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30 Years In The Landscape Industry And I Only Have One Regret

12/01/2023 - News

The lull in enquiries between Christmas and New Year gives me the perfect opportunity to reflect on what was and plan for what’s to come.  2022 was a great year for Arbour Landscape Solutions, it was also my 30th year of running a business in the UK landscape industry.

Where It All Began

Back in high school, I was young, energetic and keen to make the world around me a better place.  My Mum was a garden designer, creating some wonderful spaces in and around London.  Dad was (and still is) an accountant helping people to make the most of their financial assets. I was attracted to both of those professions, but at the end of the day, I’m not someone who can sit still for any length of time. And at that time, the prospect of spending the next 5 decades sitting behind desk was less appealing than getting outside to build gardens that would bring people a lifetimes worth of pleasure. So landscaping it was.

I guess, I my interest for all things garden-related started off by working outside in the family garden aged maybe 12-ish.  I should imagine my parents gave me chores to teach me to do my share of things around the house.  In actual fact they sparked a life long passion and I'll always be grateful to them.

I remember preparing the soil and planting the shrubs and perennials that my Mum had laid out for me. We’d just had the first shower of rain after a hot dry spell and the smell of the soil was unforgettable.  I think it’s called petrichor.  If that scent could be bottled it would outsell Chanel No 5, I still love it.

From around the age of 14, I spend weekends and school holidays working on a building site making concrete test moulds for a piling company.  HSE probably wouldn’t allow it these days, but it certainly taught me a lot. Not just about building you learn a lot of people skills in a job like that.

Following a brick laying apprentiship, I enrolled at Capel Manor college in Enfield. This gave me a good grounding in the basics of hard landscaping. And I’ve been learning ever since.  There are so many more choices of landscaping products these days and there’s always something new to discover.  

Just imagine, back then, porcelain paving was rarely used, pourable grouts were unheard of, and as for the solid wall system that so many landscapers use today - well that was so far off being invented that it didn’t even appear on Thunderbirds!

In 1992, whilst still at college, I started Arbour Design and Build.  Mum designed, I built.

A young looking Richard Bickler (aged around 19) working on a mini digger

This is me, aged around 19 preparing a site for landscaping

Running Arbour Design and Build was a steep learning curve in the early days.  I sympathise with any small business owner. It’s not easy to source materials, organise staff, maintain machinery, find new work, design gardens, tackle the tax man and work on the tools all at the same time.  Even once the business was well established, there were evenings when I’d come home exhausted and then have to dig deep to find the energy to play Barbies with my young daughters. 

As time progressed, I did get much better at delegating and I honestly don’t know where I’d be if my wife Gaby hadn’t been so blimming good at managing our home and running the admin side of the business. She is, and always will be, my rock.

Being a stickler for detail and insisting on building gardens to the highest possible standard earned me the accolade of being appointed ambassador for Trust Mark and also holding Approved Contracts status by Which? Trusted Trader and by Which? Local.  Quite an honour.

garden with steam locomotive on raised model railway track running between flower beds

garden shed disguised as a victorian railway station with painted white walls

One of the gardens I created by Arbour Design and Build.  The client was a hobbyist who wanted a strong railway theme.

All Change

By 2016, in the eyes of the world I was riding the crest of a wave. Creating stunningly beautiful gardens, a booming business and plenty of demand for our services. But then it happened. Almost at the same time as my site manager decided to move back to Romania, my back started to complain about working conditions and, without consulting me, went on strike. I was burnt out. Gaby and I took it as a sign that we needed to restructure our business and find a way to put all of our experience and learning to a different use. On 9th December, we closed the business and started looking for other opportunities.

I was keen to stay in the landscape industry. I’ve made some amazing friends via the APL, suppliers, garden designers, architects and through going to trade shows. There’s no way I wanted to start afresh in a completely different world.

Arbour Landscape Solutions grew from a seed sown by Alan Sargent.  Whilst running Arbour Design and Build, I was proud to serve as an APL committee member. In that role, I often found myself acting as an informal consultancy service to other APL members. I won’t lie - I loved it.  I’m a pretty gregarious person anyway, I thoroughly enjoy meeting new people and keeping in touch with industry mates. Alan invited me to join the PGCA and I’ve not looked back since.

