From A Good To A Great Head Gardener

Over a career spanning more than fifty years, I have met and been enthralled by a small number of incredible people, all of whom I consider to be ‘Heroes’ of our industry. They were probably completely unaware of how much of an impression they made on me, but they were instrumental in enthusing me with their words and positive attitude towards their work.

What they all had in common was enthusiasm, unbounded knowledge and a willingness to share those skills with others. Whether it was simply words of encouragement or explaining some ‘Trade Secrets’ they had learned over the years, I absorbed this information like the proverbial sponge!

This positivity is the key to success throughout your career.

I have met and worked with some very clever and knowledgeable Head Gardeners. Their horticultural skill is way beyond anything I could hope to learn. Holders of Masters Degrees and Fellowships in a range of Horticultural establishments, they were highly experienced and yet somehow, not so successful in passing on that knowledge to others, especially their subordinates.

We cannot all be blessed with the ability to enthuse and train others. And yet – is training not the very life blood and essence of our industry?

Horticulture must be the most ‘trialled’ industry in the world. How many establishments, from Kew to Wisley, Hadlow to West Malling Research Station, both commercial and amenity properties are currently running experiments across a huge range of disciplines.

Crop rotation, chemical trials, pruning and grafting experiments, biological and non-bio, weed suppressants and herbicides, selective sprays for everything you can name. All carried out in the name of gardening.

Consider someone holding the post of Head Gardener. I am going to assume that the reader will be in charge of a team of gardeners, working in a large private garden or Estate, perhaps within the realms of English Heritage or National Trust held properties.

The size of the team is not important, neither is the nature of that group. Some may be fully employed, self – employed on an ad hoc basis, part time, casual or volunteer, very often a mixture of all of the above. They will all come under the guidance of The Head Gardener.

Therefore the success of the gardens health and longevity will be in the hands of one person.

Being a Head Gardener is a huge responsibility, and may rightly be considered the pinnacle of a career in gardening. Being a successful Head Gardener is far more than just a matter of fortune however!

Obviously, passing examinations, earning certificates and gathering all necessary skills and meeting all criteria to secure the position is a major achievement for anyone to be proud of.

There is a world of difference however, in being a good Head Gardener – one who manages to maintain the grounds and staff, and one who could be considered a truly Great Head Gardener!

Without exception, all of my heroes are those who possess that magic, invisible ingredient that enabled them to make a real difference to so many lives.

Building Your Team

Assuming a team of staff, ‘mixed’ as previously mentioned, with a full time nucleus of (say) four people, with experience ranging from one to ten years of working in gardens. This team will probably be supplemented at any one time with (say) another two people.

Your management system will currently cater for the diverse range of operations required to keep the grounds in good order. Mowing and grass cutting regimes will be established, weeding and vegetable plot management under control. Everything is running along smoothly and yet nothing is progressing.

As one member of staff leaves, another joins the team, and the amount of ‘knowledge’ within your team remains fairly constant. Any newcomer will be expected to fall in line and accept the duties delegated to their post, even though they may have come from another garden with a different settled regime.

Everything becomes routine by nature. Grass grows and it is cut. Vegetable seeds are sown and the crops harvested. The keyword across the board is maintenance. Static and predictable, the Gardens Department soldiers on, keeping the grounds looking at their best.

Consider though, how much more could be achieved if the Head Gardener, who was inspired to undertake the journey towards their career pinnacle made the decision to become an inspiration to others?

If a conscious decision was made by the individual to build and mentor their Gardens Team to become a Super Team with training and mentorship at every opportunity throughout the working day (and beyond) by creating a positive and enthusiastic environment in which to carry out normal workaday routine by making everything more meaningful, the resulting increase in departmental knowledge would be hugely beneficial to the Estate.

Start with producing a profile document outlining your personal experience and skills, including and especially those things that really interest you. Perhaps it will be rose garden management, pests and diseases, water gardens, vegetables – any discipline that you could be considered ‘expert’ in.

Continue by giving your own thoughts on the skills and abilities of each staff member, including anything that could be considered a negative under normal circumstances. This list may include such observations as their attitude towards learning and being taught. Many people cannot stand the thought of formal ‘classroom’ training, which is perhaps the reason they came into gardening in the first place, and therefore would resent any form of ‘education’. Others may not have the necessary skills in writing or reading. All of these matters are not important, but appreciating the diverse nature of your Team is essential.

Combining your skills and interests with the likely group profile of your team, and the needs of the Estate, you will identify the strengths and weaknesses of the whole project. The driving factor should be the Garden and the wishes of the employers. You do not need to share this knowledge with anyone else, but use it as the foundation for building your team.
Bear in mind that the foundations will change as the team learn more and more, so the base becomes greater yet creatively flexible.


