Despite unstable economy, N.J. homeowners still paying to refurbish gardens

Aimee Bentley is passionate about horticulture. So much so that in 2005, the 30 something Audubon, New Jersey entrepreneur turned her horticulture hobby into a year round business, “Horticulturist For Hire.”

If she’s not actively planting in the spring and fall, Bentley is either in the managing and maintenance mode during the summertime or designing new landscape concepts during the winter months for the following season.

“I always enjoyed working in the garden as a little girl, planting things and watching them grow,” she said.

Bentley is quick to point out that there is a distinction between the commonly used term landscaper and horticulturist.

“Most people associate landscaping with mowing the lawn, weeding and general yard maintenance and management. A horticulturist is certainly involved with all of that, but also takes a broader, far more scientific approach to the whole ecosystem concept,” she said, adding that a horticulturist typically holds a degree in the field.

Despite unstable economy, work steadily on the rise

According to the latest statistics from The New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, the number of landscaping service firms has remained relatively stable between 2007 and 2010, despite an uncertain economy, although employment in the field has dropped some 10 percent.

Bentley admits business was a bit tough for her in 2010, but overall, she says work is steadily on the rise since she started her business.

Professionals like Bentley and do it yourself gardeners alike, got an early start to this year’s planting season, thanks to an unseasonably warm winter.

“For New Jersey, it was the warmest February-April period since official record-keeping began back in 1895, highlighted by a record warm March,” Jeffrey Doran, Senior Meteorologist at Planalytics, Inc., said.

“Everyone is affected by the weather in one way or another.”

Doran says the initial demand for outdoor plants this year ran approximately two to three weeks ahead of the average in the state.

That two to three week jump start on the season has translated into brisk sales at the Home Depot in Mount Laurel.

“In addition to the typical seasonal sales of plants, shrubs and flowers, we’ve seen many of our customers buying weed and crab grass control products much earlier than usual, Tom Spencer, a veteran sales associate in the lawn and garden department said.

He estimates sales are up by at least 10 percent, with a definite emphasis on organic vs. synthetic products, as consumers become more educated.

The do-it-yourself trend

Steve and Barbara Fiedler from Galloway were just two people in a standing room only crowd who attended a recent panel discussion on lawn and garden maintenance, enhancement and sustainability at the Cherry Hill Public Library.

Experts at the event, sponsored by the non-profit volunteer grass roots educational organization “Sustainable Cherry Hill,” were on hand to provide helpful tips to all types of gardeners.

“I think it’s important for people to not only get a better understanding of our whole ecosystem and how to reduce overall pollution, but to share information on how to make our communities “greener” event organizer and Sustainable Cherry Hill spokesperson Amy Milgrim said.

“In that context and equally important is creating an awareness of the benefits of using organic lawn and garden products versus synthetic ones that often have harmful chemicals.”

Do it yourself gardeners walked away with plenty of ideas on how to give their garden a fresh new look.

But while new gardeners enjoy the outdoors, there is still work for professionals like Bentley, whose clientele tends to be homeowners in South Jersey and parts of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Barry Bannett and wife, Judy, of Haddonfield, who moved from Cherry Hill 10 years ago, converted a two story duplex into a single “empty nester” home. The couple wanted landscaped grounds with a variety of flowers, plants, shrubs and trees.

“We looked to Aimee for some creative input and got some great ideas,” says Bannett, who now has a wide variety of plants, shrubbery and shade perennials in his 50 foot by 30 foot backyard garden.

The Bannett’s, who don’t plan on moving any time soon, are joining other homeowners, who see value in making smart investments to enhance their existing properties and surrounding grounds for the short and long term.

According to Bentley, budgets for environmental and ornamental landscaping can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, depending on the look clients want to create.

She says it’s a good time to be in this business because homeowners are becoming more educated about plants and the environment as the push toward going green continues to catch on.

“Ultimately,” says Bentley, “that means my clients and I can work better together as a team to create a really spectacular look.”

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