People pay me money

to work in their gardens! Well, one person does. That's the newest wrinkle in my life. The lady I'm working for--ahem, the client--called the Botanical Garden looking for a gardener. Someone there that I respect and admire gave her my phone number. So now I'm a gardener.

Is that how it happens?

The client had some hardscape put in last year. Besides stonework, the contractor installed some instant landscape to show off the new backyard. Six months on, it's not looking so good. Besides needing seasonal pruning and weeding, there are too many trees.

Two Maytenus boaria planted about 6 feet apart. (Why would anyone do that?) Three Crataegus of some sort, each planted about 3 feet apart. Three Dodonaea viscosa seemingly planted as a hedge 3 feet away from the wall they should nearly abut. Two Populus nigra cv. Italica planted in back, about 2 feet apart, and intended to serve as a sort of privacy screen from the neighbors across the alley. Note to hardscapers everywhere: for privacy screens, choose evergreens with spreading crowns, not deciduous pencils.

Speaking of deciduous, there's an astonishing amount of deciduous plant material for a California garden. Readers from other states--excluding Florida or Hawai'i--may be surprised to learn that Californians have an aversion to deciduous plants that are not Japanese maples or fruit trees. People come here to get away from all that, and people born here don't understand that bare winter branches are the norm in many places around the world. Me, I've come to appreciate the subtle pleasures of a little extra deciduous in my life, but this guy went overboard in my opinion. Or, maybe he's from back east.

And then there's the problem of an inadequate number of mid-sized shrub-type plants. Mostly, the size regime goes from trees, straight down to Armeria and Ajuga. And the shrubs that were included are all mis-planted. No, don't put Abutilon next to the north-facing wall. No, don't put dogwood in full sun. And while you're at it, don't use three aggressive vines to cover a fence when one will do just fine. Also, Bougainvillea needs something climb on. You can't just plant it next to a wall and leave it at that.

Anyway, whatever. I know how the game works. The clients want instant landscape--so you put in a lot of plants. It's not really a garden. Heck, it's not even a landscape. It's just a yard. So the clients hire someone else to take out the extra plants that they just paid for last year. I'm sad for the plants, mostly.

Anyhow, I'm on the job and I'm fixing things.

The client is wonderful--not least because we have similar tastes. She doesn't like red flowers. I'm not a big fan! She doesn't like the Ajuga. Me neither! The Bergenia makes her wince. It's outta there! She likes Armeria. I divide it and plant drifts! She likes fuchsia. I grow it from seed!

So far, I've worked in her garden two days--weeding, some pruning, moving things around. I'm not comfortable rolling out a design proposal. I've never done that before, and I'm not sure how. She wants me to come regularly--long-term--to edit, add and subtract, maintain, et cetera. She seems content to let the design evolve organically as we proceed. I like that. That's how I am in my garden. I say, let it evolve!

I don't feel comfortable charging her the going rate for professional gardeners in San Francisco just yet. I asked for $30 an hour and she said that's fine. I know I'm supposed to mark-up plants I buy for her. How much? I went to Annie's Annuals yesterday and spent $240. I may or may not use everything I bought, but I think I'll use a lot of it.

I recommended a few arborists--she knew one of them and picked him; name rhymes with "Head Tripping"--to consult on tree removal and a crown reduction for the Metrosideros excelsus in the front yard (two of them--again--planted right next to each other).

The David Austen catalog came in the mail the day she called me. He suggests a half-dozen different roses for coastal gardens. She wants me to pick them. Dahlias from Old House Gardens? Yes! Some vegetables, an herb garden? Yes, yes! Somehow I missed Pam Peirce's article about coastal tomatoes last Saturday--the client pointed me to it.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a fun job since you guys are so well-matched. Could be the beginning of something, yeah?

Christopher C. NC said...

I think I want to cry. Perhaps I should do my own post. $30 an hour. I'll have to work my way back up to that from scratch.

You sound so confident, knowledgable and jazzed. Congratulations.

I'm still feeling confused in a strange biosphere. I went to my one new clients today to begin spring cleanup and hundreds and hundreds of bulbs have appeared, Tulips, Daffodils, Hyacinth and Crocus. I can't believe I did not run into more of them when I planted 400 Tulips last fall with an augur on a drill. The new Tulips I planted are not up yet for the most part.

I am noticing the fresh fall planted bulbs here at my place and the clients do not come up as quickly as the ones that have been in the ground for a season or two or 20.

There is one small bed by the pond that could use a makeover and I look at it and I am stumped. Plus I need to see what is going to come up in the spring. I think I need to go troll some nurseries for inspiration.

"Californians have an aversion to deciduous plants" More like complete bewilderment. They often think the plant or tree is dying.

chuck b. said...

