Garden Coach Leaves Client in Tears


Manners3_3by Susan
While reports of great publicity about garden coaches keep coming in (and they’re all compiled here), there’s this other story – a funny/sad

one in the SF Chronicle about a coach who needs some coaching herself – from Miss Manners.  Writer Leah Garchik was the high bidder for an hour of garden consulting at a charity fund-raiser and the experience was so bad, she wrote this article advising readers to hire consultants only if they really have to. 

But there’s lots more than one rude consultant in this fascinating story – it’s also about our relationships with our gardens and how to use the services of any consultant, for better or worse.  Let’s dissect:

  • The consultant asked Garchik to gather some photos of gardens she liked before their appointment.  That’s a great idea because most people have NO IDEA what they actually want, so how can a consultant help them get it?  But notice that magazine photos didn’t actually help.  Too perfect, too expensive.  Instead, I ask people to find a garden in their neighborhood they like, if possible, and show me THAT, or at least a photo of something reasonably REAL.
  • Was it too-too judgmental to describe the consultant as "carefully made up" and "newly coiffed"?  It FELT like that, and maybe because this hit a little too close to home and now I’m worried that make-up and blond highlights leave me vulnerable to the same reaction.  (Though in my case there’s nothing careful about any of it.)  But a consultant’s appearance does say something about their style and if it’s perfect and tightly controlled, maybe that’s a legitimate red flag.
  • Suggesting a bunch of plants that Garchik didn’t know from petunias is useless, and that’s why I started creating plant profiles.  Now I just send links to each plant page.  And if they live nearby I invite them to stop by and see most of the plants I’m recommending right in my garden (or we sneak next door to see even more).
  • And what the heck is that invasive plant that’s destroying Garchik’s garden from below?  In my area bamboo certainly does that but what could it be in the SF area?

Now let’s look at what Garchik could have done to benefit more from the consult:

  • Raked.  I’ve been called to look at gardens that I also COULD NOT SEE, either because they were covered with leaves or, even worse, a jumble of invasive vines mounding to 5 feet high over a sea of mystery plants.
  • And Chron reader comments are SPOT ON about people not understanding the
    commitment it takes to have a nice garden, either of their own time or
    the money to pay someone else to do it.  People want no-maintenance plants, or plants that do really well in the absolute worst places, and are unbelieving when told that no such plant exists.

That’s what a friend of Gorchik’s was once told by another consultant, supposedly because the friend and her husband were "bickering".  Well, considering that designers of all types encounter marital bickering ROUTINELY, it must have been really bad.

Me, I’ve had only two clients that I wouldn’t work with again for all the money in the world.  One was a husband-wife team who’d imported me to resolve conflicts over their yard, and the bullying husband who assumed I’d agree with him was none too happy with me.  What a relief it was to just hop in my car knowing I’d never see HIM again.  Then there was the woman who started attacking me as soon as I arrived, kind of a preemptive move before I could attack her, it seemed.  "I suppose you won’t approve of THAT."  And "I know THAT’s not your style but…"  And so on.  And everything single suggestion I made elicited an angry response.  After all that she demanded that I draw a sketch for her property and when I said I don’t do that she almost lost it.  I won’t even mention the extremely weird and disturbing way she kept displaying her private parts to me.  Get me outta here!

So readers, can you relate to any of this – as either the customer or the person being hired?   

Thanks to Chuck B at Back40Feet for posting about the story.


  1. Well, Leah Garchik’s story appears to be about the conflict between knowledge and ignorance–with too much haughtiness on one side and thick-headedness on the other. But most people are so ignorant. I’d think that you would have to have the patience of an elementary school teacher to be a gardening coach. God bless you, Susan.

  2. I swear to God, I just got an email from a friend telling me she was having to “handle” the architect who’s designing her addition because she’s a little “disagreeable, butt-headed and cranky” but it’s worth it because she “does beautiful work”.
    I’m amazed that people like can even keep their clients, much less ever get recommended to others.

  3. I am interested to know how you created the ” plant profiles” and what is included in them? Do you have specific grouping of plants, or just a page with plant culture? Can you elaborate?

    thks, Melissa

  4. For the gardening coach, its all about having a good attitude and assessing the knowledge of the client. I listen to my client first before I offer any advice. I’m more interested in building rapport with my client when I meet them and then let them introduce me to their garden.(Of course this is my “real world” approach. On my show, we just “pounce”)

    I like to do a couple of emails before I get to the house just to ask some general questions so that I’m somewhat acclimated to them and their situation. When I arrive, we have establised a little familiarity with eachother. For the garden pro, its all about relationship first and being a leader whose advise people want to listen to and embrace! And say it with a smile!

  5. Melissa, since you asked (I swear I don ‘t know her!) here are the profiles of shrubs, and go to the nav bar to select perennials. More plant groups to follow.
    Having info to send to clients was really the impetus for the whole site – I send the page about mulch, too. The other BIG ONE I’d use a lot is a really good explanation of how to water your garden, which is on my to-do list.

  6. The best professionals know how to listen and they know how to be diplomatic. It isn’t always easy, but my job as a landscape consultant and designer is to temper my clients needs and wants with my artistic and horticultural knowledge and experience. In the end though it is THEIR garden…hence the listening.

  7. While I appreciate that the article came from a writer who seems to care little about her garden and have zero real motivation for working in it and adding/ changing anything about it, some of the actual quotes from the consultant were just over the top. She sure set the tone with her dusting comment!

    Had the consultant had better people skills the column could have turned into a musing on how lovely it is that some people want to do all that work for a gorgeous garden, but how Garchick prefers the imperfect and Darwin-ist garden that she has now to the visions of beauty that she sees in gardening magazines. It isn’t an uncommon view.

    A personable garden coach can find something to compliment and connect with every client on – whether it is the zeal for gardening that is evidenced by the sheer number of failed experiments over the years (“I can see that you really enjoy plants and have tried hard to make them happy, so let’s try and find the missing ingredient so that you can enjoy the successes you deserve”), a few attractive, mature specimens (“Your tree fern is doing splendidly, let’s try and find some more plants that will thrive here and give you as much easy pleasure as that one does”), good soil (“good soil is the basis for a healthy garden, and you are very blessed! If we just add a bit of compost and mulch, we can find some wonderful easy-care specimens that will just love it here!).

    There is no reason to be snooty. Everyone starts somewhere.

  8. The thing that bothered me the most about Garchik’s experience (which I also posted about here: is that the consultant claimed the “invasive” plant was destroying the garden without actually identifying what the plant was! Big mistake. She should have at least attempted to get the plant identified. Also, this article and this post left me confused–is there a difference between a garden consultant and a garden coach or are those terms used interchangeably?

  9. I’m a third-generation “garden guide/coach” following in the footsteps of a parent and grandparent, and I’d like to echo some of the thoughts of previous bloggers here. Being a good gardening coach means actually observing the garden in question AND listening to and getting to know the client, and figuring out if you’re gardening “beliefs” are compatible or not. (For example, clients who want to use a lot of chemicals/products are not compatible with my more organic approach.) I enjoy working with people who are willing to get involved and engaged – folks who just want a “pretty garden” with little to no mainentance are folks I usually refer to the design specialists at local garden centers for further assistance. My clients come to me from word of mouth, so I usually have some idea of the folks I’m working with by virtue of the person who put them in touch with me. The less well I know the client, the more likely I am to take things slow and even offer a free 30-miunte consultation – often that’s all it takes for me to figure out if I want to work them or not, and if we can do so in a mutually compatible way. Garden coaching is a fun avocation for me, not my primary source of income, so if someone is not easy to work with I just won’t continue the relationship, but I will find them some other source of help if they want it.

  10. Hmmnnn. More than enough for Miss Manners to unravel all around. Poor business skills, poor client skills, poor writing (in the Chronicle) and the bad taste to publish it at all.
    Ms. Garchik has also embarassed, in a public forum, the non-profit, that sponsored the auction. Tsk, tsk.
    There is a big difference between a garden and a back yard with some ornamental plants growing in it. Clearly the potential was there for Ms. Garchik to move across that divide and the coach blew it.
    It’s a lesson for all of us who may be thinking about garden coaching. In any kind of sales, we must manage expectations. Here, the coach didn’t do that and the client had unrealistic expectations. We must also know our own limitations.
    This unpleasantness soured Ms. Garchik on garden coaches, but let’s hope it hasn’t caused her to completely give up on learning to garden. It would be a loss for all of us in the business.

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