Applying For A Job As A Head Gardener

There is no standard approach, or formula that may be applied to the decision to apply for a position as Head Gardener. Many of you will already be Head Gardeners, and seek to move on to another property for a wide variety of reasons. As a professional, you may consider that you are not being sufficiently challenged in your existing employment, or you and your family may relish a change of location.

Your interests may change, and you become keen on (say) organic vegetable growing, alpines, top fruit, glasshouses and orangeries – so many different aspects and opportunities for advancement come into play. Sometimes money is a factor, or perhaps a better education/school for your children. Some people do not want to feel  ‘institutionalised’ by working at one place for more than a certain period of time. And so the decision is made to attempt to find another similar or better job.

Certainly, money matters and changes in the life style/life stage of both you and your employer can influence decisions. Sometimes too little opportunity to experiment with or explore new horticultural techniques and ideas can cause boredom to set in, and a creeping realisation that it is somehow’ time to move on!

There can be no doubt that your previous experience will influence your choice of potential jobs, as it will count heavily in your favour at the interview. Progressive experience that will be useful to your new employer, especially skills that you have learned by your own merit – perhaps by extra curriculum activities outside your normal work schedule e.g. plant pathology courses or Health and Safety Legislation will help to set you apart from other applicants.

Your previous and/or current situation may influence the manner in which you learn of new job opportunities. For example, if you currently working for The National Trust, you may learn of a possible opening at (say) a private garden or English Heritage site by word of mouth or perhaps an internal grapevine. You may read of vacancies in The Horticulture Week, LinkedIn, Professional Gardeners Guild announcement or even the local newspaper.

You may choose to apply through an Agency, or other commercial organisation specialising in Horticultural employment. The source of that information will play an important part in how to commence your job application process. As I mentioned, there can be no standard approach, as the overall scenario is so diverse.

Selecting your target job opportunity

Having made a clear decision regarding the type of job you wish to apply for, the location and your basic personal requirements concerning pay scale and employment conditions, you may begin to research opportunities. (This essential personal thresh hold is important. If you need to earn a particular wage in order to provide for your family, this may be your first and only priority.)

Irrespective of how you came to learn of a particular job vacancy, your next step should be to research the new property and employers as thoroughly as possible. Today we have a wide range of research methods, with the internet providing information including the site history, previous and current owners, the value and size of the property, including aerial maps, plans and photographs of the site. It will also state when it last changed hands, and if new owners are living there, the potential for site improvements may be on their agenda.

From these photos, you may note the amount of grass areas, size and number of glasshouses, areas of woodland, wild flower meadows, lakes and ponds, swimming pool, tennis court – just about every physical aspect of the grounds. Access roads and neighbouring properties will also be shown, and you should write all of this visual evidence down as part of your campaign documents.

Let us assume that you heard of the job via an advertisement in The Horticulture Week. The job description should relate to the site you have researched, and any variations should be noted for future reference. For example, the site as described may be larger or smaller than that shown on the internet. Perhaps some of the land has been sold, and if so, the sale may indicate financial problems with the owners. If the photographs indicate glasshouses – don’t forget to check the dates of the aerial pictures – and the advert does not mention glass, you should make notes of these prima facie discrepancies for your records.

The job advertisement description should provide you with many clues – quite apart from obvious statements made in the advert, you should learn to read between the lines! I have included six genuine job vacancy adverts as a separate document in the Stage Two file. I have also added notes to each, highlighting the potential clauses and variations of meaning that may be implied by the words. Several phrases that may appear quite incongruous can have a major impact on your employment conditions, and an awareness on your part is essential. These are by no means comprehensive, but are just examples of ‘standard’ style job vacancy descriptions.

I will discuss some of these phrases as they arise throughout the course, as they could be used to your disadvantage – unless you are aware of them! Be aware too, that often the simplest of job adverts – those with few descriptive words and little information – may hide complications and disguise difficult employers. Sometimes the lack of information may be an indication that there is much to hide!

Researching the Employers

Your campaign file should include as much as you know about the employer at an early stage. Your notes must clearly show YOUR understanding, as far as you can gather, of the actual person or persons you will be working for. If, during subsequent meetings and interviews you are disavowed of that researched information, and you are informed of another person or company that will in fact be your employer, that is not a problem – as long as you know. (Occasionally, a managing agent or third party acts as the ‘employer’ for reasons of security, for example, a film star or famous recluse who does not wish to court publicity)

It will be helpful too, to research the area to establish various family requirements before applying for the vacancy. Accommodation (if any) must be acceptable to you and your family. So it is with the local area. Check out schools and their reputation, distance to the nearest town or railway station if your partner needs to use public transport, and a host of other factors that may be important to you as a family.

Check out too, the type of property if you are not happy to work for certain people. It is no use applying for a position as Head Gardener to a Hunting Estate if you are anti-hunting, shooting or fishing! Driving into the interview car park with ‘Ban Hunting’ stickers displayed on your car will not endear the owners to you!

It will certainly prove useful to establish the precise location of the property, to ensure that you know where it is and how long it will take you to travel for interview. Make sure that you have contact details of the new employer, including telephone and email before you set out in case of any problems. Ensure that you have plenty of battery power/credit on your telephone.

