charging for garden service..

awayinthegardenMarch 25, 2007

I've been gardening for 10 years (took Master Gardener class too) and this year someone has asked me to design several mixed flower pots and window boxes and I don't have a clue on how to charge. I live in a large metro area and know I don't won't to charge per hour. Could I add a percentage to the plant material (10 % ?) to pay for time driving and collecting and some profit make sense. In addition I'd charge according to size of pot size (including a design fee and soil cost-plus small profit). Or does anyone know of a book to calculate costs? Thank you- I'd appreciate any advice.


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watergal(z6/7 Westminster, MD)

Even if you're not going to charge by the hour, do the mental calculations first to come up with a price. Otherwise you will end up underpricing yourself.

Say you want to earn $10 an hour and it takes you two hours to drive and meet with the client to discuss plans, an hour to do design, another hour to go to the nursery and select the plants, other hour round trip to the client and back to do the install, two hours to plant everything. That's $70 just for your time, and you really deserve more than $10 an hour. Also calculate gas expenses.

Also carefully consider what sort of guarantee you will offer. If the client doesn't properly care for the containers (they don't water as often as they should, or they drown them), they will likely be calling you to complain about your work, which is not fair, but a fact of life. Cover your rear end ahead of time on this one.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2007 at 7:41AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

Why a SMALL profit?

Why not a FAIR profit for your time and expertise?

    Bookmark   March 26, 2007 at 10:13AM
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Wow, thank you for the thoughtful and useful advice and taking the time to write-both responses! Watergal or (anyone else) if you happen to see this- what is a an appropiate dollar per hour rate (I know our areas differ, but a ballpark.) I also have a degree in design. The other question is do you mark up the plants you purchase and other supplies as soil. Do you pass on the receipts to the customer? You mentioned a considering carefully a guarantee; I can't imagine it would be more than a week or two since it is up to them to care for the pots and window boxes. Thanks again and good luck with your gardening customers!


    Bookmark   March 26, 2007 at 9:56PM
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The qualitative answer:
The appropriate hourly rate should be equal to the most that you can get while keeping busy.

Part of that is related to how productive you are. Productive in this case means a combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities which produce a certain dollar average value in an hour's time. One person may accomplish quite a lot more than another who is physically working harder and faster just from knowledge, technique, and/or experience.

The biggest part of how much you can charge has a lot less to do directly with how productive you are. It is how much you are valued by the people who might hire you. This is the tricky part because there are so many variables.

The first is who knows of you.If you are known by people who value the type of work that you do, you are in much better shape than if you are only known by people who read an add on a bargain hunter's web site.

The second is how widely known you are. Are people calling you to have you do work, or are you the one who has to go get it?

The next big obstacle, and this is the one a lot of people fail to recognize, is how do you compare with other people offering the same services? That is a mult-faceted comparison between price, knowledge, and service(s).

In other words, no one here can tell you what you can charge.You have to find out your value.

One thing to keep in mind is that there are physically more people who will pay short money for lower skills than there are people willing to spend a lot of money for higher services. There are also more people capable of serving the former and less that are capable of serving the latter. You will also find that when you ask anyone which (s)he does the answer will be "high quality" every time and most actually believe it. This should tell all of us that if the rest of our industry sees themselves as high quality, we need to be aware that we might have the same warped view of our own work.

On another forum on another site that is for people in the business someone ran a thread with a poll asking where each felt he fit on a level of quality from one to ten. It turned out that it was a very elite forum with only higher quality landscapers. But when you read the threads on it, it is very clear that the majority of its participants are very young uneducated self taught kids asking the most basic questions such as how to know how much mulch to cover an area, how much should a particular plant cost, ....

The market you work in, or works you, will determine your value.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2007 at 7:21AM
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gonativegal(zone 5a)

If you're in a major metro area like Minneaopolis/St.Paul I would charge what the market can bear perhaps $25- 40/hour onsite plus time while shopping for plants.

