It’s not your garden, dear, it’s you

Some lawns don’t live up to a gardener’s high standards. Neither do some owners.

It’s not your garden, dear, it’s you

Photograph by Cole Garside

One night recently I (along with my lawn) was interviewed by a gardener, Tiago Varella-Cid of Avant-Garden Services in Toronto. He walked around my front and back yards, asking about my sprinkler system, pointing out weeds I thought were trees and trees that needed to be cut in order for him to even contemplate taking me on as a client—next year. “It would be a waste of your money, because at this point, I can’t recover it. Call next March,” he told me. I (and/or my lawn) had failed. I didn’t know if I should be personally insulted or insulted on behalf of my lawn. It was a bit like having a personal trainer tell you, “Sorry, I’m not even going to bother trying to help you get in shape.”

These days, in certain neighbourhoods in certain cities, gardeners are in short supply. It doesn’t matter if you have the money; it’s a supply-and-demand business and there is more demand than supply. I called a number of other well-recommended gardeners who never called back or whose mailboxes were full. To get a good one, you have to audition your lawn even for weekly maintenance.

I’d stopped Varella-Cid, who studied landscape architecture at the University of Toronto, after seeing a lawn his crew were working on. That got me in the door. “If you live outside my working area, like in Scarborough, no thanks,” he admitted. He interviews prospective clients. “I’m looking at the overall condition of everything, but pretty much the light, the soil and the water supply,” he explained. He takes on 40 to 50 clients a season, with a crew of seven. And he’s interested in homeowners who want their places to be attractive. A nice-looking garden is his best, and only, advertisement. “I don’t put flyers in mailboxes. Our work speaks for itself.” Some lawns do not live up to his standards.

That’s not unheard of. Andrew Roy, of Green Gardeners, recently turned down a client’s neighbour. “Her expression was like I had just turned her down for the last dance to Stairway to Heaven at prom,” he says. The scale of people trying to find a gardener these days, he says, is “insane.” As much as clients look for good gardeners, he looks for good clients. “It’s about the people, the logistics, even mental states,” he says. “If you are high-maintenance and have money, I’m not interested.”

Roy explains people have very intimate relationships with their gardens. “If someone prunes their branch the wrong way, it can traumatize them.” He says he has a “sixth sense” for good clients. “Each client and each garden is its own universe. I want clients who enjoy taking care of their lawn.” He does “mutual auditions,” as he calls them, and sometimes turns people down because “no one is a winner if you’re not proactive in early spring so you can enjoy a nice garden throughout the summer.” Potential clients must fill out an online form before he’ll even meet them.

So what’s a homeowner to do? “People don’t understand that the best time to tend to your garden is in the fall. We tend to be more responsive and able to ‘date’ new clients then.” If you call in May or June, good luck. Before hanging up, Roy wishes me well in finding my “gardening soulmate.”

“The issue is profitability,” says Yahel Nov, of Greenbloom in Toronto. “You have a stopwatch in April and you go for six months.” He, too, is picky about clients. “You can have two equal clients with the exact same space and issues, but you’re going to take the client who is laid-back. Sometimes the relationship just doesn’t work out.” Getting rejected by a gardener happens “all the time,” he says. “A lot of the time we go on people’s vibes. There are clients out there who just need way too much attention and it isn’t worth our time.” He says many people don’t understand that gardens are not static. “There are animals or weather issues. With everything else, you can usually throw money at the problem, but with gardening, it hurts people because if you have a good garden and there’s a windstorm, years of hard work can’t be replaced.”

As for Varella-Cid, I may not even get to hire him for snow removal, which is what most gardening companies do in winter. He’s already started getting calls.

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It’s not your garden, dear, it’s you

  1. It’s no wonder people don’t get rich if they’re wasting money on nonsense like this.

    • Define “rich.”
      Being able to eat, read, relax and entertain outside in beautiful surroundings for 5 months of the year is a pretty rich activity. Cutting your own flowers, eating your own vegetables are also amazingly fulfilling and worthwhile. Chilling with a G&T in a secluded corner surrounded by living statues that produce quality fruit is an amazingly satisfying experience.

