Skilled garden maintenance: hourly vs. flat rate

flippant_dolphin(z9 CA)August 16, 2005

Okay, so I've been reading these forums for awhile now (guess that makes me a "lurker" - how creepy), and I'm impressed with the knowledge here. So I thought I'd try a question of my own with you guys. Please note: I'm in California (the SF bay area), and as we all know, things are different out here.

I'm interested in hearing others' input on hourly vs. flat rate skilled garden maintenance. I'm talking maintenance by skilled, educated gardeners. Which format (hrly vs flat) is generally more acceptable to a homeowner? Which gives a client a better sense of value? Obviously each client is different in what matters to them most, but I'm interested in hearing the various experiences you all may have.

So, a little about me, and why I ask such a question: I've been doing skilled garden maintenance for just the last 3 yrs, and I've tried various customized approaches to garden maintenance billing (flat rate; flat for mow and blow with hrly for skilled; hrly for all). It's been a lot of trial and error over the last 3 yrs. Hourly is safe (profit-wise) and makes sense in terms of more garden work being needed at different times of the year (dormant pruning; fall leaves; etc). However, for the few clients that get multiple bids from other companies, a flat rate is usually the preferred approach of the homeowner, for comparison. But how do you compare companies when the knowledge of the staff varies so highly? So my question is...since we're talking about skilled garden maintenance, should it always be hourly? The goal then isn't to be competitive on price alone, obviously, so the skill and service of the maintenance company should be the determining factor, right?

(By the way, I often get referred to specialty maintenance from a designer or LA, especially of natives, so I'm typically the only bidder - in which case I often get the job regardless of the billing structure. I also must throw in that I carry full workers comp and 2 mil in general liability insurance, which definitely affect my rates.)

So, here I am. Humbly asking you to share your years of hard-earned knowledge to help out the newbie. I'd buy you a coffee, but...yeah. It's an internet forum.

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"Hourly is safe (profit-wise) "

Oh no it's NOT .. hourly is a very difficult way to bill your client. Perhaps you are fixated on a per job analysis .. but your main goal should be yearly analysis. Hourly often leads to a flat season without the big pay day. It's so safe it is dangerous.

"Obviously each client is different in what matters to them most, but I'm interested in hearing the various experiences you all may have."

Exactly .. so you can never make everyone happy so pick what works best for YOUR company. This has been explored many times here on this forum ...

... my own view it is un "American" in a capatilist sense to work by the hour .. being efficient is the key to making a profit in any business .. if you are a skilled maintenance worker then you can complete work in a more efficient manner .. you get rewarded for your experience and make higher profits .. let me repeat higher profits on jobs other less skilled workers are still struggling with and making half as much profit for the SAME job.

Plus it makes life a lot easier .. the pace you work at is up to you and your cost are your own business.

Also .. as cost go up and down you ** MUST ** change your hourly fee or loose money. Where I live gas prices jump constantly .. that means you need to startle clients every time you change your hourly fee ... Right ?? Otherwise you eat the increase in cost.

"So my question is...since we're talking about skilled garden maintenance, should it always be hourly?:"

Honestly I don't see the connection between your skill level and the method of estimating / billing you select for your company. A lawyer can stuff his hourly fee down your throat but thats not because of his skill level it has more to do with him / her having you over the fire pit.

The only time I used hourly is when unknown conditions made an estimate to risky to estimate and charge a flat fee.

When the work piles up I want to get it done effiecently and watch profits rise even though my estimates say they can't rise ?? There is a difference between your estimated price and the final cost / profit. The two are never the same and should not be the same.

"The goal then isn't to be competitive on price alone, obviously, so the skill and service of the maintenance company should be the determining factor, right? "

Yeah .. in Disney Land that may be the case. All you can do is sell your skills .. reputation ect. and then attach aprice to it and ask for the sale. Quite frankly people do not always look at the big picture or honestly need a "skilled" maintenance worker. I'm looking to hire a general contractor currently .. they all seem qualified but I'd much rather work with a fixed price so those that charge architect fees by the hour .. well .. they better be darn impressive or guess who gets the job ?? The fixed price.

I'm not saying hourly can't work but it was never my choice and people don't like it from my experience as a seller and buyer .. and it's NOT safe. Nothing is really.

Good Day ....

