Who knew that Hackney Road in east London was the handbag capital of the world? I'm asking because I recently had a mesmerising walk from Old Street tube station up to Broadway Market past endless windowfuls of glittering reticules, fringed, beaded, mirrored, fur-trimmed, snake-skinned, and all enormous. You could carry your entire life round in one of those things. You'd spend a lot of time scrabbling around for your lipstick though.
I wasn't actually there for the handbags, though they provided a diversion from the grim slush and ice still then covering the pavements. I was heading for La Bouche, an excellent café on Broadway Market, to meet Daniel Davies, just coming to the end of his first year as a self-employed gardener in London with his own company, simply called The Gardeners. How has it been, I ask? "Successful," he says, "but stressful." It's made him quite nostalgic for the years when he was a hired hand, labouring in other people's landscaping firms, with no responsibility for managing the workload.
"You're lucky to have a workload," I say unsympathetically, but actually I do see the problems. You can't be a professional gardener without transport and tools. But the tools can't stay in the transport overnight; they'd be nicked. Lock-ups are expensive and Dani is trying to keep his overheads as low as possible. But he lives on the second floor of a loft conversion, so every day, after work, he has to spend an hour hauling everything out of the van and up to his loft, hoping in the meanwhile that he will not get a parking ticket on his van. The stress comes not from the work itself, which he loves, but from the difficulties of doing it in a city rather than in the Herefordshire border country, where he was born and brought up.
Dani is 25 years old and launched himself into gardening for a living after studying photography at Croydon College. He grew up in a family of practical people: his grandfather was a builder ("a very careful man"), his uncle in Herefordshire is a commercial grower of flowers – echinacea and the like – for herbal tinctures; his mum's flower borders and vegetable patch still remain the model for what he wants to create in other people's gardens.
How easy was it to build up a gardening business, I wonder? Timing turned out to be more important than Dani had realised. "There's a weekend at the beginning of March, it seems, when everyone looks out at their garden and wants it sorted out for spring." Just before that critical point last year, Dani and his partner, Robert Griffin, dropped business cards round their neighbourhood. From just one road, near Victoria Park in Hackney, they got eight enquiries, all of which turned into work of one sort or another.
Dani offers design, landscaping and maintenance. But what does he actually get asked to do? Maintenance more than design, it seems, though he has done a roof garden for an architect in Shoreditch and is presently engaged in some landscaping in Stoke Newington. "I like maintenance though," he says. "Dealing with overgrown climbers, cutting back, pruning and tying in roses. Pruning roses – that's almost my favourite job. But we put up trellis, weed, mulch. Often we are called in to get rid of things that have died. Then the client will ask if we've any ideas of plants to fill the gaps, so we do a planting plan for them."
He likes euphorbias (excellent), Japanese anemones, heuchera, Verbena bonariensis, arbutus. He does not like noisy machinery, particularly leaf blowers. On that score alone, I'd hire him. We'd be outside now looking at some of his gardens if they weren't all shrouded in snow, so in the café we look at pictures instead: nice drystone walling, done by Rob, comfortably established perennials planted by Dani.
Like Dani, Rob is a Herefordshire boy (they've been friends for at least 15 years) who took to gardening after finishing a masters degree in illustration at the Royal College of Art. Usefully, they have complementary skills. Rob can produce on-the-spot drawings for clients showing what a finished scheme might look like. Dani has better knowledge of plants. Both know they prefer being outdoors than inside. During this last winter, Rob has been working on a building restoration project in Oxfordshire, Dani has been studying part-time at Capel Manor for a BTec certificate in Countryside Management, specialising in ecology and conservation.
Gardening was something he really wanted to learn, Dani says. He hadn't ever had that feeling about anything else – not even his photography. And he has learnt gardening in the only way that counts. By doing it. For five years before he set up his own company, he laboured for others: laying out roof gardens in St John's Wood, maintaining garden squares in Soho, building climbing frames in Battersea, stripping ivy from boundary fences, planting up galvanised containers, aerating lawns.
Gardening is a portable skill, though. I'm wondering why Dani stays with the hassles of parking fines and decanting wheelbarrows from his van when he could be elsewhere. "Well, London's a bit of an addiction, isn't it?" he says. He must be right. The café is full of people his age, most of them working there on their laptops. But he confesses there is a dream lurking in the future, beyond the boundary fences of Stoke Newington and the flower borders of Haggerston and Dalston. It's of an orchard in Herefordshire, planted with perry pears, with himself as owner and manager. I'll drink to that.
To contact The Gardeners, call Daniel Davies on 07967 478 925 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. They charge £20 an hour or £150 per person per dayReuse content