What Differentiates A Head Gardener From A Gardens Manager?

I have been asked, by several people, from various backgrounds, to explain the difference between a Head Gardener and Gardens Manager. Both terms are used for the same job responsibilities and are confusing. Is there a difference, and if so, what is it?

This is a complex question, as it covers such a wide range of employments situations, and I will make my proposals and personal observations on the subject. It will necessarily have to be spread over two articles. I have thought about trying to divide my comments into two separate features, but have decided to offer one lengthy reply over two columns to avoid more confusion.

It must be recognised that job advertisements are one of the primary causes of confusion, usually because the author did not fully appreciate the precise description of their requirements and simply used an all-encompassing phrase in the hope that it would attract the ‘right’ applicants. Hence Head Gardener becomes a synonym of Gardens Manager in their eyes.

Leaving that issue aside for now, there is an ever growing recognition on some larger Estates for the need to expand into areas that may be considered ‘Garden’ orientated, and therefore should be dealt with by a Head Gardener. I am thinking of those who have successfully diversified into a wide range of new activities – new in the sense that the Estate was never set up to cope with the complex needs of modern life.

These expansions, if I may use that phrase, often take their rise from changes within the life style/life stage of the owners. Families that may have for generations lived and worked the site as a garden Estate, partly funded by personal income, perhaps combined with a farm or forestry element, now find the need to increase funds to cover the ever-growing costs of wages and over-heads.

Changes in the status quo.

This change may happen quite rapidly. If a new generation takes control of the Estate and decides to move away from  traditional ‘Family’ methods of working, into a Commercial business world whereby every member of staff – especially Senior Employees e.g. Head Gardeners are suddenly obliged to think and act in a commercial manner. On such occasions it is not unusual to find that the Head Gardener discovers that sound horticultural practice, that has been time-honoured for many years, is now subject to strict financial constraints and budgetary understanding that has never been part of the traditional responsibilities of the position.

A board of Directors is formed, with perhaps a member of the Family as Chairperson, and every part of the Estate is now operated as a business, with each sector either becoming an income stream (e.g. Farm or Forestry) or a cost centre (e.g. Gardens Department). Income streams provide money into the Estate, and future finances are allocated to cover capital expenditure and taxes, whilst the cost centre (Gardens) appears to  become a financial drain on the Estate.

This is not a correct analysis, as the Gardens Department costs help to offset the profits and tax liability of the Estate. Without  attractive gardens, the profitability of the Estate would not be as great. Unless the grounds are neat and tidy, wedding parties and other functions would not wish to come and spend their money.

Unless the Head Gardener learns to adapt and become a Manager, he or she will probably find that a new level of hierarchy is put in place, and a Gardens Manager is sought. The job description written for the new employee will major on efficient management of time and labour, working knowledge of spread sheets and Company Law. Health and Safety policy will need to be clearly understood, and new policies produced by the Gardens Manager along with reams of other Management matters.

In some case, the Gardens Manager may have only a cursory knowledge of horticulture, having attended an Estates or Agricultural College or passed a suitable degree at University.

I have heard it said on more than one occasion that the Head Gardener could not come to terms with the new regime, and refused to make any changes at all except very reluctantly.

This is not an uncommon scenario, and whilst it may not accurately relate to any situation you may have encountered, it is a true anecdote, and one which serves to illustrate the difference between one and the other, even though you may only recognise certain elements of the story.

Essentially, a Head Gardener should be in complete charge of the garden. This word includes taking responsibility for the day to day operations, plans, ordering of materials and supplies, decision making reference minor purchases without reference to anyone else (i.e. hold a cash till and be authorised to spend up to a certain amount on minor items). The H.G. should be in charge of the day to day running of the staff, including managing the holiday roster, making decisions on the of running site operations and staff allocation.

Normally, a Head Gardener would report directly to the owner (everything depends on the size and nature of the garden) or to a Line Manager (who may be the General Works Manager), on a weekly basis. Regular meetings should be held, with the staff in general and owners in particular, where monthly plans are drawn up and implemented.

I will continue this article next month by describing the transition from Head Gardener to Gardens Manager.

