Million Dollar Gardens

I use the term ‘Million Dollar Gardens’ as I feel it evokes the Golden days when a million dollars was worth something really special. When a Hollywood actress could insure her legs or teeth for this massive sum. It always sounds more romantic than a million shekels, or roubles – even Pounds. By Million Dollar Gardens I mean those in  excess of  say, £500,000 sterling.

The truth is that we, as designers or contractors, simply never know if and when we may be asked to deliver a large scale garden. I have personally been responsible for half a dozen or so schemes between £500K – £1,500K, and apart from one of those (Eton College), they all came ‘out of the blue’.
I had no warning, no inkling, that a telephone call could herald such a project.
I know that three of those gardens involved designers who had no previous experience of large scale projects. They too, had the telephone call that changed their lives.

One designer, who had designed a garden at Hampton Court, not a Gold medal garden, but well received, was contacted by a very wealthy lady and invited to design a relatively modest couple of borders at her house.
Obviously, the pair got along well together, and the designer was delighted, and not a little bit daunted, when asked to design and arrange the construction of a large (four acres) scheme within the existing (very much larger) estate grounds. Although mainly soft landscaping, there was to be an element of paving and other features.

Sensibly, the designer contacted a reputable contractor, who, not surprisingly, agreed to assist with the pricing elements of the scheme. The planting plans and specification went out to tender to half a dozen contractors, deemed large enough to cope with the work. ( Even if the designer was previously using a ‘pet’ contractor on other works, one has to recognise that a major project cannot be built by a small band, no matter how skilled.)

The works went ahead, and in the event, proved more complicated on the ground than had been planned, simply because the site was so wet after seemingly constant rainfall. The scheme demanded a logic that meant the works had to be completed section by section, gradually working the way out of the site, as each section precluded access to the previous one.
The end result was a wonderful garden, the product of careful co-ordination and co-operation between the designer and the contractor.

I could describe all of these projects, but the message remains the same. You simply never know what is around the corner. I have mentioned on a couple of occasions the need for military planning logic. Perhaps it is better described as the logic of the laboratory, where each stage of an experiment is examined, and if proved to be competent, one moves on to the next stage.
Everything I have described, from carrying out site surveys, method statements, terms and conditions, site etiquette, really comes into its own when you are presented with such a challenging brief.

To secure such work, not only must one have the ability to comprehend a large scale project, only by having all of the other skills and talents of presentation and confidence will the scheme be successful. Before signing contracts, the client will demand a high degree of professionalism on the part of the designer. The design is the easy bit! Producing the garden in a timely manner is quite another. It should be a strict part of the contract that the designer is employed to oversee the work from start to finish, and work with the contractor at all times.

Imagine a £50,000 garden project, with a time limit of perhaps six months from start to finish. Multiply that by ten, with a time limit of nine or ten months – few clients are willing to wait for more than one season before wanting to enjoy their garden – and you begin to see the scale of responsibility.
Whether you are a designer or contractor who offers design, the need to perform remains the same.

An unfortunate problem of tackling major projects is knowing how to juggle your other clients. You cannot simply say, sorry, see you in nine months time.
You cannot afford to take yourself out of the market for a year, and expect to pick up where you left off. So many owners of Million Dollar gardens will not permit any mention of the site to be made. Certainly, few allow photographs for your portfolio and future campaigning.

Some clients will require full details of all personnel who will be employed on site, including sub-contractors (even delivery drivers in some cases), when they will carry out CRB and other checks, before allowing that person on site.
It is often more professional if you offer that information before it is requested, almost as though it was routine!

However, leaving that issue aside, you will need to concentrate very seriously indeed of planning the logistics of the operations. Contracts have been signed (you, or your clients solicitors, may wish to use a JCLI form of contract. This is advantageous to you, as it clearly sets out payment terms, which must be adhered to by the client or their agent. Payment is authorised for works completed/materials on site, against a schedule agreed in advance. It is a formalised professional contract and should be considered for any project of this size).

Quite apart from planning your strategy, using enhanced method statements, you will have to plan very carefully your materials and machinery requirements in order of ‘draw down’. You certainly do not want too many machines on site, both from a cost point of view, but also cluttering up the site. Security may be an issue – we have all heard of cases where machines are stolen from sites, with even the largest of padlocks on the gates. Tracking devices are the only solution, as the insurance companies are more likely to pay out if they have been fitted. Unfortunately, all such operations attract unwelcome attention of certain individuals who see easy pickings.

