Sandy Jonick started U-Plant Landscape Designs after hearing from homeowners who would be happy to dig a hole and plant their own flowers and shrubs if someone could just provide a blueprint.
Jonick — who has a background as a florist and digital landscape designer — in 2019 established her business, Grand Rapids-based U-Plant Landscape Designs, to provide custom curb appeal for homeowners at their new builds and renovations. U-Plant’s slogan “We design it … you plant it,” encapsulates the collaborative philosophy of the business.
U-Plant serves clients located within 25 miles of Grand Rapids, including Grandville, Jenison, Wyoming, Rockford, Sparta, Cedar Springs, Cascade, Ada, Lowell, East Grand Rapids, Byron Center and Zeeland.
Jonick started her career in the lawn and tree care industry as a customer service specialist many years ago at AAA Lawn Care in Grand Rapids. In the late 1990s, she purchased a 50-year-old flower and gift shop, Country Greenery in Coopersville, which she ran for 13 years before selling it due to life changes.
While working for a grocery store broker in customer service just after that, Jonick found she couldn’t shelve her passion for plants and floral design — her true creative outlet. She soon decided to go back to her first love, joining a West Michigan landscaping company as the office manager.
“About a week into working there, they asked me if I wanted to learn digital landscape design, and of course, I said I did. With my background in … designing with plants and flowers, it came naturally to me to do landscape design,” she said.
Jonick parted ways with the company in the winter of 2018-19, when the owners shifted their business model to require all employees to become snow-plow drivers in the off-season, which she didn’t want to do. Not knowing quite what to pursue next, Jonick pondered that winter about a recurring theme from the customer calls she had fielded while on the job.
“We always had people asking if we would do a landscape design for them that they could install. They didn’t mind doing the work; they just wanted the design. I had talked to the owners about that, and because they had equipment and crews and that sort of thing, they didn’t want to get involved in something that didn’t include that,” she said.
“I pondered it for a little bit and decided there was a market for that just based on the calls that I had received.”
In February 2019, she registered her business as U-Plant Landscape Designs and developed a logo with the help of her daughter, a graphic designer. Business cards in hand, she attended the West Michigan Home & Garden show in March 2019 at DeVos Place. She didn’t have a booth, just the will to network and spread the word about her new enterprise over the course of four days.
By the next Monday, Jonick started getting phone calls from prospective clients. All throughout 2019, she worked on marketing, dropping off business cards at greenhouses that they agreed to display at their checkout counters. Whenever she got business from that, she was able to return the favor by recommending those greenhouses to customers when it was time for them to buy their plants.
In March 2020, Jonick rented a booth at the Home & Garden Show, which was one of the last big events at DeVos Place before the state economy shut down due to COVID-19.
“We had over 100 people sign up for designs. I only had 15 people out of the 100 who didn’t do it, which was huge,” Jonick said.
After completing those jobs, Jonick got a ton of referrals, and she was able to create landscape designs for a total of over 200 West Michigan clients in 2020 with the support of a part-time employee. She hopes to be able to hire at least one more person this year.
Unlike many companies in the service industry, the nature of U-Plant allowed it to not only survive the social distancing required by the pandemic, but to thrive because of it.
“Because we met outside on the lawn, I never had people not wanting to meet,” she said. “They were able to still purchase the plants that they needed — greenhouses opened late (in 2020) but they did open — so people were able to go and get the things that they needed and work outside. It really was a bonus for us.”
When a client books U-Plant’s services, Jonick meets with them to discuss the areas they want to address — provided the ground isn’t covered by snow — writing notes on their ideas and sharing some of hers. Then she takes pictures of all the areas that the client wants to landscape. Back in the studio, she inputs the pictures into her software program and creates the designs, working back and forth over phone or email with the client and making any requested changes before sending over the final images. All final designs include a full plant list, including what variety to buy, and a labeled image of where to place each plant.
“I do tell them that variety is very important, because I’m going to choose plants that, at maturity, will be the correct size for their space. And then, of course, I tell them how many of each to get for each area,” she said.
U-Plant offers free 30- to 60-minute consultations followed by an exact quote of how much it will cost. Jonick charges $145 for the first image design (e.g., the front of the house or large flower bed), $30-$50 for the second image (e.g., the side of the house or small flower bed), another $30-$50 for a third image, and $50-$70 for a fourth image (such as the back of the house or another large flower bed). Additional designs, which could include areas such as a pool, gazebo, retaining wall, fire pit or more flower beds, are priced based on the size of the area.
With the pandemic in full swing, 2020 was the year of the fire pit, Jonick said. She helped quite a few families either design from scratch or enhance the design of their fire pit areas to extend their living and entertaining space to the outdoors. For small jobs, Jonick said clients sometimes hired her to create a fire pit design, then took the image to a landscaper and had them lay the pavers for the fire pit or patio area, which she said is a perfectly acceptable approach.
Jonick said she is available to answer questions and provide advice and troubleshooting at every stage of the installation process.
“The nice thing about the plant list is that the way I break it down, if they just want to do the front yard in the spring, and they can’t do the sides and the back yet, they can just go to the greenhouse and buy what I put down for the front yard and cross it off and go back to the backyard later. It’s in pieces for a reason, so that they can do it as time and budget allows,” she said.
For new builds, Jonick goes over with the homeowners how to create plant beds — what dimensions to make them and how many feet from the foundation. Other tips might include how to incorporate rocks into the design if they want that, which greenhouses sell what types of plant materials, etc.
Jonick said her relationship with greenhouses is becoming mutually beneficial. Many of the places she regularly works with are starting to become familiar with her plant list and are working with her to get her customers what they need.
U-Plant strives to be known for its customer service, Jonick said.
“A lot of people don’t know anything about plants or flowers or anything like that. They know they want a beautiful design; they know they want really beautiful curb appeal — they just don’t know where to begin. And so that’s what we do. We come in and give them everything they need except the shovel.”
More information about U-Plant Landscape Designs is at uplantlandscapedesigns.com.