Growing a career

SETTING up your own business can be a panicky affair at the best of times. But for Janet Dale, it came with a few more than the usual niggles. She made the journey from nursery foreman to being her own boss and gives some useful tips for gardening during the hot spell.

SETTING up your own business can be a panicky affair at the best of times. But for Janet Dale, it came with a few more than the usual niggles. She made the journey from nursery foreman to being her own boss and gives some useful tips for gardening during the hot spell. DANIELLE NUTTALL reports

LIKE most steely gardeners, Janet Dale rarely succumbs to sniffles and colds.

In almost 26 years working for the same nursery in Martlesham, she had the kind of attendance record most employers could only dream of.

But less than two weeks after making the brave decision to become self-employed, at the ripe age of 42 - disaster struck.

“I was at home one night and decided to cut my own conifers with an electric hedge trimmer. The ladder slipped, I panicked, put one hand on the conifer and cut half of my index finger off,” she laughed.

“It was only when I looked down and saw all the blood I saw my finger was hanging off.”

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If there was ever an omen to indicate her life-changing decision to go it alone had been a big mistake, then that surely would have been it.

But Janet's distinctly non-melodramatic and resilient reaction to the crisis was a clue to what would make her so popular with clients later on. I basically walked down the ladder and ran it under the cold tap,” she says casually, as if she'd simply spilt a drop of hot water.

“It was a case of forget going to work, go to hospital. They took me in as an emergency as I had cut through the artery. That night I went down to theatre and the surgeon gave me the option of whether to have it stitched back on or off altogether.”

Janet wanted whatever caused the least amount of fuss. “I only had a 60/40 chance of it taking, and at the end of the day I would have had to go through it all over again if it didn't take, which would mean even more time off work, so I had it off.”

Grudgingly, she gave herself two weeks off work (doctor's orders) and was back before you could say rhododendron. Life without an index finger was initially challenging - particularly on invoicing day when typed documents would end up strangely missing a series of letters.

Her subsequent success is perhaps proof that you are never too old to become your own boss.

Her life-long obsession with gardening began when she was only a tot. The family lived at Kelsale and with a quarter-of-an-acre for a garden, there was plenty of opportunity to help her father grow strawberries and cut the grass.

At school, she took rural studies and then applied for a job at the local nurseries - Home Meadows - where she remained for 25.5years.

“I mainly did the potting, pricking, and the cuttings. Later on, I became foreman down there. I was mainly under the old boy (the late Dennis O'Brien-Baker). He was like a granddad to me and I learnt so much from him,” said Janet, who now lives in Rushmere St Andrew.

She added: “A friend of mine in hard landscaping would say: 'Why don't you go on your own and give it a whirl?' But I never had the confidence to go on my own.

“It was only through my friend who said: 'You have the ability and the knowledge'. He made me aware of it and gave me the kick up the backside and I realised I could do this if I wanted to. I'm now 45 and what people are going to take me on as a woman doing that job? I had to become self-reliant.”

Janet's cautious approach to setting up her own business paid dividends.

After leaving the nursery, she got a temporary job with Ipswich Borough Council, working at the nursery in Chantry Park. The position further developed her skills - she potted and pruned all the plants ready for the town's parks and roundabouts - but also gave her the flexibility to slowly build up her own clients.

“As my work came in, I'd then take a morning off. I did four days a week there in my first year and went down to three days a week, while I was building my business. I finished there in October two years ago when my contract was up.”

She took a one-day course about being self-employed by the Inland Revenue, which gave her the business skills to operate Janet Dale Garden Maintenance.

She said: “It was terrifying. I was very nervous as I had no-one behind me, telling me what to do. If I needed someone to ask, I had no-one. You start to think: 'Am I doing this right?'

“Before, I was always being told what to do even though I knew. I was always questioning my work. I started panicking: 'What happens when the weather is bad, am I going to be able to earn enough?”

“But work carried on through the winter. I was nervy wondering when it was all going to dry up but it hasn't at all it's just carried on. All my work has been word of mouth; it's just gone from there.”

Three years later, and Janet's green-fingered expertise are highly sought after.

So much so, that one of her old customers, who moved to the South of France a few years ago, regularly flies her over to his rustic villa for a week here and there in order to maintain his beautiful garden - all expenses paid.

Back at home, running a gardening business can have practical problems.

In the summer, Janet has 60 hanging baskets to contend with (currently hanging in a friend's car port!) “Luckily, I have people in the right places who help me out,” she said. Then there is the constant demand for new equipment. “I started off with my own tools. My friend lent me a van so I had that to start with. Then in the first year I bought a hedge trimmer. This year I earned enough to buy my own vehicle.”

It's been three steady years since Janet threw caution to the wind, and she hasn't looked back since.

The new working routine gives her flexibility and daily satisfaction and she wouldn't swap it for the world.

“I have no regrets at all. I wish I'd done it long ago - I left it so late in life. I would say if anybody is thinking of going on their own to give it a go.

“When I lost my dad, my mum was permanently housebound. Going self-employed meant I was on the end of a phone and could drop my tools and go to her. It gave me flexibility.

“It's not a nine to five job. You have to really work at it. You have to give it 100 per cent. But it's never too late.”


For more information, call Janet on 07796 131039 or email

nWater first thing in the morning or last thing at night

nChoose plants carefully - grey leafed or hairy leafed plants are drought tolerant.

nWhen potting into a container, leave a good gap between top of container and compost so you can give a good amount of water

nUse water retention granules in containers and window boxes

nUse mulch on beds, which helps moisture evaporating

nWhen planting trees or shrubs, put a water tube to the root ball area, and water will go directly to the root system

nIn borders use a membrane to preserve moisture and prevent annual weeds

nUse a net shade on green houses to protect plants and keep the greenhouse cooler by watering the floor now and again

nUse dishes under containers to help catch water, draining though when watering

nCut lawns on a high level during dry spells and cut less often

More people are opting for low maintenance plants which sit easily with a busy lifestyle.

Janet's top ten are:

1)Hebe Pageii

2)Hypericum Calycinum

3)Taxus Buccata Horizontalis

4)Cotoneaster Horizontalis

5)Ceanothus Thyrsiflorus

6)Spiraea Japonica or Goldflame


8)Juniperus Horizontalis Wiltonii


10)Vaccinium Vitis-Idaea