    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 12:40AM
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samiamvt(z4 VT)

I don't know....I still prefer T&M or maybe T&M with a "not to exceed" clause, if the clients prefer.
It seems like unless you bid high ( in which case you might not win the bid) then contract pricing doesn't leave enough room for extenuating circumstances, which in our case usually means the extremely variable weather. Our whole season is basically an "unknown condition". A cold spring, a short fall, too much rain, not enough rain can really mess with your profit margins. I suppose this might not be an issue in Cali though.
If you are charging hourly, and you know your big checks are coming in the spring and fall for instance, then you just budget accordingly, to cover your 'flat period'.
Plus, I don't know if you work strictly alone or not, but I run a very small crew, and when we bid on some jobs I haven't even hired them yet, so I don't know how skilled, or usually unskilled they will be and how efficient I can make them.
I've come down to the wire on too many budgets, for reasons that were truly beyond my control, so
I guess maybe I not confident enough to estimate all the unknowns. To me T&M still feels safer, even if it really isn't

    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 1:54AM
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As long as you reach your financial goals at the end of the year it does not matter what system you use but it is important to know how to use each system and it's limatations.

Time and materials is safer ... but so is crawling instead of running .. and you will never crawl a four minute mile which is what you have to do these days if you want to make good returns on a business.

There is a "market value" for your services that changes during the year and from service to service even place to place and will even go up depending who you are bidding against ect.. Time and materials does not give one the flexability to adjust each project to current market conditions and maxamize profits.

If however your market has flat or non volatile cost and prices then time and materials becomes more attractive.

Pricing landscape work is a lot like the stock market .. just as stocks change value so does your work .. each Monday morning the pricing landscape changes and you need to know what it is before you set out estimating and be able to pass these cost and markups on to the client.

Good Day ...

    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 12:06PM
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Mojave did a nice job explaining his point of view. I agree with his point of view.

The client likes to know the bottom line and does not have to worry about how much time you are spending on this or on that, as long as the job comes out as expected. There is nothing worse than having to rush through a job that takes patience because the client is concerned about the money he is spending on that time of yours. It is a little to defend against someone claiming that you over charged.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 12:38PM
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Mojave and laag make good points, but I fall into the hourly "not to exceed" camp. Fine gardening represents about 75% of our income, and we charge by the hour, at different rates for varying levels of skill.

Many of the outfits that bid a flat rate in this area are soon replaced by companies like mine, who charge an hourly rate. There have been countless times when we have been called in to a job because things started out fine, and then gradually, the flat-raters spent less and less time on the job, and ignored more and more important tasks.

We bid an hourly rate, with a set number of hours per month scheduled per client. If we are going to exceed those hours, we inform the client ahead of time. We include in our contract extra hours for seasonal activities such as mulching, spreading compost in spring and fall, etc.

However, some of my clients use a flat-rate service for mowing, edging, and blowing. These activities are usually the same each week, and can be bid accordingly.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 6:50PM
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creatrix(z7 VA)

I'm even newer at this than 'flippant dolphin'. I've just inherited clients from my former boss, who now has enough design work to punt the maintenance.

So I bid rose maintenance as a flat rate- underbid, making less than $12/hr so far.

Would have lost my shirt if I had bid another job as flat rate- who knew wild cherry seeds come up through Preen, Round-up extended and don't respond well to Round-up at all! I spent tons of time and material battling that one! Most of the property was covered in seedlings for two weeks or more!

The owner wasn't worried, she said 'Oh, the same thing happened last year.'

So until I'm better at judging how long things take, I'll stick to T&M!

    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 7:52PM
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I have been working at an hourly rate plus materials for the last eighteen years. Experience allows me to be a good judge of the time it will take to do a job and I can give the client an on target estimate of their monthly or specific install job. A year round season means I do not have to load up on money at one time of the year.

I do have one flat rate account and that is for the common areas of a neighborhood association where the work is largely static and repetative.

I am some what of a oddball though, but I also get work from the flat raters all the time. A lot of that is about showing up when I say I will, returning phone calls and doing what I say I will. It is also about flat raters being more susceptible to "you didn't do this and it is in the contract". They now have to come back for free sometimes or piss the client off. For me it is No Problem, be happy to do it.

I do agree it takes a level of trust that has to be earned from the client because the don't want an open-ended monthly bill. We are talking about skilled maintenance here though not landscape design and installation. That is a whole other ballgame.

