A love of plants turns into a brand-new business

Linda Grieve of Ankeny, Iowa, always loved working with plants. She devoured horticultural books; took courses from the University of Nebraska and the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), volunteered at the Des Moines Botanical Center, and served on the Site Development Committee at Terrace Hill, the Iowa Governor’s residence. She soaked up plant care details until, over time, reaching a level of expertise on a par with plant producers. At that point, she accepted the position of perennial specialist with Heard Gardens of Johnston, Iowa.

Grieve says, “My primary role there was designing flower beds and assisting with their installation. A flower garden is so personal. Done well, it reflects the personality of its owner and captures an essence of their hopes and dreams. Too often, it’s the neglected part of a landscape. I believe the designer’s role is to listen closely during the concept discussion and create a landscape unique to the owner, as well as the property.”

In 1996, after three and a half years and with a solid base of 13 clients, she started Perennial Gardens by Linda Grieve. She says, “The split was amicable and, during the first few years, Heard Gardens was the source for nearly all my plant materials.”

Photos by Steve Trusty.
Ryan Carrington deadheads the plants within the plant bed in the back lawn of one of the garden care sites. This is just one of the multiple plantings on this property.

Turning over new ground wasn’t always easy. Her first planting crew consisted of her oldest daughter and three of her friends. Many of the smaller projects she handled alone. During that first year, clients began requesting additional services. “It was adding a patio at one site; planting a large tree at another,” says Grieve. “I didn’t have the materials, equipment or time to take on those projects alone, yet they were such small jobs for outside contractors it was hard to get the work completed on a timely basis. It was just too much to be manageable, with the new garden care business I’d generated and the contracted projects. I knew I’d either have to expand or quit. My family was supportive of the expansion idea. So, in early 1997, James Noelck, a registered landscape architect with project and operations management experience, joined the company.”

It was a great fit, with the two areas of expertise enabling Perennial Gardens to add full-service landscape design and installation, including hardscape features. Two crews were added, one for construction and one for garden care. The business moved to its current site and acquired equipment as needed.

One of their first joint projects was designing and overseeing the installation of 30 test gardens for Meredith Corporation in Des Moines, the parent company of Better Homes and Gardens, as well as numerous other publications. That project, along with many others, led to referrals for both total landscape design/build and garden care. That required more equipment and more personnel, including two more landscape architects, Lynn Kuhn and Dan Canova. Nancy Dunbar, who started on the garden care crew, now serves as a support specialist in the office.

Students of Iowa State University (ISU) and DMACC began doing internships on the garden care crew. Several from the DMACC two-year program returned as employees after graduation. Two making that step about five years ago were Ryan Carrington and Laura Pence. They now serve as garden management managers, each responsible for two garden care crews and the clients those crews serve. They plot the scheduling and allocate crew members’ activities on specific properties. With interns and other college students the main seasonal personnel, they can coordinate crew size from two to the usual three to five, up to a combined crew of eight for some sites.

With growth, a clear definition of services was needed. They don’t try to be arborists or take on lawn maintenance, though they can point out problems in either of those areas to help guide their client’s to the proper solutions from those service providers.

Linda Grieve gives a tour of a few of the extensive on-site plantings that Perennial Gardens uses to show and sell their work.
Crew members use 5-gallon buckets to collect small debris as they hand-weed and deadhead flower beds.

Grieve says, “Our garden care is better defined as management than just maintenance. We focus on the flower beds, shrubbery and basic tree care. Our crews do all the typical maintenance: deadheading flowers, weeding, pest control, pruning, edging, mulching, seasonal change-outs, winterization and spring startup. They also assess plant quality, working with the client and with our designers to replace plants that don’t perform well, and to keep tailoring the landscape to fit the both changing environmental conditions and the client’s desire for changes. They handle all the container plantings, from design to installation, and work directly with the client on the smaller plant change projects through­out the year, often integrating additions such as flowering bulbs.”

Carrington and Pence have observed the installation of many of their clients’ landscapes, sometimes assisting with parts of that process. Then they’ve worked in tandem with the client to develop the garden care program and keep it going. Carrington says, “Some clients want on-site care every two weeks and some once a month. A few we call every two weeks to determine if they feel they need service. Other clients just want assistance a few times during the season. We also have clients who only want a makeover for a special occasion. Whatever they want, we can make it happen.”