It may also prove valuable to stay overnight at the nearest public house offering Bed and Breakfast. Whilst staying, casually mention to the barman/lady/landlord/locals that you are thinking about applying for the job at XXXX House. You will often find that you will learn a great deal more about the place, and its’ reputation as an employer (or why the last Head Gardener left!) from the locals than you ever will from a job advert!


There are two main Agencies who specialise in the supply of Senior and Head Gardeners. These are Greycoat Placements and English Country Gardeners. Other Agencies will supply gardeners, but not specifically at senior level. If you wish to use an Agency, you do not have to make any payment to them, as all fees are paid by the employer.

You should register with the Agency, and they will request a lot of information, both personal and professional, and hold this on file. Face to face interviews may be required for certain positions. Once a suitable vacancy arises, you will be notified and arrangements for interview put in place. Whilst they are keen to ensure that you find a job – after all, they are a commercial operation – they will not be able to carry out such finite and detailed research as you can yourself.

The Agency will hold your full details, as you have supplied to them, including any previous CRB/DBS security checks quoting reference numbers and dates of issue (although these will/may need renewing before a formal job offer is given to you, along with a medical report) and will pass that information on to a prospective employer. It is in Agencies interest to find the right person for the right job, and they will do everything they can to facilitate a mutually satisfactory end result.

It is helpful to have sight of a copy of their description of you as sent to the potential employer, although any corrections should have been made beforehand. Very often though, there is little time before your registration and the first suitable vacancy announcement and interview.

The Job Interview

Interview One – The Application Form

Yours Curriculum vitae should supply you with the primary requirement of your application. You have submitted your entry, having ensured that it arrived within any deadlines given by the advert/Agency. It is advisable to take a copy of your application in person beforehand – although this advice will depend on the type of job you are applying for. If it is a ‘professional’ organisation, say National Trust or ‘commercial’ say a large country Estate with offices, it is advisable to arrive with your entry and ensure that you obtain a written receipt from Reception before handing it in.

Submitting your application and c.v. documents (in triplicate) in one clean white A4 envelope to ensure that the papers are not folded, with your name and the job position clearly marked in the top right hand corner, within the deadline, complete with a signature is the only sure way to know that your file arrived safely and on time. This will be noted by the interview panel,  as a sensible precaution, especially in a large organisation.

Some organisations, rarely private, usually ‘professional’ will require applications to be made on line. Whilst there is no way around this process, as their HR department will not be geared up to handling anything other than computer generated forms, these do not give you an opportunity to stand out from other applicants. They may have many dozens – hundred even – of applications, the reader will only have a minute or two at the most to scan your entry before either accepting it as a possible, or putting it in the waste bin.

First contact really is that arbitrary.  Unfortunately, there is no way around that situation, but if you have certain letters designate after your name, you should use them against your name, and not bury them in the small print. I appreciate that this may be a contentious statement, but facts are facts! Lucy Smith MCI Hort or Phillip Jones BA (Hons) FCI Hort will have an immediate impact on the reader and get through!

If, for any reason at all, you are not able to make the interview, or you are going to be late, do not get flustered. As long as you give as much warning as possible – icy roads, thick fog, heavy traffic are all unavoidable (unless you take overnight lodgings nearby) – you will not be penalised by the panel. If you are unable to make the appointment at all that day, they may suggest an alternative date, but this is not helpful, especially if they have plenty of choice in their list of candidates!

Arrive in plenty of time, perhaps quietly informing the receptionist that you are on the premises (you may be asked in early, if someone else has withdrawn or is going to be late), and relax! Your shoes are clean, you look very smart – often smart casual/country clothing is the most appropriate, and don’t forget to put some clean wellington boots in the car just in case you are invited for a walk round (unlikely at First Interview, but be prepared).

Avoid all scents, including perfume, aftershave, mints, etc that may be associated with disguising aromas. Avoid eating aromatic food, including curry and garlic, do not drink the evening beforehand, certainly not wine or spirits – anything at all that may impinge on the meeting. These smells can be seriously distracting to the meeting – try to be aroma neutral!

It is widely held that the first three seconds of seeing someone will influence the way the interview is conducted, and I would not disagree with that comment. Walk in confidently, not too cockily! Smile and make eye contact with everyone, including any secretary or staff member. Don’t expect to shake hands with everybody unless it is obviously the right thing to do. Attempting to do so without being invited can often appear clumsy. Do not sit until invited to do so. Do not sit with your arms defensively across your chest, or similarly cross your legs. Do not clutch a portfolio against your chest, and place any documents you have bought with you against your chair leg – don’t just dump them on the table!

Try all of these movements at home – you will learn how to avoid clumsiness and see how you appear to the panel. Try to visualize the whole meeting, each and every question that may come your way. Practice might not make perfect, but it will certainly help with your confidence.

Talk clearly and not too fast. Personally, I find this very difficult, and have to force myself to slow down! Try to identify everyone in the room, asking if necessary, both who they are and what their role is in the interview. If you keep a small note book handy, don’t be frightened to be seen making notes. This particular point may prove  invaluable at a later stage.   (See page 12) Listen carefully to what is being said at all times. Don’t be afraid to ask for any clarifications.