And to make sure I stay in the "American Capitalist" realm I charge by the man hour, the same for myself as my assistant and then pay the assistant less. I make money off of some one elses labor. Can't get more "American Capitalist" than that.


    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 8:50PM
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Great responses ...

I once had a very large maintenance account .. for a very picky client that was an expert at working with contracts. I agreed to have my company spend so many hours a week at her site because I could just tell she was going to add on much more work then could be completed within the agreed upon hourly budget.

Service work does seem like a good situation for time and materials but keep in mind travel time associated with a given project .. time spent off site maintaining gear .. time at the nursery .. the gas station .. bookeeping ... downtime ect all has to be figured in to your hourly structure. EVERYTHING you can think of and a few expenses you may not even know exist.

Anyway as I expected ... I was told not asked to install 350 flats of flowers at the end of the week on a Friday afternoon well after the hourly budget was depleted for the week... or else .. you know what FIRED. I informed my client sure I'll put the flowers in but I will need to charge extra .. she said "Oh .. NO .. If you charge extra you are FIRED " ... being that I don't work for free I said I will need to charge extra ... "Then your FIRED !! ".

Unfortunately the head of her very large maid service was near by at the time and replied to her .. "Thats not fair the way you treated that man" .. "Oh she said .. THEN YOUR FIRED TOO !! ". LOL

The next day I recieved a call from a new landscaper .. he quizzed me .. " Hey I heard you use to take care of that BIG account .. Uhh .. can you tell me what you were charging for that size account ... I don't want to bid too low "

I tried to tell him it was the BIGGEST account I ever had and the BIGGEST account I was so happy to lose and others like me have suffered as well in the service of this client and that I don't think it mattered How he charged or How much he charged because he will regret it in the end.

He kept asking .."Yeah but about how much ..".

I don't think he was listening. No one ever does.

Good Luck out there .. be careful. A pleasure chatting.

Good Day ....

    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 10:14PM
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Indeed! Amen!

Service work does seem like a good situation for time and materials but keep in mind travel time associated with a given project .. time spent off site maintaining gear .. time at the nursery .. the gas station .. bookeeping ... downtime ect all has to be figured in to your hourly structure. EVERYTHING you can think of and a few expenses you may not even know exist.

That is an absolute or working hourly will kill you.

That is also where the lower paid lovely assistant comes in. You are able to give yourself a higher hourly rate while keeping it more affordable to the client as well as more presentable in the $/hr rate that they see.


    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 11:43PM
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flippant_dolphin(z9 CA)

Great discussion. I've done primarily hourly work, convincing clients that it makes the most sense for their garden, since the amount of work varies with the time of year. Makes sense to them.

I've only recently been asked to bid a flat rate for a few larger gardens, where the clients are so busy they ask the designer to meet with maintenance companies to get bids. They just want the place to look great all the time - they don't care whether the gardeners know what they're doing or use non-toxic weed and pest control, unless they're unhappy with the performance of their current gardeners. I usually come out as the high bidder on these jobs, and the client is looking at the bottom line, so naturally they go with another company. However, I don't want to dismiss these jobs simply because they do not fall into my "normal" billing approach. I've tried to accomodate them by giving a detailed quote which lists all that's included, plus a separate price for seasonal work such as mulching, and asking them to set up a pre-authorized allowance for extras which are T&M, such replacement plants, irrigation repairs, etc. But maybe I'm foolish in the business sense - I bid the job according to how many hours I think it will take to do things right (and I'm getting pretty good at estimating the time on that, having done most of the work myself for the first 2 yrs), and not necessarily to be competitive in my price.

My natural inclination is towards an hourly approach, mainly because it makes sense garden-wise. And I have yet to lose a client using this approach, and have picked up several willing to try it out because their previous gardener(s) neglected a lot of things (or just plain didn't have the skills to do the job right).

Anyways, thanks again for the feedback. It's great to hear the experience of others.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2005 at 11:51PM
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Cady(6b/Sunset34 MA)

When I was in grad school, I freelanced as a caricature artist to help pay expenses. My mistake was in quoting a per-hour rate, instead of a flat fee for parties, etc. Invariably, a customer would want me to draw all of their guests (sometimes 100) within an hour or two because they didn't like paying by the hour. If I ever did that kind of work again, I would charge a flat rate based on the number of guests (to be determined in advance of the event)and the average amount of time it takes me per caricature.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2005 at 10:08AM
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"I usually come out as the high bidder on these jobs, and the client is looking at the bottom line, so naturally they go with another company. "

Well your not alone ... follow your gut feelings and your bottom line. If it ain't broke don't fix it. When first starting out it is a good idea to avoid contractual agreements that bind you in price since you are still feeling your way in and may make too many mistakes.

