The Mess Room

(From the old French ‘mes’, or portion of food. Mainly used by the Military where soldiers can eat, rest and change)

In common parlance at places of work where a static room or area is set aside for the rest and relaxation of staff. In the world of Gardeners, usually a converted barn, stable or workshop, or rarely, a separate building constructed specifically for the purpose. Indeed, it is probably fair to say the 90% or more ‘Mess Rooms’ to be found in garden sites and estates will be sheds or converted sections of larger buildings, set aside for the use of staff.

The ubiquitous mess room, conjures up all sorts of images for gardeners, some fondly remembered as warm, relaxing, neat, tidy, friendly havens of rest, and others as being smelly, dirty, damp, dark, rat infested and totally unhygienic!  We will all have our own memories of our favourite/worst case version of the Mess Room.

Travelling around various Estates and properties as part of my Consultancy business, I see many different levels of decency in the area set aside as the Mess Room. It is the huge variations that have prompted me to write this article, in the hope that I might improve the lot of some, and encourage others to feel satisfied with their situation.

Welfare at Work

I have to start by mentioning the requirements of The Workforce Act (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which state that an employer must provide you with adequate toilet and washing facilities, ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’, which is rather a cop-out for many.

Assuming that it is reasonably practicable, there should be enough toilets and washbasins for those who will be using them. If possible, there should be separate toilets for men and women, or at least, a lockable door. The number of toilets should be based on the number of people expected to use them, without unreasonable delay.

Toilets should be clean, or able to be cleaned e.g. tiled or rendered and painted, with a solid floor capable of being washed. A sufficient supply of toilet paper, and a disposal method installed for the provision of sanitary dressings must be available, together with soap and towels for hand washing.

There should be a basin with hot water large enough to wash your hands and forearms, together with a method of drying yourself e.g. paper towels, hot air dryer etc.

If your work site and working methods involve dirty work, a shower should be installed, again, with a lockable door (preferably one for men and one for women)

It may be necessary to consider the need of disabled workers. Such measures may be subject to special regulations, which I have not included in this article. Similarly, I have not mentioned pregnant and nursing mothers.


As mentioned, a wash basin is essential, but also a supply of clean fresh drinking water should be available, free from contamination and preferably from a public water supply if possible. It may be necessary on some sites, to provide bottled water, or a water dispenser. This must be maintained in good order, with regular supplies available. Water must be accessible to all employees.

Adequate heating must be available, in whatever chosen form; gas, electricity, oil fired radiators etc, to maintain a reasonable temperature at all times when the room is in use. The room should have sufficient light, to enable users to read without difficulty.

There should be a suitable seating area, comprising of bench seats, chairs, owner supplied armchairs, settees or whatever seating the staff are comfortable with. (Very often, a person’s seat is their personal ‘space’ in the room, with their books/food box/newspapers etc remaining in place. I feel this is an important element of having a mess room where people feel comfortable. It is also an occasion  for the Head Gardener to be aware of a form of bullying, if a person is forced to move to a different position against their will)

Cooking and heating of food is an essential part of the mess room, with some form of a food heater (usually a microwave oven) available for staff to use. If there are several users, a second or third oven may be required.  A refrigerator will be required to keep items such as milk and bottles drinks suitably cool.

All electrical appliances are subject to annual checks by a qualified electrician, and each should be labeled with a valid dated PAT certificate.  Fridges and Cookers should be kept clean at all times, and I suggest that a rota is maintained with one person being made responsible for a given period of time.

On a side note here, I have inspected various mess rooms as part of my work for years now, and on more than one occasion have discovered a fridge full of alcohol of various types. Bought to work by those who have been on holiday in an exotic location, for their colleagues to sample, the fridge was bursting with booze!  Whilst it may seem innocent fun, if there was ever an accident at work involving alcohol, the HSE would not be very happy with a Head Gardener in charge of a brewery at work!

Storage of Personal Belongings

Each mess room should have, either in the same room or building, a number of lockable stores where workers can leave their personal belongings during work periods, or store their PPE and other work related personal items in a secure place. This should include hangers for clothes, and if the work involves essential changes of clothing (e.g. chain saw trousers, spray protection suits etc) then a seating area, with lockable doors may be required, especially if both men and women are expected to use the facility.

On a second side note, I visited one site where I discovered the mess room table cluttered with expensive personal items belonging to the staff members. These included a camera, watch, personal stereo, and at least three wallets. It had apparently been a standing practice that, as everyone trusted each other, it was almost an act of friendship to leave their valuables on the table as a badge of honour.  I quickly put an end to the practice, as it could have been a major problem if anything went missing, either through a misunderstanding or indeed, a stranger had entered the room and stolen an item. Every single worker in the place would have become a suspect in a matter of theft.  What may, at first sight, appeared to be a friendly act could have devasted the team and cost the Estate a whole department of employees!

If possible, a suitable area should be set aside, with heating facilities including hot air dryers,  installed near the mess room, for the drying of wet clothing and footwear. Due to steam and odours, this facility is best placed away from the dining area.

Finally, although I am sure you will have many tales to add to this article, may I point out that the mess room is for the welfare and comfort of staff. It is not a place that is tacked onto another room or part of a building. It should not have fuel cans, rat poison, chainsaws, mowers and other machinery in the same place. I am sure we have all seen mess rooms that are little more than a cleared space amongst the rest of the Gardens Department clutter.

The very worst incident I ever came across was a brick building, with a flat concrete roof, doubling up as a mess room (with no toilet, wash basin, cooker, fridge or any other welfare item) the walls of which were running in water, both from the leaking roof and condensation.

Inside the building, I discovered  a box full of Phostoxin. This is a brand name for aluminium phosphide, which is used to kill moles and rabbits. It is a highly toxic compound, available in tablet form, and is activated by moisture. The slightest hint of moisture, and the tablet releases lethal gas. There were around one hundred tablets in aluminium tubes. Any one of which would have killed the whole room full of people in seconds.

In closing, I would add that, in my opinion, the Mess Room is the most important part of any Estate. It is the heart of the Team, and a well run, clean, tidy, pin-up picture free area where staff can relax and chat is paramount in the working life of gardeners, all of whom work with happy hearts and healthy minds!


Garden Parties and Events

Most Head Gardeners will not have to accommodate regular events, unless their estates are those which cater for Garden Shows, Wedding Parties and other commercial style occasions that bring income into the House finances, and where the public are admitted as paying guests or general Open Day visitors.

Most however, will occasionally have to manage a one-off event that will impact on their work-load and time schedules, even if it is only a family wedding or other function. These events will vary from size, from a few dozen souls to many thousands, but they all probably require the same type of facilities, including marquees, temporary toilets, caterers and car parking, all of which can cause damage to carefully manicured lawns.

Car Parking

A sudden influx of dozens of cars, perhaps to be parked off-road in paddocks or fields, will require marshalling, something that often falls to the Gardens Team to cope with. Even with sufficient staff, you will always find those who wish to do their own thing, parking wherever the fancy takes them (because they are family/friends/colleagues who have been told to make themselves at home) driving on to verges and generally causing mayhem with their reluctance to comply with inexperienced gardens staff’s instructions.

To try to direct the flow of traffic, it is essential to be prepared and not suddenly caught unawares by the need to maintain regular order. A set of white painted wooden posts are fine, but can be difficult to secure into the ground,  cost time and effort to produce, store and install, quickly becoming chipped and quickly looking somewhat second hand.

As an alternative, 20mm steel bars, sold in builders merchant’s as reinforcing bars, sawn into lengths of 75cm, may more easily be hammered into even the hardest of ground, and tapped into a vertical position. Using white conduit or 25mm waste piping, sawn into 90cm lengths  then  placed over the upright metal posts to form a uniform height, smart looking, set of posts that will not be so readily damaged. They may be washed and stored for re-use with minimal effort and cost.


Marquees are the biggest headache for the Gardeners Team, not simply because of the amount of damage that may be caused to lawns, with many feet trampling over a restricted area in a confined space, walking over matting (usually hessian or coir, sometimes rubberised and liable to heat up the ground where they cover) laid over grass will cause potential damage to the lawns. This may manifest itself as a weakening of the grass plants allowing fungal attack, or simple compaction, with the air forced out of the trampled areas.

The Head Gardener should work in liaison with the Marquee company management team, to ensure that the matting only goes down at the very last minute to minimise these problems. Similarly, that the matting is removed immediately after the Guests have left, especially in hot weather or warm/damp conditions. This should mitigate any long term problems with overheated grass.

Catering inside a marquee usually involves a lot of hot water, heated by gas cylinders, anything from boilers to washing up and making hot drinks, coffee, tea etc. The Head Gardener should agree with the caterers which location they wish to site the downpipes or drains from these hot water facilities, then remove the turf from that area to a thickness of 75 – 100mm.Carefully store the turf nearby, to be replaced after the event.

All water from sinks, toilets, and especially, boilers, must be discharged into the soil, not on the grass. On some soils, you may have to create a soakaway, perhaps with a free-draining layer of shingle at the bottom at a suitable depth to cope with the likely volume of water. Permitting boiling water to be poured onto the lawn will probably kill the grass. The provision of a soakaway will remove any excuses and allow the area to be quickly and successfully reinstated.


Even if the display contractor has agreed and arranged to collect and remove firework debris after the event, there will always be detritus left behind that you will continue to discover for weeks afterwards, some of which can damage machinery, especially mowers. For this reason, it is sensible to consider a Fireworks Fee of (say) £500.00 to be reimbursed after a month if no damage or excessive detritus is discovered following their official clearance, which is often carried out after darkness has fallen, before the contractors leave site and on to their next commission.

Damage to lawns caused by percussion style mortars can involve 75 – 200mm deep depressions in the lawns, that will require treatment as soon as possible requiring lifting/re-turfing and levelling.  This too, should be included in the Fireworks Fee.

Metal detritus

After any event involving marquees and grandstands, it is normal to find screws, nuts, bolts, off-cuts from scaffolding, and other pieces of metal left on the ground. Much will have been trodden into the ground, and will only become evident when loosened by heels or mowers, ready to puncture tyres and other wheeled vehicles.

Such an outcome impacts hugely on the Garden Department’s time and can cost hundreds of pounds in damaged equipment. Even pieces of timber, used to prop up tent poles, but remain in the ground, unseen, just below ground level, only to become lifted by a passing mower wheel, can destroy a fan blower system on a mower and put a vital piece of kit out of action for weeks whilst awaiting repairs.

All of these items should be included in the Events Contractor’s manifest, not simply agreed, noted and then ignored.

The Public

The biggest challenge for a Gardens Team with public events is The Public.

Dealing with often fraught situations whilst remaining calm and diplomatic at all times requires some special training. Evening parties are the most difficult, when after a few glasses of bubbly, Miss Amorous and Mr Macho decide to leave the rest of the party and find their own entertainment elsewhere, often trampling over flower beds, wildflowers and vegetables looking for a quiet and secluded spot.

Apart from leaving a trail of horticultural devastation behind them, they often manage to leave gates open, whilst strewing champagne bottles and broken glass around for others to clear up in the morning.

Without security guards and barbed wire netting, signage is required.  It is no use erecting signs such as Keep Out, or Dangerous Site, as Mr Macho would definitely ignore those. Better still, try ‘Beware of Baby Adders – Their Parents Get Very Angry!’   Or perhaps, ‘Keep out – Dangerous Chemical Spill’  or even ‘ Beware of Poison Ivy – Irritant to Skin’.

Definite ardour dampeners!


The Professional Gardeners Guild – A Personal View

In 1997, Brian Hutchinson, then Head Gardener of Castle Howard in Yorkshire, realised that people such as himself were rarely able to discuss matters relating to his job with others in the same position due to lack of contacts. With so much time spent, working on everyday obligations without any opinion or shared knowledge being available to him, he set out to organise a network of people in the area and beyond, creating a line of communication between Head Gardeners at establishments across the UK.

New products, staff problems, new techniques, types of machinery and equipment, exchanging views on methods of working practice – a very wide range of topics indeed!

Joint exchange garden visits were arranged, and the network grew wider, and thus The Professional Gardeners Guild was born. Many employers were very supportive of the aims and ambitions of the PGG and remain so today. The value of mutual discussion is beyond price, and as the Guild grew, so other industry assets were recognised, including the successful Trainee Scheme, whereby Students can gain work experience at different types of garden, learning new skills whilst under a bursary type of funding to enable them to develop their careers.

Being a progressive Guild, the PGG formed a Charitable Trust, now run independently, where both members and non-members can apply for funding for all manner of horticultural Training Courses.  I myself have organised many such courses, including the Managing As A Head Gardener seminars held annually since 2011. The Guild is run completely by volunteers, and is funded purely by subscriptions without any external funding.

The Professional Gardeners Guild is the world’s premier organisation for Professional Gardeners, mainly in the private (employed) sector, although with a growing number of self-employed (often ex-full time employees now turning freelance) it is now over one thousand strong.

Although the Guild does not conduct any formal vetting procedure, entry is on a meritorious system based on time served and recommendation by fellow members. Categories of membership are limited to four; Full Member, Associate and Affiliated – plus Retired members who wish to continue with their friendships built during their careers.

I joined as a Full Member around 2005, and have had a very warm relationship with the Members ever since. I was Head Gardener at Goodwood at the time, and although I left there in 2007, I have retained my membership as I act as Consultant to several large Estates in the South of England.

As a part of my consultancy work, I undertake commissions to find new Head Gardeners for clients. Not as an Agency, or Agent, but as a bespoke service to particular clients, always at the very top end of the market!  My clients allow me to interview them to discover exactly what type of Head they require (many do not know exactly what it is they want from a Head Gardener when it comes to skills and knowledge). They allow me to set the salary and conduct the whole process from advertising and arranging job interviews etc on a sole basis. Only once I have a short list, do I introduce the prospective employee to the client.

When I am formulating the adverts and deciding the type of person I wish to attract, I prepare a list of attributes for the job.

Top of that list is Membership of The Professional Gardeners Guild. I value membership of the PGG as highly – more so – than any Degree or Diploma, for the simple reason that I know that the candidate has shown a commitment to the industry that a degree cannot. Passing an exam is great, but the standard entry for membership to the PGG – whilst not formalised but it is a general fact that most have at least seven years of practical experience, usually at Senior level, something I value very highly when assessing candidates.

Vetting for membership of the Guild as such is unnecessary, as the candidate is very likely to have been working in full time employment, and the previous employer will have thoroughly vetted the person, far more thoroughly that I can!  Based on their curriculum vitae and general demeanour, I am of the opinion that Membership of the PGG is to be highly rated amongst Consultants when selecting staff.

I have enjoyed a personal, and very warm relationship with the Chair of The PGG – Tony Arnold – who has been in charge for as long as I can remember!  And long may he continue!

His enthusiasm for the industry and the needs for training, especially of young people, is extremely valuable to Horticulture in general, and the welfare of Garden Estates in particular.

With a great team behind him, including Treasurer, Secretary, Membership Secretary and Employment Liaison Officer, the future of the PGG is secure. The Guild publishes a quarterly glossy magazine to all Members, (The Professional Gardener) filled with news, views, reviews, articles and features, which is a fine testimony to a great organisation.

Alan Sargent

(Personal view)


Head Gardeners – Legal Responsibilities

I am frequently asked about the difference between a Gardens Manager and a Head Gardener, and what responsibilities are required for the positions. In order to do this, we need to recognise that there are different types of employer. It would be confusing to attempt to describe the ramifications of working for these various types – Privately owned, owner use only,  Privately owned, with business i.e. tax benefits if the property is used for entertaining or management training events, Corporate gardens, attached to (say) a Hotel or Club, and  a host of other permutations on the theme. They must all have one thing in common; a Responsible Person.

Essentially, in all cases, there is one person In Charge of both the property and the staff, with every element coming under their wing. In the case of a private garden i.e. non-commercial property, existing solely as a residence for the owner/s, the person identified in all contracts regarding the garden as being ‘the Employer’ will be deemed to be the person responsible. Let us place him or her ‘Top of the Responsibility Tree’. That named person or persons will be deemed legally responsible  for any shortcomings in respect of  Management matters including the welfare of the staff, insurances, liabilities and any other aspect of governance that may come before a Court of Law.

In the case of a private/commercial property or estate, there is likely to be a number of Directors or Managers perhaps with a Board of Trustees. In this event, The Company Secretary is normally held to be the person responsible (Top of the Responsibility Tree) as the position of Company Secretary is usually associated with that charge. Depending on the nature of the Estate – some will be ‘historical’, others sporting or specialists in weddings or displays – other employees may be charged with handling specific legal matters.

When I talk about Courts of Law and Legal Matters, I do not wish to imply that everyone concerned is going to have any dealings with such serious business, but to explain the hierarchal nature of being responsible for the aforementioned welfare of the property and employees. There must be one or more person in charge, and various grades of subordinates may be appointed under them. That person should be named in your Contract of Employment, without exception. (It may be that more than one name is included, for example Mr and Mrs, or Mr and Mr etc)

In this context, if we examine the role of Gardens Manager/Head Gardener – usually one and the same, although in rare cases, the Gardens Manager may be separate/superior to, and work with, a Head Gardener. The degree of responsibility and limit of liabilities should be clearly set out in the Contract of Employment. This is the primary reason I warn against agreeing to undertake ‘other duties as you may be called upon to perform’ without specifically stating that those duties shall be limited to matters that may be associated with the position of ‘Gardener’.

In this instance, it is not unreasonable to expect the most senior employee with direct responsibility for the wellbeing of the garden/estate grounds, whether titled Gardens Manager (usually a more administrative position) or Head Gardener (often more practical) to ‘know their job’ as the most experienced person employed specifically to that position. Similarly, the Managers of Human Resources, Events or Security for example, are held   responsible for their departments, as the ostensible stewards of those offices.

The depth or level of that responsibility will be directly held to be that which may be reasonably assumed both by the actual position within the ‘company’ and the amount or grade level of salary. In other words, if your title is Head Gardener, and you are in charge of the garden and all matters relating to your department, you would be held responsible for your own actions and decisions together with those of every subordinate member of your departmental staff and contractors/sub-contractors working under your guidance. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the Head Gardener is capable of organising and running their business area, if they are appointed and paid a professional wage to do the job.

Such is the nature of ‘Legal Responsibility’ of the Gardens Manager/Head Gardener. The position enables the holder to decide both short and long term policy. For example, Training Programmes, imported materials onto site, and all decisions regarding practical aspects of the site including its uses and limitations and a host of other related subjects are all ‘Policy.’

All matters relating to the grounds are in your hands, and you should expect to be consulted by others before any decisions are made in relation to the site. This statement should be borne in mind during much of the next two Stages, as it cannot be repeated often enough!

There is a very important point I am trying to establish here, hence the convoluted nature of my statements. It is the point of principle that states that a person should not be given – or accept – a title indicating responsibility i.e. ‘Head Gardener’ if they have no actual  authority over the garden, budgets, work force (if any) or any decisions that are made in the running of the property. A title without any meaningful foundation, one which is bestowed to perhaps compensate for a low salary, is  not deemed worthy of the name, and the individual concerned should not be expected to be responsible simply by holding a title.

Hence the need to fully establish the comprehensive wording of your Terms and Conditions of Employment, including the correct title that goes with the job description and level of responsibility, liability and authority.

Taking charge of the garden

Your first day at work – you have walked the site and tried to memorise as much as possible, and made many mental notes regarding the location of various buildings and their contents. Let us assume that you are starting work in a large private garden, with three other members of staff whom you have met briefly during your interview stage walk round. You arrive twenty minutes early to create a good impression and introduce yourself once again to the others as they arrive. This first impression is the one they will carry henceforth!

Too much ‘matiness’ and you will have lost the initial opportunity to command hierarchal respect. Too formal and stiff and they will immediately be wary and defensive. Bear in mind that they will have heard/gleaned information about you and your previous history, but they will not know what you have been told about them. If you limit the amount of conversation to introductions, and ask them to show you the mess room or their changing rooms and facilities, then sit – with permission, in the chair they proffer, it is their domain after all – and tell them that you will be getting to know them all better as soon as possible.

 In the meantime, ask if they have duties to be getting on with until you have had an opportunity to produce work schedules, but if possible, would one of them mind showing you around the immediate work area/sheds/office/workshop. Thank them for their welcome, and send them off to work.

Just as at your interview, the first three seconds of meeting you will influence their attitude towards you for a long time. Hopefully, you will have been briefed by your employer regarding the various attributes of the other staff members, and it is particularly important that you are informed if any of them had applied, or mentioned applying for, your job. If you have a resentful staff member, you may not be immediately aware that you have ‘taken their job’, and instead wonder at their treatment of you. This is something you may have the opportunity to ask at the time of your interview – but only after the job offer has been made!

Before you can ‘take charge’ of the grounds, it is important that you establish as far as possible how the previous Head Gardener organised matters. This information should be teased out of your self – appointed ‘guide’ – do not be afraid of making obvious notes, as this open display will ensure they impart more detail than you would otherwise have gathered. It will make them feel more knowledgeable, important  and helpful, knowing that they are being listened to. This initial walk round with a staff member (as opposed to the employer or Director) should provide you with a much deeper understanding, not only of how the garden has been run, but more importantly, how the staff think that things should be organised – and why.

Ask to see any available plans or drawings of the site. Although these may have been tabled at the interview, they now take on a new and more important relevance. Notice in particular, any names or other titles that have been given to certain areas of the garden. Some gardens have many such labels – everything from ‘Library Lawn’ to ‘Duchesses’ Pond’ or ‘Main Drive’ to ‘Eleven Acre Wood’. These notations will play a critical part in your plans and programme, and if there are none, the production of a site plan should be one of your priorities. Without a plan, you will have to rely on descriptions to indicate the whereabouts of a particular area when it comes to issuing future instructions.

Even the most basic site plan, drawn to scale as best as possible, perhaps with the assistance of a staff member, and pinned up in the staff room, will enable you to begin to demonstrate the efficiency of your work methods without making an issue out of the subject. This plan will provide you with a major building block introducing not only elements of training, but also of giving ownership of the garden to the staff in a very subtle manner.

The plan should show all lawns, driveways, entrances and exits, woodlands, orchards, nurseries, beds and borders, buildings, ponds and pools, tennis court and swimming pool – all of the major parts of the grounds. Each of these areas should be given a name. Unless obvious i.e. tennis court, consider letting the staff to nominate a title for (say) a lawn or border. That name will be added to the plan and henceforth be the title of that area.

Once the areas have been named, add the dimensions against each item e.g. Library Lawn 20x x 80m = 1600m2. This information, clearly shown on the plan, not only indicates the location of the site, but the size/area. This in turn, will prove invaluable when working out the areas for (say) lawn treatment or mulch. Once measured, there will be no need to revisit the area each time when placing orders for materials.

The plan should also indicate the location of water points, including taps and stop cocks. Dependent on the nature of the garden, you may wish to use irrigation pipes or sprinklers, and the opportunity to test each tap for water pressure is invaluable. Too much pressure, and the sprinklers will discharge mist – too little and they will not operate efficiently.  As often happens, especially in old properties, each tap will vary in capacity and volume, and it is useful to note the individual pressures at the point of delivery.

This is calculated either with a bar pressure gauge, or preferably (in this instance, as you are demonstrating your knowledge and training others at the same time, without stating your intentions to do so) by a slightly more primitive method.

A simple technique is to calibrate a small tank or plastic container, and fill with an amount of water decanted using a known capacity container e.g. two gallon watering can. Place a total of five gallons into the tank/container and clearly mark that water level inside the tank walls. Turn on the tap to be assessed and count the number of seconds it takes to reach that five gallon mark. Multiply by sixty to work out the number of gallons per hour. Convert to litres if you wish!

You may wish to add other information to your site plan. This could include access points to gain entrance to certain areas, and the condition of those points. Narrow gates or deep mud may be noted, overhanging branches preventing high sided vehicles, steep gradients or sloping tracks – all may be added at some stage, not necessarily during the initial survey.

Lakes and ponds, swimming pools and other substantial bodies of water should also be added, including their dimensions and water volume. Lakes and ponds may be valuable as water sources during periods of drought, and subject to permission from The Environment Agency, utilised by means of pumps. (E.A. permission may vary from region to region).

Swimming pools need cleaning/emptying/filling and treatment, and the capacity/volume is important when assessing chemical stocks and storage requirements.

There are various methods of calculating the volume of water in a pool.  One of the simplest is to measure – in feet and inches (I always use Imperial measurement for water volumes, as they are the most accurate – at least as far as I am concerned!) the length by the depth by the width and multiply by 6.25 to give you the volume in gallons. For example, a pool 12ft x 8ft x 3ft multiplied by 6.25 gives a figure of 1,800 gallons. Convert to litres if you wish, but the method is accurate. All measurements should be average, i.e. average depth (estimated) X average width (estimated) X average length (estimated) in the case of ponds, or perhaps you may be more precise when dimensioning swimming pools or formal ponds.

All of these points are made to provide you with a positive, practical, informative and fun way of introducing your skills and techniques to the staff, whist at the same time, giving them ownership of the garden by allowing them to partake in the detailed examination of the site and producing a valuable document upon which to build the future programmes and working practices.

You will have taken charge of the site and started a meaningful relationship with the staff without them realising that they have been inducted into your style of management!  Much more of this later on  when we discuss Establishing Your Working Rules in greater   detail.

You are now able to begin to work out your vision for the future, steadily gleaning information, and gently guiding both the staff and the employer towards the possibilities of the garden. Remember to continue to hold your counsel. Privately formulate a Personal Mission Statement, one that encompasses all of the merits of the site, together with all the deficiencies whatever they may be. Look at all the missed opportunities that you may have identified, and seek out any reasons for their omission to date. The reasons may be oversight, lack of design ability/imagination or budgetary constraints in previous years.

This Mission Statement is not a management tool, it has no real tangible meaning or value, at least until it is processed, but it is the first step towards other goals. Any future presentations may be made after full consideration and understanding of the site and its’ potential for improvement or greater efficiency.

Making an inventory of Staff, Site and Equipment

As you will appreciate, the greatest asset you will have is your staff. Without their willingness and ability to assist you in the well running of the garden, you will find life very difficult. Therefore it is vital that you discover as soon as possible the value of that asset. Whether you have a large team or one part time worker, you need to get to know them, as individuals, with all of their gifts, skills, talents and hang ups. Many of these skills and talents may not be of immediate use to you in the garden, but other attributes e.g. languages, history, art or fish keeping may well prove useful to the department at some stage.

They may be many, and you but one individual, and so it will prove helpful if you can arrange an initial meeting, together with your employer making the introductions (then leaving!) as by dint of this formal introduction, you will hear at first hand the way you have been introduced to the staff. It is a wise precaution to prime your employer (or the person making the introduction) regarding anything you may find embarrassing – ‘This is Bill Sykes, who was Head Gardener at Buckingham Palace and has won ten gold medals at Chelsea’ may not be the most helpful of initial statements.

You may then introduce yourself, and include any personal information you deem fit, including your love of Rock Music, motorcycles and writing poetry and you breed Rough Collies for a hobby. Thank them for their time, and request an informal chat at a time to suit their work schedule. (You should always place their work value at a high level of importance). You may then programme your meetings at a time mutually agreed, in a place where you will not be disturbed. Don’t use the Mess room, as this is a communal area, to which all members of staff should have unrestricted access during working hours. Ensure there are no interruptions, telephone calls, and that mobile phones are switched off.

These informal chats will give an opportunity to talk TO the individual, not AT them. Tell them that they know the garden far better than you, and that you would appreciate all the help they can give you. All comments and opinions will be noted – let them know that you will be proactive, not reactive. You believe in sorting out problems before they occur, and as they know the way the garden ‘works’, you will be relying on them.

I suggest that you do not invite them in order of seniority, indeed, ensure that you do not start with the Foreperson, but a genuine mix of experience and time served will not allow any preconceived ideas or thoughts of you seeking an opportunity to hear tales about other staff members. (It may a good idea to have a quiet word with the most senior person to explain your motives and avoid any misunderstandings and ‘ruffled feathers!’)

Keep the desk clear of notes or personal files and details. This is YOUR chat, not a formal HR review. Avoid talking about other staff members, and if any such mention is made, gently steer the conversation away from personalities. Never allow anyone to criticise the employers or any other individual. This is not the opportunity for complaints!

Make as many notes as you wish, especially regarding their next of kin etc. The HR department may well have their files, but relationships end, and the official records may not be up to date.

If your staff are drivers, even if they do not drive ‘company’ vehicles, you must have a copy of their drivers licence, which you will photocopy for your personal records. All vehicles driven into and onto the property must be taxed and insured, even private cars. Any accidents with visitors or staff, including tradespeople and postal workers will be fraught if they are not fully compliant, and this matter will be under your immediate jurisdiction as they work in your business area.

You may wish to ask personal questions regarding the way they see their role in the garden. Do they have any training they would like to undertake? How do they see their work load? What parts of the job do they like or dislike? Avoid questions regarding their future plans, as they may feel intimidated should they have any  ideas of eventually applying for another job or immigrating, and their answer potentially taint any opportunities for advancement within their current employment.