You will not succeed in enthusing your staff unless you are passionate in your work.

To inspire you need to be inspirational in yourself. All the time, every time!

Think about each task you have to perform, the regularity of that element of your working day/week/month and the amount of time it takes. Think too, about how you currently manage those tasks. Are they interesting or boring? Time related i.e. they must be carried out at certain times due to access or noise restrictions? Analyse and dissect every project and then weigh those disciplines against the resources available to you i.e. the Team.

How regimented and mundane is that task? Is it essential that you use a particular person for the job either because they have always done it, or because nobody else wants to do it?
Have you ever thought about altering the way the job is carried out, by making it more interesting, productive or relevant to the garden or the team? Do you simply carry out working on jobs by rote.

Do you ever give members of the team the credit for their efforts? As part of knowing the garden, most sites have given names or areas or parts of the estate e.g. Library Lawn, Lower Meadow or Half Acre Wood.

But if a staff member could be instrumental in creating or looking after – given responsibility for a given border or area -why not quietly begin to refer to that part by the name of the garden team member who has ‘created’ or improved it? Thus a previously unnamed border becomes known as Nancy’s Border, or Matts Meadow.

By giving ‘ownership’ of a site, you are subtly encouraging people to feel part of a strong team, with the Head Gardener being the enabler.

Why not invite creativity? If you have a wild flower meadow for example, such a feature allows for a huge range of interesting experimental work to be undertaken by all staff members.

Starting off with understanding the specific  requirements for soil type, moisture, nutrient, wind tolerance, competing grasses and unwanted weeds, you develop a sense of understanding of the basics of horticulture, all within one micro-world.

Establish wildflower mowing regimes, including the type of machine/blade, height and regularity of cutting, allowing for seasonal seed heads to develop and self sow. Perhaps introduce the possibility of using a scythe to keep the area under control, thus widening the scope and tool horizons for the team.

Another example may be orchard or top fruit areas. There is nothing more demoralising for a new staff member, who may have worked at another garden for years, only to join and be told that they cannot use their training and previous methods as they must adhere to your ways.

Why not invite that person to demonstrate their techniques, and fully explain them to other staff members (once again, another form of training for all concerned) how and why they are doing whatever task it is (pruning, but also budding and grafting if you have time).
Label the tree they have worked on, and as the season progresses, the results of their methods will be seen and may be compared.

I have carried out the same training logic for a wide range of features, including roses, vegetables and water gardens. By demonstrating that you are not only willing to allow new ideas within your team and working environment, you will learn along with the others, and earn and gain their respect.

You will notice that, although this section is headed ‘Training’, I have not mentioned formal or ‘standard’ training at all. This should be ongoing at all times, but if you seize the opportunity to make training more personal, giving due credit to those who bring fresh ideas and techniques into the group, the whole concept of training becomes challenging and fun, with no need for formal classrooms or standardised ‘learning’ which can crush and disillusion many younger staff members.

Why not introduce a ‘Laboratory’ somewhere on site. Not necessarily a full blown scientific lab, but somewhere to house a microscope, magnifying glasses, books and other written materials, together with notepaper and record books to write the results of findings where all can see how much more there is to gardening. Any strange fungi, bugs, diseased wood, leaf types, flowers, seeds, etc may be brought back to the potting shed/laboratory and identified by the finder.

Moving off site, why not introduce a programme (say every six months) of visiting other gardens, not only Public sites such as Wisley and Kew, but by teaming up with other Estates and Gardens, invite each other to come along, behind the scenes and see how we all do things.

I know this may sound a little dangerous! Comparisons may be odious, but I have always found such exchanges of ideas to be very useful.

The use of training as an everyday part of working within the department, if you have everything to hand; books, laboratory, recording and notes taken during the seasons, you can exchange boring wet or snowy days into creative and proactive teaching days, without the need for anyone to feel left out or threatened by formality.

The days of cleaning out the tool-shed (for the eighteenth time this year) or tidying the mess room (a job that nobody wants!), instead will be days to relish. Learning and training together with your staff, leading at all times whilst allowing some flexibility and leeway within the group, you will find that you will have established yourself as a hugely influential and respected individual.

This logic pays great dividends for the whole department.

By giving ownership of good work, enthusing everyone to become involved, making people think about what they are doing, exploring different methods, techniques and equipment.

You will have earned their respect, and by mutual consent, established yourself as a ‘Great Head Gardener!’