Michigan landscaper offers something different from most contractors

Merrion Landscapes reconstructed the boulder walls and egg rock under the deck, and constructed two new boulder walls, regraded the sod and transplanted and planted over 100 plants and flowers at this customer’s house.

Patricia Christian-Merrion’s landscaping business grew out of a passion for gardening, which she started doing 14 years ago. She found gardening to be therapeutic and three years ago started sharing her skills by helping people with their projects. Last year, she decided she wanted to do something that made her happy, and that was landscaping.

A photo of Patricia on her website page named “Meet Patricia,” which has a higher hit rate than the company’s homepage. It shows that people are interested in doing business with people and they want to get to know who they are working with.

Christian-Merrion’s husband encouraged her to transform her hobby into a business. The idea appealed to her, but she was still somewhat reticent. “It’s one thing to do it for yourself, but it’s another thing to take other people’s considerations, wishes, thoughts and desires into the mix and be able to come up with something you’re both going to be satisfied with,” she says.

“I had a bunch of girlfriends tell me that I was insane starting this during a recession,” she says. “They said nobody has money and there are a million landscapers – did I really think I had a chance at succeeding? I walked away and thought, ‘I’m not going to take that to heart.'”

So, she took her heart to where she felt it belonged: outdoors, to provide design, installation and maintenance services in landscaping, and starting Merrion Landscapes in Milford, Mich. The company provides services to residential customers in Oakland and Livingston counties in southeast Michigan.

In addition to traditional landscape design, installation and maintenance services, Merrion Landscapes has several specialty services:

  • Organic gardening.
  • Vegetable and herb gardens, for which Merrion Landscapes crews help customers start their own gardens and teach them how to maintain them, or the company will provide ongoing maintenance according to the customer’s needs.
  • Deer-resistant gardening, including new designs or modifying existing gardens to increase the resistance to deer.
  • Native planting, using flora and fauna that naturally thrive in southeast Michigan’s climate.
  • Feng shui gardening for the creation of a “harmonious and balanced outdoor living space by following nature’s lead as much as possible and incorporating principles of feng shui,” Christian-Merrion says.

Pointing out that each design is only as good as the ongoing maintenance required to maintain it, Merrion Landscapes also offers maintenance services, which include weeding, transplanting, mulching, flower maintenance and dead-heading, perennial splitting and thinning, spring and fall clean-up, and summer maintenance. The company also offers year-end maintenance packages.

As for the specialty gardens, such as rain gardens and feng shui, “there’s definitely an interest in it, but I don’t think the interest level is as high as I want it to be,” Christian-Merrion says. For example, clients are not necessarily interested in the idea of a rain garden, which is to slow down and cleanse water that runs off from the roof or paved areas so fewer toxins are carried back to the rivers and streams. It’s designed to look aesthetically pleasing while helping the natural cycle and minimizing human impact on the environment. If clients don’t want to transform their entire yard into a rain garden, Christian-Merrion incorporates plants that are drought-resistant, thus introducing the concept of a rain garden into an existing landscape. “You can do some of that work without creating an actual rain garden,” she says. What she’s seeing an intense interest in is installing vegetable gardens, as more people are embracing the idea of sustainability and living off of their own land.

Patricia Christian-Merrion installs a rain barrel at a customer’s house that wants to cut down on their city water use for their yard.

One service Merrion Landscapes offers that’s different from other companies is a program called “Work With Me” for customers who want to learn how to work in their own garden and could use some advice from a professional, and those who need assistance with anything from consulting to the heavy lifting. “There are a lot of people who are working harder than they [were] in the past, they’re getting too old and they can’t do what they used to do,” says Christian-Merrion. “This essentially cuts the time in half by having two people working instead of one. They want to be educated on the gardening process, but also it’s too much for them to physically handle the load themselves,” she adds. “I do a lot of the heavy lifting and walk them and talk them through some of the areas I have them working on, and they get enjoyment out of it.”

Christian-Merrion says another factor differentiating her company from others is that she doesn’t handle lawn maintenance. She says, “I have specialties, focusing on what I call ‘out of the box’ areas. There are not that many people who do the vegetable garden, a rain garden or a feng shui.” Another differentiation is her business style. She tries to create a partnership with customers and is not afraid to throw out ideas to them without offending them. “It’s all in the approach, in how you handle it,” she says. “It’s a conversation, not just me taking direction from the customer. I’ve really tried to understand the client: What do they want? What do they like?” Sometimes what they like and want may not match, Christian-Merrion says. “They may want low maintenance and even though there’s low maintenance, it may not be available in a particular color range,” she says. “It’s just not about me showing up and they’re telling me what to do,” she says.

A crew from Merrion Landscapes installs lumber and brick paver steps after reconstructing the boulder wall to accent the new deck at this residence.

She also seeks to incorporate her customer’s desires into a complete environment that they will find enjoyable. “There’s a small window in which people can be outside and be able to go out and ‘smell the flowers’ or use their fire pit,” she says. “It’s about those things that draw out that short period of time they’re able to use their garden. I’m looking at it as me being able to help them enjoy what we’re creating outside.”

Christian-Merrion has four employees on her crew. If part of the job is outside of her company’s realm, she’ll tap into her network to use her business relationships.

She prefers to not use heavy mechanical equipment on the job, but instead what she calls “getting back to the basics.” “Anytime I can do something in a more manual way versus using heavy equipment I do because of the impact it has to the environment,” she says. “I try to do things in a lighter manner. I’d say my shovel is what I rely on the most.”

The majority of Merrion Landscapes’ maintenance customers are on bi-weekly schedule. And, although maintenance can provide predictable income, the weather is not always predictable. “I have no problem with the whacky weather we sometimes have,” Christian-Merrion says. “If there’s nothing to maintain, I will walk away and not charge them.”

Christian-Merrion says her greatest challenge is finding new prospects and earning their trust. “They may turn around and call four other people,” she says. “You have to make a mark on them when you’re there and build that trust because that’s going to stand out.”

Patricia Christian-Merrion putting zucchini in a new vegetable garden at a client’s house. This is one of the services she offers that differentiates her from other landscaping companies.

The weather can also present challenges. Southeast Michigan residents wait to plant until after the last frost, but sometimes are fooled what was assumed to be the last frost indeed was not. “Winters change so much from year to year that you can have a very healthy, low-established plant, and in the fifth year it takes a beating from the off-the-wall winter we’d get and you have to work around that, thinking of things you can do to help your customers to make sure they are successful in keeping as much as possible alive,” she says.

Christian-Merrion’s five-year plan calls for growth, but not expansion. “I want to stay local,” she says. “I want the business to be close to the customers. I want to have many of the customers I have today.” She also wants to add to her staff.

She foresees that the customer interaction she’s enjoyed so much will have to be diminished to make way for her to assume more business operational duties, leaving the site work to her staff. “I’m going to have a hard time letting go,” she says. “It’s not necessarily a trust issue I have with employees that they’re not going to do as good of a job as I am, but that it’s a job I enjoy so much.”

As for the industry, she sees it changing its focus. “In the food industry, a lot of people are going back to organics and basics and buying local,” she says. “I strongly believe in that. Obviously, there’s a time and a place for a chemical having to be used, but we try alternative methods, such as organic methods to try to get the same results.”

Merrion Landscapes

Location: Milford, Mich.
Clientele: Residential
Services: Design, maintenanceand specialty services, such asrain gardens, feng shui designs,deer-resistant landscaping andvegetable gardens.

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.