Bite Size History Of Running A Small Business

A potted history of my small business, inspired by the wonderful bite size blog posts of how Charles Boyle has run CB Editions, so I thought I would do something similar for Modern Mint.

Well, with Coronoavirus hitting I have the time to get all nostalgic….

  1. Moved to Essex from Hampshire, going from a list of relentlessly busy garden maintenance jobs in huge gardens whilst spending evenings and weekends doing project planting and lawn care work to… nothing.
  2. Went to Japan for two weeks, a gift to myself for making the move away from a job where I was such a busy boy. Strange attitude, allowing life to be that busy and thinking that is ok.
  3. darren thin
    Picture above and I’m hilariously thin/seriously ill depending on your viewpoint from spending so much time doing gardening work
  4. Thought running an online business was easy, so began selling stuff online. Realised I am rubbish at computers, have no idea how to code, didn’t even know what people wanted to buy. Should probably have researched before I begun.
  5. Above is one of the first products. Tut? Yes.
  6. Ran out of savings because bought products that wouldn’t sell and exhibited them at shows and fairs where people didn’t buy. Thought I had to offer people what they wanted, too late realised I actually have to offer what I think is good, what I use, then finally share with people how I look to go about things (whether that is for good or ill.) Started working again as a gardener at another small garden business to make some money.
  7. Wrote 100’s of weird and terrible blog posts, trying desperately to understand what would bring people to a website and get them to buy something.
  8. Became a volunteer Tree Warden at Chelmsford Council. Another volunteer suggested I offer talks to garden clubs about how to garden. Vomited with nerves just thinking about it.
  9. Met Charlotte Molesworth at the garden of a wonderful flower grower in Kent. Charlotte promptly got me round to her garden for a look, we got on well and so I began helping in her garden – becoming the first person apart from herself to ever clip the topiary she had spent decades growing.
  10. topiary art
    Day 1 clipping Big Bird at Charlotte’s and I was so nervous I slipped and cut a huge chunk out of it. (Oh how we laughed, later, much later, much much later…)

    topiary artists


  11. My first talk at Chignal St James Garden Club, Essex. I wore a suit (which made me appear patronising, and alienated the audience), the projector didn’t work so there was nothing to look at (apart from my suit) and I spent an hour staring at a point on the back wall, waved my arms around a lot, scuffled my feet and shouted unclear nonsense about gardening before going home in disgrace, completely disconnected from anyone who came to listen.
  12. Began being asked to do more talks (amazingly), including at flower festivals and working as the opening act for Mary Berry and other gardening royalty…. why did I get asked? Because I was local to the company asking and I said I would do it for the stall space at the flower festival to sell my… tut.
  13. Topiary work became a wider and wider part of my work in the summer. Mainly because the work I had begun a few years before started to turn into something good. That’s the joy of topiary, it takes a little time to get going, but then sells itself.
  14. Did a reasonable number of projects for the Chelsea Fringe, 100 Word Manifestos about gardening and the Capture Carbon In Your Garden Project.
  15. Asked by Essex Beekeepers to talk at their big lecture on plants for bees. This led to being asked to write a book on the same subject for Northern Bee Books. Still not finished the first draft…. the gardening has got busy again, if that can be an excuse for failing massively to deliver a useful book? Can it? Come on! I’m a small business owner with a million separate things to do!
  16. The Guardian took stupid photos of me clipping topiary.
  17. Continued saying yes to any speaking work at all, in order to get better at it and because I learn loads from the people I speak too. The garden club audience is a valuable tool for better understanding gardening and what people want. This in turn led me to revamp what I sell online, offering less choice but better value… and to focus on keen gardeners.
  18. Did a one hour stand-up show at the Faversham Fringe to a packed house (20 people) called The Grinning Gardener. We had a blast in a tiny, hot room in the late evening of mid-summer. Vowed never to do it again.
  19. Started teaching topiary for The European Boxwood and Topiary Society. This work went alongside my talks to garden clubs, the frequent trips to the post office to send out packages from the online sales and then actual topiary and pruning work for a bizarre and delightful range of clients across the UK.
  20. Wanted to even out my carbon footprint so started a grove of trees at Trees For Life, who have currently planted 152 trees for Modern Mint and taken £100 in donations in 5 months from Modern Mint and our supporters. You can plant a tree and reduce your carbon footprint too…
  21. Right now I’m sat in front of the computer screen, work cancelled as Coronavirus hits, looking back at what has happened over the previous 6+ years since Modern Mint came into existence and finishing writing this blog post…

The Lesson For A Small Business Is?

That you can’t tell what will happen.

Research on what people will pay for is useful before you begin, and saves you wasting your money away like I did. But getting things wrong also forced me out of my comfort zone, because I had to learn new skills – like speaking concisely and interestingly in front of large groups.

small business talks
Thankfully not as thin and ill looking as when I was in Japan….!

When giving a talk, I do not always tell people what they want to hear (because you cannot sugar coat how much hard work gardening can be on occasions) but I certainly try to inspire them to make choices about waht they plant, and how best they can enjoy what they do with their space.

The speaking and teaching has become part of the job, alongside continually improving at pruning and making sure the website is up to date and, of course, that people get their orders quickly (I’m not always very good at this.)

Running a small business is fun.

You learn resilience, you adapt to what is happening right now, you meet lots of fun people and feel intensely lots of emotions at each end of the spectrum of exultation to despair. It is a great way to live, even now amidst the uncertainty.

The talks and teaching are cancelled at the moment, so now I get time to think about pruning, both the best way to do it and the best way to teach it to others.

By the summer, you may even need some pruning help? If so, thiings will look up quickly if you keep me in mind then get in touch.

And who knows what else the future will hold for Modern Mint, a small business that has already changed a lot over a short space of time?

Now check out some topiary I’ve made here.


EBTS Boxwood Growers Forum

Through the European Boxwood and Topiary Society I worked with Chris Poole and Sue Mesher, members of the EBTS board, and we set up a Boxwood Growers Forum. This was to discuss how to make sure this wonderful topiary plant stays in the public conscioussness – we know many growers, suppliers and distributors have stopped selling it as the cost of replacing boxwood that has blight, or is nibbled by the boxwood caterpillar, makes it unviable to offer to clients and gardeners. But Boxwood is a phoenix plant, and there are ways to deal with the problems associated with Buxus. …



Modern Topiarist @ Garden Masterclass Poland

My video on Modern Topiary for Garden Masterclass has been translated into Polish, for the keen gardeners (and happy pruners!) of Garedn Masterclass in Poland. Tickets for the first showing and q and a were available here. But it will become available on the Garden Masterclass Poland website at some point in the near future – so if you are a keen clipper and want to know more, but speak Polish and not English, then I suggest you visit the website and get watching. (Of course, if you don’t speak English, you may not be able to read this…. hmmm… …



Topiary Hotline

The European Boxwood & Topiary Society are to run a Topiary Hotline for keen gardeners and people who love to clip. Date is tomorrow, April 16th 2024, and you can get a ticket for the Zoom meeting here – Topiary Hotline. Run by Chris Poole and myself, we set this up as an antidote to the huge amount of questions we have to answer about topiary throughout the summer. The plus is that their is an excitement around topiary and pruning. The problem is we need to help people in a better way… … so we will be giving people …