Good Luck !!

Good Day ...

    Bookmark   August 18, 2005 at 12:06PM
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I limit my monthly work for any given client to moderate the monthly bill and to preserve work for the off season.

The distinction between the two billing systems is exaggerated in this thread.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2005 at 2:58AM
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"I limit my monthly work for any given client to moderate the monthly bill and to preserve work for the off season."

The work has to be done when it has to be done but if it works for you Great !

Good Day ...

    Bookmark   August 22, 2005 at 12:41PM
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We garden year around in the PNW, Mohave. Banking work is necessary if you want to do more than rebuild equipment during the winter.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2005 at 1:17PM
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txjenny(z8 TX)

In my neck of the woods, downtown lofts/apartment building are really gaining popularity, and I'd like to jump on this bandwagon and market rooftop or balcony gardening to those residents. I've done quite a bit of container gardening for my clients, but am wondering about some real nuts-and-bolts logistics: what's the best way to get all the materials up there? How do you irrigate on the rooftop? How do you determine how much weight a rooftop or balcony can support (less a consideration for mere containers, but I've seen some pretty extensive gardens on rooftops that defy engineering)? Any other considerations I'm missing here? Thanks for your input!

    Bookmark   August 26, 2005 at 2:14PM
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"We garden year around in the PNW"

I'm confused .. ??

LOL .. so do we garden all year ?? .. heck we are in the sunbelt .. so what's the problem ?? .. If you work all year there should be plenty to do all year ??

Know LOL ...What you are saying perhaps is that you are somewhat slow in the winter .. Right ??

An hourly system can leave you high and dry in this situation if you are not careful. If your working from a fixed price it is much easier to add in some time to your overhead calculations to compensate for the expected slow season. In an hourly system this down time must be reflected in the hourly price making your rates a bit harder to digest.

If a contractor estimates 25 hours for a project and it takes 20 hours he pockets the extra five and comes out ahead of the game.

I don't know .. but it seems that customer service would suffer if you told a client to wait till winter to weed .. prune that ovesized hedge .. remove that big dead dangerous tree .. or plant spring annuals !!!!!

Get it while it's hot .. charge as much as you can without going over .. Like the "Price Is Right" show .. remember that ??

Just my two cents ... every business market is a bit different.

Good Day ...

    Bookmark   August 26, 2005 at 7:19PM
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It wasn't my intention to suggest that you didn't have work in the winter.

In my 21 years experience in this industry, people whose primary concern is quality work are willing to pay by the hour. Everyone else wants a "fixed price". And those are not the kind of client you can build a longterm relationship with.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2005 at 10:24PM
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Here in NYC landscaping companies usually bill by the hour, with a thorough explanation at the beginning of a season's contract: this is of course an estimation of how long each visit will last, based on scope of work and season(these are maintenance visits, not major installations). One spring, summer and fall visit is usually longer for a spring clean-up, planting of annuals, fall shut-down - as well as some longer vists in summer for perennial maintenance. For larger installtions, labour is estimated (per person per hour) and a flat rate is given. You have to do your homework well in order to come out well ahead.

Private gardeners here tend to have a flat rate per maintenance visit.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2005 at 2:40PM
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Gardener(z6 PA)

Hello all,
Very Interesting..all these threads..all the different situations. Here's my experience as a Private Estate Gardener. 3 years Head Gardener at a large estate. Yearly contract, set salary. Who knew it would be the start of a 3 year drought. You know you can't predict the future. Extra time spent watering...extra time spent fertilizing because of all the watering...extra time spent spraying for insects and disease...Oh, and plants don't know the difference between Weekdays, weekends and holidays......If I didn't love the job as much as I did, I would have moved on after the first year. Hoping things would improve I toughed it out 2 more years. I would have to say they got me at a bargain basement price for the work that was involved. I exited politely...All was not lost. I gained some very valuable experience. The next 4 years I have doubled my income working an hourly rate. I have learned that people are willing to pay an hourly rate for "skilled" maintenance. Not mowing and blowing. Planning, planting, and all that goes with taking care of plants, shrubs, beds. I call it fine gardening, or Private Estate Gardening, not maintenance. That instantly weeds out the jobs that would not be cost effective. You build a reputation. People see your gain tons of clients...hire more employees....retire early....OK, OK I got carried away there...but you get the drift.
If you love your job it shows in your work, if you are honest, and hardworking you can make a pretty good living doing what you love. I think that's what it's all about. It is very gratifying leaving a property and looking back and being amazed at the beauty, or planting in the spring and watching your efforts grow into something that after all you have seen and done in the past still gets to you.

