Recent Posts

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 10
Head and Senior Gardeners / 'Event Ready' – Opening To The Public
« Last post by Alan Sargent on July 18, 2018, 10:18:12 pm »

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!
Head and Senior Gardeners / From A Good To A Great Head Gardener
« Last post by Alan Sargent on July 18, 2018, 10:15:27 pm »

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!’
Sages and Gurus / Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden
« Last post by Marie Shallcross on February 28, 2018, 09:08:45 pm »
Creating Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden

Wildlife gardening and organic gardening go hand in hand and are remarkably easy for “ordinary gardeners” to get to grips with in their own gardens and allotments. However, a lack of knowledge and a lack of time prevents many people from realising the full potential of their garden spaces. I hope that by presenting you with some ideas, you may feel inspired to make a few changes in your gardening habits, and those of your clients.

There are four main types of wildlife habitats within the British Isles. These are: -

•   Woodland Habitats
•   Wetland Habitats
•   Grassland Habitats
•   Rockland Habitats

And they each have subdivisions, as we shall see below. The plants which grow in these habitats will, to a certain degree, vary across the country. This is due predominantly to the different soils found, but also to other factors, for example, height above sea level. 

Woodland Habitats
•   Managed woodland
•   Natural / unmanaged woodland
•   Woodland edge
•   Hedgerows

Wetland Habitats
•   Still freshwater - ponds and pools
•   Running freshwater – streams and rivers
•   Bogs and Marshes
•   Coastal habitats

Grassland Habitats
•   Wild flower meadow
•   Corn meadow
•   Heathland
•   Sandy dunes

Rockland Habitats
•   Cliffs – coastal and inland
•   Scree beds (at base of cliffs)
•   Shingle beds (shoreline)
•   Pavements, for example, limestone pavements

Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden – ideas to inspire plans and action

I will re-visit these different habitats on a more individual basis in later articles. And other contributors have covered some habitats, so do have a look around the site. Looking at the different wildlife habitats individually will enable us to peruse their history as well as the potential for your garden. For now, I would like to briefly consider how easy it is to create and maintain these habitats.

The majority of the plant species mentioned are native to or naturalised in the UK. Some imported species will support native wildlife.

Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden - Woodland Habitats

Under planting with spring and autumn flowering bulbs and small perennials is essential. For example, daffodils (Narcissus), crocus, cyclamen, bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta, not the larger hybrid!) wood anemones and bugle (Ajuga reptans).

Natural / unmanaged woodland

This would be more relevant for larger gardens. Although if you have an existing large tree in your garden such as an oak (Quercus) or ash, (Fraxinus) planting underneath with small daffodils for spring would give you some extra colour.

Managed woodland

Yes, you could have a small, managed woodland in your garden! There are a few options. Choose trees which can be coppiced such as hazel (Corylus) and shrubs such as dogwood (Cornus). For slightly larger gardens, beech (Fagus sylvatica) can also be used. Coppicing may be carried out annually or on a 3-5 year rotation. Small standard trees could also be used for a more formal garden.

Woodland edge

This is possible to accomplish even in tiny gardens. Think of those vertical spaces in your garden. Then think of honeysuckle (Lonicera), climbing roses and rambling roses, Clematis, ivy. Ivy (Hedera helix) is evergreen and bears berries over winter.


If you need to plant a new hedge, then making it a wildlife friendly one is easy. Depending on the eventual height, density of growth and whether you need it as a security barrier will affect your choice of plants. For example, guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), hazel, dog rose (Rosa canina) privet (Ligustrum) beech and yew (Taxus baccata).

When to prune a new or existing hedge is critical. Not when birds are nesting in it may seem obvious, but also consider if you want the hedge to provide food. In which case remember you’ll need to leave flowers so that there’s pollen and then berries in the autumn.

And of course, for any woodland habitat, leave some leaf litter on the ground for small invertebrates and hedgehogs.

Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden - Wetland Habitats

Still freshwater - ponds and pools

This is probably the most obvious wetland wildlife habitat. For preference, ponds should be sunk in the ground rather than raised, although a ramp may be attached to one side to allow access. A sloping edge within the pool is also essential to ensure small animals that fall in aren’t drowned.

Strictly speaking fountains and wildlife aren’t compatible. However, so long as the fountain isn’t running continuously, it should be fine, and will help to aerate the water.

Running freshwater – streams and rivers

It is possible to create an artificial stream within your garden. Done properly, it can look stunning and provides a play opportunity for children as well as a habitat for wildlife.

Bogs and Marshes

Where a pond or pool is not possible, a bog or marsh garden can provide a similar habitat. As with natural ponds, such gardens look best situated in the lower levels of a garden, where water would naturally settle. Bog gardens can also be created next to a pool, adding to the decorative planting effect.

Coastal habitats

It could be a bit tricky recreating an estuary or a beach shoreline within your garden. But, particularly if you live near the coast and have a stream, it is worth checking out the salinity of the water. Freshwater is lighter than saltwater so tends on float on top. Alder (Alnus glutinosa) ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cucili) and great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) would be some plants you could grow to give the effect of a coastal wetland.

Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden - Grassland Habitats

Wild flower meadow

These can be spring flowering or summer flowering and may contain a mix of annual and perennial plants. Perennial spring flowering species such as the ubiquitous daisy (Bellis perennis) and cowslip (Primula veris). Summer perennials ox eye daisy (Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum) and Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) both have white flowers.

Corn meadow

These flowery meads contain specific flowers that grow, or used to grow in cornfields amongst the wheat crops. For example, corn cockle (Agrostemma githago), field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and the annual cornflower (Centaurea cyanus).
All these wildflower meadows could be quite easily incorporated into a corner of an existing grass lawn. Perhaps as a central feature, a 1-2m circle of meadow, or as a curved meadow border between lawn and fence.


If you have an acid soil then try delicate harebells (Campanula rotundifolia), heathers (Erica species) and the edible bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus).

For a more alkaline soil on chalk, grow ling heather (Calluna vulgaris) betony (Stachys officinalis) and gorse (Ulex europeaus).

This style of gardening is informal and may not suit those with smaller gardens.

Sandy dunes

Another informal wildlife garden, perhaps best suited to those in coastal areas as the plants will thrive in the salt air.

Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) with its metallic blue foliage and sea campion (Silene vulgaris subsp. maritima) with white flowers are particularly decorative.

Small Wildlife Habitats in Your Garden - Rockland Habitats

Cliffs – coastal and inland

If you don’t have a convenient cliff in your garden, why not use a drystone wall as an alternative? These offer spaces to a range of small, crevice loving plants that are attractive to insects.

Rock gardens are another form of cliff habitat. Properly built that can be a decorative as well as a wildlife garden feature.

Scree beds (at base of cliffs)

A planted-up scree bed would look natural at the base of a rock garden. A gentle slope is preferred for a natural effect. Plants such as stonecrop and stone pepper (Sedum species) and the pretty herb robert (Geranium robertianum) would be appropriate and wildlife friendly.

Shingle beds (shoreline)

These could make an attractive, informal front garden in coastal areas. Easy maintenance and wildlife friendly. As with scree beds, using a weed suppressant membrane underneath helps with the maintenance.

Pavements, for example, limestone pavements

Probably only suitable in larger gardens, as a concept it could be extended to include your paths and patio. Growing ground hugging thymes between paving stones is a simple way to increase the diversity of plant life within your garden.

As you can see from the whistle-stop tour above, there is much more to creating wildlife habitats in your garden than scattering a few seeds and hoping for the best.
But this shouldn’t dissuade you from scattering those few wildflower seeds in your flower border!

Wild about Gardens, Garden Design ideas – was an overview of wildlife gardens with some planting design and garden design suggestions.
Written to encourage others to both enjoy and share outdoor spaces with our disappearing garden wildlife it is partly inspired by Wild about Gardens Week.
This is a joint initiative by the RHS and the Wildlife Trusts to encourage people to support wildlife in their gardens.

Marie Shallcross

Sages and Gurus / Why you shouldn’t use a Garden Designer
« Last post by Marie Shallcross on February 28, 2018, 09:06:01 pm »
Why you shouldn’t use a Garden Designer

Like many of us, I wear more than one professional hat; so I am a Garden Consultant, Garden Designer, Gardening Teacher and Gardening Writer. I have been a small scale Landscaper but do prefer plants to laying patios. Although proud to mention that a brick wall I built 30 years ago is still standing!

However, as a garden designer, I would like to make my position clear and stating a true, but not a well-known fact:

Not everyone should use a garden designer.

Some of the landscapers among you may be saying amen to that – and some of the expert horticulturalists too. Bear with me, this is about educating those who are potential clients. You may find it helpful to when explaining to those clients who expect ‘a gardener’ to be capable of designing, landscaping, advising, maintaining gardens and estates – all at the same time that actually, there are differences…

For example: -
Your potential client may have a large estate and wants it to be developed and managed. So initially they’ll need a landscape architect or a landscape designer to create a vision and know how to follow through. Ok, so a garden designer would be appropriate for certain areas – formal gardens near the house, orchards. You could need various specialists, land surveyors, structural engineers and so on. And someone to manage the project and keep all those professionals working nicely together; liaise with the client, and so on.

During the process, you – or your client, or the project manager – will need to consider the long-term needs. Bringing in a garden consultant with expertise in interviewing head gardeners might be a good start. The gardens will need a team of gardeners to keep them looking good. And potentially a gardens manager and estate manager will be needed.

So we have established that large estates of many acres may need a garden designer for some areas, but they’re not the only professional involved.

But what about smaller gardens? Wouldn’t you use a garden designer for those? Let’s consider six reasons why shouldn’t you use a garden designer: -

Are you prepared to work with the garden designer to create a garden that suits you? Yes, you did read that correctly. I can design 3 different gardens for you, all of them wonderful, of course – but without input from you, will they work for you in the long term? A successful garden design depends on collaboration and if you’re not prepared for this, then you shouldn’t use a garden designer. Or accept that the garden may well not turn out as you had hoped.

Good garden designers are experts in their field. Now whilst collaboration is essential, if they’re advising you, it pays to listen to their advice. If you decide not to follow that advice, that’s fine; it’s your garden, after all. But make sure you’ve listened.

Do you care about your garden? Are you bothered if it looks nice / is wildlife friendly / is a welcoming space? Some people are not interested in their garden. If that’s you, I would query why you would use a garden designer for a full garden design.  You could just have a wildflower meadow and a patio.
Or give use of your garden space to someone who will enjoy it. There are various garden sharing schemes around.

You think garden designers just plant a few trees and flowers. So you talk to a couple after you’ve let the non-gardening builders (not even landscapers!) lay a patio, build some narrow raised beds and put up a shed. Without any thought to how these elements of the garden link to each other and the house or whether they’re in the right place for your needs…

Oh and definitely don’t use a garden designer if you don’t appreciate that they cannot create a £60,000 garden on a £10,000 budget. Magician is not part of their job description.
Whilst we’re talking about money, you shouldn’t use a garden designer if you’re not prepared to pay them. The number of times we designers hear “Could you just pop round and we can chat about my garden, and you can give me some ideas, and do a quick sketch…nothing fancy” Uh, no. I’m more than happy to share thoughts and tips – I think over 6 years of blogs on my website sort of suggests that. But would you go to work for a month without being paid?

Are there any more reasons why you shouldn’t use a garden designer? Well, yes. For example, is a garden designer the right professional for the job? This partly relates to my first point about an estate, but not totally. For example, for inside spaces and houses, use an architect; for fencing use a landscape gardener.

So, if these are reasons why you shouldn’t use a garden designer, what are the reasons for using one? I look at this in another article but suffice to say for now - consider your budget. A good garden designer can save you money on your garden design and landscaping project.

Marie Shallcross
Sages and Gurus / Types of Cultivation aka Growing Methods for Gardeners
« Last post by Marie Shallcross on April 10, 2017, 08:17:45 pm »
Types of Cultivation aka Growing Methods for Gardeners

A whistle-stop tour or brief outline for quick reference. 

So when a client asks you “What is the difference between no-dig and straw-bale gardening?” you’ll feel confident to give a sufficient reply if productive gardening isn’t your usual area of expertise.

We can blind them with botany and agricultural science but sometimes simple is best!

The terms ‘types of cultivation’ and ‘growing methods’ are frequently used as interchangeable terms. Its fine to do this, as there are growing systems which are a combination. The differences could be defined as follows: -

The ‘growing method’ refers to the physical boundaries or style. For example, crop rotation.
Growing method is sometimes referred to as ’crop growing method’. This is more applicable to agriculture, allotment gardens and large kitchen gardens than the small domestic garden.

Within these methods one would use ‘types of cultivation’. For example, the ‘three sisters’ system.

For convenience, I’ve used these definitions to break up the growing methods below.

Growing methods 

Crop rotation

Crop rotation is a crop growing method which can be used with different types of cultivation, for example, rows, raised beds, square foot.

Briefly, crop rotation is a means of production where the different types of crop are grown in the same area in successive years in order to reduce pests and diseases and to maximise the soil nutrients.

A three course rotation means that crop A will be grown in area D in year 1 and then again in year 4; four and five course rotations are also frequently used. The number of courses is directly affected by the number of different edible plant groupings. For example, brassicas, roots, legumes are the three most common groups used.

The Romans are known to have used crop rotation. A three course rotation was common in medieval England through to the mid eighteenth century when Jethro Tull (inventor of the horse drawn seed drill for sowing large fields) implemented a four course crop rotation. These rotations included a fallow year when no crops were grown; where livestock was pastured on the land instead the dung would be ploughed in the following autumn, improving the soil quality. However, where the fields were left fallow with no livestock there was no replenishing of the nutrients and the land would eventually become less fertile.
Crop rotation is extremely important in monocultures, ie where a single crop is grown; although the area may be a raised bed or a ten-acre field. There are arguments against the necessity of rotation in small areas, but it is still advisable if a monoculture system of cultivation is in place.

Raised beds

Raised bed gardening can be as simple as mounding up the earth in your productive border or as complex as an ornamental potager.

Thomas Hill in his ‘Directions for the Gardiner’ in the sixteenth century described raised beds as the best method of production. He based his advice on the Greek and Roman gardening treatises that had become available during the Renaissance.

These raised beds should be no wider than a gardeners arm or reach; unless they are accessible on two sides, in which case they could be twice as wide. This way the earth in the beds does not become compacted from having been walked upon.

You can plant in rows, blocks, plant monocultures or biodiverse plant communities within the raised beds.

If you build the beds with a brick or wood edge that is wide enough to sit on, it can make cultivation easier. And also provide extra seating if the raised beds surround a patio.

A further advantage of raised bed gardening for small spaces within gardens is that it allows for a more intensive style of cultivation so more crops can be grown.

Vertical gardening

On a simple level, this is using walls and fences as support for productive climbing plants and adding extra trellis and wigwams structures to create extra vertical space in your garden or allotment.

Cut and come again lettuce, strawberries and other small plants can be grown gutters or troughs fixed to sheds and walls; trailing tomatoes with red and yellow cherry fruits are decorative as well as practical grown in hanging baskets.

However vertical gardening also encompasses the newer techniques and technologies, including hydroponics (see below). Most of us will have seen examples of greenery growing on a living wall, part of the ‘greening the city’ movement.

The watering system is automated, so, as long as the crops can be reached when they’re ready to harvest, there’s no problem. It’s even possible to grow plants in this way in your kitchen – herbs and salad leaves easily picked as you prepare dinner. 

A variation on this is where the edible plants are grown in towers. Those sold to the domestic market are fairly small, like overgrown strawberry pots; some need watering whilst others work on an aeroponics system.

‘Types of cultivation’

Growing in rows

A cultivation or tillage method used in conjunction with crop rotation. It is frequently asserted to be a late eighteenth century introduction alongside the increased use of agricultural machinery. However, this is usually because people are getting muddled between gardens and farms. Ploughs, whether hand pulled, horse drawn or mechanical, are most efficiently used in a long straight run, which is why rows have been used for hundreds of years.

They were introduced into domestic gardens much later, most commonly in the nineteenth century when there was a substantial increase in new gardens built to accommodate the urban middle classes. The great walled kitchen gardens of the aristocracy and landed gentry had a history of using both rows and block planting depending on the crop and the arrangement of the garden. 

Strictly speaking growing vegetables in rows was an invention of the Chinese. There is a document from the third century BC where the efficiency of the crop or amount produced is said to be increased by growing the crops in rows. But they were most likely growing crops in rows as early as the sixth century BC.

Rows are best laid out on a north – south axis so the crops get the most benefit from the sun as it travels across the sky during the day.

Square foot gardening

An intensive cropping system used in conjunction with both raised beds and open ground cultivation.

It’s easier to describe from a raised bed perspective, as you can plan ahead and build your beds four-foot square. The idea is that you sow or transplant one plant per square foot if it’s a larger plant such as a cabbage; four, or even nine, more plants if they’re smaller.

This doesn’t sound like a lot of plants, but it should be remembered that they would take up more room than this in the ground if grown in traditional rows.

‘Three sisters’ cultivation

Both the North and South American Indians grew a lot of squashes; they had a system called ‘three sisters’ where they grew squashes, beans and corn together for the benefits each gave to the others whilst growing. According to Iroquois legend, the three sisters, or plants, were gifted by the Sky Woman’s daughter, and gave agriculture to people.

This interplanting method of agriculture has known benefits. The maize provides support for the beans; the squash acts as a ground cover to reduce weeds and keep moisture in the soil; the beans provide nitrogen for the other two crops.

The companion planting rather than pursuing a monoculture system (ie one species only) also improves the condition of the soil by increasing beneficial mycorrhiza which encourages a symbiotic relationship between the plants roots and the surrounding soil.

‘No-dig’ Systems

The no-dig idea rests on the notion that the roots of your crop plants will only go down around 20cm and so it is only the top level of the soil that needs work. It is also based on the theory that deep digging destroys the soil structure.

Lasagne Gardening

This really is a no-dig option for building raised beds and great soil. It is based on a similar principle to sheet composting, and allows you to build raised beds without stripping grass or weeds off the site.

Basically, you layer cardboard, newspaper, lawn and plant shreddings, alternating ‘green’ and ‘brown’ as you would in a compost heap; top off with a layer of compost rich soil. Then let the worms and soil microbes do their work. What you start with does depend on the ground at the bottom. If it’s infested with perennial weeds you may like to put down membrane first!

Straw bale gardening

To describe Straw Bale Gardening as a soil-less growing method isn’t strictly true. A small amount of soil or compost is used.  However, it is a no-dig form of gardening.

The straw bale, or a hay bale (both would be suitable) is used as a raised bed. It has the advantage of being fully compostable when you’ve finished with it. To prepare the bales, first soak for up to ten days before you plant. Use, for example, a high nitrate liquid feed such as poultry manure. You make a hole in the soaked bale, add some soil or potting compost so the plant’s roots have some support initially. Then plant your crops into the bale.

This growing method is not really suitable for root crops and tuberous vegetables like carrots, onions and potatoes.

Forest gardening

Forest gardening or agro forestry is a sustainable perennial system to grow food crops in a manner that mimics a deciduous forest. The plants grown are trees, shrubs and other perennials and crops produced include fruits, nuts, edible leaves for food, honey, medicinal products, baskets and fuel.

It is a system of agriculture that has long been practised in tropical regions but is a more recent introduction in temperate climates. One of the problems is the lower light levels for the ground hugging plants as compared to that experienced near the equator in the tropical forests.

Although not everyone will have room in their garden for the full seven layers, as a concept it can be adapted to provide a low maintenance sustainable method of providing a wide range of perennial crops. It can also provide an ideal location in which to keep a bee hive and hens.


Permaculture is not just about growing plants, it’s about the whole interaction between plants, animals, birds and humans.

The concept is to design spaces for sustainable living that work with nature, and creating a positive rather than a negative impact on the world. The word comes from ‘permanent agriculture’ and ‘permanent culture’.

Unlike forest gardening which has only perennial planting, permaculture includes annual food crops. Strictly speaking, it is going to be a ‘minimum dig’ rather than a ‘no-dig’ system.

Soil-less Cultivation Methods


Hydroponics is where the fruit and vegetables sit on troughs with their roots dangling in a water based solution containing the necessary minerals and nutrients required for growth.
As it is through their roots that plants take up nutrients this is an efficient growing system.

There are both closed and open hydroponic systems. In the closed system, there is a cover over the top of the trough and the water solution is recycled. A high degree of automation is possible with this system, making it popular with mass producers of luxury salads and vegetable plants.

It is also a suitable form of cultivation in areas with low rainfall as due to the recycling of the solution water used is very efficient.


It combines the aquaculture of raising aquatic animals with the hydroponic system of raising plants in a sustainable symbiotic manner, which is why it is sometimes referred to as ‘pisciponics’.

Aquaponics is another water based cultivation system similar to hydroponics. It combines the aquaculture of raising aquatic animals with the hydroponic system of raising plants in a sustainable symbiotic manner, which is why it is sometimes referred to as ‘pisciponics’.

This is not a new method for growing food crops. Historically the paddy fields of south eastern Asia combined the growing of rice with the raising of snails and fish for food.
Water based growing method and soil less growing method are interchangeable terms to describe aquaponics systems.


Aeroponics is a soil less crop growing method where the plants are supported 'in the air' and the root systems exposed. The plants are held upright so that the roots can easily be sprayed with a nutrient rich mist.

The whole system can be automated, and it has the advantage of being very economical in its water usage. Approximately half that used for a hydroponic system to feed the same quantity of crops.

Aeroponics is a high yielding method of crop growing and has the potential to seriously increase yield. However, it is not suitable for all plants.

Other Growing Methods and Cultivation Systems

Biodynamic gardening

Also known as planting by the moon. This technique dates back thousands of years. It works on the premise that certain crops do better when planted or harvested during different phases of the moon and constellation positions. For example, sowing seeds two days before a full moon gives a better germination rate than sowing two days after.

Local weather and soil conditions are still factors in optimising sowing and planting conditions.

The purpose behind these next two cultivation methods is to maximise the harvest from a small space. This intensive horticulture is generally easier to manage in raised beds purely because it doesn’t involve walking on the soil. Which would be risking damage to the range of crops which are all at different stages of growth.

Succession planting

The permutations of this technique can be used individually or in combination. Firstly, it is where seeds are sown at 2 week intervals to prolong the harvest and prevent a glut of produce.
The other technique used is the practice of rapidly filling the space vacated by a harvested crop by planting a new crop.

Catch crops and Interplanting

These terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
This system of cultivation is used for where fast maturing and slow growing edible plants are interplanted, for example, sprouts and beetroot. This will increase the size of the harvest produced in a small area.
Those crops which are in the ground for longer such as Brussels sprouts can be interplanted with a faster maturing compatible crop, beetroot for example.

The system is also referred to as catch cropping, because the fast maturing crop is replaced on harvesting by a second. This will still mature before the slower growing crop.

Companion planting

Organic gardeners wanting to reduce the pest and disease damage to both their ornamental and edible crops often use a mix of plants specifically for that purpose.

Common usage over hundreds of years has demonstrated that companion planting works. Scientific study of companion planting has more recently confirmed the benefits.

Companion planting works in different ways depending on the combination of plants and the intention of the pairing. For example, companion plants can attract beneficial insects, including pollinators and predators. Or they may repel pests. For example, plants from the Allium family can reduce the incidence of black spot on roses.

Other plants can lure pests away from more desirable plants; this is often known as ‘sacrificial’ companion planting. On a more basic level, tall plants provide shade for sun-sensitive shorter plants.

There are, as one would expect, variations within these growing methods and cultivation systems. Different climates and soils will affect which ones would be appropriate in a given situation. Personal choice and cultural traditions may also have a bearing. But as an introduction, I trust you’ve found this article helpful.

Marie Shallcross
Alan Sargent Philosophy / The Landscaper’s Survival Manual
« Last post by Alan Sargent on March 04, 2017, 09:01:52 am »
The Landscaper’s Survival Manual

Since around 1990, I began what was to become a series of seminars, all aimed at training and enthusing all involved in the garden building industry. Not to teach gardening as a subject – although a couple of the seminars became Road Shows, with several different venues hosting the talks. These included The Waterscaping Road Show and the Hard Landscaping Road Show. I used to write for The Water Gardener magazine – a monthly column under the title of The Pond Doctor (not my choice of name!) and the hard landscaping talks and demonstrations derived from the practical seminars I used to run with The Traditional Paving Development Group, which specialised in retaining the old school practical skills and techniques.

Starting out in 1968, I went through all the usual phases of learning the business, gradually becoming more confident and versed in the skills of a Landscaper. Over the years, I went on to construct over sixty RHS Show gardens, thirty-seven as designer and builder. I project managed all of them, and as time went by, became an RHS Shows panellist, Assessor and Show Gardens Judge.

I founded The Association of Professional Landscapers in 1995, having spent the previous seventeen years active within The British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) becoming National Chairman for PR & Marketing for that organisation. Somewhere along the line, I joined the Institute of Horticulture, and was elevated to become a Fellow in 2011.
There have been many other chapters in my career, but always orientated around training and the passing on of all those practical answers to problems that one encounters during a long career.

In 2012, I presented two seminars, aimed at Garden Designers and Contractors, and out of these notes I wrote The Landscaper’s Survival Manual.
It is NOT a book on gardening. It is a hard nosed look at the journey taken over the first few years in the life of a garden contractor – starting out working in gardening in general, then branching out to specialise either as a designer, garden builder or somewhere in between.

Launched in May 2013, the manual was well received by the Trade Press, as a new and innovative addition to the very short list of books aimed at helping people into a successful business career as Landscapers.

‘Providing advice on business set-up and interesting ideas with regard to marketing and networking’  -  Garden Design Journal

‘Everything you ever wanted to know – but did not know who to ask’ – Professional Gardener magazine.

‘Sets out the principles and processes of running a business effectively and efficiently – Horticulture Week.

‘It’s helped me more than any other book I’ve ever read’  Thomas Stone, writing in ProLandscaper magazine.

Available from, priced at £39.20 including P & P via PayPal, email to order a copy, or by post/cheque to Alan Sargent, West Lodge, Lavington Park, Petworth, Sussex GU28 0NQ

Alan Sargent FCIHort
Alan Sargent Philosophy / Mentoring Partnerships
« Last post by Alan Sargent on November 07, 2016, 06:36:35 pm »

Having worked in the gardening industry for nearly half a century, and being a keen student of its manifold strengths and weaknesses, I have become increasingly concerned regarding the shortage of younger people willing or interested to become involved in horticulture in any form – with the exception perhaps of garden design.

Now that I am reaching my twilight years, certainly as a ‘hands on’ gardener, working for a number of highly valued customers who both respect my work and enjoy my involvement in their gardens, I, along with many hundreds – indeed, thousands – of other sole trader style gardeners are considering how and when to tell their clients they are looking at retirement.

(To be clear, I am not talking here about the thousands of single handed jobbing gardeners who operate ‘under the radar’ when it comes to matters such as insurance and other legal requirements, I am thinking of those sole traders who have a number or ‘round’ of high quality and long term customers and run professional businesses)

The Partners
The customers themselves, have no wish to think about the inevitable day when the subject of finding a new gardener will have to be  discussed. The usual route is for one or both parties to raise the prospect of perhaps reducing the number of hours worked, finding someone else to carry out heavier duties, mow the lawns, cut the hedges etc; and somehow gradually withdraw from that relationship. Many gardeners and customers have been together for many years, and finding suitable replacement labour is becoming increasingly difficult. Plus, of course, the breaking of the methodology, trust and working techniques/regime that have evolved over those years often means that the new gardener has to strike up a new and perhaps different/less comfortable relationship with the client.

I have been considering a new approach to this subject, one I call Mentoring Partnerships. (The title may change, as it is more of a Formula, which involves a Partnership or Agreement, written or verbal, between the customer (hereafter referred to as ‘C’) and the existing gardener, or Senior Partner (hereafter referred to as ‘Senior’) and a third party – the new/replacement gardener or Junior Partner (or ‘Junior).

The Formula
Initially, the prime person in the Formula is the Senior, as the desire to begin working on the process of handing over the garden will be made by them in the first instance. Beginning with a request to discuss the future of the garden maintenance, Senior will propose to C that he/she finds a suitable person to start a bespoke training programme, specifically for their garden (This Formula will be repeated at each client’s garden). In many ways similar to an apprenticeship, except that the training will be for their benefit, with the end of the one/two/three year period, Junior will have been fully trained by Senior to the precise wishes of C.

This Agreement will mean that C pays Junior a basic rate (minimum wage) together with Seniors usual rate, but the extra hours may be adjusted if required to negate any increase in costs to C.
Senior will agree not only to train Junior in the skills and methods learned over a lifetime, no doubt Junior will be able to advise Senior of some of the latest techniques. Senior will also ensure that proper accounts are kept, insurances and other legal requirements are met, site etiquette and customer relations learned – so many things that Junior could never learn outside of such an arrangement.

To summarise the Formula; The Customer does not lose the benefit of the skills of the Senior gardener and enjoys the continuity of an unbroken line of expertise whilst retaining contact with their old and trusted guru.

Senior Gardener gains the use of an extra pair of hands to take on the more arduous tasks, whilst at the same time  training a new person to enjoy the skills and techniques so that they are not lost to the world, plus the opportunity to carry out some of the more difficult jobs acting as Consultant to their old client (and gaining more consultancy work post retirement age).

Junior Gardener has a unique opportunity to learn at first hand, from a highly experience professional, in the grounds of a property that they will be taking on at some  stage – (instead of a standard apprenticeship which normally ends with the apprentice either being absorbed into the company, or often moving on to pastures new and therefore ‘lost’ to their mentor, if not to the industry through loss of motivation.

They will not only have had a sound period of training, specific to each individual garden/client, they will also have inherited (and earned) a well grounded professionally based business which may grow beyond those existing original customers (and indeed, employ the services of a known and trusted Consultant!)

Even if you have no desire to see such an arrangement in your own business, I would appreciate any comments – Pro’s or Con’s – if you consider this could be a way forward to entice more people into our industry.
Head and Senior Gardeners / Internal Promotion
« Last post by Alan Sargent on September 11, 2016, 11:06:31 am »
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.

This article is an abridged version taken from The School of Garden Management Stage Two of The Head Gardeners Course. (see

Alan Sargent Philosophy / Decorative Steps
« Last post by Alan Sargent on August 07, 2016, 05:50:51 pm »
DECORATIVE STEPS – Guidance Notes for Garden Designers.

Perhaps the most important element of garden design is the construction or ‘hard landscaping’ aspect of the designers’ craft. Choose the wrong plant, and it may be changed with minimum disruption. If the colour scheme of soft landscaping requires altering, a different selection of plant varieties may be introduced.

However, the most expensive part of a ‘New Build’ scheme – the paving, walling and steps and the specification thereof - are often seen as the responsibility of the architect or left in the hands of the builder, as though they were beyond the design abilities of a garden designer. More often than not, even the works involved in constructing the driveway – and choice of materials – is not included in the designers brief, and this exclusion can be to the overall detriment of the scheme.

Once the ‘Builder’ has left site, the designer is left to pick up the pieces and try to design around someone else’s vision of hard landscaping, and instead of creating a complete and harmonious picture, may have to work hard to incorporate various fixed features into the design proposals.