Equipment Evaluation and Inventory

Even the most modest garden will have tools and equipment, and a professionally organised site will have records and inventories. As a part of your initial survey and staff discussions, you may be presented with an inventory of such equipment, perhaps including a schedule of materials in stock (weedkillers, fertilisers etc). These records should be dated and will hopefully indicate that they are completed on a regular (annual) basis. IT IS IMPORTANT that you do not use this inventory when making your own assessments, merely note its’ existence and file it away, unread.

Working with a member of staff if possible (or perhaps the owner may like to be involved during this procedure), gather together all items of equipment, including hand tools, no matter what their condition. It may be necessary to have several different locations for this exercise, dependent of the size of the property. It may be advisable to undertake this operation at the weekend, when everything is gathered in to the yard, and not in use around the garden.

Produce a list of everything, including all hand tools (as these should have been recorded in previous lists) and include manufacturers name, type and variety or capacity (in case of chain saws, strimmers etc) and identification numbers. Note too, the condition of the items, and clearly indicate those which should be destroyed and replaced. In the case of equipment that has a legal ‘shelf life’ e.g. hard hats and work helmets, note the date of expiry of legal use (usually five years from date of manufacture – not date of purchase).

I find it useful to mark each item with a waterproof permanent marker, once it has been recorded, to avoid confusing one with another, especially if you have dozens of spades, forks, etc. Include all fuel cans, their condition and capacity.

In case of larger equipment, it is essential to glean as much information as possible during the process of making your inventory. For example, in the case of a tractor, all attachments fixed onto the machine, as well as those that are additional or special purpose e.g, grass tyres, spade lugs, additional wheels, back hoe, spare hoses and linkages – anything and everything connected to that item of machinery needs to be recorded under one heading.

Electric tools need to be listed separately, as these require annual inspection and awarded a valid certificate issued by a qualified electrician. These are only valid for one year, and must be renewed. Incidentally, ALL electrical equipment used on site, including those owned by staff members e.g. kettles, microwaves, radios etc MUST also be checked and certified if they are to be used on the property. A ‘sticker’ will be affixed to the item, and a full record made by the electrician, with a copy for your records as Head Gardener, to be kept in your office, with perhaps a copy for the mess room notice board.

All ladders must be listed and their condition checked for damage. Note the heights, type and method of storage. Any defects at all must result in the ladder being condemned and a notice affixed stating that this item MUST not be used – it is to be destroyed. If you allow a ladder to be used that is known to be defective, you will have no answer to allegations of neglect of duty.

Plant material including container grown stock,  trees and shrubs held in a nursery area, house plants, orchids, compost and plant containers, tree stakes and ties, greenhouse or conservatory plants – all of these have a value, or cost money at some time, and should be noted, including their current condition.

Personal Protective Equipment – whilst this will be covered under Health and Safety, a full inventory of equipment should be recorded under the banner of Inventories, if only for valuation and condition purposes. Bearing in mind that any alterations to PPE may well render such items as unserviceable, it is perhaps politic to address this matter sooner rather than later i.e. during the inventory process. For example, safety helmets decorated with stickers or painted with personalised ‘names’ may well render them not fit for purpose as certain adhesives may cause the material to be chemically altered. There should be a notice to that effect inside the lining of the lid, and therefore no dispute should arise. All such potentially contaminated helmets must be destroyed and replaced immediately.


It is important to note that under no circumstances is it permissible to give away any item deemed unfit for use through damage or time limitation to another person. If it could be held that an item (say, an electric drill) that had failed the annual examination, and was presented to a third party with or without your knowledge, and an accident occurred that injured someone even off site, you could be held liable. ALWAYS destroy – put beyond reach or repair – all defective items.

Chemical stocks should also  come under the heading of Inventories – we will discuss storage and security later – and once again, everything should be listed (including road salt, swimming pool sundries etc), including name of manufacturer, volume or amount, type of container, type e.g. fertiliser, insecticide, pesticide etc, together with any date shown on the packaging or other means of identifying a likely/probable date of purchase/manufacture.

Once you have all of this information – and it will no doubt be a long list indeed, hence the suggestion that you invite another member of staff to join you in the operation – it should be presented in a book form together with file copies (one for your records (book), one for the owner and one for the staff room).

Schedule as clearly and concisely as possible, beginning with a detailed statement of equipment and machinery, showing not only all attachments etc, but also the date of purchase, replacement value and identification marks (including a note if trackers are fitted)

followed by electrical equipment (with a separate list of staff owned items, just for the record). Both of these lists will be of major value in case of fire or theft, thus the more informative they are, the better. (One such list to be held elsewhere in case of fire or theft).

The list of small and hand tools will be long, and it is helpful to keep the items in order i.e. spades, forks, rakes, fuel cans, hose pipes, ladders etc to avoid it becoming meaningless and confusing. These may be numbered individually for ease of identification.

EACH OF THESE LISTS should include those items that have been condemned to be destroyed, either by marking them in a different colour ink or with an unmistakeable notation against each one. A separate list of condemned items may be produced, and this repetition will help to reinforce the importance of removing the items out of use.

It may well be that a number of chemicals have also passed their useful life or legal expiry dates. These will require specialist attention, which will vary from estate to estate. Some gardens are attached to farms, and the Farm Manager may be called in to arrange for their removal and destruction. Dependent on the type and amount of unwanted/expired chemicals it may be possible to arrange for collection by a professional company. Needless to say, they should not be destroyed by the Gardens Staff!

As I mentioned, it is wise not to rely on any inventory you may be presented with, and if you accept it at face value, you will have taken ownership of it, and any shortfalls will become your responsibility and liability. Having produced your own inventory, it will be illuminating to check your factual lists against those of the previous one. Even accepting that some of the tools may have been damaged since last year, and some of the time limited expiry dates have passed, you may find that your list bears little resemblance to the original. Tools will have been broken and not replaced, lost or stolen and not missed, purchased and not recorded, materials used and not replaced – there will be a distinct difference between the two documents, hence it is expedient to not accept any existing inventory as being valid.


Over and above aforementioned aspects of making inventories of the garden, and establishing the whereabouts of different features and potential uses of the grounds, it is advisable to make your own assessments of the site – or at least, those areas that may come under your control. Such evaluations may include those areas that surround the property under your immediate personal supervision, such is the wide and varied nature of ‘gardens’.

For example, many gardens employing a team of gardeners are sited within gated grounds, with many dozens – even hundreds of houses with gardens ranging in size from one to four or more acres, each self – contained yet within a global world of private property. An example of this would be St Georges’ Hill, Weybridge, or perhaps the Wentworth Estate, both in the South East of England. All houses and gardens within these gated regions will have many restrictions placed on them. Many factors, including times of access to the grounds by any vehicle (including the Head Gardener’s car!) being restricted to between (say) 08.00 and 18.00 Monday to Friday, or at no time during Public or Bank Holidays.  Such restrictions will have a major impact on the running of the garden, especially reference glasshouse controls, watering, turf welfare etc that must be taken into consideration when organising work schedules.

Other restrictions may include noise levels and times when the use of all motorised equipment is forbidden, the lighting of fires, storage and composting, plus the use of certain types of equipment, including access platform lorries may be prohibited (privacy issues). So many rules and regulations – Bye Laws in effect – that will heavily influence the way the garden is run. If the employer considers that you should know about these things, they may not be mentioned at any time during the job interview!

Many gardens departments are run out of buildings adapted over the years from (perhaps) stables or piggeries, barns or milking parlours and pressed into use for the gardens team. Very often, they were never designed for such purpose, and are far from suitable. Even dedicated garden buildings such as a potting shed or conservatory are inadequate for modern use, including security, storage or practicality. As with all matters discussed in these pages, due to the extreme diversity of the locations and sites we are presented with, please make your own schedules, to suit both your specific site and personal requirements. All of these words can only ever serve as a general guide!

Create a schedule of all relevant buildings, noting size, accessibility, access road surfaces and their existing condition including potential load bearing, having due regard to power steering. If you consider that a shed may be accessed only with a small van or lorry, include that fact in your schedule. If a driveway shows signs of weakness, make the necessary notes.

Note too, height, condition of doors – both from the point of safety and security, roof condition and roofing materials (asbestos? crawling boards required? Safety notices? Anti-climb paint/signs? Floor material – sound, clean, dry, evidence of vermin? Overhead cables?

Ambient light. Is the room too dark to work in safely without additional facilities? Are all lights working effectively, with appropriate wattage for the area and site use?

Signage.  Although the legal requirements of signage will vary from site to site, No Smoking, Deep Water, Use Crawling Boards, Fire Point, Do Not Enter, and a whole plethora of signs may be seen. Make a schedule of those you notice, and perhaps check on others you may need. Don’t forget the requisite Health & Safety at Work signs (See Health and Safety).

Electrical points, lights, capacity and type, fixtures and fitting, shelving and potential load bearing, fire extinguishers (more on these later under Health & Safety), noting age, condition, types and useage, signage, locations, accessibility in case of fire, history of inspection notices.

Mess/Staff Room – is there a suitable room set aside for staff to take meals? There are a number of Laws covering the requirements for the provision of Staff rooms especially in relation to eating. These include a flat, clean, dry adequate area to place food, food heating facilities that must be clean and in good order, a seat with a back, hand washing facilities etc, together with clean towels. (Note; Televisions are not permitted unless they are covered by a specific Television licence for that building.) But as many of these Laws do not relate to private property or domestic sites, so many gardeners are not covered. More on this subject later, but the provision of a staff dining area should not be ignored because of a grey area in Law. Staff welfare must be a primary concern of every employer and Head Gardener.

My comments on the use of the Mess room concern those observations that may not appear in any legal document. I have mentioned before that the Staff room/mess room should be a private area in which your team can relax in comfort. Very often this will manifest in each person bringing their own personal chair into the room, and certainly, they will select ‘their’ place around the table. The Mess room should not be the repository of their personal protective clothing (PPE) or muddy boots – these should be stored elsewhere.

Each team member should have their own private locker to store personal items, and I strongly recommend that you do not permit any valuables, including IPads, watches, wallets, mobile ‘phones etc to be left unattended. What may at first sight appear to be a compliment to other staff members – ‘I trust you with my gear’ – becomes a major problem if something is missing or mislaid. EVERYBODY becomes a suspect, and that is simply unfair.

A simple cabinet style locker should be provided for each staff member, comprised of 50mm x 50mm timber, with a weld mesh style cage on all sides, perhaps with shelving for personal tools e.g. secateurs, complete with a padlockable door, large enough to hold personal clothing, perhaps a crash helmet, hand bag, rucksack etc, together with PPE that is either ‘dry’ e.g. safety helmet or chain saw boots, or other protective clothing that is not requiring to be dried. (It is not advisable to have the staff clothes drying area within the same room/area as the Staff/mess room. The drying area is usually situated in the vicinity of the boiler room or other suitable place.)

Each person should be  issued with a key for their own locker, and  be held responsible for all items contained therein, and to ensure that the door is kept locked when it is not in use.

The Mess room may also be used to display a Staff Notice board, showing  various items of interest, both personal and instructive memos from your office, but should not include any contentious articles or photographs that may be deemed offensive by anyone who has reasonable grounds to enter the room. These items will include ‘pin up’ photographs or racial comments, and it is your responsibility to ensure they are not displayed.

This is also the place for a wall chart displaying Holidays, on a week by week basis (copies available from all good stationers or on-line), showing dates and lengths of holidays (perhaps also showing number of holiday days left for each individual?) to show the staff how much/little time there is left on the working calendar.

As previously mentioned, very few gardens have purpose built facilities, and various modern legal requirements will need to be addressed as best as possible. For example, apart from ‘No Smoking’ signs, current legislative material such as Health & Safety at Work posters, Safety at Work signs and posters displayed for potential work place hazards as may apply to your site, including Electric Shock and other life saving techniques must be displayed.

Somewhere, in the Mess/Staff room there should be a cold drinking water tap and a hot water tap/sink with draining board, together with a full First Aid kit suited to the number of staff in the department (or are likely to be on site), and importantly – an eye washing station, together with eye cleansing fluids and clean dry towels.

The Mess/staff room should be kept in clean and tidy order at all times to discourage vermin. The waste bin – especially if left over food is placed therein, must be emptied daily. It is often good policy to start a staff rota, with one person per week appointed to be responsible for the tidiness and cleanliness of the room/s.  You may wish to include yourself as a matter of course if you are a user of the facilities, and add checking the First Aid kit contents as a part of that routine.

Finally on mess rooms – although I feel sure you can add your own ‘rules’ – I once visited a garden in which the staff room ‘fridge’ was filled with bottles of alcohol, each brought back from an exotic holiday by different staff members. Although perfectly innocent in a way, if there was ever an accident, and the HSE arrived, you can imagine how embarrassing such a discovery would be to the Head Gardener!  In such a case, give the team one hour to empty the ‘fridge and take home whatever they want. No questions asked.  Just get them off site!

The Head Gardeners Office

Whilst I fully appreciate that every site is different, and that many Head Gardeners will be fortunate enough to have a small area within a mixed use building, it should be the primary objective, when taking over a site, to try to establish a custom built room – even a portioned area within a larger building – where you may organise your personal work station.

The first priority will be a clean, dry, warm dust free environment, where a computer/word processor and photo copier may be left without damage through cold, damp or dust. It is also advisable to have some form of ‘dirt barrier’ to avoid muddy boots and dusty clothing from entering the room.

The room should be large enough to seat two people at a comfortable distance apart, so that one person does not invade the personal space of another. This is particularly important when conducting interviews of any kind. The Office is your private area where Two Way Reviews, planning of work schedules, discussions with company representatives and disciplinary matters may be held  privately and without fear of interruption. (With a suitable ‘Do Not Disturb – Meeting In Progress’ sign for the door.)

It should contain a lockable  filing cabinet, containing copies of staff reviews and personal details (in case of emergency), staff driving licence documents, together with weekly site meeting records, Management meeting minutes, spraying records and fire extinguisher/electricians reports etc, are held on file for future reference.

You will also require a land line telephone, with perhaps the base station for any site radio systems you may have in the Gardens Department with a list of other site telephones and useful addresses/numbers. It is advisable, in case of emergency, to have the National Grid reference details of the site immediately obvious in case of a medical alert when the Air Ambulance may be required. (This information is available on – line, or in collusion with the Emergency Services if your site is particularly remote or difficult to locate, or is a Sporting venue e.g. Shooting or Fishing Estate)

It is also helpful to the well running of the garden if a library of suitable books is held for use by the Head Gardener and loaned to staff if requested. Furthermore, a colour photo-copier is useful for showing  the colours of (say) plants and flowers without carrying a selection of books under your arm.

First and foremost, The Head Gardeners Office is the hub of the garden. It is the working heart of the site, from which all things evolve. It is the place where the owners, staff and all visitors will know as the constant source of knowledge, either from the Head Gardener personally, or the secrets contained in the library and on the computer!

Budgets, and Budgetary Understanding

Unless you have a very wealthy employer, who will provide you with whatever you want, just by asking for it, there is every likelihood that you will have to make formal requests for expenditure. On many occasions, this will simply be a case of spending on an ‘as needs’ basis, but many employers cannot understand that machinery purchased only a few years ago is no longer fit for purpose. Even when presented with factual evidence showing that the cost of repairs is going to be prohibitive, some will prefer to spend a few hundred pounds on mending a worn out mower than investing in new equipment. This is one reason why budgets and controlled/ managed finances should be discussed and a forward looking programme instigated at the time of interview or pre-acceptance of the job.

Working for a private owner, having inherited a selection of tools and equipment, the powerful tool of the inventory may be used to good effect. If you can show documentary evidence that the amount of equipment you have now, together with a schedule of new items you require including notes showing your logic and the costs per annum of running the more expensive machinery as opposed to continually repairing old tools, you will have a strong case for your requests.

Such matters should not arise in more ‘commercial’ gardens, as the costs will be off set against tax for accountancy purposes, with a structured system probably already in place. In the case of machinery, you would be well advised to take into consideration more than one option when it comes to high price items. Depending on the nature of the property, and the requirement for the Gardens Department to be a Cost Centre when set against income and expenditure for taxation and accounting purposes, it may require a more structured analysis.

If the site derives income through public engagements e.g. Weddings and Conferences, the grounds and their visual beauty will become part of the genuine cost and expenditure necessary to provide that venue, and your role as a cost centre will probably form part of a much larger picture. It may be that the owners and their financial advisers prefer to operate a system of structured expenditure that will suit a finance package of lease hire or lease purchase (lease hire being a series of regular payments over a given period of time, with the item never becoming the property of the lessee.  Lease purchase is similar except that the final payment plus an agreed lump sum will see the item become the property of the lessee, and the payment terms are staged accordingly).

Put simply, the employer may wish to operate a system that will suit both your requirements and those of the garden and property at large. Strict budgeting is therefore required, and your understanding of the needs of the ‘business’ will be very important to your position as Head Gardener. Obviously, not every penny spent of the Gardens Department will be set against the Income Stream (from events), although perhaps in the case of Hotel grounds, that may well be the case, but only if agreed by the Tax Authorities.

Strict budgeting will be required, and if you have been presented with budgets set in previous years as a template from which to work, you would be wise to look carefully through the figures, and not take them at face value. On too many occasions, these budgets were worked out years ago, and updated annually to take into consideration inflation or some other arbitrary figure as the basis for adjustments, without taking on board other factors. If you suspect such practices, place your reservations on record with your employer/line manager, and begin to produce your own figures, allowing for your preferred method of purchasing and periods of repayments. I will be looking more closely at purchasing equipment in the next couple of pages, but the relevance of setting out your own figures will provide you with an opportunity to obtain the new equipment you wish.

You need not get involved in the running costs of the garden, certainly not in a global manner. That is for the owners and their financial advisers to deal with. It will be necessary though, to ask for guidance regarding Capital Expenditure on larger items. ‘Cap Ex’ is the system whereby expensive purchases have their cost spread over a period of years, to suit the bigger tax picture of the business. For example, the cost of a vehicle  at £20,000 may be spread over four years if such an arrangement suits the owner and is cost effective in terms of tax. All you need to know, for your figures, is the amount per annum you need to build into your budget. Don’t forget to add running costs including maintenance and consumables such as tyres.

There are other options to consider when acquiring capital expenditure equipment, including fixed term mileage/hours operated contracts whereby a third party ‘Agent’ or provider of expensive machinery. These may be more tax effective, and suitable only to the more ‘commercial’ types of garden, but once again, everything depend on the employer and their situation.

Other items may be short term, or limited period expenditure. For example, you may decide to spread 75mm of compost/mulch over all beds in the first two years, and split the costs of materials over that period. As this will be a reasonably finite project that will not require repeating for a few years, it should be noted as such. It will not therefore appear on your budget after that time, and affect future figures. There are so many permutations of the theme of budgeting, but the ‘rules’ remain the same. Always cost as accurately as possible, include everything you need, perhaps in order of priority, always recognising that you may have to cut your requests accordingly should the cost be too high.

One cost that will increase annually is that of labour. Although you may have little to do with setting wages and rates of pay, you may need to recover some of the costs against taxation, as a cost centre. Therefore you need to be aware of the cost per hour for the purposes of setting Labour Charge Rates. In order to do so in a meaningful manner, you will have to take into consideration the total cost per annum of each employee (although you may set an average rate per hour per worker for ease of accountancy) and divide that cost by the number of ‘paid’ hours in the year.

Take a normal working week as 40 hours, multiply by 52 weeks, which is the total amount of time you must pay the employee. Taking into consideration Bank Holidays, Annual Leave, average sick pay and down time, the total figure of 2,080 hours (52 x 40) reduces to only 1,800 working hours or 45 weeks @ 40 hours. Therefore you need to divide the labour cost of (say) £15,000 p.a. PLUS 20% Employers Related Costs (ERC), which gives a figure of

£18,000 p.a.  Therefore, the cost of £18,000, divided into 1,800 hours, becomes £10.00 p.h

The recharge cost of £10.00 per hour must to added to all other Departmental costs, which may include rent, rates, water, electricity, tools and equipment (not Cap Ex), heating oil, insurance, training costs, staff costs inc. PPE – the total projected cost of running the department (excluding labour). Supposing this amounted to another £18,000 p.a. adding another £10.00 per hour on the same rechargeable basis as the labour rate was determined, you now have a total of £20.00 per hour. Don’t forget to add in the Cap Ex charges, which may be another £5.00 per hour, and you see how quickly that modest wage payment of only a few pounds per hour becomes a recharge rate of £25.00 per hour. This rate will be your departmental charge rate for all Weddings, Conferences etc, to be added to the client’s bill in whichever form the employer decides.

(Only if you actually work as a rechargeable employee should you add your time into the mix. If you are not an ‘earning’ member of the Team, your costs need to be included in the overall figures)

Obviously, the division of Departmental costs will decrease with the number of employees. If all costs are to be borne by three employees, the cost per person will be higher than if they were divided between ten workers, and the resultant rechargeable rate will be lower.

There is no accurate formula for this equation, as the more staff you have, the more equipment and overheads you may incur. As always, please use these notes as a general guide and reminder of the myriad items that need to be taken into account.

It may be prudent, according to your circumstances, to consider the cost of employing external labour as a cheaper option. Certainly, if you are working in a ‘professional’ garden, with accountants looking at all financial implications, you may find that the In – House labour becomes unaffordable, at least, on paper and at first sight. For example, if you charge rate is indeed, £25.00 per hour, good quality, bona fide contractors may be used on an ad hoc basis, charging perhaps £20.00 per hour, and paid only for the actual hours worked. I fully appreciate that outside labour will not be as efficient or knowledgeable of the site as the Gardens Team, but at certain times, and at certain events, they may prove a useful addition to the workforce.

Certain projects – or types of work e.g. hedge cutting or rough mowing – may be out sourced to specialist contractors on an annual basis, for an agreed rate per hedge/hectare or project. These fixed costs may prove invaluable if you are operating on a strict budget.

Planning for the future

As we have seen, the requirement to establish and record the current situation is a critical part of taking charge of any garden. Obviously, not every site will demand such a complex chain of documentation and in depth analysis. However, even the more modest gardens with one or more staff – even casual or part time – require an attention to a number of legal requirements, and it as well to be aware of your responsibilities.

Having taken a long and detailed look at the ‘Establishment’ – the buildings, tools and equipment, and those things that construct the working area, it is important to make an depth inventory or Working Practice Survey of how the garden is ‘worked’ by the employer and more especially, the staff.

It is time to take a critical look at the efficiency of operations, and if there is not already a system of time sheets in operation, it is advisable to introduce them as early as possible. Time sheets, with space for name and date (usually ‘week commencing XX XX XXXX) and columns for individual days, sub divided into hours or half days, allowing sufficient room for comments such as ‘hedge cutting’ or ‘strimming’ including details of the location of works. This information should be cross referenced using names and sites previously noted during your period of Taking Charge of the Site, and may include even more information if necessary using codes.

Codes may also be given to activities e.g. 001 = weeding, 002 = hedge cutting in order that this information may be collated, and any particularly onerous or time consuming jobs considered for out sourcing at certain time of the season. Time sheets will prove to the employer and staff exactly where time and money are being expended. This information will also be useful should you wish to request a particular piece of equipment under Capital Expenditure during your meetings with the owners.

Site eyesores; those areas that somehow get neglected, usually at the expense of other places that the gardeners have decided to spend extra time, either because the work is favoured by them – or the eyesore is a particularly unpleasant and difficult site to access. Eyesores may include tree stumps that have been reduced to stumps and allowed to regenerate into ‘shrubs’ right in the middle of a shrub bed, when they should have been either root ground or stump killer applied. Perhaps native specie trees have colonised cultivated borders and staff afraid to remove them without specific instructions.

Communications;  Even if you hold regular morning meetings to discuss and decide the days’ activities, there will always be occasions – usually daily – when staff need to talk with each other, if only to ask questions of a practical nature. Perhaps it is part of your Working Practice Survey to suggest that a number of radios are purchased (Capital Expenditure for tax reasons), with a base control unit. (This is also a very important part of the survey, if you have areas where lone workers may be employed, or in difficult/potentially dangerous sites)

Machinery;  Having produced the inventory, the next step is to ensure that the equipment is maintained in good condition. This means that staff should take personal responsibility for its’ use and well-being,  including handling, transporting, storing and on-site security, especially powered/expensive items.

Each mechanical item (including non-powered e.g. lawn spreaders) should be given a number, firmly and clearly affixed to the unit, to enable accurate identification to be made. Members of staff should initial a hard back book attached by a rope next to the unit, when they collect the tool to use, thereby accepting responsibility for it.  By definition, this process will clearly identify the last user – the person who is responsible for the same return, in good condition, of the tool.

Similarly, a system of tags or cards with a string attached should be fixed to any tool that is in any way faulty, with a note of any defect/s, and the unit taken out of use and placed securely elsewhere to await repair.

It may be, that in the process of compiling a working practice survey, that you include other items such as Health & Safety signs, Fire extinguishers and their condition, H & S posters e.g. Electric Shock at Work etc may become subjects that you could delegate to a suitable member of staff, giving them responsibility for these areas of Management, ensuring they maintain accurate records as part of their duties.

Working Practice Surveys may be as long as you wish, or the site demands. I suggest that they may be widened to include those matters that are difficult to pigeon-hole into your management scheme. For example, I do not wish to see staff working with personal radios plugged into their ears, as this is not only hazardous to other staff members but passersby should they be using certain powered tools. They are not able to hear any change in the note of an engine, perhaps heralding a problem that may be expensive to repair.

Personal mobile telephones are also on my list of banned items, and I do not permit staff to carry or use them during working hours. If they must bring them to work – leave them in their lockers. I do not feel that employers should pay staff to spend ‘firms’money on texting friends and arranging their home life in work time! There is no other trade or job that can think of – factory/office worker, soldier, builder, printer – that permits staff to spend any time on non-emergency communications. Such emergencies are dealt with by providing next of kin with your office number (and management can call the person on their work radio)

By including these things into your W.P.S you are presenting the document as a whole, and any dissatisfaction with your style of management is quickly smoothed over!

Establishing Your Working Rules for the Staff and Employers

It will have become very apparent to everybody – staff and employers alike, that you have taken a firm grip on the site. You have recorded inventories, established the current site conditions, plus points and defects. You have registered and compiled a number of combined yet separate sets of documentation. You have shown that you completely understand the garden, you have the measure of the staff, their strengths and weaknesses, and now need to ensure that your programme for the well-being for the garden and the staff is applied.

Before you begin to present your findings and recommendations to the staff, you will need to gain explicit permission to implement them from your employers. You have identified many problems, and highlighted the importance of making any such alterations as may be required to comply with the Law, and ensure that efficiency and good practice are maintained. (In my experience, employers realise that there were ‘many things wrong’ when you took over, but did not know how to solve problems.)

Certainly, some of the courses you wish to take will prove very unpopular. Taking away radios and mobile ‘phones will cause much complaint! Similarly, removing someone from doing a certain type of work that allows them to become lethargic or less than useful ( I am thinking of such practices as unnecessary hand watering or weeding, chasing a single leaf around the lawns with a blower, two people to lift a lightweight bag of dry leaves  – jobs that may give an impression of ‘busy’ but are not 100% productive.

On the whole though, I find that the staff are more than pleased to be given solid, practical guidance, especially when they know that things have been allowed to drift, and once they see the results of working efficiently and effectively, start to become much more alive and proactive in their working day. I believe that no team really wants to just plod along, and if led by an effective and enthusiastic manager, the difference in happiness and team spirit is quite remarkable!

Alan Sargent FCIHort MPGCA


Applying For A Job As A Head Gardener

There is no standard approach, or formula that may be applied to the decision to apply for a position as Head Gardener. Many of you will already be Head Gardeners, and seek to move on to another property for a wide variety of reasons. As a professional, you may consider that you are not being sufficiently challenged in your existing employment, or you and your family may relish a change of location.

Your interests may change, and you become keen on (say) organic vegetable growing, alpines, top fruit, glasshouses and orangeries – so many different aspects and opportunities for advancement come into play. Sometimes money is a factor, or perhaps a better education/school for your children. Some people do not want to feel  ‘institutionalised’ by working at one place for more than a certain period of time. And so the decision is made to attempt to find another similar or better job.

Certainly, money matters and changes in the life style/life stage of both you and your employer can influence decisions. Sometimes too little opportunity to experiment with or explore new horticultural techniques and ideas can cause boredom to set in, and a creeping realisation that it is somehow’ time to move on!

There can be no doubt that your previous experience will influence your choice of potential jobs, as it will count heavily in your favour at the interview. Progressive experience that will be useful to your new employer, especially skills that you have learned by your own merit – perhaps by extra curriculum activities outside your normal work schedule e.g. plant pathology courses or Health and Safety Legislation will help to set you apart from other applicants.

Your previous and/or current situation may influence the manner in which you learn of new job opportunities. For example, if you currently working for The National Trust, you may learn of a possible opening at (say) a private garden or English Heritage site by word of mouth or perhaps an internal grapevine. You may read of vacancies in The Horticulture Week, LinkedIn, Professional Gardeners Guild announcement or even the local newspaper.

You may choose to apply through an Agency, or other commercial organisation specialising in Horticultural employment. The source of that information will play an important part in how to commence your job application process. As I mentioned, there can be no standard approach, as the overall scenario is so diverse.

