The world’s worst landscape customer, Lily Beetles and the writings of Henry Mitchell.

Clematis Ville de Lyon.
Our plant for the week 20 on Pinerest:

I’ve built a lot of gardens over the years, as a garden designer and owner of a two landscape companies. I don’t have the figures to hand but basic mental arithmetic puts the total built at around 500, while we have designed perhaps three times that.

Some of the people we worked for were not nice, some were dishonest and others unreasonably demanding. But the worst client ever? It could be me!

Iris Frost ‘ n’ Flame, one of the twenty or so varieties of Iris germanica we have in flower at the moment.

The problem is I know too much. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, if a landscaper makes a mistake I can see it easily. While customers may complain about little things, they very often miss the fundamental errors which, in the case of our companies, I like to think I would spot and have corrected before any harm was done. Sometimes garden builders and landscapers will try to explain away the problems, justifying them, excusing them or denying they exist. We have years of experience behind us and can see through all that. That’s great if you are employing me to look out for your interests, but a disaster waiting to happen if you are working for us. I say “us”, but my wife is being much more mature and reasonable.

The Garden Design Academy and Les Sequoias, our B&B, are currently having a swimming pool built and I am not enjoying the process one little bit. I moan, I complain, I ask difficult questions, I get in the way. I know it’s not helpful but I just can’t stop myself. The French in general have a view about dealing with customers which is quite foreign to anything my clients expect and demand. I love it here, so I am reluctant to support the Anglo-Saxon stereotyping of the French by describing all of our problems, but I had hoped for a bit more service and consideration when I am spending my hard-earned cash with a company.

I mention all this mainly to address those of you who run businesses, and we have many students who do just that or will do so in the near future. I suggest they try to look at their operations from the point of view of a client. Are you welcoming, professional and transparent in what you are offering? Is your brochure easy to understand, your garden centre easy to navigate, your products easy to purchase? Have you thought about who your clients are and how you should address them, communicate with them, and explain things to them? Are you, your staff, your establishment and your marketing materials user-friendly? Do your products live up to the sales literature; can you do what you promise to do, on time and at a reasonable price?

Geranium Johnson’s Blue with Hostas in our woodland garden

From my point of view, what this swimming pool company lacks is a single point of reference for a client; someone who is in charge of every aspect of the job, can ensure that it is done well and that the client is kept fully informed. This person needs to be on site regularly. Teams of expert installers come and go seemingly at random – a day here, two days next week and three days the week after that. Most of them seem competent enough and reasonable friendly, but lacking hands-on leadership. We see minor and serious errors occur with each visit, and have to point them out ourselves. My wife spotted early on that the built-in stairway was installed in the wrong corner, averting the most serious mistake before it became too costly to correct. We have to repeat instructions and warnings to every team that walks in the door and I have lost count of the number of times I have asked them to be careful with our plants, only to watch them being buried under tons of earth, run over by machinery or trodden underfoot. I’m a nervous wreck now and can’t wait for them to go!

There is a place for human and other resource efficiencies and cost-saving business strategies, but when these interfere with good customer relationships it is time to reconsider your options. Do it anyway, on a regular basis and before minor irritations become magnified over time and customers are lost to more considerate competitors. At least the French don’t kill my plants and then demand Hobnobs with their tea!


Lilium regale in flower last year

This is an incredibly busy time in the garden with seed to sow, seedlings to care for and pot on, tidying up the borders and lawns and weeding, weeding, weeding. A regular job cannot be ignored at this time of the year however busy one is. Every day, two or three times a day, we go hunting for Lily Beetles. This bright red beasties will eat every morsel of lily leaf they can find and must be collected and dispatched by hand, before they can do too much damage. It’s worth it, not only for the sake of the Lilies: if you have to deal with the larvae, disgusting things covered in their own excrement, the task is far worst. Those who grow a few Lilies and do not know this pest should look it up in gardening books or on the internet; I tried taking a photograph for this blog post, but they move as soon as they sense your presence. It is important to say that while all these tasks keep a gardener rushing around from one side of the garden to the other, time should always be found to admire the flowers which are everywhere at this time of the year. If not for pleasure, what is a garden for?


We do not always receive as much response to these ramblings as I would like, but one recent comment on Cannas quoted the American garden writer Henry Mitchell. I was so intrigued by the remark that I ordered a copy of The Essential Earthman and have really enjoyed that gardener’s insights and observations. A real plantman, I have found myself reaching for the RHS Encyclopaedia several times to check on plants he recommends or otherwise. I like him, but suspect he was not always easy to get on with. He died on November 12th 1993, before I could read his articles “live”.

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