Many years ago I was a gardener. It was hard work and I loved it. We were old-fashioned gardeners. We planted flowers, did all the detail work, worked every plant, controlled pests, cleaned the beds and a lot more. Of course, we also mowed lawns. I remember a joke we used to tell. “How do you find a good gardener?” Answer, “No toes”.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

One of the most frustrating homeowner experiences is the illusive, sometimes lifelong pursuit of a good gardener. Every now and then, perhaps at a summer barbeque, you hear stories about one. A friend of a friend of a friend has a good gardener. It seems no one actually has a good gardener, but they’re rumored to exist. The most popular comment is that the gardener they have isn’t very good.

The usual conversation goes something like . . . “I can’t find a gardener that does much more than just mow and edge the lawn, blow the leaves around and clip my hedge every now and then. My gardener doesn’t weed, trim dead flowers or much else. I wish I had an old-fashioned gardener that knows what their doing; one that really takes pride in their work. One that will do all the little things and take care of my plants like they are supposed to be taken care of. Do you know one?”

The dialogue continues . . . “I want a gardener who knows about plants. Knows how to prune my peach tree correctly, knows how to mulch my flower beds and deal with pests and diseases. Do you know one?”

The sympathetic listener replies, “Yeah. A good gardener is hard to find nowadays.”

The conversation usually includes, “I’ll pay more if I could find a gardener that knows their stuff. Heck, I can’t even communicate with the gardeners I have. They come in, they mow, blow and go before I even know what’s happening. I don’t think they’re really doing a good job taking care of my plants. Do you know a good gardener?”

The sympathetic listener replies, “Sorry, I don’t really know a good one either. I guess there aren’t any really good gardeners around anymore.”

Sound familiar? It’s a conversation repeated over and over again. So why does it seem like there aren’t any good old-fashioned knowledgeable gardeners left?

It’s economics. Let’s do the math. Most homeowners pay about $100 to $150 a month for a once-a-week gardening service. Let’s assume it’s a two-person team and the two of them spend about an hour a week working in your yard. That pencils out to about $14.50 an hour, per gardener.

Out of this $14.50 comes their expenses; equipment, truck, fuel, insurance, dump fees, fertilizer, etc. A hard working gardener might gross about $30,000 a year. After expenses it’s down to about $20,000 to $25,000 a year. This is the poverty line for Orange County.

Good gardeners are out there, but you’ll have to pay more, a lot more. Although we say we’ll pay more, we probably won’t. Are we willing to pay three or four times more than what we’re paying for our current mow-blow-and-go? If we are, then we could have a trained, educated and experienced gardener.

The easiest and most reliable way to find a decent gardener is to patrol your neighborhood. If you’ve lived in the area for a while, you’ve probably already made mental notes of the great gardens in your area. When evaluating the quality of the gardening service, be sure to look past the design and architectural elements of the landscape. Focus on the maintenance and health of the plants. Remember, a well maintained mature garden is a better indication of great maintenance than a good looking new garden. Introduce yourself to the homeowners and ask about their gardeners.

Terrific gardeners are also located through referrals. Nurseries sometimes have referral lists of expert gardeners and will often share these names with you. Finally, try attending a couple of meetings of a local garden club. These meetings are usually ripe with social time. A few comments about your gardener struggles, while sipping lemonade near the refreshment table, and you’ll have a couple of gardener recommendations.

Most homeowners pay about the same to maintain their 3,000 square foot garden as they do for their daily cup of Starbuck’s coffee and a newspaper. Think about it.

And yes, I still have my toes.

Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar