How Does Your Garden Grow?
A love of plants turns into a brand-new business
Linda Grieve of Ankeny,
Iowa, always loved working with plants. She devoured horticultural books;
took courses from the University of Nebraska and the Des Moines Area
Community College (DMACC), volunteered at the Des Moines Botanical Center,
and served on the Site Development Committee at Terrace Hill, the Iowa
Governor’s residence. She soaked up plant care details until, over
time, reaching a level of expertise on a par with plant producers. At that
point, she accepted the position of perennial specialist with Heard Gardens
of Johnston, Iowa.
Grieve says, “My primary role there was designing
flower beds and assisting with their installation. A flower garden is so
personal. Done well, it reflects the personality of its owner and captures
an essence of their hopes and dreams. Too often, it’s the neglected
part of a landscape. I believe the designer’s role is to listen
closely during the concept discussion and create a landscape unique to the
owner, as well as the property.”
In 1996, after three and a half years and with a solid
base of 13 clients, she started Perennial Gardens by Linda Grieve. She
says, “The split was amicable and, during the first few years, Heard
Gardens was the source for nearly all my plant materials.”
|Photos by Steve Trusty.
|Ryan Carrington deadheads the plants within the plant bed in the back lawn of one of the garden care sites.
This is just one of the multiple plantings on this property.
Turning over new ground wasn’t always easy. Her
first planting crew consisted of her oldest daughter and three of her
friends. Many of the smaller projects she handled alone. During that first
year, clients began requesting additional services. “It was adding a
patio at one site; planting a large tree at another,” says Grieve.
“I didn’t have the materials, equipment or time to take on
those projects alone, yet they were such small jobs for outside contractors
it was hard to get the work completed on a timely basis. It was just too
much to be manageable, with the new garden care business I’d
generated and the contracted projects. I knew I’d either have to
expand or quit. My family was supportive of the expansion idea. So, in
early 1997, James Noelck, a registered landscape architect with project and
operations management experience, joined the company.”
It was a great fit, with the two areas of expertise
enabling Perennial Gardens to add full-service landscape design and
installation, including hardscape features. Two crews were added, one for construction and one for garden care. The
business moved to its current site and acquired
equipment as needed.
One of their first joint projects was designing and
overseeing the installation of 30 test gardens for Meredith Corporation in
Des Moines, the parent company of Better Homes and Gardens, as well as
numerous other publications. That project, along with many others, led to
referrals for both total landscape design/build and garden care. That
required more equipment and more personnel, including two more landscape architects, Lynn Kuhn and Dan Canova. Nancy
Dunbar, who started on the garden care crew, now serves as a support
specialist in the office.
Students of Iowa State University (ISU) and DMACC began
doing internships on the garden care crew. Several from the DMACC two-year
program returned as employees after graduation. Two making that step about
five years ago were Ryan Carrington and Laura Pence. They now serve as
garden management managers, each responsible for two garden care crews and
the clients those crews serve. They plot the scheduling and allocate crew
members’ activities on specific properties. With interns and other
college students the main seasonal personnel, they can coordinate crew size
from two to the usual three to five, up to a combined crew of eight for
With growth, a clear definition of services was
needed. They don’t try to be arborists or take on lawn maintenance,
though they can point out problems in either of those areas to help guide
their client’s to the proper solutions from those service providers.
|Linda Grieve gives a tour of a few of the extensive on-site plantings that
Perennial Gardens uses to show and sell their work.
|Crew members use 5-gallon buckets to collect small debris as they hand-weed and deadhead flower beds.
Grieve says, “Our garden care is better defined
as management than just maintenance. We focus on
the flower beds, shrubbery and basic tree care. Our crews do all the
typical maintenance: deadheading flowers, weeding, pest control, pruning,
edging, mulching, seasonal change-outs,
winterization and spring startup. They also assess plant quality, working
with the client and with our designers to replace plants that don’t
perform well, and to keep tailoring the landscape to fit the both changing
environmental conditions and the client’s desire for changes. They
handle all the container plantings, from design to installation, and work
directly with the client on the smaller plant change projects throughout
the year, often integrating additions such as flowering bulbs.”
Carrington and Pence have observed the installation of
many of their clients’ landscapes, sometimes assisting with parts of
that process. Then they’ve worked in tandem with the client to
develop the garden care program and keep it going. Carrington says,
“Some clients want on-site care every two weeks and some once a
month. A few we call every two weeks to determine if they feel they need
service. Other clients just want assistance a few times during the season.
We also have clients who only want a makeover for a special occasion.
Whatever they want, we can make it happen.”