Selecting your target job opportunity

Having made a clear decision regarding the type of job you wish to apply for, the location and your basic personal requirements concerning pay scale and employment conditions, you may begin to research opportunities. (This essential personal thresh hold is important. If you need to earn a particular wage in order to provide for your family, this may be your first and only priority.)

Irrespective of how you came to learn of a particular job vacancy, your next step should be to research the new property and employers as thoroughly as possible. Today we have a wide range of research methods, with the internet providing information including the site history, previous and current owners, the value and size of the property, including aerial maps, plans and photographs of the site. It will also state when it last changed hands, and if new owners are living there, the potential for site improvements may be on their agenda.

From these photos, you may note the amount of grass areas, size and number of glasshouses, areas of woodland, wild flower meadows, lakes and ponds, swimming pool, tennis court – just about every physical aspect of the grounds. Access roads and neighbouring properties will also be shown, and you should write all of this visual evidence down as part of your campaign documents.

Let us assume that you heard of the job via an advertisement in The Horticulture Week. The job description should relate to the site you have researched, and any variations should be noted for future reference. For example, the site as described may be larger or smaller than that shown on the internet. Perhaps some of the land has been sold, and if so, the sale may indicate financial problems with the owners. If the photographs indicate glasshouses – don’t forget to check the dates of the aerial pictures – and the advert does not mention glass, you should make notes of these prima facie discrepancies for your records.

The job advertisement description should provide you with many clues – quite apart from obvious statements made in the advert, you should learn to read between the lines! I have included six genuine job vacancy adverts as a separate document in the Stage Two file. I have also added notes to each, highlighting the potential clauses and variations of meaning that may be implied by the words. Several phrases that may appear quite incongruous can have a major impact on your employment conditions, and an awareness on your part is essential. These are by no means comprehensive, but are just examples of ‘standard’ style job vacancy descriptions.

I will discuss some of these phrases as they arise throughout the course, as they could be used to your disadvantage – unless you are aware of them! Be aware too, that often the simplest of job adverts – those with few descriptive words and little information – may hide complications and disguise difficult employers. Sometimes the lack of information may be an indication that there is much to hide!

Researching the Employers

Your campaign file should include as much as you know about the employer at an early stage. Your notes must clearly show YOUR understanding, as far as you can gather, of the actual person or persons you will be working for. If, during subsequent meetings and interviews you are disavowed of that researched information, and you are informed of another person or company that will in fact be your employer, that is not a problem – as long as you know. (Occasionally, a managing agent or third party acts as the ‘employer’ for reasons of security, for example, a film star or famous recluse who does not wish to court publicity)

It will be helpful too, to research the area to establish various family requirements before applying for the vacancy. Accommodation (if any) must be acceptable to you and your family. So it is with the local area. Check out schools and their reputation, distance to the nearest town or railway station if your partner needs to use public transport, and a host of other factors that may be important to you as a family.

Check out too, the type of property if you are not happy to work for certain people. It is no use applying for a position as Head Gardener to a Hunting Estate if you are anti-hunting, shooting or fishing! Driving into the interview car park with ‘Ban Hunting’ stickers displayed on your car will not endear the owners to you!

It will certainly prove useful to establish the precise location of the property, to ensure that you know where it is and how long it will take you to travel for interview. Make sure that you have contact details of the new employer, including telephone and email before you set out in case of any problems. Ensure that you have plenty of battery power/credit on your telephone.

It may also prove valuable to stay overnight at the nearest public house offering Bed and Breakfast. Whilst staying, casually mention to the barman/lady/landlord/locals that you are thinking about applying for the job at XXXX House. You will often find that you will learn a great deal more about the place, and its’ reputation as an employer (or why the last Head Gardener left!) from the locals than you ever will from a job advert!


There are two main Agencies who specialise in the supply of Senior and Head Gardeners. These are Greycoat Placements and English Country Gardeners. Other Agencies will supply gardeners, but not specifically at senior level. If you wish to use an Agency, you do not have to make any payment to them, as all fees are paid by the employer.

You should register with the Agency, and they will request a lot of information, both personal and professional, and hold this on file. Face to face interviews may be required for certain positions. Once a suitable vacancy arises, you will be notified and arrangements for interview put in place. Whilst they are keen to ensure that you find a job – after all, they are a commercial operation – they will not be able to carry out such finite and detailed research as you can yourself.

The Agency will hold your full details, as you have supplied to them, including any previous CRB/DBS security checks quoting reference numbers and dates of issue (although these will/may need renewing before a formal job offer is given to you, along with a medical report) and will pass that information on to a prospective employer. It is in Agencies interest to find the right person for the right job, and they will do everything they can to facilitate a mutually satisfactory end result.

It is helpful to have sight of a copy of their description of you as sent to the potential employer, although any corrections should have been made beforehand. Very often though, there is little time before your registration and the first suitable vacancy announcement and interview.

The Job Interview

Interview One – The Application Form

Yours Curriculum vitae should supply you with the primary requirement of your application. You have submitted your entry, having ensured that it arrived within any deadlines given by the advert/Agency. It is advisable to take a copy of your application in person beforehand – although this advice will depend on the type of job you are applying for. If it is a ‘professional’ organisation, say National Trust or ‘commercial’ say a large country Estate with offices, it is advisable to arrive with your entry and ensure that you obtain a written receipt from Reception before handing it in.

Submitting your application and c.v. documents (in triplicate) in one clean white A4 envelope to ensure that the papers are not folded, with your name and the job position clearly marked in the top right hand corner, within the deadline, complete with a signature is the only sure way to know that your file arrived safely and on time. This will be noted by the interview panel,  as a sensible precaution, especially in a large organisation.

Some organisations, rarely private, usually ‘professional’ will require applications to be made on line. Whilst there is no way around this process, as their HR department will not be geared up to handling anything other than computer generated forms, these do not give you an opportunity to stand out from other applicants. They may have many dozens – hundred even – of applications, the reader will only have a minute or two at the most to scan your entry before either accepting it as a possible, or putting it in the waste bin.

First contact really is that arbitrary.  Unfortunately, there is no way around that situation, but if you have certain letters designate after your name, you should use them against your name, and not bury them in the small print. I appreciate that this may be a contentious statement, but facts are facts! Lucy Smith MCI Hort or Phillip Jones BA (Hons) FCI Hort will have an immediate impact on the reader and get through!

If, for any reason at all, you are not able to make the interview, or you are going to be late, do not get flustered. As long as you give as much warning as possible – icy roads, thick fog, heavy traffic are all unavoidable (unless you take overnight lodgings nearby) – you will not be penalised by the panel. If you are unable to make the appointment at all that day, they may suggest an alternative date, but this is not helpful, especially if they have plenty of choice in their list of candidates!

Arrive in plenty of time, perhaps quietly informing the receptionist that you are on the premises (you may be asked in early, if someone else has withdrawn or is going to be late), and relax! Your shoes are clean, you look very smart – often smart casual/country clothing is the most appropriate, and don’t forget to put some clean wellington boots in the car just in case you are invited for a walk round (unlikely at First Interview, but be prepared).

Avoid all scents, including perfume, aftershave, mints, etc that may be associated with disguising aromas. Avoid eating aromatic food, including curry and garlic, do not drink the evening beforehand, certainly not wine or spirits – anything at all that may impinge on the meeting. These smells can be seriously distracting to the meeting – try to be aroma neutral!

It is widely held that the first three seconds of seeing someone will influence the way the interview is conducted, and I would not disagree with that comment. Walk in confidently, not too cockily! Smile and make eye contact with everyone, including any secretary or staff member. Don’t expect to shake hands with everybody unless it is obviously the right thing to do. Attempting to do so without being invited can often appear clumsy. Do not sit until invited to do so. Do not sit with your arms defensively across your chest, or similarly cross your legs. Do not clutch a portfolio against your chest, and place any documents you have bought with you against your chair leg – don’t just dump them on the table!

Try all of these movements at home – you will learn how to avoid clumsiness and see how you appear to the panel. Try to visualize the whole meeting, each and every question that may come your way. Practice might not make perfect, but it will certainly help with your confidence.

Talk clearly and not too fast. Personally, I find this very difficult, and have to force myself to slow down! Try to identify everyone in the room, asking if necessary, both who they are and what their role is in the interview. If you keep a small note book handy, don’t be frightened to be seen making notes. This particular point may prove  invaluable at a later stage.   (See page 12) Listen carefully to what is being said at all times. Don’t be afraid to ask for any clarifications.

If you are presented with business cards, look at them carefully. Don’t simply glance at them and put them in your pocket. Treat all cards with respect, and show an interest in the person presenting them. If they have a high profile position, a slight nod of the head out of respect is always polite and appreciated.

Do not stare at peoples’ chests – especially the opposite sex (!) as it unsettles the meeting. Try to hold your gaze at nose level and above. Staring at an attractive pair of lips or a film star like finely chiselled chin may be considered flirting, and should be avoided.

Make a mental note of any papers on the desk. If you see only your application, with various notes and comments visible (e.g. slips of paper marking various pages), this is a positive thing. If there are a pile of other applicant packages, how many others have similar slips showing? Is the interview being conducted by rote; are the panel following a set of written ‘rules’ or are they making independent notes?

Try to invite ‘open’ questions – those that give you an opportunity to expand from a personal viewpoint, and try to avoid ‘Yes/No’ questions as they give you no opportunity to shine. If you find that the panel are being too formulaic, or if they ask you for any questions, then seize the chance to ask them open questions. Don’t be afraid to ask what happened to the previous Head Gardener if the opportunity arises. It may be their answer is at variance with the information you gleaned from the pub landlord! Don’t comment, just make a mental note for the future. You will be asked – at any time – if you have any questions. If you cannot think of anything ‘intelligent’, say “not at this time”, not simply “No”.


Case File – Actual Questions from a genuine interview.

(As a consultant, I am increasingly commissioned to either take part in, or organise job interviews and recruit new senior and Head Gardeners. The following document was produced by myself for use at a recent interview. I have changed some of the details to maintain confidentiality, but otherwise, they are accurate.)

(Whilst I am sitting in on the interview, I have asked another member of the panel to ask these questions, so that I may make notes. The questioner will not have full knowledge of the answers I am seeking, and has been asked not to respond to any queries, but refer them to myself.)

“XXXX is widely held to be one of the finest XXX in the world. The XXX buildings and grounds at XXX are also some of the most famous and historic in the world, and the nuber of high quality applications we have received for the post of Head Gardener reflects that status”

(Here, I am setting the scene for the candidates by stating that this is a very important post and that the calibre has been very high. Statements such as these help to cement the seriousness of the process that is about to take place)

“You are to be congratulated on reaching the short list from such a reservoir of talent. It necessarily follows that the interview today will include many challenging questions. Are you happy to proceed with the interview?”

(Of course, nobody would decline such an offer, but again, the candidate is being readied for a serious conversation. This is not small talk!)

Q.  “Your curriculum vitae is very impressive – what do you consider to be your most outstanding attribute? What can you offer that other candidates cannot?”

This is a loaded Open Question. First part of the statement is complementary, although obvious. How do you answer this question? How do you know what attributes the others may have when you do not know?

The answer should be positive – as you do now know what they have to offer, you cannot make comparisons, but you feel that your strongest point/s are XXXXX, and that with XXX years practical experience you feel quite confident in your ability to manage change and build the department to be a credit to the place.

Q  “Do you consider yourself to be a Head Gardener or a Gardens Manager? How do you see your present role in your current job?”

Another loaded Open question. As you will see as the questions unfold, there is every opportunity to contradict yourself if you do not answer accurately and fully. Be very clear in your answers, and make sure that each important part is noted by the panel.

It may be best to reverse the answer, but stating how you see your position in your current role. Just be honest, and note the fact that the question of being a Manager has arisen may indicate that the panel are looking for someone who can MANAGE rather that a highly skilled gardener. Obviously, your answers will reflect your own position, and of course, that of the type of property you are being interviewed for. It is to your advantage to have some experience of managing affairs as well as horticultural knowledge.

Q  “Would you say you were a proactive or reactive person in your professional life.”

Yet again – a loaded Open question. An honest answer to the effect that everything depends on the circumstances, as sometimes one may be presented with a positive situation that may greatly benefit the garden and gardens team, and that you recognise the nature of the opportunity and warmly embrace it. Other times, a measured response is the correct position to take when confronted with problems, but generally like to think that you are proactive, always striving to work in an efficient manner, driving things forward in a timely sequence.

Q  “How do you like to run your team? Do you prefer to carry out all aspects of day to day management or allow the staff to think and act for themselves thereby giving them responsibility for their time and actions?”

You will have gathered by now that all questions are loaded and presented in such a way that you are obliged to answer – hence ‘Open’ questions as opposed to ‘Closed’ questions that require only a simple Yes or No.

The answer I would like to hear would be along the lines that you are firm in your staff management rules, yet expect everyone to use common sense when applying them. For example, the staff will be trained to undertake certain tasks under given conditions and in a timely manner. If unforeseen circumstances arise, I will not expect them to stand around idly waiting for instructions, but to use common sense and move on to another allotted task within their capabilities and in the proscribed manner, and explaining their actions and reasons when called upon if required.

Q  “Do you prefer to conduct Personal Assessment Evaluation Meetings with staff, or Two Way Reviews?”

Many Head Gardeners may not have used a formal method of continually assessing or appraising staff. Personal Assessment Evaluation (or Appraisal) Meetings are held between the Manager/Head Gardener and the staff member.  These normally occur once or twice a year, and provide an opportunity for the Head Gardener to advise the employee of their progress at work. It is also the time to discuss formal matters such as poor performance, staff training and other important matters in a formal manner. These meeting are recorded in files for future reference.

Two Way Reviews are more open and involve both the staff member and the Head Gardener interviewing each other in a formal manner. Normally written down in a format, with a number of heading including conduct, training requests and so forth. (More of these reviews at a later Stage). Two Way Reviews are invaluable as they act as a record, agreed and signed by both parties, confirming the results of the meeting as the yard stick to measure progress including commitments by the Head Gardener to assist the subordinate with their career development.

Q  “What would you consider to be the single most important item of everyday use to you as a Manager?”

You may not be surprised to learn that most people answer ‘mobile ‘phone or computer’. This is not the answer I want to hear! What if there was a power cut? How would you manage without power for your computer? If there was no ‘phone signal, what would you do then?

The answer I want to hear is your personal daily diary or logbook. Everything of import that happens on a day by day basis – from the weather to how many staff turned in/were late/ill, which greenhouse requires the heater checking out? What VIP turned up today – or a visit by the mole catcher – anything and everything that you may need to refer to at some later date. Even if these matters are recorded elsewhere or in another format, your diary is the most important item by far. In much the same way that a Policeman’s pocketbook is a hugely important document primarily as it is a contemporaneous record, the Head Gardeners Logbook should be maintained and stored under lock and key.

Q  “What would you have achieved by the end of the first week of duty? Please describe the likely programme of your first five days, and what benefits of your actions would have on the well running of your department?”

Q  “Similar question – what stage in understanding your department would you hope to have achieved by the end of the first month?”

As both of these questions are closely related, and I will deal with them at length in the Course, and as each garden will vary in size and complexity, the answer will be bespoke in each case.

In general however, a statement to the effect that you will have interviewed all members of staff, collated as much information as possible reference other departments (or people whom you will have professional contact with in the course of your working week) including names and telephone/email addresses. You will have introduced yourself to those who need to work with you. You will have instigated a site survey and begun conducting an audit and inventory of all tools and equipment…… As much as your particular site requires.

Q  “Describe your methods of dealing with difficult staff, perhaps outlining a couple of examples from past experience. Please give the reasons for the problems, how you dealt with them, and the outcome”

As you can see, the questions are getting more difficult to answer. If you have had no such issues, do you tell the truth – that you have never experienced any problems? Or do you launch into a tirade about the complete and utter **%^$£% you had to deal with in the past.

Think long and hard about the question, and answer as candidly as you can, perhaps drawing in other people e.g. your employers or other professional staff who were obliged to handle the case with you.

What is important is the process which you went through. All that is being asked is ‘Did you have a problem – and how did you resolve it?’

Q  “How soon would you conduct personal interviews with your staff? In what order would you decide each persons’ position in the interview programme? Senior first? Newest employee first? And why in this particular manner?

Don’t be fooled by the pecking order. Whilst it may seem sensible to call the most senior first, it is sensible to have a quiet word with him/her to explain your logic, and let them know what you are doing and why.

The answer is ‘according to their work duties’. It is polite and proper to treat each staff member with respect, and in order to do that, you should invite them to have a personal chat, just to get to know each other, and when would be a convenient time for them to come along to your office. It really does not matter in which order – youngest, most recent or most (self?) important.

Q  “How do you keep up to date with new legislation, products, materials and techniques? What ‘Out of hours’ activities do you undertake in understanding that latest developments in the world of horticulture?”

Simple question – what do you do?  The answer should be along the lines of ‘reading Horticulture Week, visiting Futurescape or The Landscape Show. Perhaps GLEE or other Trade shows. Chelsea and other RHS Shows. Visiting other Stately Homes and gardens.

Whatever your answer, be prepared to be quizzed on the unexpected!

Q  “Finally – in this part of the interview – where would you like to see yourself in ten years’ time?”

Killer question!  Up to you to answer!  Ambition is not frowned upon, and no-one is expected to remain in post forever. Perhaps the most politic answer is to reply along the lines of ‘that will all depend on what challenges there remain at this place!’

(These questions are bespoke to XXXX site. They are designed to be presented by XXXXX during the interview. They are intended to draw out any shortcomings in a candidate, and do not allow for ‘waffle’ or ‘bluffing’. They will provide the right candidate with an opportunity to really prove their merit)

(These are genuine questions I set for an actual interview for an important client. You should never assume that you will be asked simple questions, or that they will be in any way related to horticulture!)

                                          ************ END**********

If you have such material, take along a number of photographs – not too many – showing you in various positions undertaking a number of different tasks. It is always helpful to see visual evidence of skilled activities, especially those using tools and equipment. Be careful not be appear ‘posed’, but as though you were unware that you were being filmed. These visual aids are very powerful. It is not advisable to bring photos of completed sites, with the comment ‘Here’s one I worked on last year’ – the panel want to see YOU in action! Similarly, photos of you at College or helping at The Chelsea Flower Show are/may not be considered as YOUR work. Being pictured spraying, cleaning out a fishpond or standing on a tall platform cutting a fine taxus hedge are an advantage during the First Interview.

Listen very carefully to what is being said. Make as many notes as you wish, especially those that involve more information. If you have not listened or misunderstood anything, and you are invited to the Second Interview, you will disadvantage yourself.

Internal Promotions

It is widely held that any business which operates an internal hierarchal system that permits staff to ascend a career ladder within the company structure is likely to be a well – run organisation, ready to train and improve the capabilities of the staff. Incentivising workers may be a major plank in the company policy, especially regarding such matters as Personal Career Development, with staff members being sent on external management, Health & Safety, IT refresher courses etc.– all have their place in promoting a healthy workforce.

Such training courses are vital to the success of the company, and funding should be included when drawing up the Departmental Annual Budget. The provision of such programmes also gives the Company Directors a sound record of progress made by an individual during the period of their employment. Even the most basic of HR Departments will hold details of any company funded training in the files for future reference.

Skilled and trained staff, having attained a certain level of achievement within a company, whether as Foreperson, Lead or Senior Gardener or Deputy Head Gardener will, at some stage in their career, be presented with an opportunity to apply for the position of Head Gardener, due to retirement or an unexpected vacancy. I will make a differentiation here, between a planned retirement due to age or a long expected plan on the part of the existing Head Gardener – when the whole company will be aware of impending changes – and a relatively short notice vacancy, when the incumbent decides to resign (for example) to move away from the area, giving a couple of months’ notice.

A long planned change may be dealt with almost seamlessly, with the current Deputy Head Gardener being gradually trained into the position, learning the inner workings of the Estate Management and being made aware of secrets reference finances and other ‘private’ issues, that only Directors and Management are privy to. The matter of internal promotion does not arise at the highest level i.e. Deputy to Head Gardener, and therefore any more junior adjustments to staffing are the responsibility of the new Head Gardener in the course of their chosen methods of managing the team. There is no external campaign to find and install a new Head Gardener and therefore no ‘vacancy’.

However, some Estates will wish to operate a more open exercise and actively advertise for a new Head Gardener to the wider world. This may be as part of a wide ranging commitment to (say) ISO 9000 or another ‘Investors in People’ style company programme, when the proscribed methods are clearly laid down, or perhaps to try to introduce new blood into the Gardens Department.

For this article, I will presume that you are a Senior Member of an existing workforce – let’s say that you are currently Deputy Head Gardener.

The vacancy for a new Head Gardener has been announced, both internally by means of a Staff email or notice to all personnel, and the job adverts have been placed in the local papers and the Trade Press. The full job description has been clearly provided as part of that advertisement. ENSURE THAT YOU KEEP A COPY OF THAT JOB DESCRIPTION FOR FUTURE REFERENCE.

Do not presume to know everything about the existing site, Estate, Company or your employers. Do not be complacent about any aspect of the job. Everybody who is serious about getting the position will have done their homework, and you can imagine how demeaning it would be if, during the interview, you were seen to know less about your site than a newcomer/outsider! Research and record everything and anything of interest.  Make sure that you can answer any question that may be asked. Number of visitors? How many acres? When was the House built? Who designed the original gardens? When were they laid out?

Even if these or similar questions are not asked, if you have the information at your fingertips, it will help to influence your confidence during the interview. This process of learning all about your Estate will provide you with a psychological advantage, or at least make you aware that you are COMPETING for the job, alongside many other applicants. Just because you feel you have an advantage inasmuch as you are a known quantity is a false security.

You must ensure that you are kept abreast of any changes to the job description or any other matter regarding the advertising. Very often, the net may be cast wider, and more applicants sought from new horizons (e.g. LinkedIn), and you need to be aware of these, as your competitors will surely be. Perhaps an Agency has been asked to provide candidates, and their recommendations may carry of lot of weight with the Estate Management. You need to know all of these things…………….

Never assume that you will be interviewed by people that you know. You may be informed by Management beforehand, but always expect the unexpected! Very often, the interview board will consist of the owner or his/her representative, a Director or Solicitor representing the Estate in a formal manner, an outside Gardens Consultant (such as myself) who will have a wide range of knowledge, including your reputation within the industry, and a member of the company HR Department.

The role of Head Gardener is a very important one. As Departmental Manager, the Head Gardener has a wide range of legal responsibilities, and the make – up of the interview board will reflect that importance to the Estate. (These will covered in more detail in Stage Three)

It is unfortunate, but often internal applicants are at risk of being disadvantaged, albeit in a well meant manner. It is not to your advantage to be invited into the interview during your normal working hours, and the company is not doing you any favours by paying you for a normal day. Allowing you time to change and prepare for interview is not helpful. You should either take a day as holiday or in lieu, and give yourself the same advantage as other candidates, to take time to dress appropriately  and to feel clean, fresh and tidy, ready for all comers! Simply knocking off mowing or pruning half an hour earlier, getting changed in the mess room and going along feeling hot and bothered is not fair!

Your c.v. has been presented and is looking good! (See Stage One for c.v. production) You have done all your homework, and feel you know the place as well as anyone. You are confident in yourself. You look good, feel fresh, are on time – clean shoes! – when you enter the interview room. You are happy that you are well prepared, and feel calm and confident.

Beware!  Because the interview panel know you, and know that you are fully conversant with the site and how it all works, they know that you know the existing staff, what goes on and when, how and why. Because they know that you know, the panel will not be asking the same questions of you, or giving you answers in the same way they will to a stranger.  And that’s a lot of ‘knows’! This is a perfectly natural fact, and it is up to you to guide the conversation along lines that suit you.

Never criticise anything regarding the Estate or the way it is run, or has been organised. Never criticise any staff member ESPECIALLY the previous Head Gardener. Because the panel may appear somewhat bereft of questions – they already have the answers in front of them – if they need to be guided back on track, ask them about their future plans for the Estate. How do they see the site being developed, what plans do they have to increase visitor numbers, how do they see the Estate in fifty years’ time. These and similar questions will keep the panel on the back foot, whilst at the same time, giving a clear indication of your interest in developments.

If you are asked to specify any improvements in the way the gardens are run, or the department is organised, don’t attempt to provide answers to what may be complicated issues. “Supposing you become Head Gardener. What improvements would you make?” and similar questions are easy to ask, but not easy to answer. Certainly not in the one hour or so you have for the interview. But you do have to give AN answer, and the most impressive reply is to state that if you were successful in your application, you would set out a timetable, reporting to the owner/board within thirty days, with your initial analysis of the status quo. You would further propose that (obviously, this all depends on the complexity of your garden!) a full audit is made as a matter of priority, clearly showing the state of the department, covering tools, equipment, supplies (chemicals etc) and the general condition of the outbuildings, watering systems, glasshouse etc. This audit is extremely important, as it will provide the grounds for all future discussions and responsibilities – without this document, there is no bench mark or foundation upon which to build.

If you are asked “What next?” reply that you would wish to conduct interviews with each staff member as the basis for your own Two Way Reviews. Previous two way reviews will reflect their relationship with the previous Head Gardener, and you need to establish your own rapport with the staff, initially to ensure they have no problems with your advancement. (Old friendships in the tea room may be difficult to forget once you are in charge, and you may be asked how you would deal with these personal aspects of your promotion. By stating your intention to hold these interviews will show that you are aware of, and are dealing with the matter.)

Reading these notes, you may feel that seeking internal advancement is not something I would recommend. That is not the case, but all too often I see good candidates fail at the interview stage because of some or all of the matters I have outlined. Especially important – do not assume that you have an advantage over other candidates because you know your job. The short listed candidates will also have very impressive track records, and they will be keen to promote themselves in a positive light.

They too, will have fresh ideas to bring to the Estate, and it is important that you recognise that your skills and talents now need to be stretched to begin to make your personal mark on the future of the Garden.

The Second Interview

Whilst I fully appreciate that many people do not have to sit through a second interview, either being offered the job there and then, there are nonetheless plenty of occasions when a second interview is called for. This interview will probably not involve all of the original panel, and may take place elsewhere, often taking the form of a ‘walk round’ with one or more panel members.

During this walk round, try not to contradict or comment on anything in a negative manner. After all, you may be contradicting the very same person who is walking you around the site! Hold your counsel – keep your thoughts to yourself and only make positive notes in public.

If you recognise a rare or unusual plant during your perambulations, by all means comment on it. There are often anomalies in some of the larger grounds, with acid loving plants sharing the same garden as lime lovers. This may be because of a change of soil type in a natural way (in my home village, we have deep chalk and acidic sand pits all within a few hundred yards) or due to localised pits of suitable soil, especially imported in some Victorian gardens.

Try to be both interested and interesting. Ask as many relevant questions as you wish, whilst avoiding potentially contentious issues or commenting (for example) on the owners new Rolls Royce or the damage done by the owners dogs or their children’s skateboards.

Do ask as many questions as you can think of, especially regarding the likely use of the grounds, potential for high water tables, access difficulties and how they are usually overcome, regularity of weddings/events, periods when machinery may not be used due to noise issues – a host of pertinent queries that a potential new Head Gardener may reasonably ask.

The Third Interview

Now is the time to take control of the meeting. You have successfully managed to get to the final stage and therefore must be in with a very good chance of success. You are now able to make your pitch!

Thank the panel (or however many are left at this stage – usually only two people) for inviting you back, and request that you would like to begin proceedings. This may surprise them, but why not? Say ‘I am a very proactive person, not reactive. I have seen and heard a lot about the job, and am very keen to be accepted. I believe I have the qualities you are looking for, and I am perfectly happy to take on the responsibilities that go with the position. However, in order to be proactive, I believe in delegating to the staff, thereby giving them ownership of their duties and responsibilities.’

Go on to describe what you have seen and heard during the previous interviews, and the notes you have made. This is now a two way conversation. You should talk as though you were in the post of Head Gardener – even asking their permission to do so. If you want permission to speak freely, this is invariably granted. Just don’t criticise  any individuals!

You will be asked why you want the job. What is wrong with your previous/current job? Whilst only you can answer those questions, everybody is entitled to better themselves, and your present Head Gardener (assuming that you are currently Deputy Head Gardener) is not due to retire for many years, and you want to progress your career. There are plenty of good reasons to want such a position, just have the answers ready!

As before, write down all relevant notes. IF IT ISN’T WRITTEN DOWN – IT DIDN’T HAPPEN!


The subject of the issuing – especially the timing of Contracts of Employment, is wide and varied. For example, for those of you working for The National Trust or English Heritage – or other ‘commercial’ property where a system of Management documentation is well entrenched, and those who are employed in the private sector, where perhaps the owner/employer has never previously used any form of written contract, are worlds apart. You should insist on a contract of employment before you start work, signed by both parties, with a copy to each. Legally, it may be acceptable to provide such a contract within your Probationary Period, and given once the position is ratified, but such caveats will be included in any event, and I recommend that you should have the contract in your hand before commencement of employment.