You will almost certainly need to control the environment as far as possible. This will require a shelter of some type, probably a rigid style unit for (say) stone cutting or dry storage, but also a canvas frame tent to cover works in progress. All of these items will be included in your Prelims and monies allowed to cover both set up and break down costs.

Muck away and skip lorries will probably be much in evidence during the early stages, and you may need to arrange for a road sweeping vehicle to attend site at least once a day to clean the highway. Don’t forget, all such operations and the responsibility to ensure they run smoothly, are those of the contractor. You may decide to have one person from your team dedicated to cleaning the road, and acting as Banksman to any delivery lorries. Don’t forget the Day-glo jacket and hard hat.

You will need to appoint a Site Checker – someone to oversee deliveries and ensure the next consignment of materials etc are due to arrive on time. Smooth operating is the key to success. As always, the client will be very impressed if he sees a professional team at work.

A qualified person – someone willing to do the job thoroughly – should be in charge of plant deliveries. These may have to held at your yard if there is not enough room on site. Their brief is to check off the plants against schedules and water/protect them from frost or damage.

Plants should be batched, in areas or beds, with all plant material for that part of the scheme held together in bays, or roped off so they may be drawn down by the landscape teams as required, without having to search through thousands of plants for the right ones.

Dependent on the site, temporary protection against theft – highly likely, plants will be stolen to order – or animal damage. Rabbits – who will eat just about anything, even if only to decide those they prefer best – badgers, who will destroy roots and plant material, deer, including Roe and Red deer in the main, although Muntjac are prevalent in some parts of the country, charging through chicken wire fencing with impunity. You are not permitted, under severe penalty, to interfere with badgers in any way, but you can discourage them at the same time as deer, by installing a low level (20cm from the ground) low voltage electrical battery operated fence around the perimeter of the plant holding area.

Foxes are just a menace, messing on the plant pots or digging around after the bone meal etc used in the composts, but at least they don’t eat the plants. (They won’t like the battery fence either!)
If you notice that your irrigation pipes or electrical cables are being chewed into small pieces or bitten into, fox cubs will often be the culprits. They seem unable to resist the urge to nibble at some plastics – they can also smell the water in the pipework.

Careful control of site operations is paramount. Money can easily slip through your fingers if you have too much labour on site, simply to show to the client that you are performing by having a small army, running around with tools in their hands. Plan your machinery requirements. You do want to export machines that you then need to rehire, but neither do you want to spend hundreds, even thousands of pounds on unnecessary plant hire. (It is normal for plant hire companies to agree to a ‘deal’ whereby you obtain a very much lower rate than those advertised. Get this agreement in writing in case of any change in personnel at the hire company.)

If possible, arrange all plants through one company. This offers some attractive possibilities. Not only will you have one company to chase for deliveries, and one firm to hold liable for any plant failures subject to agreed terms, you will certainly manage to arrive at a much lower figure or a ‘lump sum’ arrangement when ordering the plants.

Every operation that takes place when constructing Million Dollar gardens is, or should be, the same as your normal work practice. It is the sheer intensity of it all that makes or breaks a successful project. It is the sort of experience that one acquires when working on a Show Garden at Chelsea or other RHS show. (Probably Chelsea is the best example, due to the very tight time scale allowed for Build Up). The whole team, both on site and at the office, where matters such as finance, hours worked, wages and overtime to be evaluated and checked against work schedules, need to act as a well oiled machine.

Do not be wary of talking large schemes through with friends and associates within the industry. Ask questions, get opinions and advice. Landscapers and designers are more than willing to have a chat through the logistics of a scheme.
This openness is second nature to many contractors. Certainly, everyone I know is delighted to help me out. We all want to see a successful outcome, and congratulate a job well done. Such is the nature of the gardener!

Professional help is also available, with specialist firms offering a quantity survey and pricing service, with long experience in dealing with landscape projects. I would strongly advise you to investigate such a service for any job over £100,000, less if you feel unsure and want a second opinion, A small percentage error in a £10K job might mean no Christmas bonus. In a £500K scheme it might mean the end of the business!
(Notes for this article were made from the Million Dollar Gardens seminars held in 2012 by Alan Sargent and James Steele-Sargent, and appear in the Landscapers Survival Manual)