Passion for gardening turns into lucrative business

Agniseszka “Anna” Hurst, owner of Happy Gardens.

When Agnieszka “Anna” Hurst came to the U.S. from Poland in 2004, she was looking to start her life anew. “I was always doing office jobs, and I knew you had to do something in life to bring in money, but it was never a passion,” she says. “When I moved here, I wondered what I could do that I truly loved. I wanted to be one of those people who say ‘I love what I do.'”

She explored various options, but nothing made her happy. “We bought a house and I started working on my garden,” Hurst says. “This is how I realized I have a true passion for it. I started looking more into how I can utilize this, and the business evolved naturally.” At the time she brought up the idea to her family, someone approached her about designing a garden. “She didn’t even know I was planning on doing it,” says Hurst. “She could just tell I was passionate and knowledgeable, and so she approached me to help her. That’s how it started.”

Hurst started Happy Gardens in 2008. The company serves the Dallas/Fort Worth area with services in maintenance, landscape design and installation, stonework, water features, dry creek beds, retaining walls, living fences, annual color, and land clearing and preparation. Weekly maintenance services include weed removal, inspections and recommendations for insect infestations, site cleanup and debris removal. Deadheading, trimming and pruning are done every other week, and weed control, soil amendments, fertilization and irrigation monitoring is conducted as needed. The company also does spring and fall cleanups. In addition to Hurst and her husband, the company has two other employees.

Hurst has always used an organic approach in her landscaping business. “I was born and raised in a very rural area in Poland,” she says. “At the time, chemicals were not really in place. I grew up thinking organically because I didn’t know any other way. And, I strongly believe in contributing to Mother Nature and trying to make it easy for her and not harder. I strongly believe in preserving what we have and not destroying what we have, so having an organic approach helps me stay in line with my belief.”

Hurst also sees it as a safer approach. “When you have pets and kids, you don’t have to worry that your dog will eat something that has chemicals on it or your child by accident grabs a blade of something and eat its and the chemicals,” she says. “It is just one less worry and it works just as well,” she adds. “There is no need for those chemicals. I always go for the safer approach – safer for Mother Nature, but also safer for the people and for the animals. When I design my gardens, I want them to be alive. It’s hard to have a garden that’s alive when you’re spraying chemicals and killing bees and butterflies and everything that you want in your garden.”

Happy Gardens services the residential sector. While Hurst has done a commercial job, she prefers the residential jobs “because people are really emotionally invested,” she says. “They are looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen. They’re excited when it’s in place. It’s their backyard, and it’s what they enjoy, because I do a design that’s tailored to them. That’s what gives me satisfaction.” With commercial jobs, the goal is aesthetics, but the building occupants may rarely spend time in the landscape, she points out. “On the commercial job I did, the guy was very excited, but at the same time he did say he’s not emotionally invested in it,” she says. “He wanted it to look nice when he saw the building. It’s not the same kind of emotional attachment for people when it’s their yard, their part of the world.”

Hurst doesn’t mind the hand-holding that often accompanies residential work. “People feel comfortable even a year or two years later asking me a question about their garden,” she says. “I’m not one of those people who say you have to pay for a consultation because it’s beyond a year. I feel like I owe them, as long as it’s within reason, but I’ve never refused to give anyone advice.”

An xeriscape garden by Happy Gardens in bloom.

Happy Gardens’ maintenance services tie into the client’s needs, Hurst says. “Some clients are more meticulous and they want their yard to look more meticulous,” she says. “Some like it really natural and they need a little maintenance from time to time.”

In comparing her experiences with gardens in Poland to those in the U.S., Hurst observes that Texans are “really attached to their lawns.” In contrast, she adds, “People don’t care so much about their lawns in Europe. It’s more about their garden being practical and useful, whether you want food, flowers or something else out of it. It’s supposed to serve some purpose and not just be a lawn. That’s the major thing that strikes me. It’s more natural and more diverse. People are not looking like the neighbor’s so much.”

Anna Hurst aims for her designs to fit in with the lifestyle of her client, such as this one she did for a residential client.

Hurst’s goal in designing landscapes is to reflect the client’s lifestyle and to draw the client outside to enjoy it. “I truly believe in a personal approach and not just doing the same design with just a little bit of difference,” she says. “I meet with the client and my aim for the consultation is to find what they really want, but also how they go about their lives and how they would like to use the land. If you do a design that’s a beautiful design, but it’s not fitting in with the lifestyle of the client, it’s just not going to work, no matter how gorgeous it is.

“I want it to be practical for the family. I want to utilize the space as best as I can, and I want to make it alive and low maintenance,” Hurst adds. “By alive, I mean the plants that I choose are there to invite wildlife: birds, bees and butterflies. I want my clients to be entertained by nature. I want it to be low maintenance, which is dependent on the family and the yard conditions.”

Due to water shortages that can occur in the region, Hurst seeks to make her designs sustainable. “There are a lot of companies that still are in that thinking of 20 years ago when you just water the heck out of everything,” she says. “That’s not feasible anymore. You have to move on. I do a lot of xeriscaping and use a lot of plants that are well-adaptive.”

In an effort to preserve the soil’s ecosystem and avoid soil compaction, Happy Gardens only uses heavy machinery when necessary. The company offers double-digging bed preparation upon request. “There are jobs where it simply makes sense to use heavy machinery or you have to because you have no other choice, especially if you’re working on a bigger area,” Hurst says. “It would be too expensive to do manual labor and use just a shovel.”

Hurst says starting a new business just as a recession was manifesting itself in the U.S. has been a challenge, but not a roadblock. “Thank goodness my business is really small, and I do have a part-time job that’s supplementing my income,” she says. “It is a very seasonal business, and you have to take that into account. We’ve been OK, and we’re slowly growing. I really don’t have a marketing budget of any size, but I do have a good reputation. People come to me through referrals.” She adds, “I am proud to say I have 100 percent client satisfaction, and I’ve never had a job where someone said they were not really happy with what I did, so that moves me forward.”

This dry creek bed, designed by Anna Hurst, is both functional and beautiful.

Hurst says her biggest challenge is getting people to understand the advantages of the organic approach. “Even though I do it and my clients do appreciate it, it takes some education because it takes longer,” she says. “There’s a downfall to doing it organically. The results are not as immediate as you would get from a chemical, and sometimes they want that instant gratification – let’s do it right now and see the results right now.” She addresses that challenge by explaining to clients how the organic process works. “I don’t tell them that the weeds are going to disappear in a week because I know that’s not going to happen,” she says. “I just tell them what to expect, and when people know what to expect, they’re not concerned because they know exactly how it’s going to be.”

For the future, Hurst aims to grow her company and assertively promote “the healthy approach to landscape design, which is to promote wildlife and to build outdoor spaces that people can truly use and not just be something that they look through the window at and admire from afar.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.