Please welcome Chad Smiley to the latest in our Get a Job series, in which we explore the many strange and wonderful careers in horticulture. Chad works for Friend of Rant Genevieve Schmidt. If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed in this series, please post a comment!
What do you do for a living?
I do landscape maintenance for a small company called Genevieve Schmidt Landscape Design and Fine Maintenance in Humboldt County, CA. I work in the field doing all of the skilled work it takes to keep a garden looking good – pruning, deadheading, fertilizing, evaluating the drip irrigation, etc. We leave lawn care to the mow and blow guys, and use hand tools to do the finer work in the garden beds.
How’d you get started in this job, or what was your first job in the plant world?
I got my start working for a company in Santa Ana where we staged model homes for developers. This included decorating residential homes and commercial buildings with indoor plants, as well as planting the landscapes for these buildings, so people could have an idea of what their home or business would look like if they bought property in the development. Once the buildings were looking good, we’d also perform regular maintenance on most of the properties we installed.
After that job, I worked in the local school system in their grounds department, doing everything from hedging and lawn care to planting and fixing sprinkler systems. Working at the school system was a lot different than what I do now, because we did a lot with power tools. Power tools are good for getting the job done when people are looking at your work from 100 feet away, but it’s not the result you want in a residential setting where people are paying attention to the details.
What’s your typical day like?
It totally depends on the client’s vision, but mainly it’s pruning and shaping shrubs so they stay in the right proportions for their spot, fertilizing and adding compost or mulch, or ordinary things like weeding and raking. Sometimes we install new plants, pull out old ones that have gotten overgrown, repair drip irrigation lines, or do seasonal tasks like cutting back ornamental grasses or dividing perennials to multiply the garden.
The work definitely varies throughout the year and it varies by client, because each person has specific things that they want. Some clients want the plants kept loose and natural, while others prefer things tightly controlled, so a big part of the job is asking a lot of questions until you get to know each person’s style.
What’s the coolest thing you get to do it work, and what’s the nastiest, most boring, most soul-sucking awful thing you have to do at work?
Sometimes people get tired of certain plants, so I get to pull them out, save them, and plant them in my garden. It’s kind of neat because a lot of our clients have their own projects or planting ideas that they want us to try, so it’s great to be able to see what does and doesn’t work. It’s like I get to experiment in all of their gardens to find out what I might like to do in my own.
I love that feeling at the end of the day when you look around and realize that you’ve made a big impact on the garden, you can look at it and go, “Wow, that looks great”. You get to do a little bit of everything in this job – from careful pruning to pulling out the ax and really getting dirty taking out an old shrub.
There’s not any one thing that I truly hate doing, I would just say that if you don’t have the right tools to get the job done it can really put a damper on your day. When you’re working professionally, it’s a lot different to struggle with a tool than if you’re just using it for a half hour on the weekend. I’d definitely say if you have a choice between a cheaper tool and a tool that’s really high quality, spend that extra money because it will pay off every single day.
What’s the most common misconception about what you do?
When you tell someone that you’re a gardener, they think you’re just pulling out the lawnmower and edger, and going out there for a mow ‘n’ blow. We don’t do any of that, we just do the work in the garden beds.
Of course, being in Humboldt County, when you say you’re a gardener, people assume something else entirely. . . That’s not in our job description either!
What advice would you give to somebody thinking about getting into your line of work?
If you’re scared of bees or spiders or dogs, or worried about getting pricked by roses or blackberries, you probably shouldn’t be in this line of work. I don’t like spiders so much myself, but if there’s a web in my way, I’ll just move the spider if I need to get in there. You’re also out in the elements, and sometimes the weather isn’t the best. We get a lot of work done in the winter, but we don’t usually work in heavy rain because things get to be such a muddy mess. Overcast weather is actually great for working because you get really hot out there, and a fog or light mist keeps you cool. In any case, you’d definitely want to be pretty hardy if you’re considering this line of work.
I think there’s a great future in landscaping because there’s never going to be a machine that can do the kind of skilled, careful work that we do. The communication between us and our clients is key, and the tools get more advanced every day which makes our work easier. When you drive around the neighborhood and see all the gardens that you’re keeping beautiful, it makes you feel good. Not only are you providing a service to the client, but everybody who drives or walks by gets to benefit from the work that you’re doing.