$30 in San Francisco is probably $15 in North Carolina. I wouldn't make a direct comparison.

I am jazzed. I'm also a little insecure. That's not coming through? Well, I can rely on the plants. The plants will cover up my insecurities.

"They often think the plant or tree is dying." So, so true. When I was in Georgia several years ago during the winter, I actually asked my host if they had an acid rain problem! It was all I could think of to explain how the trees looked.

Frances, said...

What a wonderful twist of fate, to be gardening for someone who appreciates your talent and will pay you a decent amount to boot! She is lucky to have you. Years ago I had a small gardening business. The going rate was to double the cost of the plants going in, but I could never do that, it seemed like gouging, but it was not the job that put food on the table for me, either.

Frances at Faire Garden

lisa said...

Wow, what a match made in heaven! Congratulations! I'm very excited for you, and I hope you have as much fun as it sounds like you will!

chuck b. said...

Thank you...I'll keep everyone posted here, as best I can. I *am* hoping it leads to some more work in that neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

I work in retail, and one of the joys of my job is selling people plants that I love, but do not have room for. If I truely fall in love with a plant that is not good for my own garden, it becomes a Christmas of birthday gift for my parents who have lots of room. I only hope when that awful time comes that my brother lets my have the house with all those wonderful trees and shrubs I have given my parents over the years.

Unknown said...

Nooooo--not the bergenia!!! (Boo! Hiss!)


(Seriously, congrats! I am also envious... you can see how green I am with envy when I sneak by to rescue that poor misunderstood bergenia. ;)

Brent said...


As for how much to mark up the plants that you purchased, how about tallying your actual costs (don't forget gas and mileage as well as the plant material costs) and adding the amount of time you took to do the shopping (at your normal $30 per hour rate).

Pay rates in California vary quite a bit from north to south, with south being significantly lower. Insurance adjusters know this and often reimburse based on the rate of pay in the large metropolitan areas in the south. I would imagine that Chuck's comment of $30 in SF being the equivalent of $15 in NC is not too far from the truth.

One composite cost of living index has the following relative figures (higher is costlier)
San Francisco, CA 177
Los Angeles, CA 153
Charlotte, NC 93.5

Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

Congrats Chuck,
It is nice to know that you are doing something that you love , getting paid for it and are being appreciated.
It doesn't get much better than that.

Mark-ups are needed to cover your costs of doing business , include a small profit margin and also act as an insurance policy if you have to replace a plant or two because it dies.
Most gardeners that I know do not mark up to full retail price. They go just barely below it.
Although competing with Home Cheapo is impossible to do. They often are even less expensive than my regular wholesalers.

Different retailers have different mark ups and they also don't use the same formula for all their plants , materials or vendors.
Take Flora Grubb for instance.
Her bromeliads are marked up 300 % while some of her other stock is marked up 125 to 200 %.

If and when you are ready to see a couple of different design proposals I can email you mine and a few others that I have collected over the years.

P.s, - see you at the show. .. I'm in high gear right now but needed to take a 'tea and biscuit' break and catch up on the 'local news'.

see you at the opening night party.

Annie in Austin said...

You actually found someone willing to "Slow garden" with you, Chuck! It may be work but it also sounds like fun.

I've had to explain the concept of dormancy to sidewalk superintendents here in Austin - they ask why I didn't cut down the dead redbuds, hardy hibiscus and beautyberry.

Maybe I should make up a decorative sign saying "They're not dead; they're just sleeping!"

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

chuck b. said...

Annie--it is fun! I hope she's happy with my approach, and not merely content. I know she's suffered through the wretchedness of the garden for a long time now. After today, it's definitely starting to look much better.

Michelle, thank you for the tips... Where exactly (what street in what town) is the Home Depot you shop at? My friend Emma and I want to check it out. I've sold the client on the idea of an arbor. I'm going to refer her to dervissdesign.com to look at your metalwork designs; she may be calling you. She also wants to re-grade the slope in front of her house, and install a fence--I'm imagining the same metalwork for the fence as for the arbor. Anyway, whatever. I will be working the check-in desk at the party on the 11th. If I don't meet you there, I'll find you after check-in winds down. I can't wait to see the Zen Spa!

Brent, interesting--I would have thought LA was more expensive! LA's more diverse than the Bay Area tho'. Some parts are wealthier, and some parts are much poorer. I guess that's it.

Kim, Bergenia isn't the worst thing to see by any means. I'm actually surprised things weren't much, much worse.

Les, if I worked in retail, I'd be even more broke than I am now! Too much temptation.

Anonymous said...

What fun!

So now YOU have another garden.

chuck b. said...

It's true--Even after just a few days work, I feel like this garden has my stamp on it!

I have a stamp!