Kinghorn Gardens delivers beautiful experiences for its clients
“Creating beautiful experiences” is the tagline for Kinghorn Gardens, and their website (www.kinghorngardens.com) captures that mindset with this introduction: “When we’re not designing and building eye-catching, low-maintenance, custom gardens, we’re thinking about them. Talking about them. Learning new techniques that are better for the plants and the environment. You’ll see that we’ve dedicated ourselves to creating beautiful experiences for our clients.”
The desire to deliver on that promise was the driving force behind Bryan Kinghorn’s decision to start Kinghorn Gardens in 1987. The company, based in Omaha, Neb., initially focused on landscape design and installation. Soon, two additional areas of focus evolved: seasonal color and maintenance. Kinghorn says, “The account mix has varied over the years, a couple times 60 percent commercial and 40 percent residential, or a 50-50 split, but we’re currently leaning more on the residential side.”
Kinghorn grew up on a farm west of Scottsbluff, Neb., where his parents, grandmother and nearly everyone around loved plants and appreciated the natural beauty of the native habitat. A great biology teacher in high school encouraged him to pursue horticulture. He graduated from Iowa State University in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture, leading to an assistant manager position with the Earl May Garden Center in Denison, Iowa. Kinghorn moved up within the organization, with a management and design position in larger stores, first in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and then in the Omaha, Neb., metro area.
One of his key goals is to generate excitement about the many possibilities available in landscaping. He says, “A landscape is a living environment. We don’t want someone to settle for what’s just good enough. If everyone involved, from the property owner through the designer and the gardener, embraces the opportunities, it can be, and should be, an ongoing quest for improvement. The green movement and sustainability provide even more opportunity to define how that looks related to the people and their own lifestyle choices.”
That idea was planted at ISU with the landscape design focus leaning more toward the sense of place than the particular plant and cultivar. Kinghorn says, “We take it a step further, incorporating the why—the client’s lifestyle and intended use of the space—in conjunction with site elements to formulate the design. We don’t set out to develop a woodland or tackle wetland mitigation, we value those spaces and what makes them beautiful and unique and integrate that habitat within the setting. We strive to weave that remnant of what’s wild into our urban environment, and do it well.”
Growing up in western Nebraska, water conservation was a way of life for Kinghorn, and he’s integrated that into the business. He says, “Water will become an even greater factor in design, installation and maintenance in terms of regulation and expense. I don’t know if water conservation will come by public acceptance or be forced on people through regulation, but it will happen because of all the components that come into play in how we use water.”
Always seeking to enhance the people-plant connection, Kinghorn has branched into the design and maintenance of restorative gardens. Studies have proven the impact of plants on the healing process, not necessarily to heal, but to provide an environment to help people feel better by reducing stress and lowering blood pressure while increasing positive thinking and mental health. Kinghorn took part in a two-week program at the Chicago Botanical Garden focused on how that relates to hospitals, hospice, independent living and senior centers, Alzheimer’s units and children’s gardens. He says, “It demonstrated how restorative gardens go beyond the enhanced experience that comes from a beautiful outdoor setting by incorporating key elements that contribute to movement and exercise, provide the opportunity for choice and contribute to social interaction.”
From a facility’s programming standpoint, the restorative garden provides even those viewing it from inside something to talk about that’s positive and progressive, and can be the attractant to draw people outside and offer opportunities for occupational therapy. Kinghorn notes even the small things matter, such as positioning plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies where they can be viewed from inside and outside.
“To be effective, every element of the restorative garden must be thought through upfront so the gardens are designed well, programmed well and maintained well. All involved need to be more receptive with how people interact with the space,” Kinghorn says.
Kinghorn Gardens’ design and installation services often lead to ongoing clients for its garden maintenance and color enhancement services. Kinghorn says, “Whether the design is a typical home landscape or commercial site, a prairie or woodland, it’s going to need maintenance. You can’t have a garden without a gardener. We provide that service for those that don’t want to do it themselves.”
While many of their designs fit into the low-maintenance category, there are still maintenance procedures needed. Those details are addressed in the early part of the design process so the client understands what should be done when to achieve the desired outcome.
“We help them understand the big picture as it relates to their weekly activity. Based on that, service levels vary from periodic monitoring, to spring and fall spruce ups to weekly on-site maintenance. Many of our clients opt for designs that allow them to see and celebrate the natural form of their plantings, rather than the more formal sheared look, but there’s always a visual aesthetic to consider. As a living entity, the landscape is ever-changing. Some changes are preplanned enhancements, others are surprises related to weather challenges, but that’s all part of working with nature,” Kinghorn says.
Maintenance crews are assigned to specific sites. Each crew has a head gardener familiar with each of their sites and develops the maintenance program for it, working in conjunction with the property owner. Services include plant nutrition; pruning; plant bed detail work including enhancement; weed, insect and disease control following standard IPM practices; as well as bed line and tree pit maintenance. Irrigation system, lighting system and water feature maintenance may be part of the service package, and mowing and snow removal are included for a few commercial accounts.
The season varies from eight to nine months in the area, with warm-up typically occurring mid to late March and working conditions extending into November. During the peak season, Kinghorn Gardens has a staff of 35 to 38 people, which includes two full-time administrative personnel, two full-time designers and two color managers, along with two installation crews and four or five maintenance crews. Many of the employees have been on staff for 10 years or longer.
Kinghorn maintains a small office for client meetings at a convenient, mid-Omaha location. The maintenance, color and bookkeeping functions are headquartered in a separate location. The installation functions, and the heavier equipment it entails, are headquartered at another.
“We’re currently evaluating our vehicles and power equipment as we strive to become more sustainable and leave a smaller footprint,” says Kinghorn. “Could we take out smaller trucks for most projects, using the larger trucks only as needed to move equipment or remove the waste? Would that take less fuel and create less noise? Would it be possible to do the majority of our maintenance work with hand tools? Does that make sense in the use of labor resources? And, if it does, will the customer buy into it?”
Developing the dialogue
While the website supports the business and gives potential customers a glimpse of the possibilities offered, Kinghorn notes it generates no real commerce. He says, “There has to be dialogue, and there are so many ways to have it these days. We are using all the social media venues and working to make them even more interactive. They’re a whole new frontier for communication beyond simple direct-to-the-client e-mail.”
Their blog, “Notes from the Garden,” is organized by seasons, with past postings available on the website. Visitors are encouraged to keep up with the blog by subscribing to the RSS feed or signing up for notification by e-mail when new postings are issued. Website visitors also are encouraged to follow them on Twitter@KinghornGardens and become a friend on Facebook.
“Still, we do much of our client contact the most interactive way: face to face on-site,” says Kinghorn. “If you don’t have the dialogue, it’s hard to keep up with the quick weather changes here where cool and wet and hot and windy are both ‘normal.’ A landscape that looked good one week can be overturned by a few days of 90-plus degrees and 25 mile an hour winds. While our maintenance head gardeners are skilled horticulturists, trained to bring out the best in any outdoor space year-round, they need that direct communication during seasonal transitions to help the client fully embrace and enjoy the changing scene. That’s what it takes to deliver those beautiful experiences.”
Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.