Similarly, the time to request sight of a copy of your Terms & Conditions/Contract of Employment is not one that can be proscribed. In many cases, there will only ever be one interview. One meeting and the job is offered to you. Simple, quick and easy! Except of course, nothing is that simple. Some private employers will state that they have never needed a contract before. “If I can’t trust you, I wouldn’t offer you the job” is a common statement unfortunately. I appreciate it is very difficult to answer such a statement, ostensibly given as a compliment, but you should reply along the lines that it is my livelihood and the welfare of my family that I am concerned about – thank you for your trust in me, but I must have a proper contract before I commit to working for you please.

Directly you are offered the job, or seem very likely to be asked for a start date, you should ask for a copy of the contract. (I have already dealt with accommodation licences under Stage One, as these are necessarily separate from Contracts of Employment) Never forget that a job offer is simply that – a job offer. You are not obliged to accept the offer, even if it accords with the description set out in the job description. Neither is the employer obliged to honour a verbal job offer. Only once contracts are agreed and signed is the contract complete.

Essentially, a Contract is in ‘sections’. Section One is the job offer to you. Section Two is the negotiation part of the job offer i.e. Salary, Terms & Conditions, Benefits Package etc, which will vary from person to person, and should be bespoke to your job status, title and agreed responsibilities and can only be given BEFORE you agree to commence work on a stated date. Because  there are various legal guidelines, relating to different types of contract and their binding nature, if in any doubt, consult a solicitor. Far better to spend a modest amount of money engaging legal advice before making a far reaching commitment.

Section Three will likely be protection for the Employer, and will consist of Disclosure Checks for criminal records and possibly a Medical Health Check, both of these to be carried out before a formal, written job offer is made.

The actual wording of the Terms & Conditions will vary from site to site and job to job. ALWAYS ensure that you are offered a new Contract of Employment if you are subject to Internal Promotion. This fresh contract should include a) recognition of your past history and employment record (this to ensure that your period of employment remains uninterrupted for legal future requirements such as pension rights and redundancy matters) and b) your new job title, full work description and responsibilities and c) increase in salary and benefits package if applicable.

Always be aware (or beware of!) those contracts that appear too simple. A few lines on a sheet of headed paper entitled Contract of Employment must be treated with caution. Simple friendly phrases such as ‘Works as agreed and discussed’ may well turn out to become nightmarish if the employer wishes to add other duties, (“Other duties as may be required from time to time” is another phrase to cause alarm bells to ring!) such as running the children to school, cleaning out the drains or unblocking toilets. These are not part of ‘the job’ and may be treated as unreasonable.

An acceptable phrase may be along the lines of “Other duties as may reasonably be described as those related to the professional working practices of Head Gardener” and may include responsibility for (e.g.) site and equipment security or perhaps looking after the welfare of visiting contractors – those tasks that were not originally included or envisaged when the contract was drawn up, but nevertheless fall reasonably within your domain. It could be argued that any sensible person would accept and agree to help out as and when called upon without recourse to checking your Contract of Employment, but sometimes common sense falls by the wayside, or indeed, the temperament and nature of your employer may change with the years, and it is better to have such things included in your written contract of employment.


If you are not offered the job, yet have made it through to Third Interview, you may be certain that you were a very sound candidate. This is why it is so important to have details of your original interview panel. Write personally to each, thanking them for considering you for the position, and having made it to the final hurdle, you are really appreciative of their time and trouble. You would be surprised at how often the final candidate is offered the position, only to turn it down at the last minute due to a) a pay rise at their existing employment, b) partner change of mind or c) changed their mind personally . There is no appetite to go through the whole process again, and the second choice candidate is offered the job. This does not mean that you were second best; and you will greatly increase your chances of being offered the job if you are remembered for your polite letter.

Terms and Conditions

You will have noticed that I have not mentioned pay or conditions thus far. (I dealt with accommodation in Stage One) This is primarily because the job advert will have indicated the renumeration package, probably including holidays and hours of duty. As Head Gardener, you will probably be required to work some weekends, and perhaps on call at other times of the year. Every property is different, and duties will vary accordingly. You will see from the various notes I have made on the genuine job advertisement  descriptions that you must avoid ‘Catch All’ terms such as ‘Other duties as may be required’. If there is anything that may be misinterpreted, make sure it is corrected in any contract you sign.

The financial package on offer is only that – an offer. It is perhaps unwise to argue for a pay increase unless you feel that the job as advertised is substantially different from the actual job – perhaps the security aspects are more onerous than you were led to expect, or you are willing to take on the maintenance of the swimming pool – and you feel the package could be enhanced. If working to a budget, there may still be room for enhancements such as dental care, Council Tax, telephone, Health Care/BUPA. Unless you ask, you will not know!

Developing Relationships with your Employer

If you are very lucky, you will take over a garden that has been maintained and cherished by the previous Head Gardener, yet will still require certain elements that need the attention of a fresh and enthusiastic new leader. The owner/s will have given due respect to your predecessor and you will fit in perfectly! However, this is rarely the case, as on too many occasions, the previous incumbent had left things to drift, herbaceous beds become clogged

with just a few rampant varieties, shrubs are now misshapen and suffering from basal rotting – yet to the average person still look ‘OK’.

I will be looking more closely at Taking Charge of the Garden in Stage Three, as this is quite a complex subject, but the rapport between the new Head Gardener and the owner/s is a very important chemistry. Trust and confidentiality need to be earned as soon as possible, and this may begin with a private meeting, away from any management structure or Land Agent, and a general ‘getting to know you’ session produce a mutual understanding between garden lovers. For example, everybody has their favourite plants, planting schemes, colours, shapes and forms. Your duty is to provide that wish list, or at least, attempt to garden within that framework, and not plant vivid oranges if the owner dislikes such colours.

I often suggest that the Head Gardener should treat the owner as though they were in a ‘Contractor’ relationship, and the owner is the ‘Client’. Whilst constrained by finances (often) and site conditions (occasionally) there should be no bar to you providing your client with his or her wishes. If the call is for organic vegetables; ‘something I have always dreamt of, but we could not manage it previously’ or perhaps ‘fresh lemons’ for the House. If at all possible, try to manage wishes as well as expectations.

One of the first projects to undertake, if possible within the first week in office, is to make a full and detailed time dated photographic record of the site as it is when you take charge. No matter what, people very quickly forget the condition of the garden – there will always be areas that are unattractive – and no matter how many improvements you make, they will not be remembered. Time dated photographs, presented as an album entitled ‘Handover Day’ or something similar, will form the foundation of your new working life.  So-called ‘Photo-Books’ containing two dozen or more photographs may be purchased from local High Street print firms for just a few pounds, and make great records for the future.

Regular meetings should be set up, diarised and adhered to if at all possible. A direct private email address and text messaging system should be devised, and a record made of all incoming and outgoing messages in the manner of a Day Book. This will enable you to quote with confidence during any subsequent conversations, referring back to whatever date and time you received the call/instruction. This assiduity will stand you in good stead, as people will quickly learn that you are both efficient and conscientious – and that your diary is an accurate record of events.

Probationary Period

It is standard practice to offer a six month probationary period to new employees, at any level. During this period, a fixed and structured number of formal meetings between the employer/Agent must be recorded, even though they may only be an hour or so in length. These meetings must be held in an appropriate place – not a general chat around the compost area – and follow an agreed format.

At these meetings, all matters deemed important to either party must be included, and should revolve around the well – being of the garden, especially in respect of the performance of the Head Gardener. There should ideally be at least three such meetings within the six month period and written records of each produced and maintained on file; one copy or more to the employer, and one to the Head Gardener.

The subject matter will be different for each site, but must include information regarding the general management of the Estate as a whole in relation to the Head Gardeners duties and responsibilities. (If the Employer is making demands of the Gardens Department that cannot be met due to other factors e.g. lack of finance or labour resources, these must be formally recorded). Any shortcomings in the performance of the Head Gardener must be noted and explained in full detail. At the end of the Probationary Period, the employer cannot simply dismiss  you if this procedure has not been followed. Not even then, as standard legal procedure including verbal, written and final warnings must be adhered to.

An employer cannot simply dismiss you at the end of your Probationary Period without following due procedure.

Rationalising the Garden

In the very early stages of employment, you will have many ideas and thoughts of improvements, recognising that all things take time, and therefore patience. It is a worthwhile exercise to produce a visionary document, or personal wish list. This may of course, be undertaken in association with the employer, but you may like to put as much of your personality into your vision  as you are able to. Let’s call this your Personal Mission Statement.

To enable you to do this, you need to undertake an initial site survey. Much more of this in Stages Three and Four, culminating in the section entitled Maximising the Site Potential, which will only be possible after learning how the Estate in general, and the garden in particular, functions over a period of (perhaps) a full year.

Your mission statement may include a very wide range of subjects, but unless you have these written down at an early stage, you will not have a clear vision or know if such visions are possible to create. This early inventory of the site potential will lead on to other site matters, including Site Evaluation, Three Year Plans, Structured Future Planning and Working Practices, as these will form the blue print of your schemes.

It really doesn’t matter how scattered or nebulous your ideas are at this early stage, they are the initial building blocks for the future. Working together, explaining your ideas to the employer and gaining their respect and trust – working with them to help finance your dreams – will ensure a long and fruitful association.

All of the above matters in these first two course stages – yet you have heard nothing about the actual garden so far! Taking charge of a garden – becoming Head Gardener, responsible for the well – being of an important garden, being the custodian of a heritage site, is a serious job. If you can manage to establish a solid relationship with your partners – employers, Agents, family members and staff – as soon as possible, earning their respect and learning their requirements, tempered with the reality of the site and budgets, you will substantially increase the likelihood of creating a well – managed site and efficient and effective workforce.

Alan Sargent FCIHort MPGCA


Losing A Key Staff Member

When a key member of staff retires or announces they are leaving for pastures anew, the immediate reaction of the employer is to begin the process of replacing them as soon as possible. The more senior the position, the greater the urgency to fill the post.

I suggest that this  scenario that takes place every time someone important to the Team is about to go, leaving a gap that must be filled as soon as possible to ensure the continued well-being of the department.

Although I am not an Employment Agent, as a consultant I do undertake bespoke commissions to locate and appoint senior staff members, and it is surprising how little some employers know about the actual needs of the position.

I always interview the employer in the first instance, reviewing the site and evaluating the type of person they really need to replace their old employee. Because they have always had a Head Gardener (for example), they seek to engage someone with the same job title and background – even though that job description and skills set may not what they really need.

Times change, gardens may become less family orientated and more valuable as venues or sources of income. The emphasis may alter from active users to disabled families, older family members may hand over the management to a younger team of directors. Very few garden sites remain static over the years, and perhaps the previous incumbent was ideal for the original garden  but now a new breed of employee is needed.

No matter what series of events are relevant at the time of change, look well beyond the obvious, and examine how to turn the loss of such a valued individual into a positive situation by examining the true needs of the site.

Evaluate your remaining team

Look first of all at the rest of the Team. How many staff members are still doing the same jobs, holding the same job titles and team positions they were years ago. Since they started working for you, they must have gained many skills, and will certainly be more talented than they were when they began their employment.

Find out how many have taken formal training, or what avenues of continual personal development (CPD) they have been following. Do they now hold formal qualifications that you may not be aware of?  Are they not due for promotion within the Team? Take the opportunity to see if there is any way you could restructure your staff without replacing the person who is leaving – no matter how senior.

I am certainly not advocating reducing the skills level of the Gardens Team by not replacing that Senior or Head Gardener, but there is now every opportunity to reassess and reorganise your labour in such a way that you create a new and exciting environment which rewards each person with more responsibility, charging everyone to become more involved in their job.

It is also a chance to make any changes that may be required to the existing personnel. Some may have job titles that are obsolete or that will no longer apply if you decide to make any alterations to the structure of the department.

Look well beyond the need to employ a replacement and carry out a Working Practice Survey, examining each and every part of the existing department, including machinery and equipment, staffing levels, working standards and methods, current practices right across the board, and create a fresh set of Working Standards and Policy, to be in place before the appointment on a new person, whatever their title.

By undertaking such a  survey you may be very surprised at how much talent you have within the existing team, how much time is wasted on unnecessary practices, how many matters that will be uncovered that will need to be addressed legally e.g. compliances, signage, fire safety, Health & Safety, lack of certificates, licences including Waste Handling etc.

There are bound to be negatives as well as positives, but if you address everything in one operation, you should find at the end of the exercise, you have a more professional, engaged and enthused group of workers, with a meritorious system in place, reducing wastage of time, energy, money and reducing low staff morale by recognising individual achievements. The need will still be there to have one person in charge and taking overall control of the department – perhaps a Director of the Owner will have to expand their portfolio.

Instead of lamenting the fact that you are losing a valued member of staff, and spending a lot of time and money on finding a replacement that may prove to be unsuited to your requirements by trying to maintain the status quo, with a little more enterprise, you could make far-reaching changes to the structure of the department that will save a great deal of money, and produce a more enthusiastic gardens team by thinking beyond the immediate need to find a replica of the leaver.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find good staff, because so many have left to take up self-employment, because the immediate financial rewards are seen to be more attractive than working for one property, the shortage is certainly becoming more obvious.

Perhaps it is time to change the emphasis on staff structuring, with more shared responsibilities and recognition for those willing to put the time in learning the trade in a progressive manner.


Seeking Employment In A Horticultural Business?

I am privileged in occasionally being commissioned to find new Managers and other senior staff for various commercial businesses, especially those without an in-house HR Department. Although the job description may be established, there are occasions when the position is new due to expansion or reorganisation.

I go to great lengths to establish the exact nature of the person the client is seeking, ensuring that the job description is written in such a way to attract suitable candidates, including deciding and agreeing where and how and where to advertise the position and conduct interviews, usually off-site in the first stages.

I am not running an Employment Agency, conducting everything on a bespoke basis, using my knowledge of fifty years working in the industry to try and install the ‘right person for the right job’. I emphasise that I take care to ensure that every aspect of the commission is in place, and arrangements are made to enable me to make any research necessary to be conducted in a discreet and thorough manner.

Having chosen the advertising medium and agreed terms, I prepare for an almost immediate response, such is the power of modern communications. As the positions I try to fill are all high profile, with salaries and benefits to match, the number of applications is always numerous, sometimes well over one hundred prospective candidates applying for the job.

Yet, so many would-be applicants do not carry out any research on the position at all! It almost seems that some people are permanently thinking about changing their job, or suddenly become aware that a high salary prospective has arisen, and they simply push the ‘send’ button on their lap-top thereby releasing a c.v that is out of date, which does not particularly relate to the position on offer. If you are thinking about changing your job, keep your details and achievements up to date.

Once this act has taken place, there is no going back. No chance for regret and wishing you had read the advert more carefully, weighing up the unsaid words hidden in the terms and description of the job.

This lack of forethought can be readily rectified. Instead of rushing into action, check out the deadline date for entries, and ensure that you meet that date comfortably. Read and reread the wording. Establish if the position is one that you really want to try for. Some people seem to respond to every opening, and those recipients of your constant mass applications will simply dismiss your name as soon as they see it appear.

Research your potential employer and site of work

Research the job and find out everything you possibly can about the site. If it is for a Production Manager at a grower establishment, find out what they grow, what they have grown in the past, what methods they use to cultivate and market their products. How many staff, what is their staff turnover, how are they viewed as a company by the industry?

Do they have an established career path potential? How many Directors, who are they? How long have they been involved in the business? Are they family members or outsiders who have joined the Board?

There is so much information that you can gather by research, both on-line and by talking with others. If you are still interested in joining the firm, rewrite your c.v. to weight it in favour of the prospective job. You cannot alter your background, but you can emphasise and highlighted certain aspects, including specialised market knowledge and resources that may make you very attractive to the person reading the c.v.  Remember, you will be one of many, and if you can make your offering stand out above others, you will not go straight into the waste bin!

You have to grab and hold the attention of a human being, someone who is trawling through hundreds of sheets of emailed paper, all of which look pretty much the same as the rest! I have written in the past concerning the paucity of knowledge in the art of creating an attractive persona and understanding of the interview process.

Through various media, I frequently receive requests for advice at a personal level, and whilst I am pleased to help if I can, the most useful advice I can give to anyone is to be totally open and honest, both in your application and when answering interview questions.

Bear in mind that you will have been ‘researched’ and found to be of interest before you are invited to the initial interview. It is the nature of the commission that I have to check out all information set before me, and there is no reason to embellish or bury any part of your previous career. Everybody has highs and lows, and sometimes employers and employees do not get along together.

It is often held that someone who has been working for too many years at one establishment may have become ‘institutionalised’ and unsuited to a new place. It is also commonly claimed that too many jobs, each lasting only months or a few years before leaving and seeking pastures new is a sign of a transient employee. If a career path has been progressive, each position being more challenging and rewarding than the last one, it may be considered a positive thing. However, if you are working towards a goal, being honest with the interviewer will help you achieve that dream.


Finding New Head Gardeners

Part of my consultancy work involves finding new senior or Head Gardeners for clients, usually large property owners who realise that they do not know what the job entails. Their previous employee may have been with them for many years, and his or her role and previous management skills is a closed secret to them.

My role is perhaps a little different from searching via an Agency; a business that may have several dozen people seeking employment and a number of employers seeking employees on their books. I operate on a one to one basis with all concerned, and this insight allows me to see matters in a closer and more intimate light.

For example, I always visit the garden or estate, to evaluate what I consider to be the important matters from a wide range of angles. Horticultural issues are paramount, but there are often more subtle influences that determine what type of individual will be suitable for that particular position. Some owners prefer to leave the garden completely in the hands of the Head Gardener, whilst others wish to be closely involved at all times, often leading to conflict and disagreement.

Some gardens will be used for corporate or family events that disrupt normal professional horticultural practices, but must be maintained to high standards at all times. An ability to provide this service requires a different set of skills and temperament in an employee.

I normally set the salary based on skills and responsibilities, arriving at a figure I feel will attract the right applicants. I write the advertisements and agree with the owners how and where to place the job details. In other words, I am engaged to oversee the whole project.

This freedom allows me to understand and influence many factors, and it has become increasingly clear to me that there are several different types of applicant for these (high profile) employment opportunities. There are also a fair number of highly suitable people who do not present themselves in a way that befits their talents.

Once an advertisement is placed, usually via an on-line system, within minutes I begin to receive email applications. Within hours, I have a dozen or more, and by the end of the first week, I begin to trawl through perhaps several dozen emailed c.v. applications of various quality.

When I place the adverts, I make it clear that I am not an Agent, but working on behalf of a client. So many people do not read that information, and simply send off their c.v without any thought or research into the job or location. They do not make any attempt to find out more about the information supplied in that advert, or take on board any of the facts that are set out. They simply submit their application, based solely on the attractive salary.

It becomes difficult to discern between applicants, when all I am presented with is dozens of similar documents, with no personalities showing through in any of them.

First impressions

Consider how you would like be seen by a prospective employer, and how to attract the eye of someone who is sifting through reams of the same format. What can you do to make your application stand out from the rest?

May I make a few suggestions?  I know that some employers will not accept applications with a photograph attached or shown on the c.v. but if it is not forbidden to do so, I always welcome a small black and white passport style photo, as it personalises the application and makes it stand out from the others.

It is obviously essential that a curriculum vitae is presented in a formal standard manner, which is little more than a resume of your previous employment, showing the number of jobs you have had, when you started and left, with a brief outline of your duties and responsibilities.

However, if you include a separate sheet showing your personal Profile, listing for example your accreditations and membership of meritorious organisations, in such a way that they stand out from the rest of the words.

Full Member of The Chartered Institute of Horticulture since 2006

Full Member of The Professional Gardeners Guild since 2005

Higher National Diploma…………..

Start with your professional accreditations, then move on to your hobbies if they may be useful within the job role. For example, if you keep Koi fish, or chickens, make a note on that document. These are important factors that will immediately lift your application above the standard.

These facts will also make you more of an individual. I am now looking at your photograph, your personal profile and curriculum vitae in that order. I am now engaging with you as an interesting candidate, who has taken time and trouble to present themselves to me as an assessor, and not simply push the button on your computer that says c.v. without any thought of trying to attract the attention of the reader.

Believe me, when you are ploughing through up to one hundred applications, the process is often quite brutal.  To stand a chance of gaining an interview, make yourself appear interesting.

Read the wording of the advertisement. Analyse it and learn to read between the lines. Carry out research on the job and location if possible, or at least find out more about who may be interviewing you.

They say knowledge is power, but research is essential.


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


Employed To Self Employed As A Gardener

Changing status from being an employee to self – employed is becoming  common practice, especially amongst those individuals who feel they could make a more profitable living by selling their skills to a wider and more appreciative world than they currently inhabit.

I have recently written about self – employed  gardeners who wish to work full time for one employer and examined the various ramifications involved in making such a change. This article is intended for those currently employed, who wish to become Garden Contractors. If you are interested in becoming a Garden Designer or Landscape Contractor, you will need more specific  advice. (The Landscapers Survival Manual  (2013) covers these topics, and is available from the RHS Library).

Timing your move is of utmost importance. Assuming a scenario – you are working full time in a senior position, either sole gardener, Deputy Head Gardener or above. For whatever reason, you decide that you wish to move away from being located at one site, and  offer your skills to owners of private gardens by building your own business. You are a free agent and not living in a tied cottage, and therefore are completely independent to make the change without detriment to your family.

Establish a Business Plan

It is important to establish a business plan, no matter how basic, before making your move. Take every personal expenditure into consideration, including rent or mortgage, vehicle costs, living expenses etc. Be totally honest with yourself. If you have been living on a certain income, you will need to double that amount to compensate for the fact that you will no longer have any holiday or sick pay. You will have to pay for everything from now on, including telephone, vehicle expenses, work clothing – all outgoings will have to be covered by your earnings.

You should divide your essential income amount by 45 – the number of weeks per year you will be able to work, taking into consideration mandatory holidays and down time (weather, illness, breakdowns etc). You should not expect to work more than 40 hours per week, therefore your working year will amount to 1800 hours p.a.

When you start your campaign to find work, you need to plan your area of interest, both type of work you want to offer, and the region or location of your target audience.

Carry out some research, and establish how many others are offering the same services, and try to differentiate your publicity material to appear more interesting than your opposition. The amount of money you will need to start your business will materially depend on your choice of work. If you want to offer lawn mowing, you will need at least two mowers, probably three different cutting blades including a wet weather collecting style machine. These are very expensive items, and will require suitable transport and security plus ongoing maintenance.

If you have the necessary skills, I suggest that you style your marketing and aim for those customers who want a ‘proper’ gardener.

Devise some leaflets, postcard size, with the word ‘Head Gardener’ as the lead heading. This should attract attention if placed in a shop window or Parish Magazine. Add words along the lines of ‘After ten years working as a Head Gardener, I am in the process of setting up my own business offering Traditional Professional Gardening, and I am seeking work in the XXXX area’. Be completely open about your wishes. Everyone will understand your passion and reasons.

If you add that you are offering half or full day visits, on a weekly/monthly/ad hoc basis, you will discourage those who only want one hour of your time, which is the least efficient use of your time. If you can fill four days per week on a regular round, try to leave one day a week free to undertake commissions; creating a vegetable garden, planting an orchard or restoring a rose garden for example, as these one-off projects can be lucrative and attract more comment/work from friends or relations of your clients.

If you tender your resignation to your employer very early in January, and give more notice than your contract stipulates, your employer should appreciate the fact that you are going at the quietest time of the year. You could offer to work part time, gradually phasing in your new customers and lessen the time you spend in your old employment (charging whatever rate you both agree as a self-employed person).

Your old employer may wish to offer you part time/seasonal work, or recommend you to their friends and associates, thus it is important that you leave on friendly terms.

If you resign in January, you will have used up your previous year’s holiday entitlement, and start your new career without any unfinished business. Delay starting out until the Spring, and you may find that people have already made arrangements for the year!

You should notify your local Tax Office of your intentions, and they will issue you with a Self-Employed number, and open new tax records for you. You should also ask them to check your tax records, as you may have overpaid at some stage in your previous employment, and receive a welcome rebate.

Don’t forget to take out Public Liability insurance, plus Employers Liability if you think you may need a hand on any of your projects (even volunteers need to be insured, with or without money changing hands).

Be Professional!  Be Successful!

Alan Sargent

Professional Garden Consultants Association



Self Employed To Employed Gardeners

I have been asked, on several occasions, to write about changing status from working as a Self Employed Gardener to becoming an Employed Gardener – and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, this is not a subject that can be dealt with quite so easily as simply  offering advice and then reversing the various pointers! Both have distinct advantages and different responsibilities, and I propose to write two separate articles – one for each manifestation!

Let’s consider the scenario of an individual who possesses a number of skills, certificates and experience who has spent the last (say) ten years working as a self- employed Garden Contractor, operating in Private gardens on an regular round. They decide that they no longer wish to continue in the business due to the stresses and vagaries of working for so many different customers with their quirky manners. They have simply had enough of travelling between jobs and wish to settle down and create or maintain one garden and watch it develop and grow.

Having made that decision, it is all too easy to apply for an interview for someone seeking a permanent Head Gardener. After all, you have the experience and meet all the criteria laid out in the advert. You hold various certificates and are IT literate. You have worked on organic vegetables and are conversant with modern machinery. The money is not so attractive, but all things considered, it could be the answer to your prayers.

I suggest that you take time to think long and hard if your wish is genuine and long-term. Have you really become so disenchanted with your professional life that you want to undergo the sea-change that will occur once you lose your independence? At present, you are able to decide what you do and where to do it. Can you really settle down and work in one garden, for one Boss after so many years of freedom?

If you are certain that this really is your future, take time to assess the garden and employer you are preparing your application for. Find out all you can about the site, its’ history as a place of employment – has there been a high turnover of staff, especially at senior level? What is the reputation of the employer? Are they difficult to work for? Are they elderly, and if so, who will take over the garden when they are no longer around?

Can you afford to make the change?

Look at your personal needs. Do you currently own your own house? Will you have to move to take the job? Does the job come with a house and can you consider renting your current property? Does the local school have a good reputation? Is there local work available for your partner? So many factors come into the mix. You must be certain that you are comfortable with the answers before you apply for an interview. It is not helpful if you are questioned on such important matters during the application process and you are not confident in your replies.

If you can show that you are aware of the change of your personal circumstances and have considered favourably on all counts, they will be content with your positive answers.

Be careful that you are not exchanging one set of difficulties for another. If you have spent years building up your gardening round, and give up your existing customers, you will not find it too easy to change your mind after a few months and try to return to your old life. Your clients will have engaged new contractors, and you will need time and money to establish a new business.

I suggest that you will find that prospective employers welcome candidates with a record of self-employment, as it indicates a maturity of character that augers well for their garden and its’ wellbeing. You will have proven that you can survive year round for a decade or more, and understand the needs of the site. You are obviously talented and hold various certificates, perhaps bringing new skills to the job they had not previously considered.

If you have explained that you have a lifetime desire to develop one garden, watching it grow and flourish, they will understand that sentiment, as it is also their wish for their garden. Be as open and honest as you can when describing your feelings, and if you think that you can offer a different dimension to the job – introducing bee keeping or a Koi pond for example – you may find an appreciative potential employer.

Do not be afraid to state that you wish to continue, in a private capacity, in your own time, outside interests especially those that are job related. For example, when I became Head Gardener at Goodwood several years ago, after over thirty years self-employed, I was able to continue with my work as an RHS Show Gardens Judge and Chelsea Committee member and as a Horticultural Consultant in my spare time, even though I was fully employed on the Estate. My employers welcomed the fact that their Head Gardener was known outside the Estate.

The change from self-employed to employed can be quite dramatic on a personal level. Whilst there is relief to have lost the anxiety of chasing money and dealing with awkward customers, there is the loss of freedom of choice to be considered. Having made that decision, I strongly recommend that you follow a professional industry career development programme.


An Exmple Of An Initial Report, Compiled At The Request Of A Prospective Employer, Engaging A New Head Gardener.

It is not uncommon for a prospective employer to ask a candidate for the position of Head Gardener to carry out an initial survey of the garden by walking around and making notes, to be presented as though they had been offered the job.

I suggest that you write the report in the First Person, as though you were indeed, addressing your employer as though surveying the existing site with a view to producing a second document, or Working Practice Survey providing the employer with your thoughts and proposals for the future well-being of the garden.

You should therefore begin by addressing your report as though writing an informal letter…..


I am writing this report at your request without the benefit of any previous knowledge or background for the logic or reasons for any particular situation. I inspected the grounds on my own, following a natural progression.

Thus my initial thoughts are to be tempered by lack of additional information. However, first impressions are valid, especially to visitors and new staff, and it is this vein, I herewith commit my ‘First Impressions’.

The Gardeners Depot

The general atmosphere of the yard was one of neglect and lack of appreciation that the area is viewed by visitors and pupils. The greenhouse for example, is devoid of any meaningful plant material (a few dead and dying bits and pieces), and showing no signs of any respect for an expensive item – one that should welcome and please interested eyes.

The buildings are becoming overgrown with brambles and the yard stocked mainly with dead or dying plant material (with some decent flowers and shrubs mixed in with second and third grade items that should be placed in a green waste area) and a mixture of old and new plant pots etc. The whole area is one of neglect, and does not do credit to the Gardens Department.

There are a number of safety issues, including a hazardous drop from one level to another by the ladder storage area. Anyone collecting a ladder and stepping backwards is in danger of injury.