Granted you are charging enough for you experience or skills, it is has to be an hourly rate.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2005 at 11:25AM
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"Granted you are charging enough for you experience or skills, it is has to be an hourly rate. "

If you are charging enough for your work it does not matter which system you use ... but your point is well taken. How about when things really go well ?? .. Do you make mountains out of Mole hills to justify your pay ?

"Oh, and plants don't know the difference between Weekdays, weekends and holidays......"

Plants don't know the difference but the department of labor does so you better have an hourly rate at an overtime level.

Good Day ...

    Bookmark   September 17, 2005 at 3:16PM
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flippant_dolphin(z9 CA)

Hi "Gardener" - thanks for your post. It's great to get another perspective.

Since my first post on this thread, I've decided to use 2 different approaches that seem to work well for my company and for my clients. 1) Flat price for mow and blow work, with hourly (and a "not to exceed" budget set by the client); and 2) flat price to take care of the property, both mow and blow and skilled gardening. These 2 scenarios work well for me since I have 2 crews (one mow/blow, one skilled) and because some clients just want an all-inclusive approach with a predictable budget. However, to truly make a decent profit on flat rate work (and to be able to fluctuate employee hours based on the needs of each individual property), the flat rates are not inexpensive. This has worked for me so far.... clients are happy, business is thriving. But we'll see how it stands up to time and future business growth.

I'm still interested in hearing about any other approaches you all may have.... Thanks

    Bookmark   September 17, 2005 at 6:22PM
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Gardener(z6 PA)

Hats off to you... you have found a balance. It is whatever works for your situation. My point.. Never underestimate your value. It is whatever a client is willing to pay for your years of experience, training, knowledge, and creative design. If you create a demand for your services you will price accordingly. The rest will be entrepreneurial history. Good luck in the seasons to come.

If you are charging enough for your work it does not matter which system you use ... " your point is well taken. How about when things really go well ?? .. Do you make mountains out of Mole hills to justify your pay" ?

When things are going really well kick up your heels and sing hallelujah to the nature gods! You spend that extra time actually having a cold beer on a hot evening because your not too tired to do so. Because you know that life sustaining liquid will be falling from the sky in the next 12 hours and you won't have to water at clients that have spent thousands of dollars on plant material..
Since you are already charging enough to satisfy your capitalistic are... at last... content.
Any overtime is adjusted accordingly during the absolutely crazy times...that added bonus of making more money has obvious advantages and disadvantages. Don't get burned out...

    Bookmark   September 18, 2005 at 11:39AM
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I enjoyed reading everyone's detailed responses. Still, few seemed willing to offer up their specific hourly rate.

I recognize & understand the variables that can dramatically have an impact on rates for people who run their businesses under the Time and Materials business model (specifically skill level/educational level of the gardener, plus the complexity of the gardening/landscape task at hand). Still, I would love a one liner from anyone willing to share their geographic region, along with the price range (in an hourly rate) for skilled gardening services in their locale. Many thank!

    Bookmark   September 19, 2005 at 12:38PM
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I am just starting some "freelance" gardening work and am also wondering how to charge for my services. I have had several years of experience with gardening in different professional settings. However, I haven't had any professional training. I don't want to undercharge or overcharge for my services....problem is, I'm unsure of the going rate for this type of work. I have perused other entries and guesstimate that $12/hr. is too low and some people charge up to $30/hr. (per person per hour?) I was thinking of charging somewhere between $15 and $20 and hour... that seems reasonable to me given that I need to earn a living...but I can't claim years of training. Anyone willing to share what they charge? Preferably in the Balto/DC area???

    Bookmark   September 24, 2005 at 10:48PM
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habitat_gardener(z9 CA/Sunset15)

Theory first.

