03/01/2012 12:16 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

Brutal Honesty in the Garden

Last month started a new year for the Chinese lunar calendar. In the Chinese Zodiac this will start the year of the Water Dragon which is a year filled with lots of energy -- could be good or bad. But it will be an interesting year and a year filled with creativity. I am a rooster under the Chinese Zodiac, and the Dragon year is usually a good year for us. Of the rooster traits, there are elements that I believe are accurate in my personality and other that aren't. One rooster trait that I will say I have is a need for complete honesty. Most of the time this has served me well in business, but not always, and of course the same in my personal life applies as I am sure you can imagine.

A few weeks ago I was asked to look at a garden where the homeowner had been having constant problems growing grass in a certain area. He had been told by his gardener more water and fertilizer was needed. Other landscapers had been out and recommended resodding. I looked at the area and told him, "You can't grow grass here, it just won't work." I could tell that was not the response he was hoping for. He swallowed hard and said, "Well, I have had grass here before, it looks great for a while and then just dies." "Precisely, I said. It is dying because you don't get enough sun here for it send up new grass to continue growing." Again, I got the sense I wasn't giving him the answer he really wanted. "Look, I said, I can tell you want you want to hear, and I can resod it for you, but in less than two months you will be back in the same boat, dead grass." I gave him some other options, a shade tolerant ground cover, some plantings that will work, but I told him that unless he was prepared to regularly replace the sod in this area, grass would not work. I left and to be expected, never heard from him again.

I will freely admit that this honesty thing can be a real curse at times. I have had to let work go because I am unwilling, no really unable to tell someone something that I know is not going to work in their garden. Yesterday I met with a tree trimmer that I regularly use to look at a school where we do the maintenance. We met with the head of maintenance at the school. She had a list of trees that she had been given by her superiors at the school that they wanted trimmed. Alex, who also suffers from the honesty curse (he is French so people expect it a bit more from him I think). While walking the property he stopped in front of group of trees with many dead branches and limbs.

"Oh no," the head of maintenance said, we don't need those trimmed." In his charming French accent Alex said, "Sorry, but you do, these are a real hazard."

She shook her head, "Well, it isn't on the list of trees I was given," and she walked on. At the next grouping of trees she stopped and said, "These are the ones that they want trimmed."

"No," Alex stammered at this point, these do not need to be trimmed, but those other trees do." He went on, "I could take this work, it would be more money for me to trim these trees, but the other trees or more urgent." I should have asked him if he was also a rooster, I will at our next meeting. Or it could be that smattering of French blood I have is really the root of it all and nothing to do with roosters.

At this point I felt I needed to intervene. "Alex, I will pull together all of your points on this and I will relay them to the director and the head of the committee responsible for this decision." I realized there was no point in continuing on this, she was clearly following orders. We proceeded through the rest of the walk through.

I find it interesting that so many people have great difficulty just being honest and I just have to ask since we are dealing with roosters, is it the chicken or the egg? Is it the reaction that they are afraid of ? Or is that it is just easier to go along and not rock the boat. I would argue that they are thinking of themselves rather than the person they are not being honest with. It is a risk for sure, a risk that you won't get the work or that someone that matters to you may be upset with you or worse if you are honest with them. We can kid ourselves into believing that it is just a minor thing, where is the harm really? But ultimately clients are putting their trust in us, like in any important relationship. Without that trust, I would argue you can't create the best landscape for the client. Trust is key. Similarly in personal relationships you can't get deeper than just a superficial level without it.

I am sure Alex and I can learn more tact perhaps, and perhaps being a bit more delicate in our delivering of the truth. But I know in this year of the Water Dragon, this Fire Rooster has absolutely no choice but to tell the truth.