Communication is key to maintaining the level of
service that Perennial Gardens strives to deliver. Carrington and Pence
leave notes for many of their clients detailing what they’ve done
during the site visit and noting anything unusual that may need discussion.
A few are hands-on dedicated gardeners that may even work right alongside
the crew at times. Some prefer a personal visit at the site to walk the
property; others just want a certain look and trust them to deliver it.
Carrington says, “With the every-two-week
visits, most problems are preventable. We can see something with the
potential to develop, and make changes to avoid it or catch a problem and
correct it in the early stages of development. With the monthly visits,
there is more opportunity for some problem to develop, but not get too far
out of control. All our clients know they can contact us at any time if
they see something happening they’d like us to check.”
Both agree there’s a special bond with the
long-term clients, almost a partnership as they collaborate throughout the
process. Pence says, “While we’re as enthusiastic about the
site as the owner is, we understand the total landscape should be a
reflection of their style, not ours. Some clients love a very full flower
bed, with one plant grouping blending into the next. Others like a flowing
grouping of one plant variety, with a little space separating it from other
types of plants. Some prefer more open space within the bed, with each
specimen plant clearly separated and only the smaller border plantings or
the taller backdrop plants blending together. It’s all about seeing
it through their eyes.”
Sometimes it takes creativity and out-of-the-box
action to deliver just what the client wants. Pence says, “We have
one property where the client wants two large matching containers planted
with matching plants, but one is in full sun and the other in deep shade.
We switch the pot locations every two weeks, which keeps the growth
patterns very closely matched.”
The garden care services are charged at a preset hourly
rate, which is the same for each crew member on-site at each visit. The
hourly rate is established to cover personnel, equipment and overhead costs
with a percentage of profit built in. An additional charge is added for any
plants or other materials used during that visit. Grieve says,
“We’ve set a higher hourly rate for our installation crews than
our garden care crews due to the type of equipment and vehicles needed for
the construction and installation. If any of the garden care personnel
assist with an installation, those hourly fees apply.”
Each segment of the business is equipped with the
vehicles, tools and equipment they need to operate efficiently. All
installation and garden care personnel understand that they are working at
an hourly rate and owe it to the client to do the work as efficiently as
With all businesses, each segment must contribute to
the bottom line. The garden care segment, operated efficiently, could be as
viable a profit center for a lawn and landscape maintenance company as for
a design/build firm. Grieve has set up a bonus system, based on profits,
that extends to all personnel. She says, “It is further incentive to
Operating effectively comes from the enthusiasm and
love for the work. That’s the standard Grieve established even before
the business was born and it is the criteria used throughout the hiring
Steve and Suz Trusty are partners in Trusty &
Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council
Job Site Efficiency
Carrington and Pence each use a van to carry supplies
and personnel. The vans have a solid divider behind the second row of seats
so the back area also can double as a debris carrier if only one vehicle is
used at a site. Generally, each crew uses a pickup truck, too. One has an
enclosed bed; the other a tarp for enclosure.
Pence’s van has a multiple-shelf rack installed
behind the seats for chemicals, bleach water for tool sterilization, deer
repellent, kneeling pads and other supplies. Hooks are built in, too, so
shovels and various other hand tools can be put in place and secured with
Velcro straps or bungee cords. A stack of bulb crates fits in the space
between the two front seats for additional storage.
Additional hooks installed in the back of
Pence’s van hold an assortment of rakes on one side and long-handled
swoes on the other. Push-broom handles extend through holes made in
the partition, with the broom heads in the cab, for quick removal, even
when carrying debris.
|In-van storage includes a multiple-shelf rack installed behind the seats to hold
supplies and straps used to hold shovels and various other hand tools in place.
||This shot shows the built-in hooks in the Perennial Gardens van Pence uses for one of her garden care crews. Here, an assortment of long-handled rakes and a section of garden hose are secured with
Velcro straps for easy hanging.
Carrington uses bulb crates, which are placed under
the backseat for the items that Pence keeps on the shelves. His in-cab
tools are placed in a 5-gallon bucket that is strapped in place with a bungee cord. A bulb crate installed on one door
holds crew member’s personal tool bags. His
long-handled tools in the back also are
secured to the roof by bungee cords.
The back of each van is stocked with enough 5-gallon
buckets for each crew member to collect small debris and plenty of tarps
for larger debris or trimmings. Each is equipped with a power edger and
leaf blower. The crew water container and the mixed fuel tank are refilled
and placed in the van each morning. Additional power tools, any plant
materials, mulch or other supplies will be added as needed for each
day’s activities. The goal is to have everything on hand so no time
is wasted at the job sites.