How to start a landscaping business
Running a landscaping company can offer fresh air and plenty of exercise, here's Startups step-by-step guide to starting your own
- What is a landscaping business and are you suited to it?
- The planning, rules and regulations when starting a landscaping company
- Landscaping costs: How much to start-up?
- What can I earn as a landscape designer?
- Tips for succeeding in the landscaping business
Perhaps it's something to do with the wartime spirit which has prevailed in the wake of the credit crunch, or it could be the fact that Alan Titchmarsh is now widely hailed as one of Britain's foremost sex gods. Either way, gardening is all the rage again.
According to the Horticultural Trade Association's figures, the landscape gardening industry employs over 60,000 people and has an annual turnover of approximately £3 billion – and it is growing. But if you think it may be time to flex your green fingers then there are certain rules you need to know.
What is a landscaping business and are you suited to it?
What is it?
Think of gardening businesses and an image of mucking around in the garden and getting a suntan probably springs to mind. You would be wrong though, there is real hard graft involved – the majority of landscape gardeners start off as one-man operations. According to Kath Walker, field officer for the Association of Professional Landscapers, there's far more to the job than the odd bit of weeding.
“You have to have training. It's a diverse industry and you have to have expertise in lots of different areas.” These include water features, building, paving, stonework, wind structures, decking, joinery, groundsmanship, draining and irrigation. Then you also need to have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of plants and what can grow where. As Landmark's Mark Gregory puts it: “At its simplest it's doing garden makeovers. At its best it's an art form.”
Who is it suited to?
If you're definitely an indoors person who dislikes being open to the elements then it probably isn't for you. However, if you like getting your hands dirty and being creative, then maybe its time to start considering braving the elements.
There are certain myths surrounding the industry – for example, gardening is not confined to the summer. While we enjoy our gardens in the summer, most of the work and the planning is carried out in the winter. If you're out in the garden in the summer, you won't want to share it with workers and cement mixers. “People prefer not to have work done during the holidays, particularly if they have children at home,” Gregory explains.
And working outdoors can present difficulties. Summer 2007, for example, was a washout. “It never stopped raining, and everywhere was like a quagmire,” Kath Walker explains, “we couldn't get the topsoil ready, you couldn't mix and dry it.” However ‘hard' landscaping, such as installing ponds or building walls, is becoming increasingly popular and this can be done undercover.
Though some aspects of landscaping can be completed undercover, the weather and other factors can hamper your work schedule so you need to be resourceful and plan carefully. Warren Hall, who runs his own business in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, explains: “The first year was exceptionally difficult, I had to do lots of maintenance work, but as the days got sunnier, the work picked up. It's ideal to squirrel the money away: the summer may be busy but you need to cover yourself over winter.”
Additionally, you need to be prepared to get out there and sell your business. Much of the work you do will come from personal recommendations. People will ask their friends, their local garden centres or wholesalers to recommend someone good. In this sense, you really are only as good as your last project. As Gregory puts it: “We don't advertise, the work comes to us. People are paying for our reputation.”
You also have to be prepared to go back to school. To gain the skills and knowledge you'll need for the job, taking a course at a horticultural college is the way forward. Hall studied for two years at Guildford, Surrey and one of his placements was at the nearby Chessington World of Adventures. And you never know, it could even be fun.
The planning, rules and regulations when starting a landscaping company
Preparation is the watchword for this industry, says Andy Winston, business development manager at Lloyds TSB: “Given that this industry is largely seasonal, some people diversify. We always ask how people intend to pay their mortgage. We have to play devil's advocate – how will they approach this? What other lines of work are there for them? Some people combine it with tree felling, for example. The most successful people are those that have considered what lies ahead.”
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but the bank will be looking for an awareness of what may lie ahead. “If the area you are working in is affluent, there will be competition. You also need to consider what equipment you need. If you're catering for a niche market, you won't need the same equipment as if it's just tidying gardens. In many cases you could almost start tomorrow.”
It's not advisable, though. “Most people want to do it straight away, but I can't put enough emphasis on waiting,” Winston advises.
Why wait? You need to be sure of the type of work you want to do as well as the market you wish to target. If you jump straight in, you risk getting it wrong. While it may be easy to run down to your garden shed, grab your tools and – hey presto – become a gardener; like every business, you need to do your homework beforehand.
Landscape gardening is an excellent way to enjoy the outdoors and help improve people's environments. It is also a profession where you can build an excellent reputation for yourself. There are, unfortunately, a small number of ‘cowboys' in this industry, who overcharge and perform shoddy jobs.
They're the sort of operations who, if gardening work is slack, will start laying patios or tarmacing drives. The best way to avoid tarring yourself with the same brush is to be professional and accountable. It's small things, like having headed paper to send out with your invoices and your name on the side of your vehicle, which can reassure your customers.
