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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - July 8, 2011

Garden tips for July

How to change your gardener — or not

by Jack McKinnon

Changing gardeners is one of the biggest problems I hear in my profession. My clients want their yards better cared for and don't know how to get their gardener to do the job. They often have had the same gardener for years and the property stays exactly the same or declines.

This month I will list some practical methods for making the changes needed to upgrade the service you are getting.

1. Communicate openly with everybody. It is not helpful to just fire or hire someone without your partner, spouse, children, parents or gardener knowing what is going on. It only leads to problems later on.

2. Make a list of what you expect your gardener to do. Of course, if you have a written contract, this list will be on it. This includes mowing, blowing, regular maintenance, planting, pruning, lawn renovation, irrigation repair, fertilizing, weeding and any replanting due to loss.

3. Evaluate the care and maintenance that has been ongoing up to now and score them. This can be a grade A to F or a scale 1 to 5 or 1 to 10.

4. If you are not satisfied with what your property looks like, make a decision whether or not you are ready to change. This can be difficult if it has been the same for years. The list above can help as can the grades above. The bottom line is you and your decision. Set a date.

5. If you need a translator, arrange this beforehand. You provide the translator. This way you have someone who already knows your feelings and has previewed the property with you. I speak a very little of several languages but always rely on translators if I want to get a message across.

6. If you are considering letting go of your gardener, the best process I have found is to communicate your list of tasks and the grades you gave them. Present the tasks needed as being more than the gardener has managed to complete. If this is written, it may be easier to communicate.

7. If the talk with the gardener has the gardener promising to do better, and you want to give him or her another chance to prove his or herself, then set a time period to see results. I think a month is a good indicator of whether the new changes will work. Communicate that you will re-evaluate in that period of time.

8. If it is not working, say it like that: "It is not working." This is business and needs to be treated like business. If a severance is in order then one to three months' pay is generous. If references are in order, give them fairly and honestly. Never offer criticism when diplomacy is in order.

9. For hiring a new or replacement gardener, get several estimates. Make a list of tasks to be done, ask for references, check out the references. Give a probation period followed by an evaluation — say three months — then on a regular basis. After they have proven reliable, it is appropriate to take a walk through the garden with them once a year.

10. Gardening is a skill that some have and some don't. We want our gardens to have the best care they can get. Good gardeners are a valuable resource, and not-so-good gardeners need to learn how to be better gardeners. Let's grow gardeners as well as gardens. Everybody will be better off for it.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at