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.
Rebecca Eckler
MACLEANS-SELECTIVE GARDENER-06.15.13-TORONTO, ON: Andrew Roy of Green Gardeners bases his contractual work around a process of selective client choices whom he sees future potential of the home owners desire to maintain and care for the garden Roy has just installed.
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.