I run a small firm previously providing a garden maintenance business but have gradually expanded my offer into design-and-build projects. While I am comfortable in this transition, I am becoming frustrated at seeing my work being neglected by clients. Some seem unable to realise that plants need correct pruning and maintenance to achieve their beauty and shape. I do not want to return to general maintenance nor do I want to start a separate team as this would prove a distraction to my business growth plans. What would you advise?
This is an age-old problem for landscapers and especially garden designers who "sell" a garden based on photographs and drawings showing a well-managed project, with plants and edges kept within bounds, only to find that the client has completely ruined the garden by bad practice so that they no longer wish to be associated with a scheme that should have been an example of their handiwork for future references and new customers.
There are several courses to follow that may be tailored to your company, either as a landscape contractor, designer or design-and-build firm. However, these should be introduced to the client at the initial tender stage because they will have a major impact on how the client sees your involvement. Without this advance statement you will remain simply "the landscaper" or "the designer", with your input finishing as soon as the scheme is finished and the customer thinking they must maintain the new garden themselves or find a general gardening outfit and hope for the best.
Separating the design element of a scheme from the actual construction works, the design contract should include a detailed schedule of all plants and plant material, together with a maintenance routine document, clearly showing advice regarding flowering times, pruning regimes, watering and feeding. Ideally, every new design package should contain this advice and a charge levied as part of the design fee. This advice should be bespoke to the garden and soil type/location, not simply a general description cribbed from the internet, because this will greatly enhance your value in the eyes of the client.
As the contractor, or garden fitter, you should include an element of site description in your tender documents, perhaps explaining the reasons for your advice and choice of materials and techniques, taking into consideration the fact that the site is dry/wet/clay/sand/stony and prone to wind chill/plant stress. This will also serve to educate the customer to the fact that not all gardens are the same and you have recognised these variations in your professional proposals and methods.
Both of these suggestions will enhance your standing with your client and help to set you apart from your competitors, who may simply provide a quotation without any explanation. They are evidence of your commitment to the garden and its future well-being.
The next step is to consider drafting an aftercare leaflet, either in printed form or as a separate document provided in your initial tender documents. One should specifically cover turfing and seeding projects, clearly showing the liabilities that the client will have to undertake once practical completion has been achieved. Another should provide full advice regarding watering, staking and pruning as an absolute minimum. If you explain at the outset that your responsibility ends once the contract is complete, the client will have to make arrangements. I also include a note to the effect that I will leave suitable watering equipment on site at the end of the job to ensure that the client has the facility to hand.
To avoid the problem you outline, many landscape companies now offer to manage the garden by means of monthly visits for a period of one or two years. Some even insist they must be employed to ensure the desired early period of a scheme as part of their quotation and warranty obligations to maintain sites constructed by them. This is shown as a monthly routine maintenance schedule based on an annual horticultural prospectus, solely based on their works element.
You could consider offering a similar service, restricted to as much or as little work as you decide is essential to avoid the problem of neglect or unsuitable treatment of your original project. Visits arranged monthly, quarterly or even annually, for an agreed sum for each period, will ensure that the job is progressing as you originally envisaged, making minor alterations and plant replacements as required to establish the garden.
Such visits may be programmed into your works schedule and should be seen as part of your construction business, not general maintenance. Your staff will gain experience and greater knowledge of plant material as well as how certain materials age and appreciate the vagaries of time and weather on the success of a landscape project.
If you are unable to provide such a service yourself, not wishing to deviate from your landscape business development plan, consider working together with a suitable garden contractor who does not offer landscape works and by mutual recommendation increase the perceived value of your designs and handiwork - and also provide a steady income to the gardener. This partnership may take many forms, from agreed referral fees to simply working together to create more and better-maintained design-and-build projects.
Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management.
Email your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.