I've had a few different freelance careers and have noticed that pricing is all over the place, with little correlation to experience, knowledge base, training, etc. I've almost always used an hourly rate. The people who tend to get the bes t rates are often the ones with the best networks -- people who talk to each other learn quickly what the going rate is (and also refer clients to each other).

Lesson #1: Talk to your colleagues and make sure no one is undercharging.

Also it's a matter of testing the market: if the client accepts a rate outright, my gut reaction is that it was too low; if the client wants to haggle, the rate is probably more fair.

Lesson #2: Always leave room for haggling. Suggest a rate that is at the upper level of your comfort zone, and also have in mind a base rate.

Lesson #3: Different rates for different clients. Look at each new client as a new opportunity to negotiate your rates. Give yourself periodic raises -- every few months, try to raise your average by initiating negotiations with a higher rate.

It's also a matter of who the clients are: if they simply cannot afford to pay what you need to live on, then you have to decide whether you need to make a living, or whether it's a hobby and you're willing to subsidize your clients, in effect, by giving them a highly discounted rate. I have also found that I get a lot less per hour when I work for someone else (either as a sub, or to "help out a friend")... and still no benefits.

[A related issue is volu nteer work. I have worked for little or no money for various reasons: to do a project I really wanted to do or to promote an idea or practice I valued. I really would do anything horticultural for free if I could, and I live so frugally that I've been able to give away lots of time. The tradeoff is that I live too close to the edge. Also, do too much charity or discount work, and others start discounting your skills -- the notion that if you're willing to give it away for fr ee, it can't have been worth much in the first place. And it is seductive to devote lots of time to realizing one's own vision. But I have known colleagues who perceive pro bono as a quid pro quo: it gives them a higher profile in the community, more referrals, higher rate.]

Lesson #4: Pro bono is a slippery slope. Be aware of the risks and the rewards.

Now the numbers.

Here's what I charged for planting and maintenance ("fine gardening" -- no mow, no blow), which I no longer do much, in the SF Bay Are a, which is probably comparable to DC.

-- $10-15 an hour, to help out a colleague or to work for a client I liked. Basically these were charity cases, yet some of the clients at this level complained about the rate, or limited the hours. The clients didn't have th e time or skills or knowledge to do the work themselves, but they didn't want to spend what it cost to have someone else do it, either. And it wasn't old folks on fixed incomes, either -- it was lawyers and high-tech people whose incomes were overextended in other areas. Another factor was that one colleague I helped out was way out of the loop and always undercharged. On the other hand, I was happy to do some short-term work at this token rate to teach a client.

-- $20-30 an hour, to help a colleague o n a short-term job, also more or less as a favor.

-- $45-60 an hour, for specialized plant knowledge, referred by a landscape designer who told the client this was the going rate for someone who knows plants. It was hard to ask the first time, and the second time, so it helped to have a push from a colleague reassuring me that this was the going rate.

I've taken classes at the local hort program, and a few years ago homeowners who wanted to hire students in the program were advised that the going rate for *students* was $25 an hour and up for maintenance. A colleague I know with several years' experience charges $40 an hour for maintenance. Design work typically starts at $40 an hour for students or new graduates. A few years ago, one of the professionals told a class that $300 a day is the bare minimum to get by in this area (probably $400 these days), and to charge less is to devalue one's skills as well as to give clients a false expectation of what skilled horticultural services cost.

A colleague who had an MBA said that in biz school, the rule of thumb was that students get $50 an hour, new graduates $75 an hour, and seasoned professionals (that is, a year or so out of school) $100 an hour. The MBA intended to use the same rule of th umb for landscape design.

A neighbor who has an acre (I guess this qualifies as estate gardening, though they don't hire skilled maintenance) hires mow & blow guys who haven't had much horticultural knowledge. Guy #1 worked there for at least 10 years an d got a flat rate, with annual raises; he'd gotten so efficient that he was spending only 4 hours a week, and the owners got antsy and thought he was cheating them because he used to spend 6 hours. Then they hired guy #2 (recommended by a friend), who had less experience, skills, and knowledge, for $35 an hour, and he worked 8-10 hours a week, except when he didn't show up (and didn't call) every few months. (In effect, a fraction of the results for more than twice the money.) Now they have a crew of 3 (also recommended by a friend), also hourly, probably around $40 (but for all 3); not as bad as #2, but still not up to the standards of #1. It's back to a 3- to 4-hour block of time (yay -- no leaf blowers at 7 pm, and no 5-hour continuous blower marathons, as with #2). Yet it still seems that in their 9-12 man-hours they get less done than #1 did in 4 hours.