If you are presented with business cards, look at them carefully. Don’t simply glance at them and put them in your pocket. Treat all cards with respect, and show an interest in the person presenting them. If they have a high profile position, a slight nod of the head out of respect is always polite and appreciated.

Do not stare at peoples’ chests – especially the opposite sex (!) as it unsettles the meeting. Try to hold your gaze at nose level and above. Staring at an attractive pair of lips or a film star like finely chiselled chin may be considered flirting, and should be avoided.

Make a mental note of any papers on the desk. If you see only your application, with various notes and comments visible (e.g. slips of paper marking various pages), this is a positive thing. If there are a pile of other applicant packages, how many others have similar slips showing? Is the interview being conducted by rote; are the panel following a set of written ‘rules’ or are they making independent notes?

Try to invite ‘open’ questions – those that give you an opportunity to expand from a personal viewpoint, and try to avoid ‘Yes/No’ questions as they give you no opportunity to shine. If you find that the panel are being too formulaic, or if they ask you for any questions, then seize the chance to ask them open questions. Don’t be afraid to ask what happened to the previous Head Gardener if the opportunity arises. It may be their answer is at variance with the information you gleaned from the pub landlord! Don’t comment, just make a mental note for the future. You will be asked – at any time – if you have any questions. If you cannot think of anything ‘intelligent’, say “not at this time”, not simply “No”.


Case File – Actual Questions from a genuine interview.

(As a consultant, I am increasingly commissioned to either take part in, or organise job interviews and recruit new senior and Head Gardeners. The following document was produced by myself for use at a recent interview. I have changed some of the details to maintain confidentiality, but otherwise, they are accurate.)

(Whilst I am sitting in on the interview, I have asked another member of the panel to ask these questions, so that I may make notes. The questioner will not have full knowledge of the answers I am seeking, and has been asked not to respond to any queries, but refer them to myself.)

“XXXX is widely held to be one of the finest XXX in the world. The XXX buildings and grounds at XXX are also some of the most famous and historic in the world, and the nuber of high quality applications we have received for the post of Head Gardener reflects that status”

(Here, I am setting the scene for the candidates by stating that this is a very important post and that the calibre has been very high. Statements such as these help to cement the seriousness of the process that is about to take place)

“You are to be congratulated on reaching the short list from such a reservoir of talent. It necessarily follows that the interview today will include many challenging questions. Are you happy to proceed with the interview?”

(Of course, nobody would decline such an offer, but again, the candidate is being readied for a serious conversation. This is not small talk!)

Q.  “Your curriculum vitae is very impressive – what do you consider to be your most outstanding attribute? What can you offer that other candidates cannot?”

This is a loaded Open Question. First part of the statement is complementary, although obvious. How do you answer this question? How do you know what attributes the others may have when you do not know?

The answer should be positive – as you do now know what they have to offer, you cannot make comparisons, but you feel that your strongest point/s are XXXXX, and that with XXX years practical experience you feel quite confident in your ability to manage change and build the department to be a credit to the place.

Q  “Do you consider yourself to be a Head Gardener or a Gardens Manager? How do you see your present role in your current job?”

Another loaded Open question. As you will see as the questions unfold, there is every opportunity to contradict yourself if you do not answer accurately and fully. Be very clear in your answers, and make sure that each important part is noted by the panel.

It may be best to reverse the answer, but stating how you see your position in your current role. Just be honest, and note the fact that the question of being a Manager has arisen may indicate that the panel are looking for someone who can MANAGE rather that a highly skilled gardener. Obviously, your answers will reflect your own position, and of course, that of the type of property you are being interviewed for. It is to your advantage to have some experience of managing affairs as well as horticultural knowledge.

Q  “Would you say you were a proactive or reactive person in your professional life.”

Yet again – a loaded Open question. An honest answer to the effect that everything depends on the circumstances, as sometimes one may be presented with a positive situation that may greatly benefit the garden and gardens team, and that you recognise the nature of the opportunity and warmly embrace it. Other times, a measured response is the correct position to take when confronted with problems, but generally like to think that you are proactive, always striving to work in an efficient manner, driving things forward in a timely sequence.

Q  “How do you like to run your team? Do you prefer to carry out all aspects of day to day management or allow the staff to think and act for themselves thereby giving them responsibility for their time and actions?”

You will have gathered by now that all questions are loaded and presented in such a way that you are obliged to answer – hence ‘Open’ questions as opposed to ‘Closed’ questions that require only a simple Yes or No.

The answer I would like to hear would be along the lines that you are firm in your staff management rules, yet expect everyone to use common sense when applying them. For example, the staff will be trained to undertake certain tasks under given conditions and in a timely manner. If unforeseen circumstances arise, I will not expect them to stand around idly waiting for instructions, but to use common sense and move on to another allotted task within their capabilities and in the proscribed manner, and explaining their actions and reasons when called upon if required.

Q  “Do you prefer to conduct Personal Assessment Evaluation Meetings with staff, or Two Way Reviews?”

Many Head Gardeners may not have used a formal method of continually assessing or appraising staff. Personal Assessment Evaluation (or Appraisal) Meetings are held between the Manager/Head Gardener and the staff member.  These normally occur once or twice a year, and provide an opportunity for the Head Gardener to advise the employee of their progress at work. It is also the time to discuss formal matters such as poor performance, staff training and other important matters in a formal manner. These meeting are recorded in files for future reference.