The name plate on the gate should herald a clean and tidy picture of general tidiness and order, yet it appears to be a backwater. There are no ‘No Unathorised Entry/Keep Out’ signs.

Office/Mess room

Whilst generally in good order, with clean and tidy areas and neat chairs and staff facilities, there are some items that should be addressed concerning staff information and welfare including general legal aspects of the area.

The statutory Health & Safety signs and other mandatory notices e.g. No Smoking, H&S reference posters e.g. Electric Shock Treatment etc are not in clear evidence. (I located some H&S signs pinned to the ceiling of a sloping roof – not immediately obvious to a casual viewer), but no H & S at Work, Emergency Treatment for Electric Shock etc signage.

Although I did not check all appliances, I did not notice any current electrical ‘Pass’ notices on any equipment, although I am assured that each item has been regularly checked.

Similarly, I did not notice any signs showing locations and types of fire extinguishers inside or outside the buildings. (This is not to say they are not on site, only that they are not obvious to the casual visitor)

There was no obvious First Aid signage, although I am sure that all staff will be aware of the location.

Tool/Machinery Shed

Again, there was no obvious H & S signage, either the statutory posters or others such as No Smoking, No Naked Flames etc – nor were reference posters eg. Electric Shock etc. Again, there is no obvious First Aid box or eye washing station.

A single fire extinguisher is located (unsigned) behind some tools. There is no smoke alarm in the building.

Hand tools allocated to individuals are located on hooks etc to the walls of the shed. These were generally in a muddy condition with no signs or cleaning and oiling.

Mechanical Equipment

A range of blowers, strimmers and mowers are placed in designated areas. However, none of the power equipment is numbered or otherwise delineated. There is no regime in place to identify each item. There is currently no system of identification, record of use or inventory for any of these tools. Neither is there any way of recognising the condition of any item (I know that there is a system for taking faulty equipment out of service, but no way of identifying the last user, who should be responsible for the wellbeing of that machine.)


The current system of early morning meetings to discuss the working day is laudable, but once in the field, there is no practical way of communication between the staff and management – or between individual staff members. Therefore anyone requiring assistance or information is obliged to either physically locate a manager or another staff member. Machines and equipment are dropped off at each designated garden and collected at the end of the allocated/agreed period, and accumulated rubbish collected.

Whilst these notes are simple initial impressions, it is evident that the gardens department would greatly benefit from a radio system, base to operative and inter-operative person to person.

Security of Tools

The current system of dropping off equipment means that these machines are left unattended during break times. Indeed, I witnessed on expensive piece of kit (Stihl strimmer) left leaning against a tree, complete with extra strimmer line with the operator absent from site during break time. In the same garden, an expensive twin wheeled barrow has been left unattended for many months (from the complete lack of vegetation under the barrow body), and whilst it was obviously not attractive to any thief, the fact that it was left unattended for so long means that it was either surplus to requirements or unfit for that site.

Although this ‘First Impressions’ is not intended to resolve any issues, a simple strong cable with a padlock passed through machinery handles (etc) and around a suitable tree or metal pole would deter casual thieves. This measure would also show casual visitors that due care is being taken to protect expensive equipment.

Site Eyesores

There are many instances of untidiness around the various gardens, including rows of pallets containing vegetative debris, including non-compostable material i.e. tree branches, which are very unattractive and spoil otherwise tidy sites. This particular problem will need to be addressed as part of the Working Practice Survey.

Other areas of ‘horticultural untidiness’ include the practice of leaving numerous epicormics, small trees and saplings of ‘weed’ specimens including sycamore, ash, holly and elder. These have been clipped and pruned in many cases, when the correct procedure should be total removal. Other items include woodland trees that have been reduced to stumps and allowed to rejuvenate, including lime, holly, sycamore and elder, and their presence somewhat spoils the overall beauty of the grounds.

It is evident that operatives concentrate on specific ‘favoured’ areas of the grounds, especially those are ‘hero’ sites e.g. well tended roses beds, crisp edges to some lawns, with a fine display of annuals and neatly clipped box hedging, yet within the same garden, areas are left untended to grow wild and unattractive, thereby spoiling the primary benefits of the workmanship.

Meanwhile however, some jobs are left off any work schedule, to the detriment of the well -being of plant material. An example of this are the Tree Gators which have been fitted  round recently planted specimen trees, yet are empty (of water), and appear to have been for some considerable time, to the evident distress of the trees.

There are other areas that could be included, and will require mentioning in the Working Practice Survey. However, these initial thoughts need to brought to your attention as soon as possible, if only for guidance, as I will be directed by your reaction to them.

This initial survey will form the basis of all future reports, as it is a ‘snap shot’ in time, forever being a record of site conditions at the time of your engagement.

This is written about an imaginary garden site, including many of the typical situations that abound within a large garden or small estate.

Many other factors may arise that effect a Head Gardener’s duties, including tennis courts, swimming pools, croquet lawns etc, that all require descriptions regarding conditions noted at the time of making the initial survey.


Gardens Department Working Practice Guide

Taking an imaginary Estate, this essay is intended to show the type of report that a new Head Gardener may be asked to produce, either as a factual exercise, or as evidence of their perception when applying for the position of Head Gardener or Gardens Manager.

It should be written as a Working Practice Guide, based on observations, oral and written information provided by the Employer.


All references to ‘Gardens Manager’ or ‘Head Gardener’ shall mean the person in charge of the gardens in an everyday role, and shall include The Deputy Head Gardener or Deputy Gardens Manager. The term ‘Manager’ shall be used throughout, and applies to the senior person in charge at any given time having due regard to holidays, sick leave and other Estate duties.

The term ‘The Garden’ shall mean any area under cultivation or subject to maintenance by the Garden Department, including Public and Private areas, where they are directly owned by or managed by (Directors/Owners/Land Agent etc)

Recognising the fact that the Estate has a Forestry Department, separate from the Gardens Department, there may be occasions when the works of the two departments overlap, viz; some tree works may require clearance and associated works by the Gardens Department, and it is incumbent on the Gardens Manager to notify the Head Forester of any concerns that may come to light. Similarly, Forestry should request any assistance from Gardens to ensure that the well- being of the Estate remains paramount at all times by working together as one Team.

Management Notes reference responsibilities.

The Manager should be in control of, and aware of each and every part of the grounds and structures within the gardens. To this end, it is incumbent on The Manager to visit every part or parts of the Gardens at least once a week, noting the conditions encountered and all works and requirements including matters of Health & Safety and potential problems identified during that dated visit.

These notes should be recorded and held on file for regular future reference and updating. It is therefore important that a map or plan is produced, to a scale that permits specific names and site locations to be recorded in a manner that cannot be misconstrued.

Where no practical or existing name for an area exists, a title or name should be invented for use by the department when compiling works programmes. These site names should be memorable and easily identified by all members of staff.

During the site visits, a comparison note should be made to record any works that are required, or have been done since the previous visit. These variations (or outstanding matters) may be cross referenced and addressed during staff meetings.

On larger sites, where several types of horticultural practice requirements are necessary, it is useful to nominate certain areas e.g. ‘upper lawn’, ‘lower lawn’, ‘main steps’ or ‘Western shrub bed’ to ensure that there is no room for misunderstanding or confusion. Each garden or part thereof should also be numbered, so that ‘XXXXXX or XXXXX for example, requires a site name and (if a large or complex site) a site area number.

These names and numbers are for use in maintaining Time Sheets (see details elsewhere) and to enable comparisons to be drawn between various jobs and locations having due regard to site difficulties including access. They also highlight those areas that are proving difficult to maintain and other solutions may be required.

A Master Plan should be produced and placed in a prominent position in the Mess Room. Regular use by the Garden Team will ensure familiarity with the grounds and aid new staff to understand the complexities of working in such a diverse and challenging series of garden sites.


It is strongly recommended that each Team member is issued with a radio to enable direct contact with other members of the staff, and to receive instructions or request directions from Management. With so many opportunities for lone working, the question of safety is an important factor, and personal communications will improve productivity and efficiency.

It is also recommended that all staff members are not permitted to carry personal mobile telephones during working hours, and all such items must be left either at home or in their work lockers. In the event of emergencies, contact details of the Manager may be given out to next of kin, and any important messages will be relayed to the individual by the Manager in person/private as soon as possible.

Whilst not directly related to Communications, the practice of wearing individual personal headphones should not be permitted, as such devices are a safety hazard. The operative cannot be in control of a machine if they cannot hear the engine and any defects, nor are they able to hear calls for assistance or help in the event of an emergency. It is not permissible to have only one earphone plugged in, again in the interests of safety, as the inherent distraction is sufficient to render the practice potentially harmful to the operative and their colleague/s.

Responsibilities within the Gardens Team

It is strongly recommended that the Manager appoint an individual to act as Fire Warden to ensure that the fire appliances are maintained in good order, are clean and placed in suitable locations, clearly visible and are currently certificated.

Fire hazard signs, including Fuel Store/No Smoking, or Fire Precautions/Assembly Point, smoke alarms etc should be fitted in suitable places and kept  in good order. The volunteer should record the conditions and any issues on a quarterly basis, working with the Fire Brigade or other body charged with overseeing the fire protection of the Department.

It is further recommended that a volunteer be appointed to act as First Aider. Appreciating that most or all of the Team members have attended a First Aid course, there is an essential need for one person to be responsible for maintaining sufficient quantities of supplies, including the various stations and site requirements (e.g. eye washing station in the workshop). Other responsibilities may include ensuring that First Aid/Emergency signs and guidance sheets (e.g. Electric Shock) are suitably visible and in good order.

The same person could add staff safety and welfare to their duties by routinely checking the dates on personal protection items e.g. safety helmets as these have a ‘safe use’ working life indicated by the date of manufacture (not purchase, the earlier date applies) as well as safety goggles/glasses and their clarity/condition. All out of date and damaged protective wear must be physically destroyed and put beyond further use.


In order to facilitate accurate cross referencing of the wide variety of tasks undertaken by the Gardens Team, and the diverse locations of each site, it is important that time sheets are maintained by all members of the team – even casual or part timers.

The time sheets should be individually named and dated, with each task written down and described in general terms.

For example, ‘team member John Smith’, commencing on a Monday morning, will start a fresh time sheet, with the legend ‘’week commencing’ or ‘w/c 17th August 20XX’. The actual times e.g. 07.00 – 09.30 are an important part of the exercise, as the resulting data will show the length of time spent on a particular project, and allow for accurate assessments to be made regarding future provisions for this work.

Against this time scale, the site name must be shown, together with any allocated number as previously described. This accuracy is important, for the reasons stated.

All times sheets to be completed on a daily basis, and handed to the Manager last thing on the final working day of the week (normally Friday unless a Bank Holiday).

The information drawn from the time sheets will clearly show the works carried out, to be collated against the list of task and locations identified by the Manager’s weekly  ‘State of The Grounds’ survey. Any discrepancy between the works described in the time sheets will be highlighted by the next Manager’s walk round, and will allow for additional resources to be allocated should the need arise.

Space should be left at the bottom of the time sheet for any explanatory notes by the author, including requests for further instructions on any given area.

Machinery and Equipment

All machines should be inspected and scheduled under an inventory. All information including identification/serial numbers, date of purchase (if known) and present condition should be recorded.  Once described, the machine should be allocated a permanent number, this to be painted or otherwise delineated on the outer casing. This technique to be applied to all machinery including motorised e.g. strimmers and mowers, but also unpowered tools including spreaders etc.

Any machine found to be in poor condition should be placed apart from the others, and a clearly marked tag attached indicating that the machine should not be used. Once all of the machines have been assessed and approved for use, and clearly numbered, each machine should have a separate hard cover book, with the name and number of the unit attached in a convenient place adjacent the tool. The book must be signed by the person drawing the tool from the store for use on a daily basis, having first checked it over as acceptable to that person.

It shall be the responsibility of the person drawing the unit to make these checks, although the person returning it should also satisfy themselves that they are returning the machine cleaned and in good order.  Any defects noted during the day should see the removal of the unit from the store and notated as unfit for service.

No machinery should be let out to anyone other than Gardens personnel.

During the working day, it is imperative that all equipment, especially machinery, is protected from theft. Any tools that are left on site during breaks or generally unattended – even those well hidden from casual view – must be secured with a heavy duty chain or cable, wrapped through and around the equipment and a fixed/immoveable  object e.g. a tree or metal/concrete post.

Working Practices

Using the system of time sheets and the Manager’s survey schedules, there should be no areas that can be neglected. The work sheet for the day should clearly show all items to be addressed during the site visit, and within the allocated time slot. Each of these jobs should be crossed out or otherwise removed from the schedule, e.g. watering, mowing, weeding of a certain bed, edging all lawns, clipping a particular hedge – each job checked off as complete on a site visit by site visit basis to ensure that nothing is left unfinished unless it is noted on the time sheet. This discipline will ensure that adequate time and resources are made available if and as possible. Any time scale issues will be identified and Management may assess the situation and make alternative arrangements to complete/undertake certain projects.

This methodology will ensure that no identified job is left incomplete; watering of hanging baskets, newly planted trees and plants pots for example, will have been attended to by the gardener allocated to any given site and a particular day and notated as such on their time sheet.

Whilst it may be deemed sensible to work against a given rota, with each day allocated to a particular person or team, and an amount of time allowed to complete that site, it must be recognised that some gardens require little or no attention, as the grass or weeds have not grown to any extent since the previous visit. It must also be recognised that some gardens have areas that are in great need of attention, and the whole emphasis on the Gardens Team must be to cope with the actual works that need attention – not simply by following a calendar of days and times.

Therefore, a system that recognises the needs of the grounds and not the wishes of others, the Manager should produce a weekly work schedule based on tasks that require doing, taking into account weather conditions and the time and noise restraints of working around a busy Estate and Events curriculum. This system will require the co-operation of those responsible for setting the weekly event programmes and certain ‘no go’, ‘no noise’ areas agreed and adhered to. This notification should be via email, with a copy to The Director of Estates. Any failures on the part of the Events Team or other Managers to notify the Gardens Department may cause disharmony and should be avoided.

Similarly, individuals or departments that may have previously requested fixed dates and times for visits by the Gardens Team will need to be advised that the nature of  horticultural practices are such that they must be flexible, and therefore the department is not able to provide a time/dated service.

Garden waste material

There are three main areas to be addressed relating to garden waste. These are storage/composting in individual garden sites, handling and transporting waste and reducing the amount of material produced annually.

Currently, waste material is either left on site as ‘compost’ or collected on a daily basis from individual sites and placed into plastic plant containers for collection at the end of the working day.

These are then held at the Gardens yard until a sufficient number are accumulated to justify transporting them to the Estate Farm for recycling. Alternatively, wheeled trailers with wire cages are left in larger gardens to act as repositories until full, then delivered to the Farm.

Also currently, some of the larger gardens have dedicated areas of ‘waste storage/compost bays’ formed with old wooden pallets. These appear to have been filled to capacity a long time ago – many years in some cases.  These ‘bays’ are very unsightly, and all pallets need to be removed, allowing the composted material to either be spread in the immediate vicinity or left to become part of the soil structure (some will have been overtaken by tree roots in the time they have been formed) and as a home for slow worms, toads, hedgehogs and other beneficial wildlife.

The existing practice of collecting and transporting garden waste is a poor use of time and resources. It is proposed that certain gardens have a black ‘one ton builders bag’ placed in an inconspicuous place, adjacent to a gateway or other access to permit collection and exchange as required having due regard to weight and content. If necessary, two separate bags may be required, one for woody material, the other for non – pernicious weeds to permit green waste composting at the Farm.

Where practicable, trailers with their sides extended with ‘greedy boards’ 2m – 2.4m high fixed to the wire cage sides will hold substantially more material, and the smooth boards will ensure easy removal/tipping of the contents at the Farm when filled.

The practice of leaving empty/half full/full plastic plant containers in various garden sites should cease.

This methodology will greatly reduce the time spent in transporting waste material and ensure that there are no longer unsightly areas and containers left in gardens, with all materials being removed in a timely manner.

(The production and removal of grass and leaves is dealt with under separate headings.)

Leaves and leaf-fall

During the autumn, leaves are the greatest challenge to the Gardens Department, and are currently gathered by the use of mechanical blowers and either removed by trailers to the Farm for recycling, or left in ‘compost’ heaps comprised of wooden pallets. As previously proposed, these heaps/bays will no longer exist.

As and when leaf fall requires clearance and removal from beds and lawn areas, all leaf material should be collected and spread by use of the blowers into carpets approximately 150mm deep. Using a self- propelled mower fitted with a mulching blade, two or three passes with the machine will reduce the leaves to around 10% of their original bulk. Using blowers and /or wire rakes, these mulched leaves may be returned to the nearest shrub or herbaceous beds as compost, without the need to collect and transport the material.

Any twigs or branches with a dimension that renders them unsuitable for mulching mowers blades should be removed from the ‘leaf carpet’ prior to using the machine.

Grass and lawn mowing

It is recommended that for at least one whole season, all grass cutting with mowers is no longer undertaken by the Garden Department, but carried out either by outside contractors (e.g. Countrywide Services) or by employing additional Seasonal labour under the auspices of the Grounds Department.

Using the aforementioned maps/plans of the gardens, and following the names and numbers of the various areas, all lawns are to be mown using whatever style of equipment is decided between the contractor/grounds team leader, including hover mowers, cylinder or rotary machines. All grass arisings to be cleared from site at the end of each session to avoid accumulation and storage.

The mowing teams to be subject to the same ‘no go’ or ‘noise’ restrictions that are placed on the Gardens Department. Similarly, they should be liable to complete Gardens Department Time Sheets when carrying out such services, if only to serve as an accurate record of the amount of work and time taken for the purpose of the Gardens Department records, and allow an appraisal of the changes in working practice to be made in an informed manner at the end of the season.

Edging of lawns should remain under the Gardens Team remit, as such work usually involves an amount of weeding and repair work/re-alignment as required.

Weeds and weeding – general statement

The shrub and herbaceous beds in the majority of individual gardens are of variable quality and content. Many beds are under-planted, where shrubs, roses and herbaceous plants have died and not been replaced. Others are seriously overcrowded with some of the more robust plants, and little has been done to remedy this situation.

Some areas and beds are virtually weed free, whilst in the same garden, others are weed infested, and the overall effect spoilt by this visual imbalance. Certain beds and areas of beds are obviously much loved and well- tended, whilst others are neglected.

Some of this apparent anomaly is caused by the current practice of segregation of responsibility, with some beds and seating areas being considered as outside the remit of the Gardens Department. Unfortunately, to the casual observer and passers-by, the effect of a messy, overgrown and weedy area is not ‘someone else’s’ job – it appears to be neglect on the part of The Gardens Department!

To mitigate this, it is proposed that each and every area is maintained by the Gardens Team, even if it is only to remove overhanging brambles from snagging pupils and the public alike.

There has been a tendency to allow some native species trees to grow within some of the gardens, and a proliferation of sycamore, hazel, willow, elder and holly trees/bushes and saplings allowed to colonise the beds and boundaries. These should be removed as and when noted during working practices. Any large or substantial trees on site to be discussed and agreed with the Manager (should they have become an important part of the garden scene by dint of their maturity) before deciding on any action.

Hanging baskets/planters

One of the most onerous and time consuming jobs is that of watering hanging baskets and containers. Whilst these are an important part of the overall appearance of The Estate, watering is a poor use of skilled labour, and it is proposed that for next year, water retaining granules are included in the compost (Swell-Gel or similar) to prevent dehydration, especially over weekends and Bank Holidays, where neglect/lack of water could seriously damage the units.

It is further recommended that consideration be given to employing a casual person – perhaps a local retiree or someone with children at school who could spend two or three hours a day watering and deadheading the baskets. A dedicated and keen gardener should delight in such a job, and reduce the amount of time spent by the Gardens Department personnel.

Hedges and hedge cutting

There are a variety of different hedges around the grounds, many in good, tidy and well maintained condition. Others are somewhat neglected – not simply in their overall appearance, but in a poor condition, with the base of the hedging plants covered in thick mats of ground cover ivy, and trunks entwined with ivy tendrils. Several of the older hedges, primarily privet species, have a considerable amount of dead and dying woody material within the hedge system.

The ivy requires removal, together with the dead material, and an application of a general purpose fertiliser (68g m2 – 2 ozs sq. yd) spread in the vicinity of the feeder root growth (not immediately against the trunks).

Other hedges are contaminated by species alien to the original planting, including sycamore, ash and holly, and these should be removed, ideally in one operation, but where they have formed into a major part of the original hedge, cut back in stages before eventual total removal.

It is appreciated that the existing method of cutting hedges with petrol driven machines may only be carried out at certain times due to noise levels, but other methods, including hand shears (e.g. light weight Professional Bahco shears) are fast, silent and efficient. There are a number of excellent ion battery powered machines with each charge lasting for 45 minutes plus and rapid charge replacement batteries (Professional tools e.g. Stihl range) recently introduced into the commercial market.

Due to the nature of hedge cutting, it is proposed that a hedge survey, including species and condition, is undertaken and a programme devised for each taking into consideration the best type of machine/tool for the individual hedges, and their current state/likely life span before requiring replacement.


These notes are the result of a site inspection, and are not comprehensive, but will serve to start the establishment of an improving set of working practices.

(NB;  Such Working Practice Surveys are extremely valuable, especially if written at the time of a potential handover of responsibility between one Head Gardener and another.

These extant reports provide a ‘snap shot’ in time, whilst recommending future action and the logic behind the programme.

Alan Sargent FCIHort MPGCA


The Pros and Cons Of Outsourcing Gardens Labour

As a Gardens Consultant, working in the Private sector i.e. Non-Local Authority, my work takes me to many different types of garden, including large Estates in the hands of Private Families, and a range of Amenity estates and complexes that are managed by Agents or Commercial owners, including Hotels and similar properties.

Whilst much of my work involves Dispute issues and Court Reports, due to the diverse nature of Consultancy, I am also commissioned to assist in handling difficult situations, where a fresh pair of eyes can be invaluable.

This paper is presented as a personal document, and should not be read as a legally robust statement, written as it is, based on personal experiences. It must be recognised that no two sites are the same, as each have their own structures, histories and backgrounds. In essence, this presentation is a mixture of several commissions, which has afforded me the opportunity to discuss and highlight issues, only some of which may be relevant or pertinent to any other site.

When does Outsourcing become a question?

The reasons for investigating the possibility of outsourcing labour and services currently being carried out with a Gardens Department are many and varied. Essentially they all involve money, and potential cost savings.

The catalyst may be a new owner, a new generation of owner/s, a new Managing Agent, either an individual or Company, or a Chief Executive who has been tasked with looking into all aspects of running the ‘business’ of maintaining the grounds and gardens of a property.

The bottom line figures, which show that the Gardens Department is costing a serious amount of money may be queried. What can be done to reduce those costs? Why do we have to have our own In House permanent staff looking after the gardens? How and where can we make savings?

Even if there are no serious issues with a Gardens Department, the questions may still be asked. If there are problems with finance, and cost saving are genuinely required, what impact on the grounds would there be if we changed from our own staff to engaging contractors?

A great deal will depend on the structure of a property or estate. If the grounds and gardens are important to that property, for commercial reasons i.e. events such as weddings or antique fairs, entertaining guests for business reasons, Historical Houses where the paying public are invited into the gardens……these properties will be making an income, no matter how large or small, towards the running of the site.

These ‘ticket sales’ are called the Income Stream, which would not be available to the owners if the gardens were not pristine. Nobody wants to pay to visit an untidy garden!

The expenditure involved in running the Gardens Department is known as a Cost Stream, to be set against the Income Stream. It is probably inevitable that the costs will outweigh the income and therefore be liable to scrutiny by the Directors or owners.

Whilst there are several levels of outsourcing – reducing the amount of time the indigenous garden team spend on carrying out mundane tasks such as mowing rough grassland, hedgecutting or fencing/boundary maintenance can all be identified and quotes obtained to remove these mundane and expensive jobs from the Gardeners diary.

Casual labour may be seen as another type of outsourcing, but I want to concentrate on the serious business of total change in the manner in which grounds are managed.

What financial benefits would arise if we outsourced the Gardens work?

Looking at the wages bill on an annual basis, let’s suppose that the total salary for a team of (say) six gardeners is £200,000 including Employers liabilities and costs. Add another £10,000 for insurances and other administrative costs.

Add to that figure, a cost of £10,000 for tools and equipment, plus £20,000 for transport, heating, lighting, water and upkeep of premises. Plus perhaps £10,000 for training, PPE, machinery servicing etc, bringing the total annual bill to £250,000.

At a cost of £40,000 per person, there must be big savings to be made by hiring an outside team of gardeners to replace the existing workforce!

At first glance, this seems to be persuasive argument for outsourcing…

Positive Advantages of Outsourcing

From the viewpoint of the Employer, and perhaps the property at large, one of the major benefits of going to an outside Contractor or Contractors is the potential to access a larger pool of talent and expertise that may be invaluable to the Estate.

New thoughts, new innovations, fresh eyes and ideas may be available. New equipment or better/different styles of working practice, no longer restricted by the skills set of a small group of In House gardeners, who may have become stale and disinterested over the years.

Sheds and outbuilding may be freed for other uses. No longer would there be a need to store machinery, tools and equipment. No more need to heat buildings and provide a clean office and canteen/mess room for the staff.

No requirement to purchase new equipment whenever the time comes to replace tools.

No more holiday pay, sick pay, wet and snowy weather losses.

No more fixed wages bill. Now have the ability to plan ahead and spend only when necessary.

Much more flexibility in programming works ahead, booking in labour as and when required.

No more problems with personnel, holding staff meetings and balancing the needs of a fixed work force; dentist or doctor’s appointments, maternity leave and the rest.

These, and other prima facie benefits of outsourcing can be attractive…

Disadvantages of Outsourcing

Contrary to the benefits as shown above, several factors become Contras or ‘Cons’ when examined more closely.

First of all, finding suitably qualified, experienced and fully equipped Contractors may prove very difficult indeed. You will be asking an established garden maintenance company to provide you with a full time team of five gardeners, even if you only wish to use them for (say) ten months of the year. Even during quiet periods, you will still need staff to keep the site clean of leaves and rubbish, and will have to negotiate accordingly.

Never forget that firms will have to include charges for their own staff to cover sick leave and holiday pay. Do not expect a company to provide you with their best staff. A more likely scenario would see one skilled Manager overseeing a group of less qualified labourers.

A Contractors rates will include Value Added Tax. If you are not able to reclaim that money, that will be an additional financial burden to the Estate.

The work force as employed by a Contractor may not work to the same high standards as the indigenous team. Maintaining quality control may be difficult.

The Estate will lose immediate control over the outside workforce, even if they engage a full time supervisor, there will be need for strong communication.

The risk of selling all of the existing tools and equipment is great. If the Contractor goes out of business, or things do not according to plan and the decision reversed, the Estate would need to purchase or lease all new gear.

Losing existing staff, some of whom may have been with you for years, but may not wish to move across to a new firm and seek redundancy instead is a high risk strategy. Their knowledge of the gardens will not be easy to replace.

The Estate would lose all control over the new workforce, potentially creating instability and a loss of standards, unless an In House Supervisor/Manager remained on the payroll to monitor the Contractors. This in turn will increase the overall cost of the Outsourcing arrangements, and would require a strict set of compliances to be agreed as part of the contract.

There may be issues with confidentiality and security, requiring all outsourced staff to be checked and cleared either by the Police or a Security Firm employed for that purpose.

Other Factors

The existing workforce cannot be ignored. Under The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Rules. The current workforce must not be disadvantaged in any way. In practical terms, this means that they must be offered the same terms and conditions by the incoming Service Company, meaning that a great deal of consultation must take place before any such outsourcing can occur.

Even mentioning the possibility of investigating outsourcing will be seriously destabilising for the current staff. Any owner or Director contemplating such a change should be very wary of the repercussions of such action, and carry out a lot of research and costings exercises before making any announcements to the Team.

I am not legally qualified to comment on these matters, but you can imagine the cost of transferring the existing workforce to a new employer is not a quick and easy transaction!

My job is to be completely unbiased in all matters as a Consultant, and I do carry out that using due diligence.

Somehow though, I feel that there is one very important element to any exercise in looking at Outsourcing. That is the ability of an Estate (of whichever size or nature) to have something akin to loyalty, between the Owners and Staff. Relationships built up over the years cannot be replicated between an Estate and a new team of outside contractors, whose personnel may change at regular intervals, replacing trained and skilled operatives, replacing them with new people to maintain profits.

From personal experience, I know the value of a team that knows what is wanted, and to do the work before being asked. To know what the House requires before the House does itself!

However, in the real world, money is the most important matter to most Estates, and the reality is that outsourcing – or preparing to outsource – Gardens Teams is becoming more and more common.


Staff Training

‘I am a Head Gardener with a staff of seven full time and three part time but regular gardeners. Although I have a generous amount of money allocated each year for training, I confess to having difficulty in either finding suitable courses, both in terms of suiting my workforce and the needs of the Estate.

The majority of the team are not professional gardeners, but keen and willing individuals, frustrated at not learning a trade. I simply do not have time to teach them myself due to so many others pressures at work.’