Lesson #5: Your rate (or skill or experience) matter less than what the client is willing to pay. Word of mouth sells.

Basically, base d on what I've heard from this neighbor, the most important thing from the client's point of view is geniality (likes to chat with them for 10 minutes) and dependability: show up at the same time each week, never miss a week without calling, don't make a mess, make sure it looks neater after you're done, look like you're working hard for the whole time allotted. The level of skill and knowledge does not seem to matter; the client has seen the crew amputating flowering parts and *removing* mulch and taken a que sera, sera attitude.

Lesson #6: Good rapport with the client is better job security than competence. Find out what the client cares about. Most clients care about what is evident: are you personable, do you put in the amount of time billed, does it look better after you do your job.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2005 at 3:39AM
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Thank you for your insight into this question! I greatly appreciate your advice and willingness to share. I will take it into account when determining just what to quote for this particular client. At this point, since I'm just starting out, the points you make about developing a relationship with the client (who can refer me to other clients) and also about what she is willing to pay....are probably a good focal point.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2005 at 9:24AM
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I just came across a story about a photographer, Gary Fong, who was in a rut covering weddings at $20,000.00 a pop. He increased his price to $120,000.00 and now has more business than he can handle. This is not to suggest that you charge $120.00 an hour only that there may be more value in being the most expensive but also offering the best service than being the cheapest.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2005 at 2:56PM
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jeremy_b(5b ME)

I am at $36/hr labor for maintenance and installation, and $45 for design and consultation. Any employees I may have next year I will regard as an extension of myself and charge the same rates for their work.

For maintenance, I charge time and materials, with a minimum of a one hour charge per visit (I have a lot of very small gardens to take care of). Installations are done for a fixed price, generally, which is my best estimate of time and materials, including non-jobsite time, plus 25%.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2005 at 7:26PM
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creatrix(z7 VA)

One note on different rate for different clients- make sure they won't compare notes!

    Bookmark   September 26, 2005 at 8:02PM
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habitat_gardener(z9 CA/Sunset15)

The client who has the lower rate probably won't be asking -- you might raise that rate, too.

If the client with the higher rate was a referral, chances are the friend revealed your rate, which you'll find out if you quote a different (higher, but not a lot higher) one. So you can explain your rates go up periodically, and then, say, describe your recent continuing education or professional honors etc. -- some specialized thing that makes you different from other fine gardeners. (I've observed colleagues leverage high-profile volunteer gigs this way -- the pro bono stuff gets them name recognition, which gets them more referrals, which enables them to charge more...)

If the client with a higher rate happens to have a good friend who is one of your other clients, same thing: rates go up periodically, they're still getting a good deal because (cite your skills, knowledge, etc.) and (cite your projects, pro bonos, awards, etc.). Jobs are different, too. I've charged more for steep gardens with poison oak (where I sprained an ankle on the loose steps) than for level sites where it was easier to haul things around.

I've heard the same kind of anecdote as INK, where someone tries to set the price too high to force the client to say no, and instead gets the job. The one I heard was a photog, tired of traveling, who quoted what he thought was an absurdly high rate for an annual report for a bank in Asia. The bank had wanted a conservative, dull report, with photos of the suits. The photog said, if I were to do this, I'd take pix of the people in native costumes at specified sites all over the country, and not only my high rate but also first-class travel and accommodations and a big expense account. On the one hand, he was thinking, this would make it worth doing and be sort of a vacation, but on the other he went so overboard that he thought, there's no way they'd go for this. They did. (One of Rick "Day in the Life of..." Smolan's stories.)

The art is to set your rate so you can be selective and do mostly jobs you love for people you like.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2005 at 1:08AM
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LeslieAnne_westTX(z6/7 TX)

As a relatively new "professional gardener," I found this thread very informative & helpful... so far, I'm doing small garden upkeep & have always charged by the hour... I can see that I might need to be thinking about what situations would work out better at a flat rate...

Thanks to all for some good info...