I was always brought up to share whatever I had and to take joy in doing so. (I still make a point of supporting a different charity every year and encourage my daughters to do the same.) Sharing knowledge and industry contacts with folks in need of a hand came quite naturally to me. So when Arbour Landscape Solutions was first formed, the idea was for it to be a kind of consultancy business. Offering technical advice, acting as an expert witness and also helping people to source bespoke landscaping materials.  


sunny garden with rattan seating surrounding a modern gas fire pit

garden with swimming pool surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens with white pavers and neatly trimmed shrubs

Pictures taken from the very last landscaping project as Arbour Design and Build. This was also the first project we supplied materials to as Arbour Landscape Solutions 
You can read the full case study here.

In 2018, I started to build an online shop for the business.  Another whole new experience that I don’t regret one little bit.  Previously, our website had been pretty much a brochure to promote my consultancy and bespoke sourcing services. It didn’t need a lot of input from me and was fairly static. 

The new ecommerce website however was a completely different kettle of fish.  There were product descriptions to write, prices to update, delivery matrices to build and SEO work to make sure that Google liked the site.  Thank goodness I had Angela and Debs on board to help me. Later on, Anna joined the team to add power to our social media marketing and to help organise events and guide us through the re-branding process.

Like all organisations, Arbour Landscape Solutions has evolved enormously from where it was 6 years ago.  If the business were a tree, it would be a willow tree - it’s strong because it’s flexible. It’s rooted in the combined experience and expertise of a small team of people. There’s myself - I’m the one waving about and putting out branches. 
Then there’s Gaby, Sue, Debs, Angela, Anna, our IT expert Roman, and of course, Upshot Media an incredible website development company. Finally, the two chaps that ensure I get out of bed nice and early every morning, Benji and Ollie, our cavapoos. I can’t ever imagine going back to a life without dogs.

Two Cavapoos sitting side by side, Benji is black with a white flash on his chest. Ollie is a pale golden colour

Benji and Ollie, my boys.

Today, I still offer lots of free advice for garden designers and landscapers.  It costs me nothing but time to show somebody how to install materials or to suggest a strategy for dealing with a difficult client, so why wouldn’t I do it?  

I spend a lot of time doing deals with suppliers so that I can offer my website visitors a great service on each and every one of the 6,000 products that are showcased on the site. The accountant in me loves to get best value for money. And yes, you did read it correctly - my original bespoke sourcing service has evolved into a huge range that can be ordered online & delivered nationwide.

I’m very proud of my website too - to my mind it’s not just about flogging products, I’ve ‘invented’ several really useful quoting tools to save landscapers and garden designers time.  I remember only too well the amount of time spent sourcing products and getting quotes for my landscaping business. I've used those not so happy memories to try and create ways to make life easier for others. With tools like “My Bill Of Quantities” it only takes 2 minutes to upload a list of requirements and then you can go back on the tools while my team source and price the products for you.

Favourite new activity for 2022? It had to be our events programme.  I got to meet so many new people  and learn about their amazing businesses - each one of them different.  I’ll definitely be continuing to find ways to meet people face to face in future.  In fact, we’ve already got some events in the pipeline for 2023.

What Advice Would I Give My Younger Self?

There’s never such a thing as a stupid question - take every opportunity to learn and expand your experience.

Experience is everything. Learning on the job is the very best training you can get. If you are looking to gain experience, approach APL or BALI accredited landscapers to see what apprenticeships they have available.  To top up your knowledge there are some fantastic  training courses out there.  I can’t recommend The TASK Academy highly enough.

My One Regret

I did say I have one regret about my 30 years working in the landscape industry? Can you guess what it is? I’m sure that most hands-on landscapers will relate to it.  

I took my physical strength for granted when I was younger and assumed that working on site gave me all the exercise I needed.  In fact, I should have done a lot more to take care of my back.  It’s taken several years of working with an excellent personal trainer to get the muscles supporting my spine into good condition, and I know that I will have to exercise those muscles every day until the end of my life.  Not that I mind exercising - it keeps the mind active and helps maintain my mental health because running a landscape supply company is just as busy as running a landscaping company. 

How Can I Sum Up The Last 30 Years?

It's been great.  Honestly, I wouldn't change a thing (apart from the bad back). I certainly hope that the next 30 years will be just as exciting.

Check out the upcoming events for the landscape industry - I hope to meet you at one of them.

Meet the team who keep me on the straight and narrow.

Check out some the amazing gardens that have been built using materials supplied by Arbour Landscape Solutions.