Most of your team hold some certificates, such as Spraying and Safe Use type qualifications, standard essentials, yet only required as a general foundation for working within the industry.

I know from many years of experience as a Head Gardener and Gardens Contractor that these ‘bread and butter’ essential certificates are usually required to gain employment in the first place. During Two Way Reviews or Staff Assessments the subject of training is raised, and when questioned regarding their wishes for future training and personal development, the standard answer is usually ‘Chain Saw Ticket’, when in practical terms – whilst these may be desirable within a team – there are only so many times during the course of a working year does a Gardens Department require the skills of a qualified and certificated tree surgeon.

Such qualifications also require the individual holder to be fully equipped with personal protective gear and specialist tools and machines, which, together with additional insurance premiums, may not be justified by their cost when a firm of outside contractors can handle at less expense.

There are a number of courses available from Horticultural Colleges, and these include a wide range of practical subjects, and are often organised and lead by ‘outside specialist lecturers’, as well as by College staff, and involve a standard format, leading to a recognised qualification. These courses are run at certain times during the year, and will have advertised fees which can be budgeted for in your annual departmental financial request.

These courses are programmed, and with advance planning, named individuals within your team may be provided with ample notice when arranging their annual leave.

However, there is a great shortfall in the types of staff training and the needs of the industry.  There are many ‘Colleges’ and ‘Schools’ of Garden Design, each offering courses which will earn a certificate of merit or attendance at the end of the period. These may be run by individual designers or groups of design experts (often with their own ‘style’ of design and presentation), and thus offer new designers with plenty of choice.

Landscape Construction is an extremely wide field in which to provide training, and there are several courses offered (see Association of Professional Landscapers for example), and some of these elements may suit your requirements.

As a static business – which is perhaps the best way to look at your Gardens Team – with specific skills required to operate efficiently, and funds available, why not consider employing the services of an external expert to help with your training needs, on site.

As an initial exercise, write down all of the types of skill you thank you need to run your garden in the best possible way. How many individual talents do you require? Not only practical ‘hands on’ skills, but consider wider aspects of training. Perhaps you personally may need training in how to train others? Teachers have special skills than enable them to impart knowledge to others, and it is a good idea to learn how to teach.

Even though you are extremely busy running the department, have you thought about why you are rushed off your feet? Have you considered having training yourself in time management? Working out the actual training needs of your business centre should begin with yourself and other leaders before trying to formulate a staff training programme.

Having produced your own thoughts on the skills requirement schedule, during your staff reviews or perhaps as a general questionnaire pinned to the staff room notice board, add any other requests. Compare the complete list with the training requirements of the department and then start to source the training outlets. Beginning with Colleges, try to design a programme for the coming year.

There will be many individual training requests or wishes for more help and understanding. Call them ‘Practice and Principles’ of the desired skills. Examples may be Establishing Wild Flower Meadows, Shrub Pruning, Creating Rose Gardens, Pruning Wisteria, Fruit Tree Management – the list could go on to become almost a training manual of desirable skills.

There may be a number of individuals living locally who have these skills. They may be found by sharing information with other Head Gardeners, (or retired professionals) and between you establish a network of highly skilled artisans, who will be willing to come into your gardens department and train your staff on site.

There is little doubt that on – site training, where staff are comfortable and fully understand their location and the personal reasons why they are asking questions of the trainer, staff will gain much greater understanding and benefit from the exercise. They will be able to make their own suggestions and discuss their experiences of working on the particular plant (or whatever the case may be) and continue expanding their Continual Personal Development plan.


Unhelpful Co-Workers

‘I am a self – employed gardener, and have recently been commissioned to work at a large house in the country, where the previous sole gardener used to maintain the grounds. The only other outdoor worker is a handyman – cum – general labourer.  I am expected to look after the whole garden in two days a week, using the handyman as my assistant. The owners know he is not otherwise particularly busy, and want me to train him to work with me. Although they seem to think he does help out, in reality, he does as little as possible, leaving me with too much. Especially difficult is maintaining the vegetable garden and general watering.’

This is an ongoing problem in many gardens, where the owners seem to think that, just because they employ labour, everything should be catered for. Some do not recognise that gardens  require regular attention including weekends and holidays. I appreciate that this is an awkward situation for any self- employed person, especially a part time gardener.

You arrive on site, and work through a schedule of jobs, prioritising as you see fit. In two days, you cannot possibly expect to maintain the gardens to the same standard as someone working full time. Even if you managed to look after the general beds etc, the five days you are not on site need to be covered, especially watering and weeding the vegetable beds.

Between you and the handyman, you could easily manage, provided he carried out the jobs that you have identified, if only he did not find any excuse not to help you. As the part timer, you feel that you do not have the authority to instruct him, even though the employers have asked you to make use of him.

Instead of being frustrated with the situation, you could turn things to your advantage, and perhaps incentivise the handyman.

I suggest you begin to take control of the garden, by producing an inventory of all tools and equipment, including a stock take of all chemicals and composts. Make a note of quantities and dates of purchase/expiry if possible. By this simple action, you are establishing a base line from which to work in the future. Perhaps enlist his help with this job, without commenting on your logic.

The second step is to create a plan of the garden, even in rough form, identifying the various areas and naming them in a manner that cannot be misconstrued; e.g. The Vegetable Garden, The Library Lawn, The Southern Border etc. It is very helpful to dimension these areas, to enable you to complete the inventory – how much mulch is needed, how many square metres of lawn feed etc.

Follow this by producing a list of jobs, and their regularity, for each named area, together with an approximate time for each operation. Having gathered  this information, you will have created a valuable document, a copy of which should be given to the owners for their interest, with a copy for your files, and a spare which should be made available for the handyman at a later stage.

You are now in a position to clearly establish the amount of work required to maintain the garden, on a seasonal basis, together with times and periods when attention is required. Armed with this document, you should produce a time sheet for your own use (which may be adapted at a later stage to enable the handyman to also complete his ‘garden’ times.)

As soon as you begin to fill in the sheets, you will clearly identify – and prove – your actions in the two days available to the owners. Thus time spent directing the handyman will show up as a cost to the employers, thereby reducing the amount of time you have to do your core work. You should retain responsibility for all those jobs that require technical skills e.g. fertilising and weed killing. Anything that may affect the Ph and general balance of the soil and nutrients must be carefully monitored. Only one named person should carry out this work, and records maintained, with no exceptions to the rule to avoid over or under dosing of any chemical.

Similarly, he will now have to explain himself to the employer. If he genuinely has no time to spend in the garden, you will have a proven case to request additional labour, perhaps a second part timer. By naming the various areas of the garden, you can prove those parts that take the most time to look after. You will also be enabled to nominate certain jobs or sections to be the sole responsibility of the handyman, in order that his lack of performance will be more easily identified.

Equally, if he enjoys having responsibility for ‘his’ areas, he may gain a sense of pride in the job, and render himself more useful as an employee.

By adopting this professional approach, you will learn much about time management and utilising available skills to the best advantage,  a lesson that you may adapt to suit the rest of your business week. Instead of jeopardising forty percent of your weekly income by becoming increasingly frustrated by the handyman’s lack of willingness to help, and leaving a regular customer, you will have proven your management skills and educated the owners into appreciating the amount of work, time management and forward planning involved in looking after a garden.


When A Head Gardener Is Lost…

‘I have become increasingly aware of a worrying phenomenon within the realms of Senior and Head Gardeners, employed in a variety of different ‘Estates’ with other departments sharing the work of  maintaining the grounds.’

During the past three years or so, what at first appeared to me to be a fairly unusual set of circumstances is now becoming more wide spread. I refer to the lack of comprehension of some owners and Directors (or ‘Boards’, running the properties) in the  vital works carried out by skilled Head Gardeners, and the paramount importance of retaining those irreplaceable talents.

Typically, these ‘Estates’ – Places of Learning, Sporting Estates and Commercial Properties – have traditionally employed a Gardens Team, Greenkeepers/Grounds Team and/or Land Management Departments to run the different aspects of the site, each run as separate entities, using their own specialised equipment and skills certificates suited to each trade, and headed by qualified and experienced Leaders. The very titles of each were considered to be the pinnacle of someone’s career. Head Gardener, Head Green-keeper, Head of Grounds or perhaps Head of Land Area Management – all clear and unequivocal statuses, with the kudos and responsibilities that went with those names.

I have to be careful not to mention any names or places, but in one instance that I became involved in as an independent consultant, a well – known and highly regarded Garden that was open to the public and hosted many weddings and other events, both Annual and Show specific, became compelled to save money.

The ‘Board’ made a decision to make the Head Gardener redundant, and rely on their other gardens staff, plus a group of volunteers, to manage the site. The opportunity to save £40,000 was too great, and in one simple move, they could make this significant financial gain. The result was a disaster, with the staff unable to cope without instruction (they were told to check back and use previous diaries and notes to ascertain which jobs should be worked on each month, and do the best they could to cope). The volunteers were rudderless and very soon most had given up and moved to other ‘Stately’ gardens where they could continue with their training.

Other sites have made similar decisions, either shedding experienced Head Gardeners to make savings or not replacing those that have either left or retired, and placing another Head of Department (either Green – keepers or Grounds Departments) in charge of the Gardens Team, thinking that there is little or no difference in the skills set required. After all, grass is grass and plants are plants – where’s the problem? Why replace a Head Gardener, when they are becoming increasingly difficult to find and an expensive luxury we can do without?

I have never yet come across an Estate that has successfully managed to integrate Gardeners and a Grounds Team. Both are simply too specialised to co-exist in the same Team. Working together as a Joint Venture Group, with the Gardeners helping with (say) hedge cutting, and the Grounds Team helping with cutting the larger areas of lawns, where their super – sharp, fine cutting greens machines can make a superb job of mowing the most prestigious areas to ‘Front of House’ is a sensible use of site assets.

But gardeners are growers and planners, producers and custodians of trees and shrubs, many of which may be very rare or ancient, requiring specialised skills and techniques, learned and practised for many years. Green keepers are agronomists, skilled in the care of fine turf and the use of highly complex and expensive machinery. Both are highly talented skill sets, with the recognition of the importance of long term planning.

I agree that it is becoming more difficult to find suitable Head Gardeners in the current climate. Part of my work as a consultant is to find, interview and place new Head Gardeners for very prestigious sites. I am not an Agent, working only for those who seek assistance with the work involved in this procurement.

Whilst there are those with the horticultural talent required to mantain  sites, there are many more who lack the experience in Managing a department, with so many diverse Laws and Rules governing the well – being of the gardens, staff, budgets, site evaluation, forward planning and a host of other non-gardening yet fundamental aspects of running a modern Gardens Department.

Because these skills are not as finely honed as they should be, Head Gardeners have become increasingly reliant instead on other Departments (or passing problems on to the owners) including Human Resources and The Board of Directors to take over everyday problems – especially dealing with staff gripes and matters concerning Health & Safety or other Legal matters, instead of dealing with them confidently and within their own Department. The simplest of issues now involve too many other people, and old fashioned common sense is lost, leaving Head Gardeners appearing weak and insecure in their position.

It is this loss of confidence that leads so many talented Head Gardeners to leave their jobs and seek new (and less stressed) opportunities. I suggest that Managing Your Department and proving your ability to do deal with all aspects of your Team will become even more important to those seeking employment, certainly when facing an Interview Panel.

Horticultural knowledge is very important. The ability to build, train, enthuse, respect and manage your team is perhaps even more important.


Interviewing For A New Head Gardener

‘The following format and questionnaire is designed for use by all employers involved in the world of horticulture. They are intended for use when interviewing for senior positions, and may be used for all kinds of business model.’

An increasing part of my consultancy work involves locating and appointing new Head Gardeners, usually for larger and more complex properties with several existing members of staff, often with mixed abilities. I understand that you are currently in charge of such a garden.

The process of interviewing a prospective Head Gardener is not straightforward in any way, as the nature of the site, wishes of the employer and possible future plans for the garden, and the information that one may gather from (say) the library or Internet on interviewing techniques is not very useful as the suggested questions to the candidate are not particularly relevant to our industry.

My first question to the employer is ‘What are you looking for? A Manager of the garden or a Head Gardener – someone who is a brilliant gardener, but may not be so good at dealing with people and the problems that are inherent when working with indigenous staff and perhaps involving the general public. Some people can easily handle both – others cannot.’

Therefore I have a number of questions, all of which are ‘Open’ and allow the candidate to answer fully, in as much detail as they wish. I tend to avoid ‘Closed’ questions unless I require a straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. Bear in mind that the questions I have set out in this article are only part of the interview, and these ignore the more general or ‘housekeeping’ type involving references etc.

Making the candidate feel comfortable and important.

As there are few thing more daunting than appearing at an interview panel, I relax the interviewee by thanking them for applying for the job, and congratulate them on their successful application having achieved a personal interview, when so many did not reach this stage.

Q  “Your curriculum vitae is very impressive – what do you consider to be your most outstanding attribute? What can you offer that other candidates cannot?”

Q   “Tell me about yourself – tell me what you like, what makes you, who you are?”

“Do you consider yourself to be a Head Gardener or Gardens Manager – how do you see your present role in your current job?”

Q  “Would you say you were a proactive or reactive person in your professional life?”

Q  “How do you like to run your team? Do you prefer to carry out all aspects of day to day management or allow the staff to think and act for themselves thereby giving them responsibility for their time and actions?”

“Do you prefer to conduct One Way Evaluation Assessments  with your staff – or do you prefer Two Way Reviews”?

“Apart from your mobile phone or computer – what do you consider the most important item of everyday use to you as a Manager?”

“Please describe the likely achievements you will have made at the end of the first week, and month, and what benefits your actions will have had on the well running of the department.”

“Describe your methods of dealing with difficult staff, perhaps outlining a couple of examples from past experience. Please give the reasons for the problems, how you dealt with them, and the outcome”

“How soon would you conduct personal interviews with your staff? In what order would you decide each persons’ position in the interview programme? Senior first? Newest employee first? And why in this particular manner?”

“How do you keep up to date with new legislation, products, materials and techniques?”

Q “What ‘out of hours’ activities do you undertake in understanding the latest developments in the world of horticulture?”

“What are the current hot topics? How do you see the future of horticulture, and why?”

As you see, there are no questions regarding propagation, composting, plant identification, irrigation methods – nothing at all horticultural. I feel that if someone has previous experience as a Head Gardener, such ‘text-book’ questions are unnecessary and almost insulting. Whilst none of us can know everything, I am not concerned with the minutiae of the mundane. I am much more interested in seeing how the candidate reacts to each of these questions. They are far more difficult to answer than they may at first appear!

They do however, offer the interviewee the chance to really shine, and offer a wide ranging insight into their attitudes and knowledge, and sometimes the outpouring becomes a flood!

They are couched in such a way that someone may offer a suitably ‘correct’ answer, one that may have been anticipated and rehearsed beforehand, but the opportunity is also there to allow them to contradict an earlier statement made on a slightly different question. Only those that are genuinely suitable will be able to maintain their credibility.

I have used these questions on a number of occasions, and commend them – or others in a similar vein – as they bring out the best/worst in candidates. The ‘correct’ answer is not easily anticipated especially as they may vary from site to site and only an honest response will prove successful!


Taking Over From a Head Gardener

‘The old head gardener is leaving, and I have been asked to take on the job. My employer seems to think I could do it, but I am not too comfortable with knowing what questions to ask before signing a new contract. I am wary as I do not want to mess up this chance to prove I can manage the place, and the employer is too busy to spend time helping me to get settled in to the new role’

This is a common dilemma, not only in gardens but also other established businesses, including landscape companies, Golf Clubs, Estates and Commercial growers of trees and shrubs. The present senior person, whether head gardener or site manager, decides to leave, and having given notice, it is up to employer to fill that vacancy. Some will not bother with advertising for a replacement, either because they do not have the time or necessary interview skills to begin the process, and you will become of prime interest to them, because they genuinely think that you could fill the vacancy as the right person for the job. They will promote In-House! After all, you know the place better than any newcomer!

I know that in your case, there is no ‘chain of command’ or ‘ladder’ on which employees can climb to become more elevated within the business, although you are the most experienced, and the only ‘real gardener’ on site.

I suggest that you follow a linked series of steps, starting with the Contract of Employment.

When this is presented to you, by all means run through the document/s with the employer but do not sign until you have the chance to go through everything thoroughly – say five days hence. Simply state that you want to check everything out to ensure that nothing relevant has been omitted, as there are always changes to the Law, and you want to be sure this document is up to date.

Produce a secondary sheet of items that you want to see included in the Contract. Very often, Head Gardeners do not have ‘hours’, but work as the need arises. Obviously, the needs of the gardens must take priority over everything else, and you will be on call for any emergency, including watering/shading glasshouses etc. As Gardens Manager, you should expect to be salaried i.e. paid monthly with a fixed sum, and not by the hour or day.

If you are to be in charge of subordinate staff, including part time/casual labour (often self employed and not willing to be directed by another member of staff, no matter how senior), you need clear instructions with regard to these people. You simply cannot have responsibility without authority.

That authority should extend across the whole of the business area (in this case, a large private garden). The Head Gardener is the Garden Manager, and this authority must be clearly stated in your Contract of Employment.

Once this principle has been established, you will have to earn the right to manage, and the next step will be to establish a hierarchy for the staff. You may wish to appoint a Foreperson who will deputise for you when you are on holiday or ill. Less skilled workers and casuals should always be placed above self employed labour. You and your employer have responsibilities to those employees, and none at all for self employed. Even if they have worked on site for years, they are freelance  by choice, and may be offered price work, should you have the need for their services.

The final step before deciding to sign the contract, is to establish a hierarchy from the employers viewpoint. It is always advisable to have named people on the contract, in the event that the original employer dies or divorces, you are not left without some point of contact and continuity.

You are basically pulling all the loose ends together, to prevent fraying at the edges if any one part of the whole is not settled in writing. Your employer should welcome your approach, as it demonstrates a clear and forward thinker.

The Contract should also contain wording to the effect that weekly/monthly meetings will be held between the Head Gardener and a named person on behalf of the employer, acting as their Agent. These meetings will be held to discuss and agree (as many heading as you deem necessary) matters such as Staffing, vehicles, machinery and equipment, training, Health and Safety etc, all set out in a printed format to enable copies to be kept by both parties. I fully appreciate that the employer may say this is all a waste of time, but the need for such discipline is essential if you want to avoid costly Court fees in the future.

You will also need to establish an agreement with your employer that all instructions and directions must come through you, and not directly to the subordinate staff. There can only be one Head Gardener, and everything must go through you. Quite apart from the opportunities for mischief, if the staff know and understand that you are in charge – unless they have some genuine legal grievance, which will be included in their Contract of Employment already, and they must come to you first at all times. By including this item in your contract, you will ensure that the employer also understands your position.


Acting as a Tour Guide

If you work in a large and very interesting garden, with a lot of history and unusual features, you have a lot to talk about! The art of being a fascinating and informative host is to really know your subject. Not only regarding the plants, trees and shrubs that form the backdrop to the garden but as many facts as possible that will be of interest  to a visitor.

The starting point is to establish the type of group you will have to guide. A party of elderly members of the general public may include a number of very keen and knowledgeable gardeners, but their first point of interest on arrival will probably be the location of the nearest toilet! All you have to do is to imagine that you were a visitor, and start your own tour from there. Walk around the garden, following the pathway you intend to lead your expected group, and continue until you have either exhausted the reservoir of interest, or one hour, whichever is the soonest.

Other visiting  groups may include schoolchildren or Landscape Architects, Landscapers or a Garden Society. It is important to establish the likely nature of your guests, and tailor your agenda accordingly. Try to keep numbers to under twenty, otherwise you find that stragglers will drift away, unless shepherded by an assistant. Any  spread will affect your ability to hold the attention of the majority, if you are constantly trying to monitor the group’s progress. This diversity may affect or spoil the emphasis of your presentation.

Gather as much information as you can from the records of the property and any other sources available. If you have a collection of interesting rhododendrons, why not invite a member of the Rhododendron Society to come for a private viewing of the garden beforehand as your guest, and ask as many questions as you wish. Such a privileged conversation will prove invaluable both to yourself and your presentation and if you share any knowledge you may have gleaned regarding original sources of plants, you will have helped the expert in return.

Establish areas that may provide natural resting points, to allow any stragglers to catch up without making your reason obvious. There will be natural ‘crossroads or laybys’ on your walk, and if they combine with an interesting fact or feature, all the better. Don’t forget the history of the layout of the grounds. Discuss water tables and levels, soil types and variations, cold spots or frost pockets, wind tunnels or suntraps. Continually feed information to the gathering. If you have known dates or details of original costs of projects – their designers or architects, renowned growers or local characters (including old Head Gardeners if they warrant the title of character!)  – make them aware of everything relevant to both the garden and their current visit.

Explain how your team manage to cut seemingly impossible hedges, or keep lakes and ponds clear of weeds and water lilies. What types of mower and mowing regimes you use to maintain wild flower meadows. How you fertilise certain areas, but avoid others, explaining all the time, what you do and how and why you do it.

It is very important to avoid making any comments that may be construed as criticism of your employer, the Law or previous Head Gardeners. You simply never know who you may be talking to, and risk spoiling the whole event if you make an innocent personal statement that may offend someone in the group. (For example, avoid complaining about fox or badger damage, and any mention of contentious issues such as slug pellets or deer repellents)

Each group of visitors will be different, and as the seasons change, so perhaps will a large part of your talk, and it may be helpful to repeat the exercise of preparatory site walking to refresh your programme. Sometimes your agenda may be led by the amount of flower showing at the time, whilst another may major on the number of different bark types and colours displaying at that moment.

The weather may also play an important part of your tour. If it is wet, allow for umbrella ‘cover’ that may intrude on your viewpoints. Too much heat or sunshine may cause discomfort or dazzle people to your chosen subject. If possible, try to establish a route that does not include puddles or mud. Always be aware of the time, as often a visit is only one part of a Group Outing. Allow time for a refreshment/comfort break within the time slot you have been given.

Always summarise at the end of the talk, thanking the group for their interest. Make them feel they were very welcome, but leave before they do to avoid issues of tipping and subsequent embarrassments!  Visits and tours should be warmly encourage by Employers, as they offer an opportunity for the whole Gardens Team, and the Head Gardener in particular, to appreciate more fully just how important well maintained and interesting gardens are to the property. It is the most rewarding method of Staff Training, recognition and appreciation I can think of.


Your Personal Career Development Path

‘I have been working in the horticultural industry for nearly twenty years, and have recently heard about something called Personal Development Programme. Is this something I can take up, starting from today? Is it like a c.v?’

What you have in mind is something called CPD or Continual Personal Development. Unlike a c.v. it is not a schedule of places you have worked at, and employers you have worked for – although references may be made to those dates and places.

By definition, a Personal Development document is not a programme, as you do not follow any particular set of guideline or rules. It is a factual schedule of how you have made progress throughout your career, and there is no reason why you should not commence your CPD by writing down everything of note or worth that you feel has advantaged you personally. Starting as early as you like, perhaps by writing notes almost as a storyboard, from the time you started work, what courses you have been on, what training you have received – including in house staff training – list all of your ‘credits’, and note all qualifications you may have gained.

If you find it easier to tell your story, by all means begin as though you were producing a c.v., concentrating on what skills you learnt, and from whom. For example, a foreperson may have taught you rose pruning, or an employer showed you how to manage a compost regime. If that person was well known as an expert, you should name him/her – anything and everything of note, set out in chronological order. These are your previous experiences, and will form a solid foundation for  building your CPD from now onwards.

After twenty years, you should have an impressive range of skills, which will enable you to plan how you should or could make further progress. Do you have a particular goal in mind? Do you wish to go on and specialise, or become a Head Gardener or Manager? Will you try to build your formal qualifications, perhaps adding further steps to your NVQ’s? These are the questions you should set down and henceforth you can begin to follow a programme, as you now have a set goal.

I know you work for a fairly large estate, where perhaps past Head Gardeners have not concerned themselves with staff training in any formal manner. The budgets will not stretch to paying for outside courses, and things are allowed to drift along. Obviously, you feel frustrated by your situation, but there are ways to increase your knowledge and development without costing a lot of money.

Two Way Reviews

Two way reviews should take place at a regular interval, usually every six months. These take the shape of a formal interview between the employee and employer (usually represented by the Head Gardener). These should be held in a quiet place, where both parties are relaxed, without any telephone or other interruptions. They should be open ended i.e. no set time limit, although one hour is usually sufficient. They should be recorded in a standard format, with set questions and space for answers.   Two Way Reviews involve you and the employer only.

The nature of the interview is not intended to be an opportunity to complain or request pay rises! They are supposed to allow open and honest discussion between the employee and employer, covering ground laid out in the forms. A major part of a Two Way Review is to establish what progress an employee may make within the Company/department, and how it may be achieved.

This is where your Continual Personal Development document comes into play. By proving your past track record, you are showing what progress you have made throughout your career, and your hopes and wishes for the future. It is at this formal, recorded meeting, that you should state your training preferences, and if you have done your homework, you will bring along details and costs of the courses you wish to attend. You need to be prepared to justify your choices, for the good of your existing employer. If you can show that the garden would benefit by your new skills, you will have a stronger case for getting funding at the next budgetary meeting.

A major part of the review is to enable both parties to track your progress. If both agree to undertake something, it should be within a set time scale. Similarly of course, your employer may require you to meet certain standards or goals before approving any expenditure.

Other Options

If your employers are not minded to pay for your skills improvement, perhaps believing you sufficiently qualified for the job they require, there are plenty of other options for CPD you could consider. These may include working for a week (during your holidays) at a Special garden of your choice. Many gardens seek volunteer help, and an opportunity to work in a different environment is always refreshing, and will certainly help your development, seeing how others work.

There are a number of opportunities to attend specific courses, some costing only a few pounds, and run by Garden Societies – organic vegetable growing, tree identification, Historic Gardens, water gardening, flower arranging, fruit tree pruning – all of which should be recorded on your Continual Personal Development document, showing your career path, aiming towards your ambition – whatever that may be.


Taking Charge of a New Garden – Day One (Protecting Yourself)

Even the most modest garden need to have records and inventories. If the garden is maintained by resident staff, there will be an amount of tools and equipment on site, all of which should be placed into a written schedule or inventory. This document should be upgraded every year. Certainly it should be one of the first jobs a new Head Gardener should undertake.

It should be produced in a way that it can be clearly read and understood, usually in a ‘file’ form, perhaps in a loose leaf binder, but also in a main Inventory book, held in the Gardens Department office.

The record should include details of every item of equipment and stock, including value, condition, date of purchase (year), codes and identification numbers which are all essential in case of theft, both for Police identification purposes and any insurance claims.

SITE EVALUATION includes all buildings given over to the Gardens Department, including parts of main buildings (sheds or garages in larger buildings), their condition and suitability/fitness for purpose.
Condition and suitability includes fire hazards, heights including overhead power cables and access widths.

Starting with the equipment inventory, which must be dated:

Mowers, include type, manufacturer, model, fuel type, age, condition, value when new, value today and storage/security measures taken to protect the item (tracker, lockup,immobiliser etc)
Tractors, as above, include all attachments as a sub-heading for each machine.
Include any extra equipment e.g. spade lugs, additional wheels, grass tyres on separate wheels etc.
Keep all details of each individual machine, mowers, tractors, excavators etc, as an all inclusive schedule under one heading e.g. Kubota tractor model XXX, then all other items used on that particular machine.

Electric (mains powered) tools should be listed separately, as they must have a valid certificate issued by a qualified electrician, this certificate is valid only for one year. ( Co-incidentally, ALL electrical equipment, including tools not owned by the employer, but by staff members MUST also have valid accreditation, as should ALL other electrical appliances, including micro-wave, ‘fridge, kettle etc if used on the premises).
The electrician will issue you, as the Manager, a copy of the electrical certificates and keep one copy for his records.

Chain Saws, including all spare chains and specialist tools, again, each type of saw, bar size, engine numbers etc.
Hedge Cutters, including any spare blades, and their condition (e.g. recently resharpened).
Cultivators/rotovators, including spare tines, fuel type, engine numbers etc.
Strimmers and Brushcutters, engine numbers, condition etc.
Trailers, including dimensions, carrying weights, braked or unbraked,
tyre type i.e. speed rating, condition, any security measures.
By scheduling each machine as an individual, you can clearly see all relevant information. Perhaps you may wish to number each machine individually e.g. Strimmer no. three, hedge cutter no. five etc.

This method ‘personalises’ each piece of equipment, and makes life easier when valuing for stock taking and insurance purposes.

Hand Tools.
Include all spades, shovels, rakes, hoes, forks, edging shears etc, with a description of each i.e. border spade, dung fork.
This will perhaps be a long list. It should not be a problem, but you may need to colour code or number each item to avoid confusion.
It is probably best to have help with this job, as it can be onerous, and may prevent you from listing a ‘private’ tool as one of your own!.
Include the location of each hand tool. If they are all under one roof, this is not a problem, but if they are in different sheds in different locations or areas of work, as it is essential to avoid confusion and possible double counting.