    Bookmark   February 22, 2009 at 3:08PM
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I wonder if the opinions these professionals expressed would change in this economy. I am trying to think about all my billing, clients and projects going into this season- I am worried about what will happen. I charge both ways, depending on the situation and the client.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2009 at 9:15AM
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Good point, drtygrl. Not so long ago the adage 'if people easily accept your rate, it's too low' was true. Now people balk at that same price, even if it hasn't been raised in years. The lesson from my mentors was 'if you discount your services, you're discounting yourself. charge what you're worth.' I have had to rethink recently what I think my worth is, considering I don't want the mortgage to go unpaid. (because, you know, i won't starve---I know how to grow things :) but i need that land to grow on!)

From a business perspective, we have to be very careful not to significantly under-charge right now. When things turn around those same clients will be offended when we try to go back to our normal rates. Anyone have talking points for clients about this, if you are cutting your rates? There are a few gardens I have that are practically historic--they're my babies (yes, sad, i know). If the clients couldn't afford me it'd be pretty emotional on my part to see them deteriorate. Is there any universe where it's acceptable to say 'i'll cut my rate so you, me, and the landscape can make it safely out the other side, but once we're there, things go back to normal'?

    Bookmark   March 6, 2009 at 2:00AM
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You can't overlook that we do not determine our worth, but the buyer does. How we are valued by people changes as their priorities change whether we value ourselves or not.

The rule is always the same: Charge as much as you can as long as you get enough to make a living on. The difference is the "as long as you get enough work to make a living on" between when the economy is growing and when it is shrinking. Pride won't pay the bills.

Having said that, if you can still get the same, you should. If you can get more you should. The consumers will decide if you can get it or not.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2009 at 10:12PM
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Different but similar. I could really use some help here. My grandson started a landscaping business. His step-father (who knows how to install retaining walls, brick/stone patios, etc) is working for him. This man makes a lot per hour and his hours are killing my grandson - who told me he doesn't even have enough for this month's truck payment. Although his step-father is skilled, he is not good at estimating and naturally is slower at things he hasn't done. Yesterday, my grandson burned gas going back and forth to get even more supplies (step-father estimated needs). Last week, he has paid this man a min. of $150 a day and he, his step-dad, said he has put in 31 hours over the weekend. Now his step-dad says if he can not guarantee him a weekly pay of $750, he will have to seek work elsewhere. This man uses a company truck when his son's car doesn't run, no tools and doesn't even pay gas on the truck he "borrows" from my grandson. My grandson said he will lose all if this man quits as he has no one else than can do this work. His step-brother also works for him as an unskilled laborer. They make me nervous because they are claiming 1099, independent contractors but acting like employees. I told my grandson he can get in trouble as his step brother does not have the qualifications to call himself an indepedent contractor. PLEASE, any suggestions. He wants to pay his step father a good wage but isn't making that kind of money now and seems to loss a lot of time running back and forth. It seems as most of his time is spent buying supplies, delivering same, doing estimates and overseeing a couple of jobs. I feel so bad for him. He is 24. His step-father, my son-in-law lost a job a couple of months back (company folded). He, my grandson likes his step-dad, loves his mom but doesn't know what this friction will do to that. Any suggestions on how to pay someone a salary if you don't work all the time (rain, etc.) and suggestions on going wages in the Northwest Indiana area. Thank you for any advise.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2009 at 8:35PM
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watergal(z6/7 Westminster, MD)

This situation sounds like a nightmare, further compounded by the fact that everyone is related, so hurt feelings will carry over into family life.

First, these people are NOT independent contractors, as you said, and there are severe IRS penalties for fudging on this. Not worth the risk.

Second, step-father appears to be dragging the company down into bankruptcy. He doesn't seem to have a very good handle on the expenses of a business. Your son needs him, so step-father has son over a barrel.

Son needs to grow up, decide what he can afford to pay stepdad, and take the risk that stepdad may walk away. Maybe he should be paying stepdad a flat rate per job and making him cover expenses for gas as well.

Awkward situation all around. Good luck.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2009 at 9:05AM
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Let the step dad go. Bring him back when there is a need for his expertise. Your grandson prices the job and offers his step dad a contract for labour only, grandson works out what material is needed and his profit separately, when the job is satisfactorily completed (conditions previously agreed) step dad gets paid. Your grandson could work out what he is willing to pay for labour and make his step dad this offer. The step dad is then on his own as a valued sub contractor free to work for whoever he pleases.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2009 at 6:48PM
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