkiller, waste removal etc from your hourly rate may also make it easier to adjust your prices should specific expenses increase - without giving the impression that your prices are going up. For example, if the cost of tipping fees increases you can increase the cost of waste removal without increasing your hourly rate.

When calculating your income consider:
- Your basic domestic bills
- Your regular professional overheads (insurance, mobile phone, accountant)
- Irregular overheads - petrol, oils, lubricants,
- Annual costs - MOT, vehicle servicing, Road TAX, tool servicing, waste carriers license, tyres
- Maintenance costs - tool depreciation and replacement

This sets the basic amount you need to earn to cover your costs! You will need to add to this an amount that you would like to earn as profit for yourself. Genuine business expenses are tax deductable but all other earnings could be liable to income tax.

Remember that work will likely be quiet during January and February. Calculate how much you need to earn in a year and then aim to earn this during Spring, Summer and Autumn (8 to 10 months depending on your local climate). 

12. Advertising

Advertising is a science. A good advertising campaign is regular and consistent and utilises many different kinds of media.

Advertising on radio and in local newspapers and magazines can be expensive. However, many people who advertise in papers and on radio comment that they didn't get any replies from their adverts. Others will say that they get all of their work from these adverts. Why the difference? It is said that people need to hear/see something 3 times before they will remember it for the long term. So a regular, re-occurring advert will have more success than a one-off.

One franchise charges 2.5% of a franchisees income to spend on advertising (in addition to management fees). Could you afford to do this?

There are ways to advertise for free. Guild membership includes an element of advertising (Google 'find a gardener'). There are also many free online trade directories Hotfrog, Yell.com, My Hammer, Rated People, Juggle frogs to name a few - why not join them all? Your van is also an advert - as is your staff uniform. You may decide to form an unofficial partnership with a landscape gardener or designer - you give them the landscaping work and they pass you the garden maintenance work.   

Building a good reputation for quality work and reliability will help you to get referrals. Don't be afraid to ask your customers for work - tell them you are looking for more. Don't be shy to ask for recommendations as well.

13. Your Health

You will be working outside in the sun - try to cover your skin and always use sun tan lotion.

Many gardeners suffer from bad backs. Do not strain to lift. Do not rush.

You will often be asked to do work that is dangerous, dirty or difficult. NO amount of money is worth damaging your health. Do not feel pressured to rush or cut corners.

14.  Further support

Inland Revenue - Register as self-employed www.hmrc.gov.uk

The Environment Agency - Get info on waste carriers licenses www.environment-agency.gov.uk

Visit the 'Training and Skills' page of our site for details of trainers and the courses on offer.

Useful books:

The Landscaper's Survival Manual - www.alansargent.co.uk
From APL founder and TGG consultant Alan Sargent.
TGG member Kev Jones says '
I found it very interesting and some of the experience in this book reminds me of my time with my mentor the head gardener I trained with in Wales. I recommend this book for any gardener who needs to run a garden the way it should be.'

Design, Grow, Sell - www.brightwordpublishing.com/products/view/869350/Design-Grow-Sell/Sophie-Davies
A guide to starting and running a successful gardening business from your home.