What are the rules and regulations?
As a gardener you may find yourself handling pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals. You obviously need to handle, transport and store these safely. You may also come across poisonous plants or weeds. Again, the way you approach dangerous plants is important. In this case, you must inform the customer of any risk, and labels need to be visible. There are also rules about wearing protective clothing when using certain machinery or equipment. This may all sound obvious but you need to protect yourself against things like this as well as protecting your business.
What sort of insurance will you need?
Professional indemnity insurance
This will protect you in disputes with the client over whether the initial agreement and the customer's requirements and your fees have been met. You should really have a clear fee structure and provide the customer with detailed plans, lists and itemised bills to avoid this. As already discussed, you should aim to be accountable.
Public liability insurance
This will cover you in the event of accidents. Roger Davie, owner of Roots landscape gardening in Norwich, estimates that this will cost you somewhere between £200 and £250 a year.
Landscaping costs: How much to start-up?
Landscape gardening can be one of the cheaper businesses to go into – in fact, gardener Mark Gregory estimates the average start-up cost to be somewhere between £5000 and £10,000.
Of course, it depends what level you wish to operate at, but the general consensus is that it is best to start small and hire any large equipment, such as cement mixers or cutting machines. Andy Winston, business development manager at Lloyds TSB, has seen those who went in too quickly: “You need to try and keep the costs as low as possible – into bitesize chunks. There are people who've invested heavily in an early vision who are now sitting on obsolete stock.”
The items that you are perhaps most likely to have to rent are a cement mixer, an angle grinder (used for stonework), compactors, which press down the ground when making paths, and possibly chainsaws. In most cases there are contractors with whom you can have an account if you are going to rent for a couple of days at a time. It costs in the region of £25 a day to rent most pieces of equipment.
Warren Hall, a landscape gardener from Surrey, started out with second-hand equipment, which he believes was adequate at the time: “I bought an old van. Everyone wants a flash one, but it was all I could afford. I also bought my tools secondhand. But you need to make sure you have your stuff serviced. If you don't, like a car, it'll just die.”
Tools of the Trade: Costing your Equipment
- 1997 Ford Transit van £5500
- Professional petrol mower £700
- Strimmer £500
- Blower (for clearing debris) £500
- Wheelbarrow £20
- Shears £17
- Spade £14
- Fork £12.50
- Hoe £12
- Garden kneeler £10
- Plant feeder and food £5
- Secateurs £4
- Trowel £4
- Planter £3
- Gloves £2
- Total £7303.50
What can I earn as a landscape designer?
If you're spending the day overhauling someone's garden, without being radical, then you may charge up to £100. This will include the costs of taking garden debris to the tip. Petrol costs may be around £100 a week, depending on how much you use your vehicle and your machinery.
It can be difficult to gauge how much you will be working since weather can have a massive affect on your schedule. Landscaper Davie confirms that the weather can play havoc. “On those days you just have to get on with things like garden designs or bookkeeping. Obviously, you try not to delay to avoid a backlog but customers tend to be understanding.”
Davie says the weather means he has around four days off a month. If we take four days as an average for the number of days per month you are unable to work, the figures below should act as a rough guide to how much you may be able to earn.
While you may not work on the same level throughout the year, if you take one month as an example, then the total you may be able to earn in a year can be seen below.
Your ingoings and outgoings
Fee: Days worked: £100 per day 20 days per day Total earned (approx): £2000 per month
Petrol costs (for vehicle and machinery): Insurance: £100 per week £20 per month Total costs (approx): £500 per month
Total income (approx): £15,000 per year
Tips for succeeding in the landscaping business
Gardening is all about patience and preparation, and setting up a gardening business is much the same. It takes hard graft and perseverance. It can also be very rewarding. In many cases, that will be down to you, particularly if you've been called in to overhaul what was previously an overgrown jungle. As landscape gardener Warren Hall says: “It's looking at the job when you've finished. People always say how great it looks, so it makes it worthwhile.”
In many ways, it's the fact that you will be doing much more than planting a few nasturtiums that makes the industry more than just maintaining gardens. What you achieve can add to the value of a house, if the grounds have been well looked after. “You can't skimp. People have their ideal gardens,” landscape gardener Mark Gregory explains, “you're selling a dream – and you're building it.”
To get the most out of your gardening business, here are some basic rules:
- Taking a course at a horticultural college can be a real bonus
- Market yourself well so you won't be mistaken for a cowboy operation. Being accountable is very important
- Rent any costly equipment – like cement mixers – before you buy, to make sure purchasing one would be an investment
- Learn your trade – work for someone else first before branching out on your own
- Don't take bookings more than a month in advance – you never know if the weather will make it impossible, or if you will have other work to complete
- Last but not least – always make sure you dress for all weathers