Alan Sargent has recently published his latest book

‘Employing a Gardens Manager or Head Gardener’


Head Gardener or Gardens Manager (Part Two)

Last month I described a situation where the role of a Head Gardener was brought into focus by the ever expanding needs of an Estate; where the traditional role of maintaining the gardens was overshadowed by the needs of modern society, both in terms of legal responsibilities and the needs to increase financial income into what may be described as a business.

I described the role of a Head Gardener as being primarily concerned with the day to day running and maintaining of the gardens within the Estate. Whilst clearly recognising that not every garden could be described as an Estate, the use of the term does allow us to envisage a set of circumstances, and adapt them to your own.

In essence, the primary difference between a Head Gardener and a Gardens Manager is not necessarily horticultural knowledge, nor is it the number or type of formal qualifications that one or the other may hold. Some gardens are highly specialised, with organic vegetables, historic influences,  famed for their alpine or topiary collections etc, where the role of Head Gardener may hold sway. In such specialist gardens, a Curator may be employed instead of a Head Gardener, in which case the role would be the same even with a different title.

The primary difference between a Head Gardener and a Gardens Manager is that of responsibility. There is therefore absolutely no reason why a Head Gardener could not take on those responsibilities and learn new management skills and take on the title of Manager.

I have already covered the role and responsibilities of a Head Gardener, albeit in the most simplistic of terms.

To recapitulate one thing; the Head Gardener normally reports to either the owner (if the site is modest) or a Line Manager (on larger Estates).  He or she does not take on the responsibilities of any other element of running the garden.

A Gardens Manager on the other hand, is responsible for a very wide range of matters, many of them subject to legal charges.

A Gardens Manager will normally report to the Owners or Board of Directors/Trustees, presenting not only his or her business portfolio, but also acting as the representative of the Head Gardener. The G.M should act as the mouthpiece, eyes and ears of the Gardens Department, and represent the Gardens Team at Board meetings.

A G.M. will work with the owners or Company Secretary to ensure that all legal requirements of the Estate are dealt with in a timely manner. These will include any Planning permits, insurance matters, Health & Safety policy, possibly even security issues, and a host of other important subjects.

The G.M. will (probably) have a high input, along perhaps with the Human Resources Manager in finding and contracting new staff for the gardens, including casual and seasonal staff, ensuring that all employment Law is complied with. He/she may become involved in setting or recommending wages and other benefits.

The Gardens Manager is only one step below Director in most cases. It is a hugely responsible job, and whilst there is no reason why someone should not be employed with the title of Head Gardener/Gardens Manager, it is important to recognise that at some stage during a period of employment, if legal problems arise, it is the Gardens Manager who would be held liable.

For this reason alone, The Professional Gardeners Guild recognise the gravity of the role, by having a separate section for Gardens Managers and their role profile listed in their documents.

Across the board, from formal qualifications and experience, training and length of service, wages scale and personal skills, the Manager is held to be superior to a Head Gardener.

Please note, this is not to say that Gardens Managers  are more skilled than Head Gardeners, but that their role and responsibilities are different. Just as Directors are legally liable for their actions within a Company, so the position and title of Gardens Manager can be a heavy weight. Understanding the needs of the Gardens Department, and marrying those with the duties and inter-departmental charges of the rest of the Estate is not a simple task.

Training programmes, devised for use by all, and arranged at the right times at the best possible price; First Aid and various Safe Working courses are the province of the Gardens Manager.

There is the age old problem of senior gardeners being given responsibility without authority, which is a current theme even today. Employers fail to appreciate that we all live in a world where responsibility is not always someone else’s problem. By employing only those with the appropriate proven skills are they able to discharge their duty of care.

As you will see, there is no easy answer to the question ‘What is the difference between a Head Gardener and a Gardens Manager?’

Every garden/Estate/site is different, and the demands of each will vary. Some gardens will continue working happily as they are now, without any need to address these issues. However, as I mentioned at the outset, it is when changes occur, and legal responsibilities become more complex, there may be a time when decisions have to be made.

It is best to recognise those requirements and be ready to meet the commitments that will need to be made as soon as possible.

Alan Sargent