This may seem high but keep in mind this is like having a cleaning lady, nanny, lawn guy, personal shopper etc - these are all luxury services not necessities. The people that can afford these types of luxury services shouldn't be quibbling with you over a fair rate for what is essentially a wonderful but nevertheless dirty, sweaty job that they themselves do not wish to undertake.

I charge between $35-40/hour per hour and I never feel guilty. My feeling is that if you provide great customer service and a quality job, whether it be maintenance or a garden installation than the rate shouldn't be that much of an issue for this type of service.

Do not undercut yourself - you are worth it! Better to start with a few good, on-time paying customers than alot of cheapskates that pay late.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2007 at 11:41PM
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How do you know she is worth it? She might be, but she might not be worth it yet. Experience goes a long way in inreasing productivity. A lot of new people and others encouraging them want to elevate their value to that of people who are much more productive based not only on plant knowledge and work ethic, but by trial and error of what use of time bests meets the expectations in terms of cost and results.

Part of getting there is to be getting that experience. If she is not as productive as the next person charging the same hourly rates, she'll be waiting a long time to gain that experience that will get her those rates.

The best way that I can put this is this. If you, Gonative, and she, Away in the garden, both went to the same prospective client and were going to charge the same rate, who would get the job? Gonative would. If someone looking to pinch pennies was looking for a gardener, which would they hire? The one who would work for less.

If Away can get $25-$40 she should, but it has to be known that the higher your rate, the more the people paying it value the result. If it is not living up to that expectation, the job will be gone. If the job has not yet been won and the client values this position (is paying a lot) then there is more effort put into determining whether the person they will hire is capable not whether the person thinks they can do it.

You have to have experience doing the work commercially in order to get paid well for it on the one hand.On the other hand, you have to get work in order to get experience. Like it or not, you won't get the same money as a rookie as you will as a veteran.

I don't think anyone is working at the same comparable wage as when they first started. It is easy to say to charge high, but the buyer makes the choice and will not choose inexperience over experience if the price is the same.

The most overlooked thing that people entering this industry mis is that you are not measured on your ability and potential, but on your ability and potential compared to others.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2007 at 7:33AM
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All good points so far. I think one of the most important things to do, regardless of the $$$ rate, is to bill honestly for everything you do- if it takes you four hours, don't be afraid to bill for it! Just make sure, as Andrew mentioned, that your hourly rate accurately reflects what you're able to give the client. And, of course, within the bounds of what's appropriate for your market. There's no magic number. As was mentioned, contractors tend to see themselves as Goldilocks, Inc.- neither too high nor too low, but just right. (Oh, and Andrew- as far as that discussion goes, my wife is a statistics professor and she thinks I'm right- and trust me, that's not a common sentiment. Just sayin'.)


    Bookmark   March 29, 2007 at 9:02AM
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gonativegal(zone 5a)

Dear laag,

As a business owner as opposed to an employee of a firm a person with more experience can expect to command a rate of $50-75/hour. $25 - 40 is a starting to middling rate. Their are alot of costs to cover - gas, insurance just to start.

I pay my assistant $15/hour and that's with only a 2 month internship at a previous job under her belt. This is a hard job - Away obviously as a homeowner/gardener has some practical experience under her belt and that does count. She would be better off taking on just a couple of people (2 or 3) at a higher rate than starting with people that expect alot for nothing. Even if she starts at just $20 she can adjust her rate up to $25 within a couple of years without causing too many ripples among her clients while acquiring more and additional experience along the way.

By the way, in the Chicago area (which is a similar market Minneapolis) starting rates for a butchered maintenance job by people that only know how to run a lawnmower, leaf blower and sort of know how to edge a bed - rates usually begin at $25/hour! That's for the guys that don't speak English and give shrubs and perennials a haircut with power equipment and make volcano mounds out of the planting beds. Sadly, these maintenance crews are usually part of a larger, respectable firm which does fairly intelligent design work and installations.

I have found only the very high end firms really spend the time and money to educate their crews on proper horticultural techniques so that the garden really looks and develops as it should.

