Analysis: Recession threat to gardeners' pay rates

Self-employed gardener Michelle Cain investigates what impact an influx of unqualified novices could have.

Saturation of the gardening market can harm those who are trained and experienced - image: HW
Saturation of the gardening market can harm those who are trained and experienced - image: HW

Disparities in the rates being charged by self-employed gardeners appear to be increasing as the recession brings more unskilled gardeners in at the bottom level. On top of this, a shortage of skilled gardeners in some areas has pushed prices beyond the £40 an hour mark.

Gardeners in Glasgow, for example, are charging as much as £35 an hour for lawn mowing, whereas others are advertising their services for as little as £7 an hour on websites such as gumtree.com.

This variation in rates seems to be occurring nationally and appears not to be fully dependent on geography or skill level. Gardeners in affluent areas such as London or Cambridge tend to charge premium rates, but prices can also be dependent on factors such the size of the operation.

Many gardeners operating alone can keep overheads low and tend to charge less per hour than larger companies. Often using a car and a trailer, these "one-man bands" can dump their waste at local refuse sites for free, keeping overheads low.

The problem lies, according to Professional Gardeners' Guild chairman Tony Arnold, with the public's perception of the skill level involved: "It's a major problem. The public need to realise the fact that gardeners' rates should be on a par with those of carpenters and electricians. The knowledge and skills base is as good, if not better.

"Just because anyone can mow their lawn or weed their borders on a Sunday afternoon, gardening is seen as something anyone can do. But there's a big difference in having an in-depth knowledge of plants and their requirements or pests and diseases."

He adds: "One of the big problems is that if someone needs a plumber, they have to pay the going rate. But it seems that some gardeners are their own worst enemies and will work for whatever people will pay them."

Many may be entering the profession during the recession because setting up as a gardener requires minimal financial investment. Anyone can advertise themselves as a "gardener" but many are neither qualified nor experienced.

English Garden Company owner Harriet Bagge says: "It has always frustrated me as a business owner. I basically believe that the client gets what they pay for. There are so many one-man bands out there and of course their outgoings as a company will not compare to a larger firm's. But there are also those who are not trained or skilled in horticulture and aren't insured.

"It is these companies that give the garden business a bad name. Clients refuse to accept that they should be paying more per hour when they are inundated with offers to maintain at such low hourly rates."

She adds that the recession has not lost her many clients because she can offer alternative levels of service or reduce costs temporarily to keep the relationship alive.

The training to become a gardening expert is the same as for other skilled trades but people "gasp" when they hear the hourly charge while they will pay £150 an hour for an electrician, she reports. The company charges per job rather than hourly and attempts to offer "the best of the best" service to gain repeat and word of mouth business.

Arnold is concerned about the wider effects on the sector. "The recession is definitely having an impact," he says. "Through unemployment, many people are setting themselves up as jobbing gardeners or small-scale landscaping firms, and some of these will work for anything they can get." He also believes that the lack of young people entering the industry "will become a much bigger problem than it currently is".

If the marketplace becomes saturated with gardeners charging unrealistic rates, it will make it difficult for those who are trained and experienced to justify their prices. Many potential customers do not realise the true costs involved in maintenance gardening. Vehicle, equipment and fuel costs plus insurance and waste disposal charges can all add up, not to mention taxes.

Many garden maintenance companies will not reveal their hourly rates, preferring to operate a system of annual maintenance contracts, whereby clients are charged a fixed fee for maintaining a garden throughout the year.

Other gardeners, especially those offering lawn mowing or landscaping services, prefer to charge by the job rather than by the hour. But this is reliant on quoting effectively in the first place because extra time spent on a job can wreck profit margins.

It seems clear, though, that many employed gardeners and horticulturalists being paid such low rates has a knock-on effect on the public perception of what self-employed gardeners should be charging.

HOW TO DECIDE WHAT TO CHARGE

A base rate of £15 per hour is calculated on the basis of 2,000 chargeable hours in a trading year (50 weeks x 40 hours, assuming two weeks' holiday). Remember to include time spent travelling.

A minimum salary of £20,000 equates to charging £10 an hour. After you add income tax of around 22 per cent, which equates to £2.20 an hour, vehicles, equipment, insurance and other costs, this can easily add up to £15 an hour or more.

Every business will have different overheads and costs that need to be factored in with a reasonable profit. Once these have been taken into account, charges can be calculated.

Additional costs
- Public liability insurance
- Tax and National Insurance
- Vehicle tax and insurance
- Fuel
- Equipment and maintenance
- Dumping costs


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