The Hamster in the Wheel

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By Karen Chapman 

“And what do you do?”

“I’m a landscape designer…and an author, freelance garden writer, speaker, coach, consultant, and keen garden photographer. I maintain our 5 acre garden, help my husband with marketing his woodturning business and I’m a new nana and….” Geesh, I’m exhausted just listening to myself yet this is my 2017 answer. Ten years ago the answer would have been “a container garden designer.” Twenty years ago – full time Mum and part time music teacher. Thirty years ago? Research scientist.

Our lives and careers evolve, often in directions we never imagined. How do we balance all these facets and associated demands? How do we live a life full of passion and creativity yet still pay the bills?

I certainly don’t have all the answers but by sharing my journey I hope to help you to assess your own choices, ultimately leading to a more balanced life while avoiding the crazy “hamster in the wheel” syndrome, where no matter how fast you run you never seem to reach the end.

What is Your Motivation?

Chapman Foliage First cover.jpgMy goal when starting a container garden design business ten years ago was simply to earn enough money to put our two children through college. My husband was earning a healthy paycheck in the IT industry so I had the luxury of accepting or declining clients as whim and inspiration called. However, after a series of injuries, I realized that this physically demanding career was going to be short lived. I needed to diversify – fast.

Thus began my writing career when I was asked to design and write about a number of shade container gardens for Fine Gardening in 2006. Other than scientific papers I hadn’t written anything more original than shopping lists since graduating from University. I soon discovered that I loved this new outlet for sharing my enthusiasm for gardening and design. From this the seed for eventually writing a book was sown.

The following year I joined GWA and started my blog, Garden Adventures for Thumbs of All Colors. I acquired a wide range of readers – home gardeners, editors, plant growers, and publishers. Those blog posts led to other writing assignments as well as consultation and design clients.

In these early days, before I established my reputation as a designer and writer I gladly accepted low paying writing assignments for companies such as Houzz. These expanded my areas of influence, built my resume, and helped me understand the nuances of working with different editorial styles and meeting deadlines. Did I work for “exposure”? Sure. I knew no better and I had nothing to lose – then. But things change.


A major shift came in 2012 when my husband lost his job. Suddenly I was the sole earner. I had to make every minute count. Working for free or “exposure” was no longer an option. Spending two days to write a short piece for Houzz that only earned $40 was not a good use of my time. Funnily enough, as soon as I turned down these so-called opportunities I received requests from other companies and websites asking me to write for them at a much better rate. This helped validate that potentially risky decision.

Now I started to seek clients who were not only asking for a garden design but had a healthy budget to see it installed by professionals. By offering my services as a project consultant I was able to significantly increase my income from the earlier container gardening or design-only clients.


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As part of my business marketing I now write both a newsletter and a re-vamped blog but I have discovered that more people sign up for my newsletter than my blog. It therefore makes sense for me to spend more time sending out a newsletter every month or quarter (with plenty of calls to action and links to buy services and products) than I do writing informative but non-income generating blog posts.

Are blogs worth the time it takes to write the post? This is a question many of us have asked in recent years. Why are you writing a blog? For me it was initially about creating an online presence, establishing a following, building a brand, and learning how to write concisely, accurately, and quickly. I achieved all that but I have now reduced my posts from twice a week to twice a month. My focus today is to use the blog to promote my landscape design business first and foremost as well as sell books, video classes, events, and workshops. I don’t need to write so often to get the financial results I want.

My income from publishing (freelance writing, book royalties, sale of photographs, and shared revenue from Craftsy videos) now exceeds that from design. I am strategic in my agreement to work for ‘exposure’ – there has to be a really good reason, either philanthropic or business, to give my time, resources, and expertise away.

I am still the primary earner but thanks to the success of my husband’s new business Stumpdust, some of the pressure has been alleviated. We have also reduced our monthly expenses by making significant changes to our lifestyle.

Today my focus is to find the balance between enjoying our new grandchild and generating a livable wage. Both writing and landscape design will continue to provide our primary income while allowing me to work flexible hours. I also am beginning to generate some supplemental income from photography.

My peers and friends at GWA continue to provide me with a sounding board and offer both support and advice as I navigate each step. While I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, I am learning how to adapt to new challenges and changing times. I understand the importance of re-evaluating my personal hamster wheel on a regular basis. How about you?

Meet the Author 

Karen Chapman.jpgBorn in England, Karen owns Le jardinet, a Seattle based landscape design business. She is co-author with Christina Salwitz of Gardening with Foliage First (Timber Press, 2017) and the award winning Fine Foliage (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013). See her author blog at

Author: GardenComm

GardenComm, formerly known as GWA: the Association for Garden Communicators, provides leadership and opportunities for education, recognition, career development and a forum for diverse interactions for professionals in the field of gardening communication. GardenComm members includes book authors, bloggers, staff editors, syndicated columnists, free-lance writers, photographers, speakers, landscape designers, television and radio personalities, consultants, publishers, extension service agents and more. No other organization in the industry has as much contact with the buying public as GardenComm members.

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