Two Way Reviews are more open and involve both the staff member and the Head Gardener interviewing each other in a formal manner. Normally written down in a format, with a number of heading including conduct, training requests and so forth. (More of these reviews at a later Stage). Two Way Reviews are invaluable as they act as a record, agreed and signed by both parties, confirming the results of the meeting as the yard stick to measure progress including commitments by the Head Gardener to assist the subordinate with their career development.

Q  “What would you consider to be the single most important item of everyday use to you as a Manager?”

You may not be surprised to learn that most people answer ‘mobile ‘phone or computer’. This is not the answer I want to hear! What if there was a power cut? How would you manage without power for your computer? If there was no ‘phone signal, what would you do then?

The answer I want to hear is your personal daily diary or logbook. Everything of import that happens on a day by day basis – from the weather to how many staff turned in/were late/ill, which greenhouse requires the heater checking out? What VIP turned up today – or a visit by the mole catcher – anything and everything that you may need to refer to at some later date. Even if these matters are recorded elsewhere or in another format, your diary is the most important item by far. In much the same way that a Policeman’s pocketbook is a hugely important document primarily as it is a contemporaneous record, the Head Gardeners Logbook should be maintained and stored under lock and key.

Q  “What would you have achieved by the end of the first week of duty? Please describe the likely programme of your first five days, and what benefits of your actions would have on the well running of your department?”

Q  “Similar question – what stage in understanding your department would you hope to have achieved by the end of the first month?”

As both of these questions are closely related, and I will deal with them at length in the Course, and as each garden will vary in size and complexity, the answer will be bespoke in each case.

In general however, a statement to the effect that you will have interviewed all members of staff, collated as much information as possible reference other departments (or people whom you will have professional contact with in the course of your working week) including names and telephone/email addresses. You will have introduced yourself to those who need to work with you. You will have instigated a site survey and begun conducting an audit and inventory of all tools and equipment…… As much as your particular site requires.

Q  “Describe your methods of dealing with difficult staff, perhaps outlining a couple of examples from past experience. Please give the reasons for the problems, how you dealt with them, and the outcome”

As you can see, the questions are getting more difficult to answer. If you have had no such issues, do you tell the truth – that you have never experienced any problems? Or do you launch into a tirade about the complete and utter **%^$£% you had to deal with in the past.

Think long and hard about the question, and answer as candidly as you can, perhaps drawing in other people e.g. your employers or other professional staff who were obliged to handle the case with you.

What is important is the process which you went through. All that is being asked is ‘Did you have a problem – and how did you resolve it?’

Q  “How soon would you conduct personal interviews with your staff? In what order would you decide each persons’ position in the interview programme? Senior first? Newest employee first? And why in this particular manner?

Don’t be fooled by the pecking order. Whilst it may seem sensible to call the most senior first, it is sensible to have a quiet word with him/her to explain your logic, and let them know what you are doing and why.

The answer is ‘according to their work duties’. It is polite and proper to treat each staff member with respect, and in order to do that, you should invite them to have a personal chat, just to get to know each other, and when would be a convenient time for them to come along to your office. It really does not matter in which order – youngest, most recent or most (self?) important.

Q  “How do you keep up to date with new legislation, products, materials and techniques? What ‘Out of hours’ activities do you undertake in understanding that latest developments in the world of horticulture?”

Simple question – what do you do?  The answer should be along the lines of ‘reading Horticulture Week, visiting Futurescape or The Landscape Show. Perhaps GLEE or other Trade shows. Chelsea and other RHS Shows. Visiting other Stately Homes and gardens.

Whatever your answer, be prepared to be quizzed on the unexpected!

Q  “Finally – in this part of the interview – where would you like to see yourself in ten years’ time?”

Killer question!  Up to you to answer!  Ambition is not frowned upon, and no-one is expected to remain in post forever. Perhaps the most politic answer is to reply along the lines of ‘that will all depend on what challenges there remain at this place!’

(These questions are bespoke to XXXX site. They are designed to be presented by XXXXX during the interview. They are intended to draw out any shortcomings in a candidate, and do not allow for ‘waffle’ or ‘bluffing’. They will provide the right candidate with an opportunity to really prove their merit)

(These are genuine questions I set for an actual interview for an important client. You should never assume that you will be asked simple questions, or that they will be in any way related to horticulture!)

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If you have such material, take along a number of photographs – not too many – showing you in various positions undertaking a number of different tasks. It is always helpful to see visual evidence of skilled activities, especially those using tools and equipment. Be careful not be appear ‘posed’, but as though you were unware that you were being filmed. These visual aids are very powerful. It is not advisable to bring photos of completed sites, with the comment ‘Here’s one I worked on last year’ – the panel want to see YOU in action! Similarly, photos of you at College or helping at The Chelsea Flower Show are/may not be considered as YOUR work. Being pictured spraying, cleaning out a fishpond or standing on a tall platform cutting a fine taxus hedge are an advantage during the First Interview.

