Professional Gardeners Have Little Time to Garden

There is a person – other than your spouse – with whom you have a love- hate relationship. He comes to your house, apartment building or condominium complex once a week. He makes noise. He mows and trims and blows.
He’s your gardener. By conservative estimates, there are 30,000 men who mow, trim and blow, every day, in Los Angeles. After all, there are more than a million lawns to mow within a 50-mile radius of City Hall.
No other group is more dependent than gardeners on a cheap supply of water. If water rates ever skyrocketed, and people chose to live without lawns, the gardener’s livelihood would be in jeopardy. If it meant saving lots of money, people would sacrifice their lawns – even though, in cities, lawns reduce the expense of air conditioning because the water evaporating from grass cools the air.
Although the gardener is more than a keeper of lawns, people would soon find him expendable were lawns to disappear. Perhaps some people would still want leaves blown out of flower beds – for no good reason, since leaves nourish the soil – and a general yard cleanup every other week. But for the level of service most people desire, a maid with a rake and a hose would be just as good as a gardener if lawns were out of the picture. Twice a year, someone could trim the shrubs.
It is instructive that certain government agencies now recruit gardening personnel with a job description that includes cleaning toilets as well as mowing lawns. When park maintenance is contracted out, the company hired is expected to keep the restrooms as well as the lawns tidy.
This is the dark side of gardening, which has much to say about the status of the profession. Gardeners are expected to clean up dog droppings and take out the trash. If there is play equipment on the lawn, the gardener is supposed to move it out of the way before he mows and then put it back again. Gardeners also are asked to clean out rain gutters and hose down sidewalks and driveways, and wash away spider webs – from plants, walls, and under steps. All this is to be accomplished, of course, without letting the dog out of the yard.
As you can see, the “gardener” is 90 percent cleanup artist, and 10 percent horticulturist – if that. There are exceptions, but the problem is this: For what gardeners are paid, they have little time to garden.
Gardening means judicious pruning of shrubs, division of bulbs and rhizomes, careful fertilization, inspection for and control of pests and diseases, slow-soak watering, checking and upgrading of sprinkler systems. Proper pruning alone – lacing out, not shearing – of shrubs and roses on an
average-size lot could take several hours or more, several times a year.
Like every other service, the quality of gardening is market driven; as long as people don’t really care what their plants look like – neat and green is the standard – they will continue to pay little. Properly pruned and/or fertilized throughout the year, hibiscus, brunfelsia, roses and most sages flower nonstop. People have no idea of their plants’ potential because of the bare-bones service they are willing to accept.
One of the most common criticisms leveled at gardeners concerns use of the leaf blower. I know of no gardener who enjoys using this infernal machine. The customer’s obsession with hygiene – rather than horticulture – dictates use of the blower, as in “I want every dead leaf out of here!” Blowers cost $400 and frequently are stolen. The gardener would just as soon not use them if he were fairly compensated for his time. A rake and broom cleanup takes two to three times longer than a blower cleanup.

originally published 7/30/94

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