10 tips for rookie landscapers from a landscaping veteran

Updated Sep 13, 2021
Johnsen Landscapes & Pools focuses on designing and installing high-end residential landscapes and pools. Photo: Jan JohnsenJohnsen Landscapes & Pools focuses on designing and installing high-end residential landscapes and pools.
Photo: Jan Johnsen

This article has been updated from a version of this story that ran in 2016.

Are you someone who is interested in starting a landscaping company? Everyone in the industry has to start somewhere. Even so, you might be wondering what it takes.

Jan Johnsen, co-principal and owner of Johnsen Landscapes & Pools in Mount Kisco, New York, has been involved in landscape design since 1970. She originally discovered her passion for landscape architecture while in Kyoto, Japan, and went on to study landscape architecture at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Johnsen got her first landscaping job at Mohonk Mountain House in the Hudson Valley region of New York. She worked under a head gardener who had previously work in the gardens of Versailles.

“I knew I could do the pretty drawings when I got out of school,” she says, “but I didn’t know anything about working in the field.

After landing a job as an instructor at a college, she taught full time for seven years, two of which were at a men’s correctional facility. Later, she earned her master’s degree in planning at the University of New Orleans. Johnsen worked at a landscape architecture office in New Orleans before moving back home to New York and launching her own firm in 1986.

Now, with 35 years of experience running her own landscaping company, Johnsen is ready to pass her knowledge on to those just starting out in the field.

“I’m very well-qualified because I made all the mistakes and now I can tell people what not to do to help them along,” she says.

Here’s a look at Johnsen’s advice for rookies in the field.

1. Gain experience first

Johnsen incorporates her different sources of landscaping knowledge into her designs. Photo: Jan JohnsenJohnsen incorporates her different sources of landscaping knowledge into her designs.
Photo: Jan Johnsen

“I worked for 15 years before I started my own company, which is what I tell people,” Johnsen says. “Don’t take a few courses and think you can start your own company. I mean you can, but it’s not the wisest course of action.” 

2. Build interpersonal relationships 

“A lot of designers think it’s only about the design and it’s not,” she says. “It’s about your relationships with the client and with the contractor. That’s the secret to getting great results.”

Johnsen stresses the importance of being flexible. Clients may have a preference for a different contractor, but this doesn’t mean you can’t still work with them to create an outdoor environment. At Johnsen Landscapes & Pools, when a job calls for a large piece of equipment, they will hire a subcontractor.

“We sub out to someone who has their own machine and is very good at what they do because for safety reasons and efficiency reasons we find that to be the best,” she says.

As for finding subcontractors you know and trust, Johnsen says this simply takes time. Eventually, you’ll find one you like and stick with them.

3. Learn Spanish

“It’s not enough to just know the plant names and drainage and grading,” she says. “You also have to know field Spanish. You’ve got to learn it; it’s just the way of the world.”

Johnsen and her husband, Rafael Algarin, both speak Spanish. Her husband handles the management and construction end of the business, and his fluency in Spanish enables him to communicate with their employees. Johnsen points out that you don’t have to be a master at Spanish, but you do need to know enough to communicate what you want.

4. Give every project your all 

By giving each project, no matter the size, all of your attention you are able to begin building a brand and a reputation. According to Johnsen, it is the quality of work, design and installation that sets her company apart.

“The very first job you get, just pour your heart into, no matter how small it is, because you can parlay that into beautiful photos and word of mouth,” Johnsen says. “It’s a step-by-step process.”

When you continually produce client-pleasing landscapes, word will spread, and in Johnsen’s case, result in acquiring some well-known clientele.

5. Don’t underestimate business skills

No matter how well you can transform a backyard into a beautiful oasis, you need to learn how to run a business and how to run it well.

“The skills you might use if you were running an online computer startup … (are) the same skills in the landscape profession,” she says. “You know, business management, website design, PR, organization, communication – it’s just in a different venue.”

Johnsen knows now that creating serene landscapes is only part of the business. Public relations is also important. Photo: Jan JohnsenJohnsen knows now that creating serene landscapes is only part of the business. Public relations is also important.
Photo: Jan Johnsen

Asked what she would do differently if she had to start over, Johnsen says she would be more strategic with public relations.

“I was like a busy worker bee, so intent on doing these beautiful, beautiful projects that I just thought, ‘Well you just do beautiful projects and that’s all you have to do,’ but it’s not,” she says.

Johnsen also sees website design as a critical aspect of having a landscaping business.

“That’s your face to the world,” she says, “so you have to be willing to put the time and the money into your website. That is your face more than anything.”

6. Give back 

Less of a strategic business tip, this is more of an ethical one in Johnsen’s eyes.

“A business is part of the community,” she says. “It’s not just you going home every night. You have to think of yourself as being part of the overall community and you can determine how big of a part you play, but you are a part.”

Johnsen Landscapes & Pools works with the Making Headway Foundation, which is devoted to the care of children with brain and spinal tumors.

7. Don’t undervalue your knowledge

Coming up with pricing for projects is a tricky business, as every project is different, but you also need to know how much your skills are worth.

When young landscape designers ask her how much they should be charging, she asks them whether they would pay a plumber with experience more than a plumber with no experience more. Obviously, people are going to pay more for experience, so you need to charge accordingly, and this harkens back to tip No. 1. If you don’t have experience you cannot charge customers as much.

8. Be able to tell them what you do

If water features are your passion, make sure you aren’t doing jobs that take away from that. Photo: Jan JohnsenIf water features are your passion, make sure you aren’t doing jobs that take away from that.
Photo: Jan Johnsen

When Johnsen first started her company, she met with a business consultant. He continued to ask her what she did and she answered that she designed and built landscapes. What he was trying to do, she says, was get her to figure out what is it that she really does, and what she is offering the client.

“What I determined was that I have an affinity for the earth and I take that love of that world and help other people develop that love as well, through design and maintenance,” she says. “That really changed my whole understanding of what it was that I did. It really took me to the next level.”

Once you know what you are really trying to accomplish, you can tell clients what you do in an elevator pitch. This leads into the next tip. 

9. Know your preferred areas

Although a landscaping company may eventually grow to be all things to all people, when starting out it is important to know your niche. If a company doesn’t know who it is and what market it serves, it can end up being pulled in directions that are not within its area of expertise.

“Just because you can do it doesn’t make it the most strategic use of your time,” Johnsen says. “Say, for example, a client says, ‘Do you put in drainage systems?’ and maybe they can, but is that where they want to spend their time? It might be, but they could be doing three new lawns during that time.”

10. Travel as much as you can

If you’re looking for inspiration, there is no better option than checking out public gardens, according to Johnsen. One event that the whole family can enjoy is the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival.

Here landscapers can hear garden experts share their knowledge and check out numerous landscape designs that focus on variety, color and sustainability.

Johnsen also has a list of gardens to visit in the back her book, Heaven is a Garden, which highlights landscape design concepts for creating serene outdoor spaces.

Also check out her other popular landscaping books, The Spirit of Stone, Gardentopia, and Floratopia. You can also visit Jan’s website at www.johnsenlandscapes.com. Or, find her on Instagram at @johnsendesign

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