I have had the privilege of acting as Consultant to several large gardens over the past few years, helping to develop the sites into becoming more ‘commercial’ or profitable/less expensive to run through a host of different, yet related, methods.
Not simply by improving efficiency, but by providing a raft of proposals and solutions to a wide variety of problems. I believe that my experiences both as Head Gardener to a large ‘commercial’ Estate (Goodwood) famed for several annual major events, combined with over thirty years of creating Show Gardens as a Designer and Builder of (mainly) RHS Medal winning gardens since 1982 (over sixty in total) has given me a unique insight into the world of Open Gardens.
The relationship between creating Show Gardens and improving commercial viability for Estate Gardens may be not obvious at first site. When you consider the logic and logistics involved in both, it becomes clearer. The disciplines within the Build Team, the ability to work efficiently and in a timely manner, all working together to produce something that is both crowd pleasing and attractive each year is one of the major benefits for any Landscape Contractor Company.
This team spirit becomes part of the lifeblood of the whole company even during normal working times.
Efficiency and working as a close knit team becomes the primary foundation of such firms, and the huge impact on the loyalty and confidence of the Team Members becomes infectious. Preparing for and presenting Show Gardens is a very similar process to opening up your work area to public scrutiny and appreciation.
By bringing this logic to my work as a Consultant, I have found ways to ‘Train’ everyone involved in developing what may be called Opening Your Garden To The Public. This article is a road map describing my approach to changing a Large/Estate Garden into one that is wishing to become an Open Garden. One that is open to the Public but also for money making Events. It is not based on any single site, rather as an exercise or general guide to fulfilling a dream.
Starting At The Beginning…
Some of the advice will not be relevant to your site, but for the sake of regularity, I will discuss these points to maintain the storyline. My work includes writing books and articles – The Head Gardeners Survival Manual and the Award winning column ‘Sargent’s Solutions’ in The Horticulture Week plus features for The Professional Gardener are examples – I receive many letters from PGG Members and via my websites. This feature is a combination of these many sources.
Whether the garden is owned by a single person, a Family or Trustees, it is very important that everyone is in agreement with the proposition to Open The Garden to the Public. Any hostility may cause friction and dissent within Senior Management and should be avoided if at all possible.
There should be a clear Business Plan, based on one or more of the following criteria; the need to raise money, a wish to return a once famous garden to its’ former glory, to establish a Charitable Fund or Educational Facility, to provide an income stream for future generations and ensure the long term security of the site; any one of a long list of sound reasons to establish a Public Attraction
or Events venue.
Careful consideration should be given to location and access, especially roads and potential traffic management issues (perhaps in discussion with the Police and other authorities), car parking facilities, time/noise restrictions and any other possible difficulties – all of which may be overcome once they are recognised.
The history and fame of the garden will be of paramount interest. Careful research should provide you with a number of different opportunities to start a publicity campaign or allow you to establish a number of allied business openings based around the fame of the garden. Your recognition of the history of the garden may provide many such links.
Senior Manager/Head Gardener
In my experience, there are few Head Gardeners who would not wish to manage a famous garden. Being responsible for running a renowned site was certainly my personal dream (becoming Head Gardener to Goodwood was worth more than all the RHS Medals put together!)
The relationship between the Owner and Head Gardener is crucial. Without a very strong Team effort, the development and transition of turning a private garden into one that is open and attractive to the paying public is not easy.
It is therefore important that the proposition is turned into something more formal. I strongly suggest that a Private Limited Company is set up to run the operation, with the Head Gardener becoming a Director of that Company, and given full voting rights.
Such a directorship need only apply to the Open Garden, not the general Estate or anything beyond the venture. The wording of the Articles of Association will limit any such restrictions, whilst at the same time ensuring that the Head Gardener is a part of the Management. This is an important factor that should be made known to other Staff Members.
Building a strong Team, all with the same ultimate goal of building and maintaining a well- managed garden presents a great opportunity to develop a training programme based on skills that transcend horticulture and sound working practice. It involves the whole team, and the prospect of working together to create something special is tremendously valuable to the employer. Even if the grounds are only to be open a few days each year, the standards of presentation will continue at a high level of excellence year round.