      If it’s cold hard cash you’re after then a well maintained, attractive and usable outdoor space adds many thousands to the price of your home.

      Done right your outdoor space is the biggest asset your home and your emotional well-being could have.

      • LOL and other hippie views of ‘rich’.

        • Eating my own food all year round, doing my bit in growing the best carbon sinks on the earth, providing aesthetic appeal to the neighbourhood improving the quality of my life via light exercise in the outdoors and improving the value of my home considerably.
          If that’s being a hippy, then I’m a hippy.

          • Sorry I’m not a back-to-nature type. I grew up in farming. I’ve seen all the nature I care to see.

            Rich is better. LOL

          • Obviously you don’t garden because if you did, you would NEVER compare it to farming. That is like comparing sewing for pleasure to working in a sweat shop in India. Garden is fiddling around in your yard trying to make things grow; farming is counting on mother nature and working 24/7 to try to eke out a living. Different as night and day.

          • It involves plants and the outdoors… things I avoid.

          • Hahaha! Gardening is much like knitting, sewing, and decorative painting. Puttering in it is a vacation for the mind and it can be a real artistic endeavor. It also makes your yard into a very nice evening and weekend retreat for your family so you don’t have to go away to a cabin or spend time in a park. I became inspired to garden when I visited the Butchart Gardens outside Victoria. It was a gravel quarry and the owner created a veritable paradise in the guise of a sunken garden. Creating your slice of paradise right in your back yard appeals greatly to me but it is always a challenge because you must work with mother nature and she can be a difficult task master.

          • It involves pants (sic) and the outdoors… things I avoid.

            That much is clear. Your total ignorance of nature in general has been on display here for years. You constantly nag the rest of us about climate change, yet scoff at anyone interested in the environment in their own back yard. Not surprisingly, I find this contradiction is quite common amongst self-described “globalists”.
            They seem blissfully unaware that a total ignorance of nature (which is what you are professing when you proudly state you avoid plants and the outdoors) is not a mark of sophistication. Quite the opposite. It betrays someone uneducated, proletarian and dull. (Yes, please remind us again of your Ph. D, at this point, we’ve forgotten all about it.)

            By the way, if you can’t find it in yourself to appreciate the beauty of nature, then you’re not rich, you’re poor, no matter how much money you have. I suspect the rest of your life is just as hollow, your pursuits vapid and meainingless. I’d feel sorry for you, but it would be a waste of sympathy.

          • LOL you guys sit up late thinking this stuff up do ya?

            The article is about paying someone else large sums of money to spruce up your garden….and I commented nobody would ever get rich wasting money in such a way.

            ‘Rich’ is something most people claim they want to be….only, winning the lottery or not paying taxes are the only ways they can think of to do it.

            I said nothing about D-I-Y. It would save money, but depend on your time and interest. I have neither of those things, but that doesn’t stop anyone else from doing it.

            Suddenly I get lectures on how gardening is next to godliness, and is the true meaning of ‘rich’ and what this ‘says’ about my character….and all manner of other nonsense about globalization, my education, climate change and so on.

            I’m sorry, but I haven’t the slightest interest in gardening. Never have. I’m allowed that choice in a free country……so either you lot can’t read, or you just like to argue.

            I suspect yer just looking for an argument….the topic really doesn’t matter.

          • It’s your delivery Em. Always is.
            In fact, I agree with your original point (it happens) that suburbanites shouldn’t be pi$$ing away money on having someone else garden for them. And I really don’t see how someone can have a “personal connection with their garden” as it says in the article, if they didn’t do it themsevles.
            But you went on to dimiss anything to do with plants or the outdoors. That encompasses a lot more than gardening, and that’s the comment I took issue with.
            But thanks for pointing out, once again, that I have foolishly taken your bait. I should know better, and that was entirely my failing, not yours.

          • LOL now my ‘delivery’ is at fault?

            You folks ‘hear’ things that were never said. And everything is a plot.

            There is no ‘bait’….there is a personal comment about my not being an outdoor type. I don’t do decorative painting or any knitting either.