Listen very carefully to what is being said. Make as many notes as you wish, especially those that involve more information. If you have not listened or misunderstood anything, and you are invited to the Second Interview, you will disadvantage yourself.

Internal Promotions

It is widely held that any business which operates an internal hierarchal system that permits staff to ascend a career ladder within the company structure is likely to be a well – run organisation, ready to train and improve the capabilities of the staff. Incentivising workers may be a major plank in the company policy, especially regarding such matters as Personal Career Development, with staff members being sent on external management, Health & Safety, IT refresher courses etc.– all have their place in promoting a healthy workforce.

Such training courses are vital to the success of the company, and funding should be included when drawing up the Departmental Annual Budget. The provision of such programmes also gives the Company Directors a sound record of progress made by an individual during the period of their employment. Even the most basic of HR Departments will hold details of any company funded training in the files for future reference.

Skilled and trained staff, having attained a certain level of achievement within a company, whether as Foreperson, Lead or Senior Gardener or Deputy Head Gardener will, at some stage in their career, be presented with an opportunity to apply for the position of Head Gardener, due to retirement or an unexpected vacancy. I will make a differentiation here, between a planned retirement due to age or a long expected plan on the part of the existing Head Gardener – when the whole company will be aware of impending changes – and a relatively short notice vacancy, when the incumbent decides to resign (for example) to move away from the area, giving a couple of months’ notice.

A long planned change may be dealt with almost seamlessly, with the current Deputy Head Gardener being gradually trained into the position, learning the inner workings of the Estate Management and being made aware of secrets reference finances and other ‘private’ issues, that only Directors and Management are privy to. The matter of internal promotion does not arise at the highest level i.e. Deputy to Head Gardener, and therefore any more junior adjustments to staffing are the responsibility of the new Head Gardener in the course of their chosen methods of managing the team. There is no external campaign to find and install a new Head Gardener and therefore no ‘vacancy’.

However, some Estates will wish to operate a more open exercise and actively advertise for a new Head Gardener to the wider world. This may be as part of a wide ranging commitment to (say) ISO 9000 or another ‘Investors in People’ style company programme, when the proscribed methods are clearly laid down, or perhaps to try to introduce new blood into the Gardens Department.

For this article, I will presume that you are a Senior Member of an existing workforce – let’s say that you are currently Deputy Head Gardener.

The vacancy for a new Head Gardener has been announced, both internally by means of a Staff email or notice to all personnel, and the job adverts have been placed in the local papers and the Trade Press. The full job description has been clearly provided as part of that advertisement. ENSURE THAT YOU KEEP A COPY OF THAT JOB DESCRIPTION FOR FUTURE REFERENCE.

Do not presume to know everything about the existing site, Estate, Company or your employers. Do not be complacent about any aspect of the job. Everybody who is serious about getting the position will have done their homework, and you can imagine how demeaning it would be if, during the interview, you were seen to know less about your site than a newcomer/outsider! Research and record everything and anything of interest.  Make sure that you can answer any question that may be asked. Number of visitors? How many acres? When was the House built? Who designed the original gardens? When were they laid out?

Even if these or similar questions are not asked, if you have the information at your fingertips, it will help to influence your confidence during the interview. This process of learning all about your Estate will provide you with a psychological advantage, or at least make you aware that you are COMPETING for the job, alongside many other applicants. Just because you feel you have an advantage inasmuch as you are a known quantity is a false security.

You must ensure that you are kept abreast of any changes to the job description or any other matter regarding the advertising. Very often, the net may be cast wider, and more applicants sought from new horizons (e.g. LinkedIn), and you need to be aware of these, as your competitors will surely be. Perhaps an Agency has been asked to provide candidates, and their recommendations may carry of lot of weight with the Estate Management. You need to know all of these things…………….

Never assume that you will be interviewed by people that you know. You may be informed by Management beforehand, but always expect the unexpected! Very often, the interview board will consist of the owner or his/her representative, a Director or Solicitor representing the Estate in a formal manner, an outside Gardens Consultant (such as myself) who will have a wide range of knowledge, including your reputation within the industry, and a member of the company HR Department.

The role of Head Gardener is a very important one. As Departmental Manager, the Head Gardener has a wide range of legal responsibilities, and the make – up of the interview board will reflect that importance to the Estate. (These will covered in more detail in Stage Three)

It is unfortunate, but often internal applicants are at risk of being disadvantaged, albeit in a well meant manner. It is not to your advantage to be invited into the interview during your normal working hours, and the company is not doing you any favours by paying you for a normal day. Allowing you time to change and prepare for interview is not helpful. You should either take a day as holiday or in lieu, and give yourself the same advantage as other candidates, to take time to dress appropriately  and to feel clean, fresh and tidy, ready for all comers! Simply knocking off mowing or pruning half an hour earlier, getting changed in the mess room and going along feeling hot and bothered is not fair!

Your c.v. has been presented and is looking good! (See Stage One for c.v. production) You have done all your homework, and feel you know the place as well as anyone. You are confident in yourself. You look good, feel fresh, are on time – clean shoes! – when you enter the interview room. You are happy that you are well prepared, and feel calm and confident.

