OK, so this is me hard at work at my drafting board, designing a new garden for one of my first clients. This photo was taken a few years ago; I’ve been at this a long time. When I first started doing landscaping, I didn’t realize it would become my life’s work. But here I am, still at it.
HOW TO START A HOME-BASED LANDSCAPING BUSINESS
copyright © Owen E. Dell 1993
In 1972, I was studying botany at the local junior college, going out into the mountains and deserts of our beautiful state of California and looking at some of the most gorgeous natural places you or anyone has ever seen. As luck would have it, ‘72 was one of the great years for wildflowers and we really got an eyeful. Having grown up in the inner city, I knew little about nature, or about gardens for that matter, and I was plenty impressed. Through that wonderful spring that I’ll never forget, something grew inside me, something that was entirely new to me and remarkable.
We would troop out into the wilderness and spend a morning, a day or a week steeping ourselves in the incredible elegance of it all. Then we would inevitably return to civilization, which looked more and more like a bad mistake carried out on a grand scale by some very inept people. As I began to see nature I also began to see gardens, and what I saw was how inexplicably different the two were. Slowly over that spring I came to understand that gardens were important, and that they could be made better than they were. I came to love nature, but I also came to love the idea of my playing a part in nature. I came to have a passion about the dream that had unfurled inside me like the first leaves of a sprouting bean – the dream of making horticulture more like nature.
My good friend Buddy was in the class. Buddy was a Louisiana boy, fun-loving and easy-going. He saw it, too, this dream and we talked about it a lot. That summer, broke as always, we decided that we were going to quit school and become landscapers – native plant landscapers. So, suddenly there we were, our meager funds invested in a ‘55 Ford pickup (light blue, no major dents, ran pretty good, $100), a few hand tools (from the swap meet mostly, another $50), and a couple of straw hats (Thrifty Drug Store, $2.29/each plus tax). No, we didn’t have any work, but we felt great just the same.
At the time, a cup of coffee was still a dime at Sambo’s, and that was our lunch every day. We called it “Coffee Bean Soup,” and drank lots of it from the bottomless pot of java and the soothing little jug of “coffee whitener,” the ingredients of which we avoided thinking about. We had Coffee Bean Soup and lots of laughs and not a whole lot more at first. No sensible person would have lasted a day with us.
We spent the last part of June and most of July driving around looking for piles of trash to haul, weeds to be cut down, anything that would get us another few dollars for the next day’s gas and a couple of beers that evening. We did some pretty horrendous things. And we were having a blast.
Finally in late July, we got a job building some retaining walls and a terraced garden for a kindly college professor up in the hills. I often think back on how trusting he was to let us do this, especially since our initial approach had been to ask him if we could haul away some rubbish. Still, I guess we did something right because he kept us busy right through September.
The first day, we broke the gas main. The next month was the hottest on record. The soil was more like rock and it never occurred to us to soften it with some water before trying to dig it. But we were doing it, that was the thing! And what a summer it was, so good to be alive. We were on our way!
Now to the main thing, the thing that has kept me going all these many years. We finished just as a bit of fall was beginning to show up in the morning air. And yes, the job was beautiful, everyone agreed on that. The last day, about 3:00 p.m., Buddy and I carried the last of our tools up to the faithful blue Ford and turned to look back down on our masterpiece. That moment, there with my wonderful friend and business partner, there with our hard fine work, that moment will surely always guide me through the hard times, as it has so often in the past. We stood for I don’t know how long, each thinking the same thought: that if we could feel this good once a year, that would be reason enough to carry on. When we finally turned to each other we both had tears in our eyes.
Horticulture has been good to me. I’m pretty comfortable these days. I have lots of work, and if I have Coffee Bean Soup for lunch it’s because I’m trying to lose a couple of pounds. I still think about quitting now and then; we all have our bad days. But when I consider the other choices I might have made, I’m glad about my life.
Now, I will tell you that if you want to put your green thumb to use, and if you learn to do things really right, you will be doing something brave and noble and fine. You will have a marvelous, difficult and rewarding life. You will meet the finest and warmest people. You will see beauty every day, beauty often of your own making. And as you grow old, you will travel beneath the shade of trees you yourself planted with your own hands. If this is what you want, I’ll try to help you get a good start. Remember, don’t come looking for riches, easy money or a soft life. But if you can live with whatever your personal Coffee Bean Soup is to be, and if you can stick it out, I do guarantee that your soul will be nourished, your heart will be moved and your corner of the world will be much the better for your having made your choice. And, yes, I do hope to save you some time and trouble by keeping you from making the mistakes I made.
Truth is, most people who start a business of whatever kind know only their craft. That’s not enough. You’ve got to run a business, too, and if you run it badly, you’ll fail. Sadly, most people do fail because, like a garden, a business is a complex and challenging thing. It’s just too much for most who try. You see, if you only know horticulture, you’ve only got half the skills you need in order to do well. So now, let’s make you the exception, the one who succeeds so that you can do what you love, earn your livelihood at it, stay out of trouble and have a good time.
Most of this book is about practical matters. I’m not going to tell you how to plant roses or what kind of fertilizer to use. There are plenty of books that will help you with all that. This is a book about the business of horticulture. You’re going to learn how to set up your company, how to write a business plan, keep records, find and keep good employees, attract and retain clients, manage jobs and a lot more. You’re going to learn how to do things right the first time. Nuts and bolts? Yes, but don’t be put off – you’ll find it’s as interesting as gardening. And remember what’s behind it all – a love of green things, of natural surroundings, of nurturing. It’s all connected, all a part of the great adventure. Come on along…
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