            We are allowed to have different likes and dislikes.

          • And everyone else is a ‘hippie’. Got it.

          • Noop…only the fanatics who insist either eveyone else go back to nature, or there’s something wrong with their character.

          • some famers work long hours (some have seasons off). No human works 24/7.

          • Perhaps I should have said that farmers with animal herds on site have to be available 24/7 or have someone to look after their animals. I wasn’t referring to grain farmers who get “seasons off”. I was referring to the kind of farm I grew up on and that my family still runs…they grow feed in the summer and feed cattle and horses all winter, no matter how cold it gets. Maybe you know more than I do about the matter. If so, feel free to enlighten me. All I know is they take VERY few days off and they rarely if ever leave home. Now, we were discussing that in comparison to gardening……

        • Martha Stewart is a pretty rich “hippie”.

          • She’s not a middle class suburbanite trying to to hire a gardener either.

          • I am not sure that many middle-class suburbanites are hiring gardeners either. They tend to hire “lawn-care companies” that do weed n’ feed and mow the lawn. Wealthy people hire gardening companies that plant and weed their gardening beds, plant up their pots, etc. and do lawn maintenance. There is a big difference between a gardening company and a lawn service.

      • Sitting outside in beautiful surroundings for 5 months of the year? Where do you live? We in Alberta are lucky if we squeak out two months…maybe three if we get a decent September. I too, love to garden but I know a lot of people who don’t have the time and have the money to pay someone to do it for them. I understand their thinking. If you work at a job that pays very well. Why wouldn’t you pay someone to garden for you while you make WAY more money doing what it is that you excel at. Then you get to enjoy your great yard in your time off.

        • You’re kidding right?

          April and May were great this year. July is shaping up to be amazing and August will be the same. September has been glorious for the past 6 years and occasionally October co-operates too.

          We’re up to six months there and as someone who runs his own small landscaping business in Central Alberta, I’d like to enter my anecdotal evidence into the record. My paying year has been extended over the last three years by one month at either end of the season. My bank balance doesn’t lie.

          • Okay well in Calgary we had snow on the first day of spring and it was cold through most of May. I NEVER put out annuals before the first of June and although September was nice the year before last we did get a nasty frost in the beginning of September that killed most things off so our plants were pretty much dead. I do realize that Calgary is very different than central Alberta. Apparently in Edmonton you can actually put out annuals on May 8th. In Calgary, it is May 24th but I wait until June 1st because we get frost very often.

          • Wow
            just a bit North of you we had our potatoes and onions in in the second week of May and I had to stop pruning due to the sap running even earlier than that.

          • Yes, the big greenhouse near us doesn’t open it’s tree lot until around May 1st. They don’t recommend planting even perennials in most areas of Calgary until at least the middle of May or later because there are still heavy frosts frosts in a lot of neighborhoods. There is a really good picture on the internet. It is a split photo showing the first day of spring in Calgary when snow was on the ground and the first day of summer when it was flooded and the caption reads something about wondering what the first day of fall will bring. Then we have chinook winds in the winter which strip us of our snow cover, which typically is not all that great in the first place. Then freezing temperature comes again and come spring, you find you have lost a lot of plants. It makes Calgary a very “interesting” place to garden. We typically CANNOT grow cedars or Alberta spruce. So if we buy them, we often leave them in pots and treat them as annuals.

          • That’s one of the reasons we would never move further south, the freeze thaw cycle just devastates plants. Our Alberta Spruce has survived four years outside now because I cover it with snow and it doesn’t melt.
            Last year we harvested the sweetest of plums for the first time and this year the crop looks to be 4x that of last year. So summers are definitely becoming warmer for longer.

          • It is a great challenge to garden in Calgary. You never know what is coming back. The nights are also very cool so you always need a fire or a propane heater to sit outside in the evening.

  2. I was happy to read this story about a shortage of gardeners. Someone finally noticed the profession. I am happy to say that I have been a professional gardener both interior and exterior for over 25 years and I have to turn away customers all the time or consider expanding my business. It is a growing business and that is good news.