You might find some resistance to change. This may manifest itself in complaints of not wanting the public to ‘trample over my beds’, or ‘damage my plants’. The skills of the Head Gardener may not include transforming gardeners into becoming ambassadors for the Company. With careful planning however, a training programme may be devised that rewards embracing the new regime.
If regular meetings can be arranged, wherein a sliding time scale showing the various alterations to the way the site is to be operated, with all staff being involved in decision making and invited to make suggestions to improve the interest of a particular area, or make something safer for pedestrians for example, they will feel involved.
One or more staff members may wish to become Tour Guides, showing groups of people around the garden, (learning the skill of becoming a ‘teacher’ is one that will stand them in good stead for a number of reasons beyond the obvious), how to greet and treat such gatherings and share their enthusiasm for the site. (On occasion I have suggested that certain beds or areas are named after the Guide staff member e.g. ‘Betty’s Border’ or ‘Andrew’s Lawn’ if they have been responsible for that particular element in the past)
There will be a large number of issues to be recognised and dealt with. Car parking and traffic flow are perhaps the most pressing and must be addressed as soon as possible. Damage to verges may be alleviated with planning and some road pins and rope. A store of reserve materials will need to be established. These should include ground boards for cars that may be bogged down, a tractor and tow rope for the same reason, a pallet of road salt, ropes, No Entry or other emergency signs, including No Admission to the Public etc.
Pedestrian Foot Traffic signed flow control, either to guide individuals and small parties or large groups will need to be planned and catered for.
Adequate Toilet facilities and signage arranged, ensuring that all current legal requirements are recognised, including Disabled (even if the garden is deemed unsuitable for wheelchairs)
Before the gardens can be opened each time, one person should be responsible for inspecting the grounds, including all areas where the public may gain access (even if barred by signage) to ensure that there are no overnight problems with fallen branches/damaged walkways/flooding/slippery ground etc and a full Risk Assessment must be carried out, signed and filed daily against any claims. This person must be fully trained to carry out the work.
I have only provided a very simplified version of the regime of opening your garden to the public, with perhaps one or two seasons per year. More profitable events, including Special Annual Tours, Weddings, Antique Fairs, Open Air Concerts, Sculpture Exhibitions, Countryside Sporting Days (Archery, Clay Shooting, Pony Club etc) – everything will depend on your location, site, regional competition and a willingness to expand your Open Garden Offer.
Should you decide to experiment with such events, it is important that you draw up a Working Practice Schedule for issue to all Events Management Teams, either In-House or external organisers.
This should take the form of a booklet, with acceptance of all Rules accepted in writing by the organisers as part of their contract.
Rules that may be included should recognise the various responsibilities of the Event Holder. These will cover such matters as adequate insurance, provision of toilet hire, including plumbing and water connections, staffing requirements including security and car parking (you may wish to offer your own staff for a given fee).
Also strict instructions regarding breaking of the ground, water connections to kitchens (marquees etc, that will also require a specific area for hot water disposal without damage to grass areas by boiling water) and the reparation of any damage to the grounds whatsoever.
Special written instructions regarding the setting off of fireworks or other pyrotechnics that will result in litter spread around the gardens and damage to lawns by mortar style fireworks. Cleaning the area in daylight must be included in the contract.
All of these matters will evolve as time goes by, and new events take place. It is a learning curve, but forethought will make the process much easier to control and enable the Owners to make maximum profit from their endeavours.
To summarise, opening the garden to the public is a very wide ranging subject. As mentioned at the outset, few sites will require anything like the amount of discipline and logistical preparation that I have outlined.
If you do have an opportunity to open to the public, even in a small way, you should find the experience extremely worthwhile. Your staff should respond in a very positive manner, and the opportunities for improvements in both skills and attitude will be great.
By being prepared for success, and finding your decision to Open the Garden to be very popular, if you have a Forward Plan in the filing cabinet, ready for larger and more profitable events in the future, you will be prepared for anything!
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