Communication is key to maintaining the level of service that Perennial Gardens strives to deliver. Carrington and Pence leave notes for many of their clients detailing what they’ve done during the site visit and noting anything unusual that may need discussion. A few are hands-on dedicated gardeners that may even work right alongside the crew at times. Some prefer a personal visit at the site to walk the property; others just want a certain look and trust them to deliver it.

Carrington says, “With the every-two-week visits, most problems are preventable. We can see something with the potential to develop, and make changes to avoid it or catch a problem and correct it in the early stages of development. With the monthly visits, there is more opportunity for some problem to develop, but not get too far out of control. All our clients know they can contact us at any time if they see something happening they’d like us to check.”

Both agree there’s a special bond with the long-term clients, almost a partnership as they collaborate throughout the process. Pence says, “While we’re as enthusiastic about the site as the owner is, we understand the total landscape should be a reflection of their style, not ours. Some clients love a very full flower bed, with one plant grouping blending into the next. Others like a flowing grouping of one plant variety, with a little space separating it from other types of plants. Some prefer more open space within the bed, with each specimen plant clearly separated and only the smaller border plantings or the taller backdrop plants blending together. It’s all about seeing it through their eyes.”

Sometimes it takes creativity and out-of-the-box action to deliver just what the client wants. Pence says, “We have one property where the client wants two large matching containers planted with matching plants, but one is in full sun and the other in deep shade. We switch the pot locations every two weeks, which keeps the growth patterns very closely matched.”

The garden care services are charged at a preset hourly rate, which is the same for each crew member on-site at each visit. The hourly rate is established to cover personnel, equipment and overhead costs with a percentage of profit built in. An additional charge is added for any plants or other materials used during that visit. Grieve says, “We’ve set a higher hourly rate for our installation crews than our garden care crews due to the type of equipment and vehicles needed for the construction and installation. If any of the garden care personnel assist with an installation, those hourly fees apply.”

Each segment of the business is equipped with the vehicles, tools and equipment they need to operate efficiently. All installation and garden care personnel understand that they are working at an hourly rate and owe it to the client to do the work as efficiently as possible.

With all businesses, each segment must contribute to the bottom line. The garden care segment, operated efficiently, could be as viable a profit center for a lawn and landscape maintenance company as for a design/build firm. Grieve has set up a bonus system, based on profits, that extends to all personnel. She says, “It is further incentive to operate efficiently.”

Operating effectively comes from the enthusiasm and love for the work. That’s the standard Grieve established even before the business was born and it is the criteria used throughout the hiring process.

Steve and Suz Trusty are partners in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.


Job Site Efficiency

Carrington and Pence each use a van to carry supplies and personnel. The vans have a solid divider behind the second row of seats so the back area also can double as a debris carrier if only one vehicle is used at a site. Generally, each crew uses a pickup truck, too. One has an enclosed bed; the other a tarp for enclosure.

Pence’s van has a multiple-shelf rack installed behind the seats for chemicals, bleach water for tool sterilization, deer repellent, kneeling pads and other supplies. Hooks are built in, too, so shovels and various other hand tools can be put in place and secured with Velcro straps or bungee cords. A stack of bulb crates fits in the space between the two front seats for additional storage.

Additional hooks installed in the back of Pence’s van hold an assortment of rakes on one side and long-handled swoes on the other. Push-broom handles ext­end through holes made in the partition, with the broom heads in the cab, for quick removal, even when carrying debris.

In-van storage includes a multiple-shelf rack installed behind the seats to hold supplies and straps used to hold shovels and various other hand tools in place. This shot shows the built-in hooks in the Perennial Gardens van Pence uses for one of her garden care crews. Here, an assortment of long-handled rakes and a section of garden hose are secured with Velcro straps for easy hanging.

Carrington uses bulb crates, which are placed under the backseat for the items that Pence keeps on the shelves. His in-cab tools are placed in a 5-gallon bucket that is strapped in place with a bungee cord. A bulb crate installed on one door holds crew member’s personal tool bags. His long-handled tools in the back also are secured to the roof by bungee cords.

The back of each van is stocked with enough 5-gallon buckets for each crew member to collect small debris and plenty of tarps for larger debris or trimmings. Each is equipped with a power edger and leaf blower. The crew water container and the mixed fuel tank are refilled and placed in the van each morning. Additional power tools, any plant materials, mulch or other supplies will be added as needed for each day’s activities. The goal is to have everything on hand so no time is wasted at the job sites.