Beware!  Because the interview panel know you, and know that you are fully conversant with the site and how it all works, they know that you know the existing staff, what goes on and when, how and why. Because they know that you know, the panel will not be asking the same questions of you, or giving you answers in the same way they will to a stranger.  And that’s a lot of ‘knows’! This is a perfectly natural fact, and it is up to you to guide the conversation along lines that suit you.

Never criticise anything regarding the Estate or the way it is run, or has been organised. Never criticise any staff member ESPECIALLY the previous Head Gardener. Because the panel may appear somewhat bereft of questions – they already have the answers in front of them – if they need to be guided back on track, ask them about their future plans for the Estate. How do they see the site being developed, what plans do they have to increase visitor numbers, how do they see the Estate in fifty years’ time. These and similar questions will keep the panel on the back foot, whilst at the same time, giving a clear indication of your interest in developments.

If you are asked to specify any improvements in the way the gardens are run, or the department is organised, don’t attempt to provide answers to what may be complicated issues. “Supposing you become Head Gardener. What improvements would you make?” and similar questions are easy to ask, but not easy to answer. Certainly not in the one hour or so you have for the interview. But you do have to give AN answer, and the most impressive reply is to state that if you were successful in your application, you would set out a timetable, reporting to the owner/board within thirty days, with your initial analysis of the status quo. You would further propose that (obviously, this all depends on the complexity of your garden!) a full audit is made as a matter of priority, clearly showing the state of the department, covering tools, equipment, supplies (chemicals etc) and the general condition of the outbuildings, watering systems, glasshouse etc. This audit is extremely important, as it will provide the grounds for all future discussions and responsibilities – without this document, there is no bench mark or foundation upon which to build.

If you are asked “What next?” reply that you would wish to conduct interviews with each staff member as the basis for your own Two Way Reviews. Previous two way reviews will reflect their relationship with the previous Head Gardener, and you need to establish your own rapport with the staff, initially to ensure they have no problems with your advancement. (Old friendships in the tea room may be difficult to forget once you are in charge, and you may be asked how you would deal with these personal aspects of your promotion. By stating your intention to hold these interviews will show that you are aware of, and are dealing with the matter.)

Reading these notes, you may feel that seeking internal advancement is not something I would recommend. That is not the case, but all too often I see good candidates fail at the interview stage because of some or all of the matters I have outlined. Especially important – do not assume that you have an advantage over other candidates because you know your job. The short listed candidates will also have very impressive track records, and they will be keen to promote themselves in a positive light.

They too, will have fresh ideas to bring to the Estate, and it is important that you recognise that your skills and talents now need to be stretched to begin to make your personal mark on the future of the Garden.

The Second Interview

Whilst I fully appreciate that many people do not have to sit through a second interview, either being offered the job there and then, there are nonetheless plenty of occasions when a second interview is called for. This interview will probably not involve all of the original panel, and may take place elsewhere, often taking the form of a ‘walk round’ with one or more panel members.

During this walk round, try not to contradict or comment on anything in a negative manner. After all, you may be contradicting the very same person who is walking you around the site! Hold your counsel – keep your thoughts to yourself and only make positive notes in public.

If you recognise a rare or unusual plant during your perambulations, by all means comment on it. There are often anomalies in some of the larger grounds, with acid loving plants sharing the same garden as lime lovers. This may be because of a change of soil type in a natural way (in my home village, we have deep chalk and acidic sand pits all within a few hundred yards) or due to localised pits of suitable soil, especially imported in some Victorian gardens.

Try to be both interested and interesting. Ask as many relevant questions as you wish, whilst avoiding potentially contentious issues or commenting (for example) on the owners new Rolls Royce or the damage done by the owners dogs or their children’s skateboards.

Do ask as many questions as you can think of, especially regarding the likely use of the grounds, potential for high water tables, access difficulties and how they are usually overcome, regularity of weddings/events, periods when machinery may not be used due to noise issues – a host of pertinent queries that a potential new Head Gardener may reasonably ask.

The Third Interview

Now is the time to take control of the meeting. You have successfully managed to get to the final stage and therefore must be in with a very good chance of success. You are now able to make your pitch!

Thank the panel (or however many are left at this stage – usually only two people) for inviting you back, and request that you would like to begin proceedings. This may surprise them, but why not? Say ‘I am a very proactive person, not reactive. I have seen and heard a lot about the job, and am very keen to be accepted. I believe I have the qualities you are looking for, and I am perfectly happy to take on the responsibilities that go with the position. However, in order to be proactive, I believe in delegating to the staff, thereby giving them ownership of their duties and responsibilities.’

Go on to describe what you have seen and heard during the previous interviews, and the notes you have made. This is now a two way conversation. You should talk as though you were in the post of Head Gardener – even asking their permission to do so. If you want permission to speak freely, this is invariably granted. Just don’t criticise  any individuals!

You will be asked why you want the job. What is wrong with your previous/current job? Whilst only you can answer those questions, everybody is entitled to better themselves, and your present Head Gardener (assuming that you are currently Deputy Head Gardener) is not due to retire for many years, and you want to progress your career. There are plenty of good reasons to want such a position, just have the answers ready!

As before, write down all relevant notes. IF IT ISN’T WRITTEN DOWN – IT DIDN’T HAPPEN!