Ladders. Check each ladder for type, height and condition. It is most important that any damaged to a ladder, no matter how small the defect, it should be marked down for destruction.
If you permit a damaged ladder to be used and there is an accident, you will no answer against allegations of neglect.

Security measures should also be noted in this inventory.
Ensure that each sheet is numbered, dated and signed off as a correct record.
NOTE  If you are offered an existing inventory, do not look at or refer to it in any way until AFTER you have completed your survey.
Then compare the differences!

Another list, based on the main inventory, with items included within, and noted as defunct under the heading of ‘condition’, should be drawn up showing all items of equipment, machinery and hand tools that are in need or repair or replacement.
ALL such items should be clearly labelled DO NOT USE!

CAUTIONARY NOTE Please DO NOT, under any circumstances, give away or permit to be given away any defective tool – especially power equipment deemed unfit for use in the Department. All such defective tools MUST be destroyed and rendered beyond repair.
Any accident that happens, even off site in someone’s back garden with equipment given by you (or your employer) that you have deemed not fit for use could still be your responsibility.
It may appear criminal to throw away such items – it could be a heavyweight legal problem if you do not put them beyond use.

Chemicals. List each type (fertiliser, herbicide, fungicide, pesticide etc) with it’s product name, quantity and condition. Include any dates shown thereon. Include road salt under this heading if the Gardens Department are responsible for keeping a stock.

Plant material. Any container grown shrubs and trees? Tree stakes?,
Orchids?, Plant pots and containers?

If you accept an existing inventory, you are taking ownership of it, and have to answer should any query arise in respect of any shortfall at a later date.

Turning now to scheduling your buildings.
You need to identify the various sheds, outbuildings, greenhouses, polytunnels, including their condition, dimensions including heights and any access problems e.g. difficult to enter with a tractor, security and dampness. Roofing materials e.g. asbestos, crawling boards essential?

Water points and their locations and conditions. Flow rates/leaks.
Hoses?, Water walkers?, Irrigation equipment?.
Although not an inventory matter, under the heading of site evaluation, things such as road surfaces, types and existing condition or weight restrictions (for large delivery lorries, skip lorries etc), and vehicle access into the Gardens Department.

So many Gardens work areas are situated in outbuildings that were never meant to be used as such, especially not suited to modern transport.
This fact needs to be identified and recorded.
(These notes are meant for any Contractor or Maintenance Company taking over responsibility for a garden – usually larger areas – for a new client)
THESE NOTES are there to protect you in the future. If you do not evaluate and record the site as you start work, you have no comeback in the future against any claims for missing/damaged items.


Tourist Attractions of The Old Fashioned Kind

During my work as a Consultant, and my leisure time as a frequent visitor to a range of gardens open to the public, varying in size, nature and complexity throughout Britain, I am often struck by the opportunities that are lost to the property owners and managers.

With the very difficult year of 2012 still uppermost in our minds, where everything seemed to conspire against the Managers of Gardens Open To The Public – from National Trust and English Heritage to Stately Homes and National Collections and Arboretums, the weather combined with the prolonged activities surrounding the Diamond Jubilee and both Olympics Games to reduce visitor numbers by some 20% on average.

Obviously, some attractions fared better than others, but by and large, income from the paying public was most certainly well down on previous years.
Combine this reduction of income with the ever rising costs of heating fuel, insurance and other overheads – even though wages bills may have been trimmed by shedding staff and cutting out overtime (or increasing the number of Trained Volunteers), an increase of some 5% across the board meant a 25% decrease in profits/income.

The opportunities to increase visitor numbers by means of Special Events, or by advertising as a Wedding Venue or other attractions including Festivals or Pageants, Antique Fairs or Country Days are limited for a wide range of reasons. The location and road infrastructure may preclude large scale events. The sheer cost of advertising and financing major events is incredibly expensive – with absolutely no guarantee of success. Certainly not for a new event, no matter how popular you may think the idea may be.

Successful events often happen by chance. I was Head Gardener at Goodwood
where The Festival of Speed was followed by The Goodwood Revival, both extremely successful projects, which grew organically, from little beginnings to major events. These brought much needed income into the Estate, but how many Houses could host such numbers of vehicles and people? Well over one hundred thousand souls at each. How many Estates could field that much expertise and management skill to control the massive infrastructure and project handle security/police/traffic management/fire control etc, except for one that already had their own In House staff including Fire Control (Goodwood has its’ own commercial airfield).

Identifying Alternative Opportunities
I cannot be the only person who really enjoys seeing how others work, and I often wangle my way into the private areas, out of bounds to the public, by having a chat to a gardener weeding away in a border, and getting myself invited to a cup of tea and an introduction to the Head Gardener.

How often do you find the working area of the garden, where probably the only people to enter the site are the Gardens staff – not even the owners come into the business end of the garden, where the rubbish pile has been gently smouldering away since last Christmas, where the broken machinery is covered over with plastic sheets ‘ just in case we need a replacement/spare part’?

I suggest that these working areas are Goldmines of interest to the general public. Both Mr and Mrs Gardener would really love to see how the garden is run, how compost should be made, what a proper tool shed should look like.
What is perhaps now simply a Glory Hole of old plant pots, discarded bean poles, rusty water butts with one wheel missing and a couple of compost bays could be turned into Visitor Heaven.

I appreciate the need to keep the public away from any danger, but with a low  picket fence and a couple of discreet signs telling folk to keep out of the working area, it would not be an expensive project to really go to town with your ‘exhibit’.

I believe that a model working garden environment – Behind The Scenes – would delight visitors. Carefully and properly managed compost bays, herbs and root vegetables in tubs, a well maintained greenhouse with some glass covered cold frames, perhaps some raised beds for vegetables, with dwarf espalier fruit trees and box hedging around the edges – so much scope for such a tableau!

On High Days and Public Holidays, have a member of staff, properly versed in the area, on hand to discuss the finer points of composting (and the difference between fungal activity and bacterial breakdown), to tell visitors how and why you carry out certain jobs. (Perhaps a Trained Volunteer?). Actively INVOLVE the public. Actively INVITE them along to see how you work and discuss how the garden is managed.

Quite apart from the additional interest you will engender with the public, who will want to come again, and ensure that their friends know about the ways in which you differ from other Open Gardens, you will have many opportunities for Staff Training. Not simply of good horticultural practice, but also of that magic ingredient missing in most teaching establishments – the basic requirements of Being A Proper Gardener. Learning to love the environment in which we work, not simply seeing a garden as a series of Health & Safety requirements, COSSH and RIDDOR regulations and  various ‘tickets’ and NVQ’s, but going back to the traditional techniques for which there is no modern substitute.

Evoke the image of the Head Gardener carrying the wooden trug full of fresh organic vegetables up to the Big House. The Public will love it!


Employing A Head Gardener – A Working Template

The remit of this article is to supply a template to be applied when formulating a job description for attracting a Senior, Deputy Head or Head Gardener in the Private sector (Private Gardens and Estates, including Historic Houses, Hotels, Clubs and the like).

Properties owned and regulated by Local Authorities and Government Agencies operate their own systems, which are based on practices outside the scope of private properties, and whilst many of the featured requirements in the  application and nature of the working practices are similar, they are bound with their own conventions and are therefore excluded from this report.

Due to the wide range of different types of Private gardens, and the various needs of  prospective employers, it necessarily follows that a description of each of these are listed to enable each Employer to select their own job description formula based on that schedule. This menu will allow for a flexible, yet accurate form of words to be used when compiling a job description advertisement.

Private Gardens, closed to the general public.
The wording in the advertisement should clearly state the nature and size of the property, including a description of the existing site. Something along the lines of ‘3.5 acres of managed woodland, .5 acre top fruit orchard, large greenhouses including orchids and productive vines, walled kitchen garden and extensive herbaceous borders. Garden is South facing with multi-level terraces’.
‘Family owned since 1930, with young children and dogs. Some weekend duties.’

The description of the site should provide the reader with a clear idea of the scope of work that will be involved. The applicant will know the type of gardener the employer is seeking. By definition, they will need to be active, fit, with good references and able to deal with dogs and their habits. An enhanced CRB check will be required, together with a willingness to work outside a structured routine, taking responsibility for greenhouses and the garden as a whole.

Without mentioning the words ‘must be used to working in a family garden, have a wide range of skills and experience – we want you to become part of the family and enjoy working for an appreciative employer’, the job description should attract the right person – someone willing to be a good, all round member of the family team.

The description of the job can then be expanded to include the existing work force, if any. ‘ Single Handed Gardener, Head Gardener with a staff of three full time members with seasonal help’ etc – which will clearly imply that the applicant should also be prepared and able to undertake training and staff supervision without the need for a written statement to that effect.

Private Garden open to the General Public
Again, a full and accurate description of the site should be given, along with a detailed picture of the history and nature of the grounds. Are the gardens open all year round? How many days a week/month/season are the grounds open? What, if any, events take place – and their nature (Festivals or Fayres, Weddings or Conferences.) These events have a huge impact on the grounds, with cars and pedestrians, together with restrictions on noise and working hours which disrupt normal working practices.

The job description should not preclude anyone from applying for the job. If they are surprised, during interview, that the Events cause such mayhem, they are the wrong person for the job.

The applicant should know the various methods of pedestrian/vehicle control, and be aware of all necessary Health & Safety issues and Laws in dealing with the public. There should be no need to make any mention of these requirements during the recruitment advertising campaign.

It will however, be necessary to make reference to the working hours and any expectations of additional working requirements to fulfil their function to keep within the Law. A statement along the lines of ‘Normal working hours are 08.00 – 16.30 Monday to Friday, with some weekend or evening duties being part of the job requirement’.

Stately or Historic Houses with Volunteer Assistants
The history of the property and its’ size and complexity should be given, together with any Open Hours and Visitor numbers. These facts convey to the prospective applicant the importance of the site, and the implicit honour of being involved in the long term  well being of the grounds.

Numbers of Volunteers and the nature of their work should be given. Again, this information conveys the importance of the site, as volunteers only become involved for the kudos if working on such an important garden. This will reflect on the prospective employee, as they will be responsible for overseeing the volunteer force, and will require not only Training abilities and skills, but be willing to work under scrutiny themselves – by the often very knowledgeable – volunteers.

Some Historic Houses have sections of the gardens given over to specific volunteers and disabled persons. This facility should be mentioned, with greater emphasis placed on the requirement of the applicant to take a keen interest in the nature of this aspect of the garden.

Hotels, Clubs and Other Private Establishments
Greater emphasis may be placed on the restrictions made on the Head Gardener and the ability to work in a restricted manner, with Events and times being of paramount importance to the Employer. It is one of the most difficult and frustrating jobs, being charged with maintaining the grounds in top order, whilst having to avoid almost every normal opportunity to able to operate in an efficient manner.

This skill, and the ability to work around the Events calendar of the Employer – which may change on a daily basis – will be a major deciding factor during the interview process.
As with all of the above scenarios and site descriptions, it will be the personal skills of the applicants to deal with day to day difficulties that will provide the Employer with their short list of applicants. No amount of College Training is of use if the applicant is unable to cope with the stresses of the site.

Experience and Qualifications
Please note that there has been no mention of qualifications in the formal sense. The job description should not rely on the reader initially identifying the job advertisement as being of interest due to their formal qualifications. Each of the above job descriptions calls for a particular type of person – not their meritorious documents. Experience and previous references should count more highly than formal qualifications.

The ability to produce and understand a meaningful budget, to evaluate the existing Gardens Department and provide a short term/long term programme of works, to identify shortfalls in staff training, to arrange new working practices to suit the needs of the Employer and the garden and to provide an accurate inventory of machinery and equipment are important means by which to judge a prospective employee.

Without these practical skills, the various certificates and diplomas – no matter how difficult to gain –  need to be balanced when evaluating the suitability of an applicant. An Honours Degree in a Horticultural Science is of great merit, and indeed, may be essential in some instances, but without practical ability will be of limited use. (There is a long running debate surrounding ‘qualifications’. Essentially, some tasks may only be carried out by those holding particular certificates e.g. spraying, or using chain saws. Other tasks require years of practical experience, which may also be rightly deemed to be a ‘qualification’.)

No mention has been made here of salaries and benefits, as they depend on the individual site. Similarly, other items that may affect the pay package, e.g. use of vehicle, free accommodation, pension etc, will also be a matter for the individual Employer.


Producing Your Curriculum Vitae

Part of my job as a Gardens Consultant is the recruitment of suitable applicants for senior positions, usually, but not exclusively for Private gardens. On occasions, I am called upon to find people for the more ‘commercial’ type of properties, with a corporate owner other than a private individual, and I carry out a wide variety of roles within that job.

On occasion, I am charged with carrying out the whole process, including writing the job specification, placing  advertisements in the market place (not always obvious sites such as magazines or LinkedIn, but using my personal contacts and knowledge, and arranging the interviews.) Literally everything, from taking my client’s brief to making the appointment – including setting the right rate of pay, terms and conditions. This is particularly important to me, as I can make the right choice of person for the right employment package – tailor made recruitment!

Being so privileged affords me a fairly unique opportunity to monitor, at first hand, some of the mistakes that are made when following a simple prescriptive formula usually adopted by Employment Agencies. (At least one Specialist firm – English Country Gardeners – uses more than one standard formula, and recognise the need to be ‘flexible’ in their approach. This is not commonplace!) This methodology demands that the applicant is encouraged to submit their curriculum vitae as the first point of reference for the Agency staff (or others responsible to hiring staff). This takes the form of a list of dates and records the employment and educational history of the individual.

This proscriptive form of c.v. is far too restrictive for my liking. How can one person ensure that their c.v. stands out from the others? Remember, you are filling out one c.v. The person looking through the applications is only human, and sifting through maybe hundreds of c.v. forms is very tiring – especially when one is trying hard to be fair to all. Many good applicants are placed in the ‘bin’, unfairly perhaps, but that is a fact of life.

In Stage Two, we will be looking closely at the Job Interview process, and ensuring that you take a lead in controlling that meeting. However, in order to get through to the interview stage, your first point of contact with your potential employer is that of your curriculum vitae. How can you make it attractive and INTERESTING? How can you ensure that you are placed on the INTERVIEW pile and not in the bin?

You will of course, have to record all relevant information, commencing with your name, address, contact details including telephone (a land line is important, as it shows ‘stability’ in the eyes of the reader), include LinkedIn (but perhaps not Facebook or Twitter as they are not ‘professional’) and any website details. You are not obliged to state your date of birth –
that is up to you! It helps if you  indicate your status as a driver, including any convictions as applicable, although this may not be a job requirement.

In reverse order i.e commencing from today, list your employment history. IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A FULL EMPLOYMENT RECORD, YOU MUST EXPLAIN YOUR GAP. If you can account for any gap in your employment record, it may be because you were moving house with your parents, spent six months plant hunting in the Amazon or working as a Volunteer at ABC Estate, to further your skills base. As long as you have a feasible reason for the gap, it is not an issue.

The number of jobs you have had may be taken as an indicator. How the reader interprets that record will depend on your age and career progress, which will be related to the job opening available.   This is always a tricky area, as some jobs will require a steady and reliable track record – say one job in the last thirty years, whilst such a feat may be admirable, others may see that steadiness as a negative, as you may not be receptive to new ideas. Unless you can clearly demonstrate career progress in that one job, you could be unfairly thought of as being too stuck in your ways or ‘institutionalised’.

You should then enter your academic record, listing the schools you attended and the most relevant awards (do not write down every A level or GCSE, only the top/most important ones). Other qualifications that will be of great interest to the reader will be those that are relevant to the industry. I have to say, I value Membership of The Chartered Institute of Horticulture (MCI Hort or FCI Hort will certainly guarantee an interview with me) along with Full Membership of The Professional Gardeners Guild as being more attractive than any other academic document. This is purely a personal observation and is not intended to belittle any other qualifications.

Once you have scheduled all relevant information, and completed the ‘standard c.v’ – a draft form is available on the internet – the most important factor is your PRESENTATION.

A neatly typed c.v. is obviously the number one consideration. It is the additional material that you may wish to add that will encourage the reader to promote you through to interview stage. For example, under the heading ‘Other Interests’, I can assure you, I am not interested whether or not you enjoy ballroom dancing, walking or eating out. What I am keen to find out are your practical interests. Koi keeping, geology, biology, poultry keeping, mechanics – anything that may be of practical value to the employer are far more interesting!

Your presentation should be made in A4 form, preferably with a clear plastic cover, with your name printed on the top right hand side, EVERYTHING IN TRIPLICATE, with a hand written covering letter included somewhere near the front  of the pack. This will provide the reader with a better idea of your personal skills.

Always remember that your c.v. is the first point of contact with your prospective employer. Any positive  impact that you make at this stage will be extremely valuable and essential in getting you through to the Interview.


Surviving as a Self-Employed Gardener

Finance Matters Really Matter

At the risk of becoming seen as fixated on the word ‘Survival’ – having written both The Head Gardeners Survival Manual and The Landscapers Survival Manual, I still find that I cannot find a more suitable word to convey the very essence of Self Employment! The thrill of starting out working for yourself, making decisions that concern the very vitals of your life and that of your dependents is quite intoxicating (as well as terrifying!).

I know the constant battles that rage every day during the first few years of self -employment. Balancing the essential requirement to earn a living with your hands whilst at the same time trying to secure more clients, more enquiries, more contacts, more suppliers – ever more and more, becomes very daunting. Too often we are tempted to take on work that we do not want, just to keep the money coming in.

Marketing and Networking are very large subjects, which I will not have room to cover in this feature, that form the super-structure  of your business and will become easier as time goes on. To raise the super-structure you must have solid foundations, as without a sound base you will not survive beyond the first few months. The strength of those foundations will depend on your ability to understand the essential principles of finance.

The basic exercise is to establish, understand and agree the realistic income figure you need to provide for you and your family, especially if there is only one breadwinner. I know that it is a very emotive and difficult task, but the first requirement is a complete, open and honest financial survey of your outgoings. Leave aside any other income stream e.g. Family Allowance, which should not be included in your figures as they are really additional monies and not ‘earned income’. Include everything you can think of, including rent or mortgage, electricity, heating oil, school fees, food, pet food and vets bills, transport costs, hire purchase repayments, insurance, television licence, tools and equipment, accountants fees, water rates, council tax, postage, holidays etc; the list may run on and on. It must be comprehensive, and if you find that you have missed something of significance, you should add it on and revise your figures accordingly.

You will end up with a Grand Total of your family and business expenditure, which should be divided into fifty two equal amounts, as your outgoings will not stop because of inclement weather or sickness. For the sake of regularity, let’s assume an annual expenditure of £30,000.00. (It is a fact of life that an employed person earning, say, £20,000 p.a. may be fairly comfortable living on that amount. However, once self- employed, costs rise dramatically primarily due to the additional costs of transport and insurances (as well as tools and equipment) and the two figures should never be compared.

The nominal expenditure figure of (say) £30,000.00, when divided by 52 (weeks) equals £578.00 approx. per week. However, you will probably only work for 45 weeks per annum due to holidays, Bank Holidays, sickness and inclement weather, averaging 40 hours per week. 45 x 40 equals 1,800 hours, and therefore your weekly base expenditure figure rises to  £666.00 approx. , or £16.65  per hour. This is the lowest amount that you can charge to continue in business. (Obviously, your figures may differ from this example)

Bear in mind that this formula does not include any improvements to your equipment, transport or ability to weather a slow period or unexpected costs to your family or business.
It does not include the most important element of running your own business – the profit factor! If you do not aim to make a decent profit, self- employment loses its’ main attraction! I appreciate that many people enjoy working for themselves, making decisions without the requirement to gain permission first – but this pleasure needs to be tempered with realism. If you cannot make enough profit to withstand bad debts or a miscalculated quotation, things will become very difficult.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a Consultant, is how and when to increase my rates. Should it be annually, and if so, by how much? There are so many factors to consider, and once again, every firm will be different. I suggest that you adopt a piece meal solution to avoid risking losing an important customer.

We are currently enjoying a very stable economy, with neutral inflation and steady general prices, therefore it should be unnecessary to raise your rates at the time of writing, based purely on an idea that all rates should rise automatically each year. This is not to say that you should not increase your income in other ways. It should never be forgotten that we are all learning more and more skills as we progress, and by definition, become more extensively serviceable to our existing and future customers.

Even the most cursory inventory of your abilities, tools and equipment will show that you have become more valuable to your clients, perhaps gaining more skills certificates, or becoming a Member of The Chartered Institute of Horticulture – anything that proves the natural progression you have made in the world of horticulture. As the years go by, you are not the same person who started out self-employed! These skills should be recognised by yourself and treated as additional value when costing your rates.

Always remember – all you have to sell is yourself!

Never concern yourself with your competitor’s rates. It seriously does not matter if another firm is charging a lower rate than you. Do you really want to be the cheapest gardener out there? Of course not! You should not try to beat anyone on price, no matter what type of gardening business you are in. I assure you that I receive many comments from the public all desperate to find a contractor that will ‘slow down, stop rushing, and just do a good, clean job’.

You can have no idea if your competitors are making a profit or living on a credit card. Maybe they have secondary income, or no mortgage. They may have independent means, and only work as a gardener for a hobby. Never try to beat any price! I have been working as a professional gardener for nearly fifty years, and have never attempted to be competitive on price.

If you treat each customer as a separate entity, consider each one carefully. How much potential is there in their garden for additional works? Could you offer to increase the variety of skills you currently offer. Produce a library of all of your clients, marking them in order of importance to you and your business. Try to be dispassionate and remain subjective. Record when you started working for them, and the rate you charged then, and now. How much difference is there? When did you last raise their charges? Analyse and compare, and produce a chart covering your whole business.

Make a decision to increase your charges by around ten percent for any new enquiries. If you already have a busy order book, you have nothing to lose if they reject your price. (You may be amazed to find all newcomers accept your new higher rate). Selecting those existing sites that you feel are not enjoyable or you would not mind losing, write to announce that your rates will increase (do not give a reason or percentage, just the new amount. You do not need to justify yourself. You are making an offer which they can accept or refuse) on a certain date. It is better to give a couple of months’ notice, and don’t worry about the time of year – you are not obliged to work from season to season.

Nearing the end of my working life – physically at least! – and having worked for over forty years as a self-employed gardener, both as a general horticulturist and landscaper, (and six years as Head Gardener to Goodwood Estate) I have seen many decent people lose their businesses and homes because they did not recognise – or chose to ignore – the absolute necessity to earn a living and make a profit.

I spend most of my time now either carrying out certain specialised tasks which I thoroughly enjoy (flint work,  fine detailed restoration paving, topiary etc) and as a Gardens Consultant, writing books and articles including  a regular column for The Horticulture Week. I know I am extraordinary privileged, and welcome this opportunity to hopefully pass on a few words of hard earned wisdom!


Selling Yourself – Part 1

Selling Yourself – Part One

There are so many books and articles on the subject of personal projection and preparing for job interviews, with millions of words all mixed and muddled up into new ways of saying the same thing – Creating a Good Impression at Job Interviews. Yet to me, they all sound so sanitised, sterile, formulaic and a college based series of tick box exercises, they become completely alien to ME and my experiences! “If you were an animal – what would you be? If you were a colour, what would it be?” (Why are they asking me these silly questions?)

At the risk of sounding xenophobic, they also seem so ‘American’, as though they were written for people divided by a common language. So much emphasis on matters that barely relate to the job advertised, yet bound by the same strictures written and produced by someone’s HR department or general employment agency.

As part of my work as an independent consultant, I am often tasked with becoming involved in the job interview process. Sometimes, simply as a member of the interview panel, although increasingly, I am asked to undertake the whole business of finding and appointing a new Head Gardener, including writing the job description and placing the advertisements in the ‘right’ places.  This involves carrying out a full audit of the existing gardens and staff, and interviewing the employer as to exactly what their requirements are. You may be amazed to hear that many estate owners have no real idea of the type of person they should be trying to attract. Often, horticultural knowledge is not as important as management of the grounds and staff, yet previously they have taken on very knowledgeable plants-people when they really needed a hard – nosed ‘Manager’.

Under the title of Selling Yourself, I will be producing a short series of essays, which I hope will encourage everyone thinking of applying for promotion or appointment as a Head Gardener. These will be based on courses run by The School of Garden Management (www.tsogm.org) which in turn are based on The Head Gardeners Survival Manual. As each of these essays could run into many thousands of words, I will strive to provide the reader with a complete ‘section’ of information and advice concentrating on a particular aspect of the science.

Beginning a Portfolio

Your portfolio is a separate document from your curriculum vitae, and should commence as early in your career as you think fit. Many job applications nowadays are to be completed on line, and unfortunately, this ‘drop down’ formula often overlooks important items, and thus creates difficulties for those seeking to sell themselves. (I will deal with this problem in the next essay.)

However, this is no reason not to start your professional life story. It may sound strange – starting this series by discussing portfolios, when surely, the c.v. must come first? However, your story needs to begin as early as possible. Although it may be the final document in your file, it is the one that requires some history and research. Depending on your age and experience, you may wish to include your school academic reports, especially if you have a fistful of A* Grades. Think back to your past experiences. If you have, at any time, worked with a particular expert, even as a subordinate, and feel that you learned valuable lessons from that encounter – add it to your list. Name the person and the time and place of the event. Perhaps you worked in a citrus or orchid house, or have constructed a rockery and worked with alpines, or created a wildlife pond or meadow – anything outstanding and memorable in your career, complete with dates/years, as all of these facts will form the foundation of your portfolio.

Think of the portfolio as being your personal version of ‘This Is Your Life’, or a formalised scrapbook of memories, documents and photographs. Remember, this is your opportunity to shine during the interview. The panel will have already seen and liked your c.v. and there is little point in duplicating that document – or indeed, any part of it.
What we are looking for is your personality, your individuality, and your personal experiences.

One of the most difficult questions that you may be asked at interview is ‘Tell me about yourself. Who are you, what is special about you’. So often, the interviewee is flummoxed, and starts to repeat the information on their c.v. documents. If you have your portfolio to hand, begin by talking about your hobbies (not those on the c.v.! Ballroom dancing, Eating out, Films, Travelling and suchlike are so hackneyed – even if true!). If you love Elvis Presley,  Status Quo or uni-cycling – say so! Please, just be yourself. Just relax and enjoy this part of the interview, as it is the one time you can be truly open and in control of the discussion.

I have mentioned photographs, and these are a vital part of your portfolio. Around twenty or so decent pictures, especially those showing you actually working (not posed, these always look faked even if they weren’t) at a variety of jobs. Avoid group photos, even if they were taken at (say) Chelsea Flower Show if you were a member of a College Team, if they only show the group, not you as the skilled artisan. A couple of shots of you knee deep in a fish pond, covered in mud and silt are indicative of your willingness to get involved in unpleasant tasks.

Anything that marks you out at being a conscientious person – bee keeping, poultry or horses, sheep or fish welfare are all indicators of someone who is used to responsibility, and they reinforce your suitability to take on new challenges. Please remember to be prepared to answer questions on your chosen subjects, as the interviewer may be genuinely interested in one or more of your claimed skills, and the greater the knowledge, the deeper the rapport.

Also include future plans, especially if they include further education or career development. If your ambition is to take the RHS Level Three or Four, or perhaps attend a course in Management Studies, make sure you have the relevant information to hand (not in the portfolio) as the employer may well decide to offer that as part of your package. If you are uncertain in your answers regarding costs and availability you will lose the initiative.

One final word on presenting photographs – please ensure they are in a decent folder or specialised booklet, as this makes them easier to see and appreciate. The panel will not be so impressed with a memory stick presentation that requires additional work on their part. Remember, for most job interviews, the panel will have read (probably) several dozen packages of application, and the thought of undertaking extra work by accessing somebody’s memory stick will not be welcomed!

To recapitulate – the portfolio should date from as early a period in your career as you feel comfortable with. If you are (say) mid 50s, having left school forty years ago, A Levels and similar awards will not be particularly helpful, so you should tailor your material to suit. Unlike a c.v., any breaks in your career are not important. Presentation is everything, and a set of quality photographs with interesting short descriptions showing you at work is worth many thousands of words.

You may also be surprised at the number of applicants who produce truncated versions of portfolios which include the words ‘ photographs and references are available on request’. Surely the opportunity to sell yourself has been lost with these words! If you cannot be bothered to include important – critical to your chances – information with your portfolio, you should not be surprised if the panel decide against wasting further time and energy on you – no matter how promising you may have seemed!

Next time, I will be covering the production  of your curriculum vitae, offering advice that will hopefully set you apart from your competitors and ensure that you are offered an interview.

One final thought – employers go to great lengths to try to find the right person for the job. Each job interview process costs a lot of time, energy and money, and is not undertaken lightly. In my experience, employers are delighted to find their problems solved by taking on someone with initiative and enterprise. An obvious statement maybe? Finding the right person to do the job is by no means easy, any more than it is finding the right job for the right person!

Gardening and amenity horticulture are far removed from standard types of job, and they demand a special style of approach from both the employer and employee. Simply ticking boxes and answering formulaic questionnaires is not the right way to find that perfect marriage. Which is why ensuring that your personality shines through – Selling Yourself – is so important.


Selling Yourself – Part 2

Producing a curriculum vitae

In this, the second part of a short series aimed at demystifying the inner workings of the world of job interviews, especially regarding the specialist nature of our industry, I will attempt to explain matters as seen through the eyes of an interviewing board.

