The School of Hard Knocks

June 27, 2022

When I first started doing landscaping work in Maine, in 1978, things were a bit different from today. I had been employed for the previous 18 months at a garden center/landscaping firm in Connecticut. Sometimes I was on the mowing crew, but mostly planting, pruning, or hardscape jobs. Most customers had fairly deep pockets.

In Maine several customers were elderly folks living on very limited incomes and who were accustomed to paying a local high school kid five or ten bucks to mow their lawns. It was hard to request too much cash from people who lived in houses that you knew they were struggling to maintain. I guess I was too soft hearted and should have just passed on these jobs and left them for the kids. I certainly wasn’t making a profit on them, but I felt sorry for Mrs. Johnson. Her husband was in a wheelchair and had been in WWII.

Other accounts were also with elderly folks who were not quite so financially stressed, but just plain cheap or set in their ways. Irma Sawyer, or Miss Sawyer as I always called her, was a woman who lived in the house her family had owned since the 1800s. She had trouble understanding why I didn’t mow the lawn exactly the way she had for 60 years. If I showed up a couple of days late, due to a backlog caused by the weather, sure enough, she called my mother looking for me.

Across the street from Miss Sawyer’s house was Mrs. Jones. She was a sweet lady who had a rather lengthy privet hedge. At least once a year I trimmed her hedge and edged the border around it. Mrs. Jones always made a point of telling me that she wasn’t going to bother me when I worked because she knew what a pain in the neck Miss Sawyer was, always telling me how to do things. Mrs. Jones wasn’t that type. She always insisted that I give her a bill before I left, rather than mail it to her, just in case she died before it came in the mail! I knew she was in good health and told her I’d take the chance and just send it, much against her will.

A couple of accounts were small businesses that were not interested in anything fancy, just a basic maintenance job with a spring clean-up and then keeping the grass cut and fairly presentable. Foundation plants were pretty much non-existent other than three or four yews. In the fall leaves were cleaned up. One was a former warehouse that the owner was easy to deal with, paid a fair price, and never complained.

Mr. Clark was an interesting customer. He and his wife, Poody, both knew my folks. At one time he had worked in the trust department of a large Portland bank, but then had some sort of consulting business working from his home office. He had told me he didn’t want a fancy job done, just kind of a more natural mowing appearance. I did the usual spring clean-up of all the beds and lawn area and then as mowing season approached, I started to mow as it was needed. Quite often he would come running out of the house and ask me to wait on the mowing, he didn’t think it was time to mow yet. If I waited the 4 or 5 days he requested, the lawn got so long I had to mow it twice or in narrower swaths, both taking much longer time and more of a mess to clean up. I’m sure he could realize it took me more time to complete the job this way. Since Mr. Clark was a New Jersey transplant, their house wasn’t far from the water, and I’d heard he’d married Poody for her money. My conclusion was he was just plain cheap! He once saw my mother at a cocktail party and told her he wished I did work at different degrees of quality (and I’m sure cost) because he wasn’t as fussy! I guess I was supposed to put a sign at the end of his driveway while working there to notify neighbors that this was a substandard job!

I’d managed to find a couple of books about estimating jobs, but most of my pricing was done by guess work, and I had joined what was then called the Maine Nurserymen’s Association to learn a little bit more. Computers were nonexistent at that time. I guess from a financial standpoint I was lucky enough not to be married and my living expenses were minimal. Evening work at a local restaurant probably paid most of my rent and got me through winter months. After getting tired of pinching pennies, but deciding that landscaping was actually something I wanted to pursue, I began to explore colleges. A couple of the nursery people in Maine had told me about the Stockbridge School, at U-Mass, that had a two-year landscaping program. Oddly enough I was accepted.

After several years in the landscape and nursery business, my mother happened to mention to me her opinion on my start in the industry. I had worked for one season in Connecticut prior to moving to Yarmouth, and she felt that I was about 10 years too early to start a business in Maine. People were not yet ready to pay a realistic price for work, they were still under the mindset of having the kid next door mow their lawn for 10 bucks despite living in what was one of the state’s more well-to-do areas. Looking back at it, I think she hit the nail on the head.

Please note: although most of the people mentioned in this article are probably long gone; names have been changed to protect the innocent.

— by Phil Caldwell, a past president of NHLA (1989) who now lives and works in Maine.    

Continue Reading