The subject of the issuing – especially the timing of Contracts of Employment, is wide and varied. For example, for those of you working for The National Trust or English Heritage – or other ‘commercial’ property where a system of Management documentation is well entrenched, and those who are employed in the private sector, where perhaps the owner/employer has never previously used any form of written contract, are worlds apart. You should insist on a contract of employment before you start work, signed by both parties, with a copy to each. Legally, it may be acceptable to provide such a contract within your Probationary Period, and given once the position is ratified, but such caveats will be included in any event, and I recommend that you should have the contract in your hand before commencement of employment.

Similarly, the time to request sight of a copy of your Terms & Conditions/Contract of Employment is not one that can be proscribed. In many cases, there will only ever be one interview. One meeting and the job is offered to you. Simple, quick and easy! Except of course, nothing is that simple. Some private employers will state that they have never needed a contract before. “If I can’t trust you, I wouldn’t offer you the job” is a common statement unfortunately. I appreciate it is very difficult to answer such a statement, ostensibly given as a compliment, but you should reply along the lines that it is my livelihood and the welfare of my family that I am concerned about – thank you for your trust in me, but I must have a proper contract before I commit to working for you please.

Directly you are offered the job, or seem very likely to be asked for a start date, you should ask for a copy of the contract. (I have already dealt with accommodation licences under Stage One, as these are necessarily separate from Contracts of Employment) Never forget that a job offer is simply that – a job offer. You are not obliged to accept the offer, even if it accords with the description set out in the job description. Neither is the employer obliged to honour a verbal job offer. Only once contracts are agreed and signed is the contract complete.

Essentially, a Contract is in ‘sections’. Section One is the job offer to you. Section Two is the negotiation part of the job offer i.e. Salary, Terms & Conditions, Benefits Package etc, which will vary from person to person, and should be bespoke to your job status, title and agreed responsibilities and can only be given BEFORE you agree to commence work on a stated date. Because  there are various legal guidelines, relating to different types of contract and their binding nature, if in any doubt, consult a solicitor. Far better to spend a modest amount of money engaging legal advice before making a far reaching commitment.

Section Three will likely be protection for the Employer, and will consist of Disclosure Checks for criminal records and possibly a Medical Health Check, both of these to be carried out before a formal, written job offer is made.

The actual wording of the Terms & Conditions will vary from site to site and job to job. ALWAYS ensure that you are offered a new Contract of Employment if you are subject to Internal Promotion. This fresh contract should include a) recognition of your past history and employment record (this to ensure that your period of employment remains uninterrupted for legal future requirements such as pension rights and redundancy matters) and b) your new job title, full work description and responsibilities and c) increase in salary and benefits package if applicable.

Always be aware (or beware of!) those contracts that appear too simple. A few lines on a sheet of headed paper entitled Contract of Employment must be treated with caution. Simple friendly phrases such as ‘Works as agreed and discussed’ may well turn out to become nightmarish if the employer wishes to add other duties, (“Other duties as may be required from time to time” is another phrase to cause alarm bells to ring!) such as running the children to school, cleaning out the drains or unblocking toilets. These are not part of ‘the job’ and may be treated as unreasonable.

An acceptable phrase may be along the lines of “Other duties as may reasonably be described as those related to the professional working practices of Head Gardener” and may include responsibility for (e.g.) site and equipment security or perhaps looking after the welfare of visiting contractors – those tasks that were not originally included or envisaged when the contract was drawn up, but nevertheless fall reasonably within your domain. It could be argued that any sensible person would accept and agree to help out as and when called upon without recourse to checking your Contract of Employment, but sometimes common sense falls by the wayside, or indeed, the temperament and nature of your employer may change with the years, and it is better to have such things included in your written contract of employment.


If you are not offered the job, yet have made it through to Third Interview, you may be certain that you were a very sound candidate. This is why it is so important to have details of your original interview panel. Write personally to each, thanking them for considering you for the position, and having made it to the final hurdle, you are really appreciative of their time and trouble. You would be surprised at how often the final candidate is offered the position, only to turn it down at the last minute due to a) a pay rise at their existing employment, b) partner change of mind or c) changed their mind personally . There is no appetite to go through the whole process again, and the second choice candidate is offered the job. This does not mean that you were second best; and you will greatly increase your chances of being offered the job if you are remembered for your polite letter.

Terms and Conditions

You will have noticed that I have not mentioned pay or conditions thus far. (I dealt with accommodation in Stage One) This is primarily because the job advert will have indicated the renumeration package, probably including holidays and hours of duty. As Head Gardener, you will probably be required to work some weekends, and perhaps on call at other times of the year. Every property is different, and duties will vary accordingly. You will see from the various notes I have made on the genuine job advertisement  descriptions that you must avoid ‘Catch All’ terms such as ‘Other duties as may be required’. If there is anything that may be misinterpreted, make sure it is corrected in any contract you sign.

The financial package on offer is only that – an offer. It is perhaps unwise to argue for a pay increase unless you feel that the job as advertised is substantially different from the actual job – perhaps the security aspects are more onerous than you were led to expect, or you are willing to take on the maintenance of the swimming pool – and you feel the package could be enhanced. If working to a budget, there may still be room for enhancements such as dental care, Council Tax, telephone, Health Care/BUPA. Unless you ask, you will not know!

