Nicholas Spargo, owner of Spargo Landscape Consultants, has been in the landscape trade for 12 years as well as being a lecturer at the Lifestyle Garden Design Centre for the past year. Here Home Times’ resident landscaper shares some wisdom on which paths to follow if you dream of becoming a professional, accredited landscaper.
How long have you been working in this position?
I have been in the landscape profession for the last 12 years, and I absolutely love it.
What experience or qualification do you believe helped you most in getting to this position?
School doesn’t really cater for a career in landscaping, but if you can get great marks for Biology, Geography, Maths, Art, Design & Technology it will really help you later in your business. If only I had taken Zulu it would have helped tremendously in my field where communication can be quite difficult at times. I would recommend that you get a part time job at a nursery after school, learning the different plants and products that are on sale. I would say learning which flower flowers at a specific time and season is key. Before you study, get a job working with a landscape company or architectural firm you will then get a good idea if this is something you would love to pursue.
Where did yo study after school?
I was fortunate enough to take a gap year overseas to work with my uncle Andy, who used to own a landscape company in New Zealand; he now has a firm in the UK. After some practical landscaping in New Zealand I came back to South Africa where I studied at the Lifestyle Garden and Design Centre. They offer full time and part time courses that are City & Guilds accredited which means the qualification is recognised abroad. I have heard that the University of Pretoria has a good faculty in Landscape Architecture, but many of their students come and do extra studies at the Lifestyle Garden Centre.
What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your job?
Every home or property we visit to prepare a design and quotation for is different. Each new job is a challenge, but this is the way you grow and learn. It has taken me many years of learning to get to where I am today and even today I am still learning, I love a challenge, it makes it exciting. Every job starts as a blank palette, but once you get going on the project it starts to take shape. I always take before and after photos, being able to take a photo a year or two down the line is even better.
For me, seeing nature, such as butterflies, bees and birds coming back into each individual garden is the most rewarding for me. But also seeing my staff excited about a job they created. That fulfilment in others does give you some kind of awesome satisfaction!
What advice do you have for a young person thinking of entering this field of business?
Don’t be afraid to start, try getting work experience before you finish school or university. I started off by borrowing my grandfather’s old Mercedes that had a tow bar for his trailer. I had no qualifications in landscaping after school, I told my gran’s friends that I would prune their roses in August. I started off doing small jobs, learning how to install manual irrigation systems with mist sprays. I then did small designs for town house gardens.
Only after a year doing my own thing did I decide to study further. I completed my studies part time so that I could carry on landscaping as I learnt. A year or two after my studies I decided I needed more experience so I worked on contract for a landscaping firm who did government tenders, it was great exposure working with City Parks and Recreation. When my contract ended I started up Spargo Landscape Consultants and I have loved it since then.
It is also important to learn a new skill, try decking, paving and building, learn how to install mosaics. Read books on design and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help choosing the right career path.
Where do you think your industry is heading in terms of compliance, qualification requirement and standards?
So this is where it is best to become qualified, there are many guys out there who have no qualifications in landscaping. Us landscapers refer to them as the “Bakkie brigade”. At the moment there is no compliance in becoming a landscaper. But being affiliated with The South African Landscape Institute (SALI) or the Guild of Landscape Designers (GoLD) does help when clients are looking for a reputable landscape designer. Once you are a qualified landscaper or architect, you can then apply to do an Invasive Species training course. I would strongly recommend that you know your indigenous and exotic plant species before doing this Invasive Species Course. Once you become an invasive species consultant, you are required to put your name on the declaration form and you can be held liable for the wrong information. It is best to know your plants.
We are blessed to live in South Africa, with the large expanse of open areas, there is a lot of landscaping to be done. Our industry is definitely heading more indigenous landscaping, but that being said we are also being asked to do a lot more organic gardens for residential estates and homes. Due to the drought we are experiencing we are all required to become more water wise in our landscaping techniques and installations.
It is best to have a matric as most colleges require your matric certificate. If you don’t have a matric, this should not stop you. Up skill yourself , get a part time job at a few nurseries, get a job working with a landscaping firm, get your driver’s license and never give up and keep on reading.
Are you doing now what you thought you would be doing at this stage of your life when you were 20 years old?
Yes I am doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing, I am also lecturing in landscaping and doing garden talks and workshops. This profession is brilliant – I get to work outdoors most days in shorts!
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I have a couple of gems that really stands out to me:
- When someone says you can’t do it, prove them wrong and do it even better!
- Always be honest with the money your clients entrust to you, word of mouth is what brings in new business.
- If you make a mistake, own up to your mistake and fix it.
- Be able to forgive someone even if they have wronged you.
- Try something new in each design – it makes you a better designer.
Did you have a mentor supporting you in your early career? How important do you think this was in you reaching your professional goals?
Yes I had my mom Gill who spurred me on. I designed my first garden with her help at age 15, then my uncle Andy who taught me the basics in landscape design during my gap year after school. A mentor is great as they help you through the tough times.
Any career move or mistake you wouldn’t make again? What was the impact of it on your career?
Be very careful on who you do designs for, there are a lot of sharks out there who will steal your ideas and designs. Sign off on your designs and copy-write them if you can. Have a disclosure that people may not copy or print without your permission. Add a fee for your designs, they are your designs and you spent hours working on them.
Early on before I learned this lesson, people stole my designs and got other landscapers to install them, without any reimbursement. Time is money and it is almost impossible to run a company without money. Learn from your mistakes