Healing gardens coax Bakersfield’s Monji Landscape into high-end maintenance. By K.Schipper

Fred Monji started Monji Landscape in 1953 with a pair of pruning shears and the goal of providing maintenance services to residents of the Central Valley community of Bakersfield, California.

However, as his client list and expertise grew, he found himself drawn to garden designs and the company began offering design-build services, as well. It’s a model followed by his son, Dan. In recent years the company has only offered specialized maintenance services to its design-build clients.

Even as Monji Landscape Companies has expanded its design-build offerings, Dan and his wife/partner, Mary Kay Gundry, decided to take another look at maintenance, and the company began providing weekly maintenance services starting this past June.

Monji Landscape Companies

Owners: Dan Monji and Mary Kay Gundry, and their son Aaron Gundry-Monji

Founded: 1953

Headquarters: Bakersfield, California

Markets: Central Valley community of Bakersfield, California

Services: Landscape design, green walls/roofs, waterfalls/fountains, outdoor kitchens, LED lighting, water management, landscape maintenance and pools/spas

Employees: 30


Aaron Gundry-Monji, their son who serves as the company’s marketing director, says his dad believes the garden design portion of the business is a response to the family’s Japanese heritage.

“The Japanese have been designing beautiful gardens for hundreds of years,” he says. “That’s where Fred’s love and his passion was. As the business grew he got away from doing maintenance.”

Gundry-Monji says his own father is much the same way. Dan enjoys the complexities of designing a project, as well as keeping up with trends and developing new skills.

At the same time, the demand for truly high-quality landscape maintenance hasn’t been great in years past.

“People weren’t willing to pay what we felt was the necessary price to get a fine gardening service,” Gundry-Monji says. “We started getting more into it again a couple years ago by offering what we call a ‘Keep It Green’ gardening service.”

Gundry-Monji explains the service focuses on tending to clients’ gardens quarterly or bi-annually. Services typically include technical pruning of plants, trees and shrubs, and a bio-nutrient fertilization with organic sprays or broadcast fertilizers.

“Most of the blow-and-go guys aren’t doing that,” he says. “We want to bring nutrients back to the garden. We live in an ag-focused community and we tell our clients about why the farmers around us create so much yield when they get the organics back.”

Additionally, the company focuses on water management, making sure the irrigation stations are providing complete coverage and adjusting for seasonal demands.

“We’re trying to educate our clients about the necessity for either conversions to drip, or just staying on top of water management as far as their property goes,” he says.

And, he adds, with the gardening service, Monji Landscape also installs thousands of low-water plants each year.

Synthetic turf

Another water-saving measure the company provides is installation of synthetic turf. Gundry-Monji says the Bakersfield area is opening up to synthetic turf and the company installs thousands of square feet of it annually, then defibrillates it and fluffs it for clients.

“The lawn is such a focus for people, and finally some of the homeowners’ associations are allowing synthetic turf into the front yard,” he says. “A lot depends on the designer and installer and the quality of the material, but in a lot of cases it’s just as beautiful and can take the place of turf where you don’t need turf for turf’s sake.”

Just as some of the unique things Monji Landscape provides for its clients have gotten it back into the maintenance business in general, a couple of special projects are leading it back into the weekly maintenance realm.

Among its special design-build offering are living walls and healing gardens. Dan was invited to design a healing garden for Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield about five years ago, and his son says the idea was to replace a rather traditional passage garden.

“When you’re doing a healing garden, it really has to have so many elements to give it healing and relaxation,” Gundry-Monji says. “We incorporated some of the trees that were already established, but also created beautiful pathways, benches for seating and numerous water features to provide a relaxing, soothing sound.”

The garden was such a success that the company later did an interior healing garden for the same hospital and another healing garden at another campus for the same family of hospitals. Another of the community’s hospitals is raising funds so that Monji Landscape can design and install a children’s garden.

As it turned out, those healing gardens led Monji Landscape back into doing maintenance.

“Our client did not want those gardens maintained at the quality of the surrounding property and decided to take on our services,” says Gundry-Monji. “We do those healing gardens twice weekly because they want them immaculate and they want the experience going through them to be just as it was when they were installed.”

Marketing the company’s services relies on a mix of approaches, Gundry-Monji explains. Its long presence in the area and its reputation supply what he calls “general knowledge” to the public. However, in recent years he and his parents have worked hard to find other methods that fit its brand.

Getting the word out

A website redesign a couple years ago helped, as does an aggressive approach with social media. However, the company also surveys its clients after each job is completed.

Gundry-Monji believes the best marketing method comes from the company’s premises, which include the design studio and an 8,000-square-foot garden (not a nursery, he stresses) that showcases its water features, lighting and plant selection.

“The plants are not in cans, so our clients can see what grows well here and how things should be pruned,” he says. “We have two massive living wall installations to show our clients the diversity of our work. Dan feels if we can get a client to visit our garden that sells the work better than any picture we could show on an iPad.”

The company hosts a client dinner in the garden every fall, and Gundry-Monji says when it was announced at the party that the company would begin weekly maintenance, clients lined up for the service.

The company’s big concern now is maintaining the quality those clients have come to expect.

“We wanted to take the time to establish what we would do and the standards,” Gundry-Monji says. “Our ‘Keep It Green’ guys are great for the first crew, but we’re taking it a lot slower than people would like because we don’t want to jump in and jeopardize our name.”

With a staff of approximately 30, and currently 22 in the field, Gundry-Monji says the company has been fortunate that it has several employees who’ve been there 15 to 20 years. However, he adds training and development is an issue that Monji Landscape is working on.

“We’re wanting to develop stricter standards, because we would like to export the brand to other areas and we know we can’t do that until we have these processes in place,” he says.

However, he says the company’s healing gardens may be its greatest success, because of the rewarding nature of the projects, both personally and professionally.

“These projects have brought us the most happiness,” Gundry-Monji says. “And, because we’ve built them and people know we maintain them, they can see our maintenance standard in the community. That’s been a great success for us.”