If you work in a large and very interesting garden, with a lot of history and unusual features, you have a lot to talk about! The art of being a fascinating and informative host is to really know your subject. Not only regarding the plants, trees and shrubs that form the backdrop to the garden but as many facts as possible that will be of interest to a visitor.
The starting point is to establish the type of group you will have to guide. A party of elderly members of the general public may include a number of very keen and knowledgeable gardeners, but their first point of interest on arrival will probably be the location of the nearest toilet! All you have to do is to imagine that you were a visitor, and start your own tour from there. Walk around the garden, following the pathway you intend to lead your expected group, and continue until you have either exhausted the reservoir of interest, or one hour, whichever is the soonest.
Other visiting groups may include schoolchildren or Landscape Architects, Landscapers or a Garden Society. It is important to establish the likely nature of your guests, and tailor your agenda accordingly. Try to keep numbers to under twenty, otherwise you find that stragglers will drift away, unless shepherded by an assistant. Any spread will affect your ability to hold the attention of the majority, if you are constantly trying to monitor the group’s progress. This diversity may affect or spoil the emphasis of your presentation.
Gather as much information as you can from the records of the property and any other sources available. If you have a collection of interesting rhododendrons, why not invite a member of the Rhododendron Society to come for a private viewing of the garden beforehand as your guest, and ask as many questions as you wish. Such a privileged conversation will prove invaluable both to yourself and your presentation and if you share any knowledge you may have gleaned regarding original sources of plants, you will have helped the expert in return.
Establish areas that may provide natural resting points, to allow any stragglers to catch up without making your reason obvious. There will be natural ‘crossroads or laybys’ on your walk, and if they combine with an interesting fact or feature, all the better. Don’t forget the history of the layout of the grounds. Discuss water tables and levels, soil types and variations, cold spots or frost pockets, wind tunnels or suntraps. Continually feed information to the gathering. If you have known dates or details of original costs of projects – their designers or architects, renowned growers or local characters (including old Head Gardeners if they warrant the title of character!) – make them aware of everything relevant to both the garden and their current visit.
Explain how your team manage to cut seemingly impossible hedges, or keep lakes and ponds clear of weeds and water lilies. What types of mower and mowing regimes you use to maintain wild flower meadows. How you fertilise certain areas, but avoid others, explaining all the time, what you do and how and why you do it.
It is very important to avoid making any comments that may be construed as criticism of your employer, the Law or previous Head Gardeners. You simply never know who you may be talking to, and risk spoiling the whole event if you make an innocent personal statement that may offend someone in the group. (For example, avoid complaining about fox or badger damage, and any mention of contentious issues such as slug pellets or deer repellents)
Each group of visitors will be different, and as the seasons change, so perhaps will a large part of your talk, and it may be helpful to repeat the exercise of preparatory site walking to refresh your programme. Sometimes your agenda may be led by the amount of flower showing at the time, whilst another may major on the number of different bark types and colours displaying at that moment.
The weather may also play an important part of your tour. If it is wet, allow for umbrella ‘cover’ that may intrude on your viewpoints. Too much heat or sunshine may cause discomfort or dazzle people to your chosen subject. If possible, try to establish a route that does not include puddles or mud. Always be aware of the time, as often a visit is only one part of a Group Outing. Allow time for a refreshment/comfort break within the time slot you have been given.
Always summarise at the end of the talk, thanking the group for their interest. Make them feel they were very welcome, but leave before they do to avoid issues of tipping and subsequent embarrassments! Visits and tours should be warmly encourage by Employers, as they offer an opportunity for the whole Gardens Team, and the Head Gardener in particular, to appreciate more fully just how important well maintained and interesting gardens are to the property. It is the most rewarding method of Staff Training, recognition and appreciation I can think of.