Making The Connection Between Design, Build And Maintenance

Joining the gap between Garden Designers, Landscape Contractors and professionally competent gardeners

For decades, there has been a disconnect between the creators and custodians of domestic gardens. Garden designers, Landscape Architects (including design and build firms) and Landscapers create wonderful gardens for their clients, ensuring that every aspect of the project is clearly specified and implemented to the best of their ability.

From initial drainage systems through to foundations, superstructure and fine detailing, they plan, formulate then construct the garden, finally handing over their creation to the tender mercies of the owner.

Despite preparing aftercare instructions, leaving a handover package including all warranties, instruction manuals and manufacturers guarantees – anything to ensure that the garden will be able to develop as planned, unless the project is overseen by a professional gardener, the opportunities for failure are countless, and very often, inevitable.

Meanwhile, working ostensibly in the same industry, there are many hundreds of competent, capable and able professional gardeners who are continually striving to find opportunities to show their skills to owners of gardens. Often competing against less skilled people advertising themselves as ‘qualified gardeners’, (was there ever such an overused and misleading term? What is a ‘Qualification?) they find that money is the prime selection choice of those seeking help in their gardens.

Individuals can leave College with an NVQ, and describe themselves as ‘qualified’ gardeners, even if they have no experience at all of actually working physically  in a garden – a multi-skilled professional that takes many years of understanding seasons, soils and the vagaries of the climate plus the correct use and techniques of working with machinery, equipment and chemicals.

Many thousands of ‘Gardeners’ advertise their wares in newspaper adverts, on-line forums, parish magazines, shop windows, leaflet drops – a host of different ways, all with the same basic message. LOW PRICES!  CHEAP GARDENING!  HALF PRICE FOR PENSIONERS!

Often sending out confusing messages to the public, offering gardening alongside gutter cleaning, pressure washing drives, logs for sale and a host of other ‘services’ thus equating the skills of a gardener to that of a general labourer. Such messages only help to dumb down and belittle the wide ranging skills required of a genuine professional gardener.

To the massive frustration of truly capable professional gardeners, they are obliged to swim in the same sea as thousands of less talented people. There is never a thought given regarding insurance, compliance with regulations or anything legal that might cost a bit more money.

Who is the cheapest?  Let’s give them a try. If they prove useless, there are plenty more to choose from!

Connecting the disconnect

For at least twenty years, industry groups such as The Society of Garden Designers (SGD) and The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) have sought to work together, designers with contractors, each ‘sector’ ensuring that the ‘other side’ understands the other’s needs and wishes. Many dozens of forums, workshops and joint seminars have served to ensure  an awareness of the problems both parts of the industry face, and to accentuate the need to work together.

In most cases,  projects that both parties are working on involve joint co-operation with the client. Contracts will be drawn up clearly showing how the respective elements are to be approached and handled.

Construction (Design Management) Regulations 2015 ensure that both Designer and Contractor are aware of their responsibilities to their client and themselves.

The one MISSING ELEMENT in the overall scheme of things has been the need to match the needs of the Garden Builders (Designers and Landscapers) with the skills of the Garden Custodians. Those who will be responsible for the future well-being and aftercare of the new garden.

If this could be achieved in a natural, unforced and organic way, the whole Landscape industry could be transformed!

Designers and landscapers, working together with skilled, vetted, independent, professional gardeners, each mutually respecting the other’s role and expertise in their specialisms, would be able to fill the gap that is currently causing a roadblock to the success of many projects, often leading to failures.

How to build a bridge between the three corners of the triangle? Designers in one corner, garden builders in the second, and gardeners in the third.

The natural starting point is the Designer. Many garden designers belong to The Society of Garden Designers at one grade or another. Many are also members of smaller, local groups of designers. They meet on a regular basis, and often converse through social media, sharing information in a localised manner, and are thus able to make recommendations to the rest of the group.

The Association of Professional Landscapers is primarily formed of Domestic Landscapers, all of whom are regularly vetted to ensure that high standards are maintained.

Joint SGD and APL events are a common feature in the diaries of each group, where anything and everything of mutual interest is discussed to the benefit of all.

There have long been calls for another ‘Trade Group’ of vetted, insured, competent and trustworthy professional gardeners, all self-employed and offering their skills to provide aftercare to newly built gardens, requiring a good deal of common sense and a recognition that the needs of a newly laid out site are sometimes different from standard maintenance works, making checks and adjustments as and when needed to plants and equipment.

It is likely that some designers know of one or two such skilled gardeners, as will most landscape companies, even if they have not used their services. Everyone will be aware of talented individuals in their area, but they may not be aware of their wishes and special skills.

They will probably not be aware of how they operate their businesses, because they have never made professional contact with them.

If it were possible to make professional contact with individual gardeners, either through recommendations or Cluster Groups, Designers and Contactors could develop and build a mutually beneficial relationship, thus involving Skilled Gardeners and encouraging them to join in and become the third arm of the triangle.

Working locally, a Design Group, by inviting selected gardeners to tender for high quality maintenance work on a short-term basis (i.e. the duration of a warranty period, six months or a year) on one or more schemes, at a professional rate of pay and working under the guidance of an Aftercare Manual would prove a very attractive option for all concerned.

Similarly, Landscapers who do not have the capacity or wherewithal in their team to provide aftercare and warranty maintenance works, could supplement their workforce with a self-employed artisan on a contract price basis, charging and paying decent rates to look after their interests and ensure the newly landscaped garden develops in a timely manner, making adjustments as required without fuss or concern to the owners.

Professional Gardeners could build a business model around this regular high quality work, where their skills and experience may be recognized and appreciated by all, thus moving away from the low paid/competitive cheapest price market sector. They would be able to look forward and plan work accordingly, investing in training for others within their firm and build their reputation based on mutual respect.

As a mark of that respect, and to create a healthy working relationship it ought to be ensured that those individuals have been endorsed by a designer or landscaper, and well and worthily recommended by all concerned.

The third arm of the Triangle

The proposed and long-term solution to the dream outlined above seems likely to have been solved with the creation of a new Trade Body, organised and championed by The Association of Professional Landscapers and administered by The Horticultural Trades Association, launching in 2020, to celebrate the Silver Anniversary of the founding of the APL in 1995.

A new body has been announced – THE ASSOCIATION OF PROFESSIONAL GARDENERS 

Formed especially for skilled and accredited professional gardeners, recognising the needs of the industry and our customers and to provide a natural platform for artisans.

I am convinced that the creation of such a body will be industry changing. For designers to be able to recommend someone to maintain and develop a new garden, and for Landscapers to hand over the warranty element of completed projects, relieving them of the worries of leaving their scheme to the mercies of an unknown, possibly unskilled and almost certainly, partisan,  custodian will be very welcome!

I am also convinced that one day very soon, everybody working professionally in private gardens will need to be licensed and approved by Local Government, and those who are not working legally i.e. without insurance or certificates to operate machinery and equipment, will not be permitted to work without potential penalty for both Contractor and homeowner.

Professional Gardeners will gain the recognition they deserve, at rates that celebrate their years of knowledge. They will be able to control the growth of their businesses, knowing that their chosen model may be enlarged or reduced to suit them as a firm or as individuals.

Members of the new APG will also be encouraged to enter their work into the Association of Professional Landscapers Awards scheme, further celebrating the beauty of landscape projects, designed, built and maintained by Professionals!

Far reaching, all-encompassing and logical!