“Being able to turn around and look at what you’ve done. It really puts punctuation on your work day. It’s very rewarding.”

In 2017, JPNDC provided over 88 hours of free classes for small business assistance and improvement. In this post, we’re speaking with course participant and small business owner, Michael Carnes of Five Seasons Garden and Design about his experience starting a year-round gardening business supported by a lifelong passion of planting.

Tell me about yourself and how you got your business started.

My name is Michael Carnes. I grew up in Somerville. I’ve lived in Jamaica Plain for the last 10 years. My neighborhood has given me lots of inspiration for both my business and my art. I started my business, Five Seasons Garden and Design, last year. I began testing the waters with a few clients starting in May of 2017. By September it became a full-time gardening business.

I come from 13 years of experience working under my mentor, Theresa Clarke, a truly skill and talented gardener and landscape design teacher on the North Shore of Massachusetts. I fell in love with fine gardening by her side, taking gardens and landscapes to the next level through proper care and knowledge. We would work with veggie gardens and food production some, but for the most part our focus was the finer aspects of garden care.

During a tour of his backyard garden, Michael points out Rudbeckia hirta, one of two plants he owns that go by the same common name of “Black Eyed Susan”.

My work focuses on design, maintenance and installation of gardens, both outdoors and indoors. The clients I have in Jamaica Plain have me do the big clean ups at the beginning and end of the outdoor seasons, installation and improvements to existing gardens, and general maintenance. Some of my clients have me look after their indoor plants while they are away. My next door neighbors hired me to care for their garden while they were traveling during the first two months of the growing season. I take on as many types of gardening jobs as I’m qualified to.

In terms of starting your business, how did you do it?

I set the intention for knowing I wanted to have my own business and be my own boss. I started toying around with some of the more exciting and seemingly important parts of starting up like coming up with a name, having a logo and being able to market myself.

Part of my business’ name, Five Seasons Garden and Design, came about because I do indoor gardening as well. I toiled for years in my apartment and art studio with indoor and tropical plants which expanded my knowledge of the botanical world. Previously my plant knowledge was with hands-on, outdoor perennials that thrive in the northeast. This allowed me to embark on a whole new part of my botanical education that my mentor has no interest in. So the fifth of the “Five Seasons” is the indoor season.

One of my first clients came to me through a recommendation made by a friend who was tending bar at a new restaurant in Cambridge, Pammy’s. They’ve since been voted Best New Restaurant by Boston Magazine in addition to a variety of other accolades. It’s a beautiful restaurant and I’m grateful to take care of their plants. I’ve been going there once per week since June of last year and from that I have received a couple word-of-mouth clients which is what I’ve relied on for the majority of my marketing. It seems to be the best way to go about getting clients in this business. That and, oddly, answering people’s plant/garden questions on Facebook gardening groups. Some folks took notice from there that I give good advice and offer useful information. That leads to them asking if I do this professionally. Work comes from every corner.

How has it helped you to work with JPNDC’s Small Business Services?

My neighbor turned me onto the Small Business Planning course at JPNDC. I took the first class and didn’t get much out of it. At that point I had already started my business so I didn’t need the information offered in the initial class. It was more for beginners who were thinking about starting a business. I had already registered with the state and formed my business but I decided to go back and see what the rest of the classes had to offer. I’m glad I did. In the second and third classes I learned how to form a coherent business plan which opens doors to securing loans and setting my intentions with much greater clarity. I learned more about how to hone in on my pitch and how that in itself can improve my business plan.

I leapt before I looked with my business. That class really forced me to think about the fact that some people will go through many years of targeted education to understand what to do with a business. Though I did have a decade of experience under my belt in terms of gardening, I was definitely missing major details about business management.

There were so many things that I just wasn’t aware of. Some days I would see my old boss scrambled and stressed, instructing a crew of workers on what to do when she still had bookkeeping and accounting and client issues and contractors doing the wrong thing to take care of. The amount of concentrated effort that goes into a business was really shown in the second and third classes. Then, subsequently, with the Bookkeeping & Accounting class, followed by the 1:1 with Carlos.

The help that I’ve had from JPNDC just loosely holding my hand has been instrumental. I now have an accountant doing my taxes for me which I can’t recommend enough. Especially when you are trying to run a new business. My accountant informed me that my bookkeeping was terrible. Carlos then helped me determine where I was making my mistakes in Quickbooks. There are courses that are several hundred dollars, but I don’t have the money or time to learn all of that. JPNDC’s courses have helped out a lot.

How has your business plan progressed?

My business plan has been malleable and I’m okay with that. I’m learning the direction in which I’d like to take things. None of what I had pictured for my business has turned out the way that I planned. I want to do the work that I love without having to rely on the usual off-season work that gardeners typically rely on. Plowing and snow removal is something I hope to never touch. While gardens are at rest for the winter, I want to be able to have enough indoor work to at least float through to the spring. Building clientele for two very distinct and different parts of a business is going to take some time while balancing bookkeeping and marketing and payroll. There are lots of things I’ll need to do to keep above water. It’s overwhelming. So my business plan has changed and there are still parts I need to reassess all the time. All parts are very much in motion.

Michael points out an Allium schubertii (Ornamental Onion) plant in his backyard garden.

The model my business plan was based off of was someone else’s. What worked for my mentor isn’t entirely something that works for me. I’m quickly learning her business is not my business and I need to treat my plan that way. Jamaica Plain is a very different market than that of North Shore so I need to operate differently. Even my rates, which I understood in only the most basic of ways, were not realistic. They’ve nearly doubled since I started for the sake of now understanding what it ACTUALLY takes to operate a business. I’ve also learned that my rate does not equal my take-home pay. My rate is not my hourly wage. My income is actually still non-existent because I am either reinvesting that money into my business or paying the bills. I started with $0 and that’s not what I would recommend for anyone.

How has living in JP for 10 years given you inspiration?

This neighborhood looked very different when I moved into it. The parking lot behind JPNDC was fenced in with a rusted barbwire fence and half of the building was deteriorated. Where Bella Luna is now located was boarded up. My street was ripped up, re-piped, and repaved. I’ve seen the neighborhood go through a lot of changes since I’ve been here. At the time I moved in I was really falling in love with gardening so I was looking at all these changes through those rose-colored glasses. All of these improvements were happening and I was seeing how my new love of gardening could help to improve and advance these tiny plots. Small space gardening is actually quite difficult and challenging.

I learned gardening against the backdrop of unreal cliff side properties on the north shore with flowering hillsides and lots of large, old trees. Very unrealistic for the Boston area. So seeing people not fully understand how to adapt to small garden spaces inspired me to bring those same beautiful gardening techniques to smaller spaces. I wanted to show people that their tiny gardens can pack a big punch in simple, but impactful ways.

Where do you see your business going in about five years?

I hope to have enough outdoor clients to confidently sustain work through the outdoor gardening season. I hope to have enough indoor clients to confidently sustain work through the winter season. I want a small crew of reliable workers who are caring and educated enough in horticultural experience for me to trust them. I don’t want a big company; that’s never been my goal. The idea of that stresses me out. I would really love to have clout with my reputation as a gardener in the area. It would be nice to have people recognize my style of gardening. I could enter a garden that my mentor created and know that she did it. I want people to get to that point with me. I want my employees and clients to want to work with me because the work speaks for itself. Hopefully, that will all take less than five years. Even by the end of this year, having a part-time employee would be a total win for me. Having a business with well established clientele and being a confident employer is all I’m looking for.