Although these articles are written as stand – alone features, it is very useful to read Part One (Issue no 149, October 2015) prior to digesting this particular section, as the whole process of preparing for applying for a new job is a complex science. These articles are based on courses run by The School of Garden Management (www.tsogm.org) which in turn, are based on The Head Gardeners Survival Manual. Whilst the School philosophy and structure involves bespoke one-to-one mentoring, and these features are mere snippets, I hope that you will find this series helpful.

I have become increasingly involved in the whole process of ‘Finding a new Head Gardener’ for a number of very high profile gardens and sites, charged by my clients to carry out the various functions and elements of advertising, interviewing and recommending for appointment. I am emphatically not an Employment Agent, and do not hold any portfolios of individuals or owners, but undertake all commissions as they arise.

It is important to reiterate my previous statement, in that I interview the owner/s before I set off trying to locate a suitable person, as there are many different ‘types’ of senior gardener, and some sites need a Proper, Old Fashioned Head Gardener, whilst others require a Professional Gardens Manager (with others somewhere in between). Hence I couch my advertising wording to suit the site and attract the ‘right’ sort of applicant.

Part I explored the business of producing a portfolio, with the sole objective of Selling Yourself in words and pictures. Part 2 will cover the difficult subject of producing and presenting your curriculum vitae.

The best piece of advice I can offer, and it seems a good place to start this article, is to imagine that you are reading your own words. Put yourself in place of the person who is opening your application package. He/she will be opening many dozens of such bundles of documents (whether hard copy of electronic files, they should all have the same function; to grab the attention of the reader, to provide enough of a visual impact to prevent them from being placed in the ‘No Hope’ pile on the floor) and will barely have more than five seconds to make the decision of include or exclude. It is as brutal as that!

Bear in mind that these are only personal observations, but they are based on many years’ experience, backed up with a fair amount of marketing skills learnt in decades of working in the industry as Chairman of PR & Marketing for BALI and  Director of PR & Marketing for the APL. (Also helped by my colleagues in the School of Garden Management, each with similar backgrounds in high profile sectors of Horticulture – we regularly discuss and challenge each other to ensure that we do not become stale!)

Take a look through any tabloid newspaper or magazine. Tabloid, as it the nearest to an A4 sized piece of paper, and not a broadsheet. Whizz through the pages, looking to see WHAT catches your eye first. Then look again and establish WHY it stood out from the rest of the page. Invariably, it will be a) the first ‘dark or bold’ feature/advert or b) the feature at the top right hand side of the facing page. Combine these two, with a bold advert at the top of the right hand or ‘facing’ page, and you have already ensured the attention of the reader.

Therefore, if you head your c.v. with your name and any letters designate in bold ‘Times’ print – nothing too flashy, no hieroglyphics please! – to the centre/left of the top of the page, and include either a bold frame and  black and white photograph of yourself in the top right hand side, you will have captured the eye of the reader straight away. Nothing too moody, this is not an interview for a model agency, just a clean head and shoulders photo.

I suggest that you continue your c.v. with a personal introductory letter, written in the first person as though you were addressing someone you really wanted to get to know. Third person introductions – ‘Alan is a highly accomplished gardener, with a passion for orchards and Koi ponds’ are words that are not going to excite anyone. Begin with lines such as ‘I have been happily married to Carole for twenty years, and we have two children, both of whom have left home. I have been involved in gardening all my working life, leaving school and starting work in our local nursery, graduating through a series of ever more challenging positions to become Head Gardener at Graffham Castle Manor House’, (etc.)

Not too long, just enough to introduce yourself as a person, not simply a list of dates, positions, honours etc. You should aim for no more than one side of A4, ending with a brief statement as to your reason/s for wanting to change your job. In this particular case, it could be because your children have left home, and you now want to seek fresh opportunities, without having to consider school restrictions. Everybody is entitled to seek self- improvement, and the panel will think no less of you for wanting to better your life and finances. It is greatly to your advantage to offer an explanation for your reasoning and actions. All we are trying to do is to get to know you, and what you want from your professional life, and the easier you can make your life story understood (in a few short words!) the more comfortable we will be with you.

You will succeed in humanising your application. The second part may begin with your career to date, setting out the various places you have worked, including start dates and leaving dates. It is helpful too, if you can indicate a reason for leaving, as this statement will avoid/reduce any questions from the interviewing panel reference chronological order.

It is also helpful to explain any gaps in your career path – perhaps an illness, or plant hunting expedition – as this too will help the panel to gain a fuller picture of your life. It does not matter (as far as I am concerned) if you start from today and work backwards, or from the start of your career to your current position.

The third section should include all honours, degrees, certificates and college experiences. This time, it is helpful to put your strongest qualification first, as it can look rather odd to find ‘Fellow of The Chartered Institute of Horticulture’ relegated to fifth place behind a ‘PA1 and PA6’! Unless you are relatively young, a simple mention of ‘ten A* levels’ will suffice, without listing them all (unless some are more relevant to the position offered than others) as such a list becomes meaningless.

Put simply, you should schedule your qualifications in the order of perceived value. If you hold a chain saw ‘ticket’, and the job is on an Estate, this would be perceived to be more useful than (say) an Asbestos Awareness Certificate. Working at Height or Ladder Training would trump a Safe Use of Wheeled Grinders certificate in a Stately Home with high hedges to maintain.

Finally, a list of references, with names, address and telephone numbers, together with a short description of their relevance to your application, should be scheduled separately, and any comments such as ‘Do not contact unless a job offer is made subject to references’ firmly underlined.

The presentation of your documents will count for little if you are obliged to submit your application on line or via email. Some organisations do not welcome such individuality as I have advocated in these articles, but there is no reason to adhere strictly to their formula (unless expressly forbidden by the terms of the advert) by submitting your curriculum vitae in hard copy – Portfolio (as per Issue 149) and c.v complete with photographs, together with a photocopy of your passport, latest DBS certificate/number and current driving licence, as these will help to expedite the process.

Neatly packaged in a good quality folder, with an outer cover including your name on the front, hand delivered (and time dated/signature if applying to a large/r property with office administrative staff) is always welcomed as a sign that the applicant is serious about wanting the job.

In Stage 3, I will endeavour to explain the philosophy and strategies involved in marketing yourself, which is another aspect of Selling Yourself. Marketing is all about seeking the right places to sell your skills, and although they may appear to be one and the same, as we shall see, they are quite different disciplines.

These aspects of our careers and personal development form the background and foundations of The School of Garden Management, recognising that we are all individuals, trying to find our niche in a complex world working in a complicated industry, made more difficult by the nature and temperament of our employers. Hence the emphasis on personal bespoke training based on a formula that eschews rote!


Selling Yourself – Part 3

Marketing Yourself – Philosophy & Strategy

In this, the third and final part of a short series aimed at demystifying the inner workings of the world of seeking work in the Gardening Industry, I will attempt to guide you through the essentials of Marketing Your Skills

Although these articles are written as standalone features, it is very useful to read through Parts One and Two (Professional Gardener Issues 149 and 150) prior to digesting this particular section, as the whole process of selling yourself is a complex science.
These articles are based on courses run by The School of Garden Management (www.tsogm.org) which in turn, are based on The Head Gardeners Survival Manual.
While the School philosophy and structure involves bespoke one-to-one mentoring, and these features are mere snippets, I hope you will find this short series helpful to your careers.

Part One explored the business of producing a portfolio, with the sole objective of selling yourself in words and pictures. Part Two covered the difficult subject of producing and presenting your curriculum vitae.

Marketing Your Skills – As an Individual

It is never too early to start preparing your foundations when it comes to the subject of Marketing Your Skills. Once you recognise the basic essential requirement of starting to compile the various elements of your experience, it becomes easier to understand the need for such information.

No matter how you start to collate every bit of previous experience, either in written form e.g. describing specific training you received, visits to gardens and lectures, people you perceive to be influential in the sphere of your particular type of work – names, places, training, influences, experiences, sites of interest – a host of information, all written in a form which is easily accessed, either alphabetical or chronological, or in other documentation form.
College courses, certificates awarded, citations received. Each and every document, date and mile-stone in your career to date should be listed.

You may be surprised to see just how much data you have collected over the years, and how, once collated into one foundation file, you will begin to see how and where you may like to see your career develop. You may find gaps in your experience, and decide to fill those holes with more courses and experience before finally appreciating that you have a solid base on which to begin Marketing Yourself.

It is a fact that you cannot begin to sell yourself unless you are really comfortable in your own skin. If you are unhappy with your own talent, how can you hope to convince potential employers or clients  that you are worthy of their time and trust in your abilities?

It necessarily follows that your choice of career is married to your skills base and comfort zone. Who you are should match What you are. You will come across as a 100% genuine individual, and potential clients will be relaxed in your presence only if you too are at ease in your own company.

During an interview with a client, do not be concerned if you realise that you have gaps in your knowledge. Nobody knows everything, and no-one will expect you to have all the answers. An essential skill is learning when and critically, how, to admit that you do not have a particular answer to hand. Always avoid using the words ‘I don’t know’. Absolute taboo! If you are stumped, simply say ‘I will check that out and get back to you’. (Make sure you do find out and relay the correct answer!)

(I will not mention the fact that you need to be clean, tidy, sober, punctual, reliable etc, as these are taken as a given!)

In this article, I am concentrating on you as an individual, selling yourself to a potential  employer or client, not as an employee going through a job interview process – we have covered those pretty thoroughly in Parts One and Two, although of course, if you decide to make a direct approach to an employer who has not advertised a vacancy, the advice may be useful!

Although it does not matter which scenario you meet, if you have your foundation established, a clear goal in mind, starting to develop specialist knowledge, and following an industry pathway (any field you can think of, from floristry to wild flower projects, seaside gardening to green roofs, commercial enterprises/hotels/office complexes, etc; becoming more knowledgeable and outwardly competent than your competitors will enable you to sell your talent to the right buyer) you will find yourself on the right road.

Marketing Yourself As a Business

(It is very important to notice  that I have not covered, in any way, the financial requirements involved in setting up and running a business. This is a very complex, vitally important element, and must be addressed by you and your advisers beforehand)

Essentially, you will have followed the ‘Individual’ route as described above. Every successful business has been built by driven individuals. You have developed into a confident business-like person and now wish to create your own niche in the Market Place.

This niche may be as the proprietor of a company, a consultant, temporary Head Gardener, Specialised Skills person e.g. offering topiary, pruning etc, Trainer/Mentor to Special Needs classes, Historic Garden Tour Guide, Cemetery/grave Care, Events venue organiser – again, a very wide range of specialist niches that may be filled.

Perhaps nobody has ever thought there could be a market for such services! Perhaps that because nobody has yet launched such a business!

As a first priority, it is essential to decide a name for your services. Again, it is imperative that you are comfortable with the chosen business name. If it is a word or phrase that is difficult to pronounce, especially when answering the telephone, it is not a good idea to become tongue tied or convoluted.

Choose one that clearly describes you or your business. If you have an appropriate name e.g. Green, Gardener, Branch, Field, Lake, Brown etc, you may or may not decide it is a good idea to incorporate your name into the title of the company! Some may find it irresistible, others may see it as slightly contrived.

Consider how others react to your prospective name. Ask your friends and family, and seek their advice. Remember, you will be stuck with that name forevermore! (Or at least, until you sell the firm, when the correct name will be equally  important.) I suggest too, that you do not tie yourself down to a region or place unless you do not intend to work outside that area.

Once you have chosen your name, specialist niche market, print face/colour for advertising, headed notepaper, vehicle sign writing and a host of related items that should be evaluated when starting out, you can begin with your Marketing Campaign.

How your campaign will evolve is dependent on the nature of your chosen field. Assuming that you will be working alone at the outset, with no employees and therefore limited to the amount of work you can handle, your campaign should grow from little acorns before becoming great oak trees!

Organic growth of a business is a vital element. For example, if you have the wherewithal to take a full page advertisement in The Times or Telegraph, you would be swamped with work you could never hope to handle, and thousands of disgruntled readers. Ridiculous? I have seen such things happen! Never promote or seek work you cannot hope to handle, therefore having decided on your presentation and colour scheme (important to maintain the same look to begin to gain recognition by regularity. If you change your style of advert, you lose the benefit of public awareness) begin you campaign.

It may be simple flyers or inexpensive advertisements taken out in Parish magazines (excellent source of work). One of the most effective adverts I know of was produced by a person, with the heading ‘Head Gardener – Due to Take Early Retirement Seeks Work in the
XXXXXXXX Area’. Very simple and to the point. The advert clearly intimated that the gardener was highly skilled, with a valid reason to advertise and ready and available to start work fairly imminently, and in their area.

Similarly, if your expertise is in something more obscure, and therefore a potential niche market, such as Historic Orchards, or Ancient Dew Ponds, Seventeen Century Knot Gardens,
or Medicinal/culinary Herbs & Vegetables, seek out those potential sources of work by contacting those in charge of such gardens, including The Historic House Association, or via your Local Authorities, who hold details of a wide range of Associations and Orders.

To recapitulate – once you have established your personal foundation skills and listed them into proper order, gained the confidence to be comfortable with your own talents and knowledge, the business of marketing yourself is relatively straightforward.

However, the clearer the path that you set out for yourself, and the greater the ultimate goal, the more successful you will become. Have faith in your abilities, and if you find that you are less than comfortable with any element, gently tweak your path until you find one that you find exciting and rewarding.

Never lose sight of your goal, and always find a way of feeling confident, even in the face of adversity. The road is never smooth, but by turning every negative into a positive by learning by experience, you will succeed.


Selling Yourself – Part 4

Part One explored the business of producing a portfolio, Part Two covered the subject of producing your c.v. and Part Three was entitled Marketing Yourself – Philosophy and Strategy. The final part was dedicated to marketing your skills as an individual and also as a business.

However, I have been asked to go beyond this foundation work, and venture into the world of Consultancy. I feel it is only fair to ensure that no individuals are named, or regions identified, as the requests were so varied. Therefore I will attempt to cover all queries under the general banner of Becoming A Gardens Consultant.

There comes a time in our lives as professional gardeners that many of us dream about when we no longer are obliged to provide guidance and instruction to the staff in our Gardens Departments (or as self-employed contractors) when we can allow the working tools of our trade to gently slip from our fingers and instead pick up a pen and pass on our skills and knowledge to future generations by means of paid classes or professional consultancy visits to other gardens in need of a guiding hand.

For most, this will remain a pipe dream, due to circumstances or timing, and we begin to lose interest or the conviction that we could, indeed, start a Consultancy Business. Retirement and the necessities of handing over our garden to a new generation of younger artisans may mean that we longer know quite how to make the change from Team Leader to Specialist Independent Consultant.

May I suggest that the dream should start much earlier than planning for retirement? First of all, are you confident in your own ability, both at a horticultural level, but also as an instructor or teacher? I have known some superb and knowledgeable gardeners, their skills level far greater than anything I could dare to claim, yet totally incapable (or unwilling?) of imparting that knowledge. Essentially, their ‘man-management’ skills were non-existent, and they seemed to resent passing their hard earned talents on to new generations.

First of all, you should identify those special areas of knowledge that excite you most. An ability to enthuse others is a vital personal attribute for any consultant. Only if you believe in yourself can you expect potential clients to believe in your abilities. Enthusiasm tempered with the essential need to provide answers to a client with problems is a basic requirement.

You will need to train yourself in the techniques of working in a controlled environment, much the same as a laboratory scientist. Practicing your personal methodology will probably need some fine tuning as time goes by. Begin by analysing every action you take during your normal working day. Think beyond your personal information levels, as though you were preparing to impart the fine details of whatever task you are performing to a third party at some later time.

Write down or otherwise record your actions and subsequent reactions. Become accustomed to inwardly raising questions to yourself, providing possible answers to those queries and then analysing the results of your choices once they are known. A simple example would perhaps concern dealing with a problem area in the garden. Identify the fact that there is a problem, process the potential reasons, and a range of solutions to solve the issue. By process of elimination, and following a number of practical applications of treatments, you will eventually arrive at a happy conclusion.

Even though you will probably know the cause and remedy without going into this formal process, if you are called in by a client to solve a problem, you must have an obvious formula which the paying employer can see and understand. Simply stating (even if it is obvious to you at first glance) that the solution is easily identified, you will be expected to provide evidence of your recommendation. There is a very sound reason for this formality – you may be called upon at some later date to explain the reasons behind your professional decision and logic. Without following due process, and producing evidential documentation you could be held to account for future problems.

As you become used to operating and thinking like a consultant, not only will you become (perhaps) more proficient in your existing employment, but you will have trained yourself in the finer techniques of acting like a technician and therefore a potential professional consultant.

As you near your chosen time to move gently away from full time employment into a new life as a consultant, you will have the skills and knowledge, plus vitally, the methodology of acting as a consultant.

How you market yourself and begin selling your skills is another science altogether! Although the skills requirements for Consultants varies across the country, there are general areas that may be investigated as potential market places. These will vary according to your chosen specialities. Potential clients include owners and managers of large(r) estates and gardens, Managing Agent companies who have no internal skills or knowledge of our industry, insurance companies requiring opinions in respect of damage or theft, owners who are at a loss regarding who and how to employ senior staff or to manage property. This list is varied and lengthy, and certain regional variations will become obvious.

I am a member of The Association of Senior Garden Advisers, and run The School of Garden Management together with five others, all highly skilled specialists, aged between forty and seventy. We operate as a collaborative venture, offering our clients a wide range of advice and training as consultants.

I decided to dedicate my ambitions to set up as a consultant around twenty years ago, and steadily transformed from Head Gardener/Landscaper into Freelance Independent Consultant following a steady and clearly defined pathway. I suggest that is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to suddenly make the professional decision to become a consultant overnight!

Having become established and successful as an individual, and having met with others who offered different specialist consultancy skills, I decided to increase the range of subjects offered, and also the number of visits/areas covered to cope with the number of enquiries. By becoming a collaborative, we became more extensively serviceable to a wider range of employers.

To give you an idea of the types of consultancy you might like to consider specialising in, as an individual I offer training in ‘classroom’ situations including Managing As A Head Gardener, Becoming a Garden Consultant, Producing and Presenting Your Curriculum Vitae, Preparing For Job Interviews, and a host of other personal marketing topics. I also provide a bespoke service locating, interviewing and installing new Head and Senior Gardeners for Private Gardens, and on-site training in a range of practical subjects including topiary with shears, flint working, fine detail tessary paving works etc.

As a collaborative, we offer further on-site training including Establishing Wild Flowers Meadows, Creating and Maintaining Rose Gardens, Pruning of climbers, including Wisterias, Water Gardens, Water Management, Drainage of Landscape Schemes, Planning and Managing Large Scale Landscape Projects. The list is very long, and I am sure you will have your own specialist subjects to begin to establish your own Consultancy Business.

All you need is confidence, ability and a desire to continue with your career beyond your anticipated present employment term. If you have those in abundance (!) you should begin to identify your chosen market place, and decide a strategy for making your abilities and offer known to the right people.

Becoming a successful Consultant is a complex and profound subject, involving a great deal of your own personality and ability, mixed with marketing skills that may not be so easily identified. I will be holding a classroom seminar on Saturday 29th October in Sussex (see advert elsewhere in the magazine) for anyone considering preparing to take the step from artisan to consultant. This event will be held elsewhere in the country as required.

I hope those of you who requested this addition to Selling Your Skills Parts 1,2 and 3, will feel inspired to start thinking about setting out your own pathway and programme to becoming (successful!) Gardens Consultants in the future!


Internal Promotion

It is widely held that any business which operates an internal hierarchal system that permits staff to ascend a career ladder within the company structure is likely to be a well – run organisation, ready to train and improve the capabilities of the staff. Incentivising workers may be a major plank in the company policy, especially regarding such matters as Personal Career Development, with staff members being sent on external management, Health & Safety, IT refresher courses etc.– all have their place in promoting a healthy workforce.

On Site Training courses are also available, where skilled and experienced craftspeople organise (usually) one day events, using ‘hands-on’ methods of training staff on a very wide range of subjects; everything from rose garden management to the use of hand shears when working with topiary. These practical seminars have the additional benefit of enabling the staff to work within an environment they understand and are conversant with, rather than attending a strange venue.

Such training courses are vital to the success of the company, and funding should be included when drawing up the Departmental Annual Budget. The provision of such programmes also gives the Company Directors a sound record of progress made by an individual during the period of their employment. Even the most basic of HR Departments will hold details of any company funded training in the files for future reference.

Skilled and trained staff, having attained a certain level of achievement within a company, whether as Foreperson, Lead or Senior Gardener or Deputy Head Gardener will, at some stage in their career, be presented with an opportunity to apply for the position of Head Gardener, due to retirement or an unexpected vacancy. I will make a differentiation here, between a planned retirement due to age or a long expected plan on the part of the existing Head Gardener – when the whole company will be aware of impending changes – and a relatively short notice vacancy, when the incumbent decides to resign (for example) to move away from the area, giving a couple of months’ notice.

A long planned change may be dealt with almost seamlessly, with the current Deputy Head Gardener being gradually trained into the position, learning the inner workings of the Estate Management and being made aware of secrets and mysteries including  finances and other ‘private’ issues, that only Directors and Management are privy to. The matter of internal promotion in such cases does not only arise at the highest level i.e. Deputy to Head Gardener, and therefore any more junior adjustments to staffing become the responsibility of the new Head Gardener in the course of their chosen methods of managing the team. There is no external campaign to find and install a new Head Gardener and therefore no ‘vacancy’.

However, some Estates will wish to operate a more open exercise and actively advertise for a new Head Gardener to the wider world. This may be as part of a wide ranging commitment to (say) ISO 9000 or another ‘Investors in People’ style company programme, when the proscribed methods are clearly laid down, or perhaps to try to introduce new blood into the Gardens Department.

For this article, I will presume that you are a Senior Member of an existing workforce – let’s say that you are currently Deputy Head Gardener.

The vacancy for a new Head Gardener has been announced, both internally by means of a Staff email or notice to all personnel, and the job adverts have been placed in the local papers and the Trade Press. The full job description has been clearly provided as part of that advertisement. ENSURE THAT YOU KEEP A COPY OF THAT JOB DESCRIPTION FOR FUTURE REFERENCE.

Do not presume to know everything about the existing site, Estate, Company or your employers. Do not be complacent about any aspect of the job. Everybody who is serious about getting the position will have done their homework, and you can imagine how demeaning it would be if, during the interview, you were seen to know less about your site than a newcomer/outsider! Research and record everything and anything of interest.  Make sure that you can answer any question that may be asked. Number of visitors? How many acres? When was the House built? Who designed the original gardens? When were they laid out?

Even if these or similar questions are not asked, if you have the information at your fingertips, it will help to influence your confidence during the interview. This process of learning all about your Estate will provide you with a psychological advantage, or at least make you aware that you are COMPETING for the job, alongside many other applicants. Just because you feel you have an advantage inasmuch as you are a known quantity is a false security.

You must ensure that you are kept abreast of any changes to the job description or any other matter regarding the advertising. Very often, the net may be cast wider, and more applicants sought from new horizons (e.g. LinkedIn), and you need to be aware of these, as your competitors will surely be. Perhaps an Agency has been asked to provide candidates, and their recommendations may carry of lot of weight with the Estate Management. You need to know all of these things…………….

Never assume that you will be interviewed by people that you know. You may be informed by Management beforehand, but always expect the unexpected! Very often, the interview board will consist of the owner or his/her representative, a Director or Solicitor representing the Estate in a formal manner, an outside Gardens Consultant (such as myself) who will have a wide range of knowledge, including your reputation within the industry, and a member of the company HR Department.

The role of Head Gardener is a very important one. As Departmental Manager, the Head Gardener has a wide range of legal responsibilities, and the make – up of the interview board will reflect that importance to the Estate.

It is unfortunate, but often internal applicants are at risk of being disadvantaged, albeit in a well meant manner. It is not to your advantage to be invited into the interview during your normal working hours, and the company is not doing you any favours by paying you for a normal day. Allowing you time to change and prepare for interview is not helpful. You should either take a day as holiday or in lieu, and give yourself the same advantage as other candidates, to take time to dress appropriately  and to feel clean, fresh and tidy, ready for all comers! Simply knocking off mowing or pruning half an hour earlier, getting changed in the mess room and going along feeling hot and bothered is not fair!

Your c.v. has been presented and is looking good!  You have done all your homework, and feel you know the place as well as anyone. You are confident in yourself. You look good, feel fresh, are on time – clean shoes! – when you enter the interview room. You are happy that you are well prepared, and feel calm and confident.

Beware!  Because the interview panel know you, and know that you are fully conversant with the site and how it all works, they know that you know the existing staff, what goes on and when, how and why. Because they know that you know, the panel will not be asking the same questions of you, or giving you answers in the same way they will to a stranger.  And that’s a lot of ‘knows’! This is a perfectly natural fact, and it is up to you to guide the conversation along lines that suit you.

Never criticise anything regarding the Estate or the way it is run, or has been organised. Never criticise any staff member ESPECIALLY the previous Head Gardener. Because the panel may appear somewhat bereft of questions – they already have the answers in front of them – if they need to be guided back on track, ask them about their future plans for the Estate. How do they see the site being developed, what plans do they have to increase visitor numbers, how do they see the Estate in fifty years’ time. These and similar questions will keep the panel on the back foot, whilst at the same time, giving a clear indication of your interest in developments.

If you are asked to specify any improvements in the way the gardens are run, or the department is organised, don’t attempt to provide answers to what may be complicated issues. “Supposing you become Head Gardener. What improvements would you make?” and similar questions are easy to ask, but not easy to answer. Certainly not in the one hour or so you have for the interview. But you do have to give AN answer, and the most impressive reply is to state that if you were successful in your application, you would set out a timetable, reporting to the owner/board within thirty days, with your initial analysis of the status quo. You would further propose that (obviously, this all depends on the complexity of your garden!) a full audit is made as a matter of priority, clearly showing the state of the department, covering tools, equipment, supplies (chemicals etc) and the general condition of the outbuildings, watering systems, glasshouse etc. This audit is extremely important, as it will provide the grounds for all future discussions and responsibilities – without this document, there is no bench mark or foundation upon which to build.

If you are asked “What next?” reply that you would wish to conduct interviews with each staff member as the basis for your own Two Way Reviews. Previous two way reviews will reflect their relationship with the previous Head Gardener, and you need to establish your own rapport with the staff, initially to ensure they have no problems with your advancement. (Old friendships in the tea room may be difficult to forget once you are in charge, and you may be asked how you would deal with these personal aspects of your promotion. By stating your intention to hold these interviews will show that you are aware of, and are dealing with the matter.)

Reading these notes, you may feel that seeking internal advancement is not something I would recommend. That is not the case, but all too often I see good candidates fail at the interview stage because of some or all of the matters I have outlined. Especially important – do not assume that you have an advantage over other candidates because you know your job. The short listed candidates will also have very impressive track records, and they will be keen to promote themselves in a positive light.

They too, will have fresh ideas to bring to the Estate, and it is important that you recognise that your skills and talents now need to be stretched to begin to make your personal mark on the future of the Garden.


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!’


‘Event Ready’ – Opening To The Public

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.

The Owner

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.

The Staff

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)

Site Management

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!


First Contact – Dealing with other Professionals

There are many occasions where we are obliged to deal with other professionals during our business lives. They may be engaged in the same line of work, but on a different track e.g. Landscape Architect, Surveyor or Supplier, with a number of trades all connected by a common project. Professionals in this instance may include those clients who are also Business People, who are interested in buying something from us – a complete garden or design perhaps, or even a number of gardens, in the case of a Developer or Property Consortium Leader.

They will have one thing in common – they like to be treated with the respect that their position should command. By this I do not intend to imply that any one of us would dream of being disrespectful in any way!

However, by following a certain Philosophy, you can create a favourable impression without detriment to yourself in any way. By adopting a set of rules of personal engagement – a body language of your own in many ways – you can both control an initial meeting and ensure that your personal status is enhanced. Your Professional Contact will be established in a manner that will remain in the mind of the other person long after the meeting is over.

It is often held that an opinion is formed in the minds of people when they first meet, that will decide the success or otherwise of that social intercourse within the first three seconds. We are all conversant with the ‘open smile, firm handshake’ first contact, but by developing this philosophy further, other rules should be brought into play.

Presentation of business cards; always carefully inspect a proffered card – check both sides in the case of a multinational company director as often English is printed one side, and perhaps another language on the other. Treat this card as ‘special’ and don’t simply push it into your pocket. Examine it, and be pleased to have received it. This small point will not be lost!

Personal Space; we are all  ‘animals’ and react in different ways to another ‘creature’. Some people are very tactile, others less so. Respect peoples personal space by maintaining a certain distance – the other person will dictate that area – between yourselves.

Eye Contact; it is important that eye contact should be made and held (without staring!), yet at the same time, never let your eyes drop below nose level – especially if that person is of the opposite sex. Staring at the mouth or bust/chest of your associate is no way to carry on a business discussion!

Always make a note of all people involved during a meeting, and keep a record of their presence as this may be valuable for future negotiations. If you forget that someone was at a discussion, they will not be too impressed!