I might add that attitude goes a long way as well. Many landscape crews (including the crew boss although there are the occasional dedicated ones) never really develop a good learning curve because it's just a job to them whether they've been there one year or 10. I bet Away with some good research, dedication and hard work could easily match them knowledge wise and perhaps pacewise per man, within a season or so. The key is preparation. Perhaps even enrolling in a small business course first would be a good step.

I have made quite a bit of money correcting other designers/architects planting choices and bad maintenace jobs by reputable firms.

Like it or leave that's my two cents.

Away, do not let anyone dscourage you. I applaud you for desire to do this and I wish you the best of luck in your goals.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2007 at 10:56AM
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Thanks again for all the solid advice and valid points. I guess I was kinda of naive to suggest an amount to charge when you have no idea what my skills are. So for fun I will enumerate all my related garden experience.

Like I mentioned I have designed my own garden for ten years which includes a large tea rose garden (twenty five) managing successfully (most of the time)to over winter them in the tundra, a 10 foot pond with hardy and tropical water plants, a rain garden, vegetable garden and all sorts of unusual plants tried from seed and not available in the garden center as well as tress and shrubs. I believe the garden has an aesthetic flow to it. Last year I completed the Master Gardener course and have worked in garden centers for 6 years acquiring a large vocabulary of plants, successfully identifying diseases, creating displays and mixed pots at some high end nurseries. As I mentioned I do have a degree in applied design and a minor in art history and have been a working artist, illustrator (designing floorcloth rugs- anyone need one...Ill create it just for you :) and it will last a lifetime) and exhibited in fine art in juried shows. An unusual skill I learned along way at the garden centers is repairing statuary- making noses putting on heads, creating feet for foo dogs. I also create wire garden sculpture and handmade twig trellises. I am also not afraid of really back breaking work (I actually relish it) especially if it means more beauty for the world. Last year because I care about our whole yard space and what the neighbors have to see (also, to prevent rain run off of car exhaust from entering the Mississippi) I ripped up an entire asphalt driveway in one weekend and replaced it with gravel, and hauled it away.

I know this sounds a bit much but I do believe I have vision for a space and am passionate about design. I think what some of the previous people said is right on- many of the landscape services install run of the mill generic design for high prices they really donÂt care. I care passionately and have demonstrated my abilities in my own garden even though itÂs unpaid; It is still proof I will do an astounding job. ThatÂs the difference and I work at a fast pace and am in good physical shape. I hope this indicates I am by no means average in my abilities and energy. I realise I don't deserve to command top dollar as a seasoned skilled garden worker (I need to pay my dues), but I by no means belong at the bottom of the pay scale either. This was really hard for me to write as I am a modest person. Thanks to all for you advice!

    Bookmark   March 29, 2007 at 2:46PM
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See what you can get.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2007 at 8:45PM
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gonativegal(zone 5a)

Dear Away,

Do you have pictures of your rain garden? I love rain gardens - not too many people have them. Please share.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2007 at 8:14AM
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back_yard_guy(z6 KS)

It would seem to me that the trend for free designs might turn design (only) for a fee into an uphill battle. One of the more prestigious (largest and one of the oldest) nurserys in Wichita is running a one-minute ad on local radio. The premise of their ad? FREE DESIGN! They allude to gardening experts - degreed gardening experts with 20 -30 years experience. I've done business with this nursery for decades. What can I say? They're good. It's pretty tough to sell a product when the guy next to you is giving it away for free (for whatever reason).

    Bookmark   April 10, 2007 at 8:24AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

The reason is to sell their plants. Customers buy more if they have planting plans, instead of trying to figure it out on their own. Maybe if you check you will find these freebies are quickies and not nearly as fancy as those prepared by garden designers and landscape architects that are charging for them.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2007 at 12:51PM
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back_yard_guy(z6 KS)

