Looking for summer work? Start a gardening business

By Christian Mysliwiec - Staff Writer
Manchester - posted Thu., Feb. 14, 2013
Bettylou Sandy motivates and informs youths on how they can grow their own business as a gardener or landscaper. Photo by Christian Mysliwiec.
Bettylou Sandy motivates and informs youths on how they can grow their own business as a gardener or landscaper. Photo by Christian Mysliwiec.

In America, fewer teens are working now than a decade ago. For many young people, the problem is a lack of opportunity. But according to Bettylou Sandy, an adjunct faculty member at Manchester Community College and owner of Bettylou's Gardening, teens can create their own opportunities by starting their own gardening and landscaping company.

Sandy is an experienced gardener and landscaper herself. At MCC, her classes include “Organic Lawn Care” and “Become a Professional Gardener.” She gives courses on water retention in gardens and certifying students as municipal groundskeepers. She is the president of the Connecticut Northeast Organic Farming Association, and is involved in the Connecticut Community Gardening Association, the new Connecticut Food System Alliance, as well as the South Windsor Food System Alliance.

“I've always been fascinated by the natural world,” Sandy said. She originally worked at Norden Systems in Norwalk, Conn., but wanted a change in scenery. “There are no windows in a defense contractor [facility],” she said. In April 1987, she left the corporate world and began her own gardening and landscaping business. There was a surge in demand for her services at the time that parallels a need that exists today. “That's why I try to get students to consider gardening and landscaping as a career,” she said. And with some entrepreneurial high school students making $10 to $15 an hour as gardeners and landscapers, it is not a bad suggestion.

Sandy has a document which she presents to high school students at job fairs, which lays out a plan and advice for starting their own business. There are many different options that students can chose from which best match their temperament and resources. For example, commercial or residential landscapers don't need to have polished people skills just yet – the work is rather impersonal – and they can provide services with a crew of about three. General or specialty gardeners, however, have more interface with their clients. They also need less equipment than landscapers, and the work can be done by one to three people.

A business option for teens can be as simple as tending a vegetable garden. “A lot of people want a vegetable garden but don't have time to take care of it,” she said. The gardener could visit the garden on a regular basis and make sure it is watered, weeded and mulched, and can even help with harvesting.

Sandy helped launch the “edible schoolyard” at Bennet Academy four years ago, in which students plan gardens, build the beds at school, tend the plants, and harvest the crops. With the right crops and with some planning, students can plant at the beginning of the school year and harvest through winter. In an age when Sandy encounters children – and adults – who are amazed to learn that carrots and potatoes grow underground and that tomatoes are green before they turn red, the edible schoolyard educates students on “practical skills and forgotten arts.”

Sandy notes that people are often shocked to find out that high school students can be earning $10 to $15 an hour (with the potential for more) in their part-time gardening or landscaping jobs. Programs that seek to place teens in summer work opportunities usually choose offices, where the pay is around $8.25 an hour.

“Some students are geared towards working in an office, working indoors, and they're very, very good at that,” she said. “But there are other students who are not geared that way, who can't be indoors all day.” A gardening job, she said, is perfect for them.

The work experience and transferable skills teens develop running their own gardening or landscaping business are significant, and in some ways are better than what can be gained working in typical part-time jobs for teens. “Anyone who has their own business as a teenager is going to be a self-starter, self-motivated, a creative thinker,” said Sandy. “You don't get those skills being told what to do at McDonald's or in retail.”

Sandy has fiscal advice for young would-be business owners, as well. “Students should track their income,” she said. “If you can separate your business income from your personal money, then you're able to see at a glance how much money you're making.” She recommends creating a separate bank account for business expenses, and to resist the urge to spend that income. If a business savings is created, then the owner has emergency funds for unexpected expenses.

In this line of work, self-promotion is important.  “They have to promote themselves and do a good job in order for people to recommend them to other clients and prospects,” Sandy said. Putting up fliers around the neighborhood is one way to advertise, and building a good reputation is also important to increase word-of-mouth publicity. Since gardening and landscaping is usually limited to spring through fall, Sandy recommends that business owners diversify their skills and add winter jobs, like shoveling, to their repertoire.

Sandy said teens do not need much to begin their business. A rake, hand tools and “a willing spirit” should suffice. They do not even need a car, as they can focus primarily on their own neighborhood.

Teens that have some prior knowledge of gardening – or a willingness to learn – will obviously have an advantage. Sandy said that it is an in-demand skill, and demand is growing. After World War II, people stopped growing their own food, she said, and as for landscaping, by the ’80s and ’90s, people were accustomed to having someone else care for their lawns. Because of this change in attitude, a generation does not know how to grow its own food or care for their outdoor property.

Today, people have a renewed interest in growing their own food. “Food security being such an issue, people want to make sure their food supply is safe, and available and nutritious,” Sandy said. For those who want to grow their own food but lack the time or know-how, a gardener in the community is a vital asset, and motivated teens will find themselves in high demand. Sandy also noted that an aging population of people who habitually gardened for themselves now has limited ability. A teen could find excellent business opportunities tending their gardens, as well.

High school-aged students could use their experience to work for another business, or continue their own business even into college. As an example of how well this can work, Sandy points to Todd Harrington in Bloomfield, Conn. As a high school student, he started out mowing lawns. He now owns Harrington Organic Lawn Care, which provides lawn and landscaping consultations to clients all over the world. “That's just one example of how a high school student can go on and do incredible things,” said Sandy.

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