Developing Relationships with your Employer

If you are very lucky, you will take over a garden that has been maintained and cherished by the previous Head Gardener, yet will still require certain elements that need the attention of a fresh and enthusiastic new leader. The owner/s will have given due respect to your predecessor and you will fit in perfectly! However, this is rarely the case, as on too many occasions, the previous incumbent had left things to drift, herbaceous beds become clogged

with just a few rampant varieties, shrubs are now misshapen and suffering from basal rotting – yet to the average person still look ‘OK’.

I will be looking more closely at Taking Charge of the Garden in Stage Three, as this is quite a complex subject, but the rapport between the new Head Gardener and the owner/s is a very important chemistry. Trust and confidentiality need to be earned as soon as possible, and this may begin with a private meeting, away from any management structure or Land Agent, and a general ‘getting to know you’ session produce a mutual understanding between garden lovers. For example, everybody has their favourite plants, planting schemes, colours, shapes and forms. Your duty is to provide that wish list, or at least, attempt to garden within that framework, and not plant vivid oranges if the owner dislikes such colours.

I often suggest that the Head Gardener should treat the owner as though they were in a ‘Contractor’ relationship, and the owner is the ‘Client’. Whilst constrained by finances (often) and site conditions (occasionally) there should be no bar to you providing your client with his or her wishes. If the call is for organic vegetables; ‘something I have always dreamt of, but we could not manage it previously’ or perhaps ‘fresh lemons’ for the House. If at all possible, try to manage wishes as well as expectations.

One of the first projects to undertake, if possible within the first week in office, is to make a full and detailed time dated photographic record of the site as it is when you take charge. No matter what, people very quickly forget the condition of the garden – there will always be areas that are unattractive – and no matter how many improvements you make, they will not be remembered. Time dated photographs, presented as an album entitled ‘Handover Day’ or something similar, will form the foundation of your new working life.  So-called ‘Photo-Books’ containing two dozen or more photographs may be purchased from local High Street print firms for just a few pounds, and make great records for the future.

Regular meetings should be set up, diarised and adhered to if at all possible. A direct private email address and text messaging system should be devised, and a record made of all incoming and outgoing messages in the manner of a Day Book. This will enable you to quote with confidence during any subsequent conversations, referring back to whatever date and time you received the call/instruction. This assiduity will stand you in good stead, as people will quickly learn that you are both efficient and conscientious – and that your diary is an accurate record of events.

Probationary Period

It is standard practice to offer a six month probationary period to new employees, at any level. During this period, a fixed and structured number of formal meetings between the employer/Agent must be recorded, even though they may only be an hour or so in length. These meetings must be held in an appropriate place – not a general chat around the compost area – and follow an agreed format.

At these meetings, all matters deemed important to either party must be included, and should revolve around the well – being of the garden, especially in respect of the performance of the Head Gardener. There should ideally be at least three such meetings within the six month period and written records of each produced and maintained on file; one copy or more to the employer, and one to the Head Gardener.

The subject matter will be different for each site, but must include information regarding the general management of the Estate as a whole in relation to the Head Gardeners duties and responsibilities. (If the Employer is making demands of the Gardens Department that cannot be met due to other factors e.g. lack of finance or labour resources, these must be formally recorded). Any shortcomings in the performance of the Head Gardener must be noted and explained in full detail. At the end of the Probationary Period, the employer cannot simply dismiss  you if this procedure has not been followed. Not even then, as standard legal procedure including verbal, written and final warnings must be adhered to.

An employer cannot simply dismiss you at the end of your Probationary Period without following due procedure.

Rationalising the Garden

In the very early stages of employment, you will have many ideas and thoughts of improvements, recognising that all things take time, and therefore patience. It is a worthwhile exercise to produce a visionary document, or personal wish list. This may of course, be undertaken in association with the employer, but you may like to put as much of your personality into your vision  as you are able to. Let’s call this your Personal Mission Statement.

To enable you to do this, you need to undertake an initial site survey. Much more of this in Stages Three and Four, culminating in the section entitled Maximising the Site Potential, which will only be possible after learning how the Estate in general, and the garden in particular, functions over a period of (perhaps) a full year.

Your mission statement may include a very wide range of subjects, but unless you have these written down at an early stage, you will not have a clear vision or know if such visions are possible to create. This early inventory of the site potential will lead on to other site matters, including Site Evaluation, Three Year Plans, Structured Future Planning and Working Practices, as these will form the blue print of your schemes.

It really doesn’t matter how scattered or nebulous your ideas are at this early stage, they are the initial building blocks for the future. Working together, explaining your ideas to the employer and gaining their respect and trust – working with them to help finance your dreams – will ensure a long and fruitful association.

All of the above matters in these first two course stages – yet you have heard nothing about the actual garden so far! Taking charge of a garden – becoming Head Gardener, responsible for the well – being of an important garden, being the custodian of a heritage site, is a serious job. If you can manage to establish a solid relationship with your partners – employers, Agents, family members and staff – as soon as possible, earning their respect and learning their requirements, tempered with the reality of the site and budgets, you will substantially increase the likelihood of creating a well – managed site and efficient and effective workforce.

Alan Sargent FCIHort MPGCA