Oh, you are absolutely right! But, what does the typical customer really want? A fancy plan? Or a beautiful garden? Even if results come from a crude sketch on the back of an envelope? Just like a house you really care about the plan? Or do you care about the house that results from that plan? Have you ever noticed how many home builders offer free plans (with rather cryptic details)? Or, you can pay thousands to have an architect draw a rather similar plan.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2007 at 8:19AM
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Well, you've pretty much nailed it- no one is paying you for the plan, they're paying for the focus and application of your knowledge. It's the old features vs. benefit thing they taught us when I was selling: no one buys a high-tech carbide steel imported drill bit, they buy a hole. End of discussion. So the challenge comes in selling people on why your plan leads to a better result than the next person's. In some respects, it can be easy selling myself against a garden center or even a design/build company. "Hey, I'm working for you and no one else on this project. As long as you pay me the fee we've agreed upon, I'll design you as big or as small a landscape as you want and the only pressure you'll get from me is when I think you're making a choice that's against your best interest." Easy selling point, in my mind.

That said, they have to value what you're offering. The level of detail in my plans makes bidding and installation a snap for installers, and I charge accordingly. I've lost prospects to cheaper designers, and I'm sure I will in the future, but I can't design anything that I don't know for certain is buildable.


    Bookmark   April 11, 2007 at 12:35PM
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Hi, I'm new here, but have never been known for being bashful, so I'm just gonna jump right in.

Having given up the business suit and high heels, I started offering my services as a garden designer on Craigslist a couple of years ago. I make a point of telling everyone that I am NOT a landscape architect, I am a master gardener with training in design. I offer a variety of services, but the most demand has been for someone to come in and redesign areas that didn't work for whatever reason.

I provide free estimates, and go to their home, take the time to do the walk around, and talk with the client to determine their needs, likes and dislikes, etc. I make sure it is within my skill level, and that their wants and expectations are within reason for the project. (NOT always an easy thing)

I don't provide anyone with my "plan". As far as I am concerned, that is my working blueprint. I will give them a description that is designed to create a visual in their mind. As much as possible, I try to do this by email or in person, so there can be pictures of the specific plants I will use. I don't get terribly specific at this point. I.E. "Mary, I'm going to create for you a cottage style garden in the flowerbed to the left of the front door, that will include vibrant scarlet monarda, Crazy Lady Daisy, echinaceas, and more, carefully planned to provide you with maximum color throughout the season."

Yes, it sounds like something out of a sales catalog, but I'm in the business of selling my services, not giving away my expertise. I always try and mix in common names with botanical, so they have a teaser, but don't know exactly what I am recommending until they have money on the line. Most of my clientele are NOT gardeners, and don't know a lot of even common names, much less botanical. Somewhere in every design I can utilize a catchy name, i.e. "Crazy Lady Daisy" which always gets the conversation going.

I give them a price, with a breakdown of total amount for plants and materials, and total for labor. (I do my own planting, and have hired help for the heavy stuff) Only after I get a deposit, do they get an itemized invoice, listing specific plants, number of plants, and breakdown. At that point, included in the labor costs, is the number of hours I spent doing design/planning.

I use the same concept for baskets and pots. Sometimes they are part of a good design, and other than not having aching knees when I'm done, it is basically the same thing.

As far as your hourly rate, that comes under the "whatever the market will bear" premise. Myself, I charge a bit less than some, just to stay busy enough that I can pick and choose who I work for. If you are not worth what you charge, the public will get that point across pretty quickly, and if you are underpriced, you will figure that one out too.

Good luck! I look at it as the biggest ripoff in the world. Someone is actually PAYING me money not only to dig in the dirt, but to spend their money at a garden center. Absolutely perfect!

    Bookmark   May 5, 2007 at 12:04AM
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I am just starting out with garden design and have some of the same questions away in the garden has.

For my current project I am planting a city backyard that is 900 sq ft. The design includes an 8x5 veg garden a 10 x 10 shade garden and a 40 sq ft semi-circular cutting garden.

In the past I have charged 35 - 45/hr for soil preparation, maintence, pruning and planting but I'm at a loss as to what to charge for a design. And if I charge for the design do I charge less than my usual rate for prep and planting?

Also I've read some posts where people say they mark up the cost of plants 100% or more. Does that mark-up include the actual plant plus the labor of putting it into the ground?

Any advice will be greatly appreciated.


    Bookmark   May 21, 2007 at 10:30AM
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