Very often, this is a case of becoming involved too late in the day.  The garden design may be an  after-thought, secondary to making the property inhabitable, and as you are perfectly capable of offering choice and expertise to your client, the earlier you are locked into a scheme, the better. You will be in competition with the Architect (or Builder) who has a vested interest in being engaged to design the hard landscaping, and in order to prove your worthiness, you will need to introduce your knowledge at the earliest opportunity.

This is the greatest challenge to your marketing skills, but by having information, samples and technical data readily available at the outset, you will at least make an impact with your client. The larger the selection of appropriate and well - chosen samples of materials and their attributes for use you can supply on site the better. I cannot advise on that selection, as it will vary from region to region, and the use for which it will be recommended, but it should include physical materials (shown both wet and dry for colour variations) and relevant fixatives, mortar colour swatches and available dimensions.

I have nearly fifty years  of experience in constructing gardens throughout Europe (predominantly U.K. Mainland), working with a wide range of natural stone materials. Since the early 90s, I have been involved with specifying stone, especially for use as paving. I was part of the Traditional Paving Development Group based at UWE (University of the West of England, Bristol) Frenchay Campus, demonstrating and specifying various techniques of working with those ‘old fashioned’ materials such as granite, York stone, ironstone and Portland. My role was to demonstrate these techniques in a practical ‘hands on’ manner to other specifiers, especially those employed by Local Authorities (Conservation Officers) and Architectural practices.

This work lead me to become involved in practical training and trouble -shooting when schemes go wrong. Unfortunately, the number of failed projects seems to rise year on year, as more and more ‘new’ products are introduced into the marketplace. Many of these materials are excellent additions to the product range available to designers, but unfortunately, too many are unsuited to the conditions and use for which they are specified.

Design Using Product Specific Logic

It would be more accurate to say that the methodology in construction is often not product specific. Certain materials may be described as ‘Designer’, and are offered to clients simply because they are the latest on the market, or have become fashionable due to exposure at Chelsea or other Shows.

It is too simplistic to say that these products are not suited to a particular site. However, it may be the form in which they are supplied that causes schemes to fail. Take natural sandstone for an example. Until the mid 80s, ‘sandstone’ usually meant York Stone, which was available in several forms, including sawn six sides, riven, random rectangular, reclaimed, setts, cobbles and a host of other shapes, sizes and thicknesses. The material was often of variable quality; reclaimed may mean ex-street, where town paths had been replaced with more modern concrete setts or slabs at the behest of a Local Authority, keen to refurbish and modernise a shopping centre. Reclaimed could also mean ex-factory floor, where it may have been contaminated with various oils and chemicals, totally unsuited for use in sunlight, where the heat would bring out these unpleasant features, becoming evident only once installed.

The skill of the designer/landscaper was to know the difference between the various types and their province. ‘Deep dug’ paving is far denser and harder than surface stone, which is harvested only from shallow excavations and is therefore more expensive. Deep Dug stone requires a period of ‘resting’; left above ground and covered with soil to prevent frost damage whilst the stone becomes acclimatised to its’ new, less stressed situation. This de-stressing is essential to avoid cracking and delamination if sawn too soon.

Sandstone is still ‘York Stone’, but there are also many dozens of different sand stones that have been imported from India, sold as ‘York Green’ or ‘York Stone’.  These imports tend to be far denser with less porosity and greater crushing strength that U.K. sand stone. They are also sold in uniform thicknesses, achieved by passing the slabs under a special machine, usually as thin tiles averaging 22mm, in a range of sizes (up to 900mm x 1200mm)

Many more types are now readily available. Ceramics are the latest addition to the range, and the ease with which these products may be packaged, crated and supplied makes life so much easier and more predictable for the contractor. Uniform thickness, uniform gauged sizes in a range of neatly fitting patterns with regular joints all lend themselves to make life simpler and more profitable.

There is however, a very important factor that is often overlooked by designers and contractors. Put simply, these ‘designer’ products, and the manner in which they are sold, require a profound knowledge of how the whole construction process should be approached. These uniform sized, easy to handle and use products are simply cosmetics. They are outer window dressings being installed for use as steps, paths and wall cladding, and must be treated as veneers.

Ensure the Whole Structure is Sound Before Cladding

I have chosen the construction  of steps as the title for this article, as they cover the whole gamut of problems associated with veneer cladding, involving ‘walls’ in the shape of sides and risers. Very often stand - alone features creating safe access from one level to another, but also fixed features, attached to the front, side or rear of a building.

Stand - alone steps require adequate foundations to prevent the whole from breaking apart, or slabs/side rails from becoming loose through movement in the main base construction. It may be necessary to design ‘heel and toe’ foundations to prevent slippage. Fixed steps may also be prone to collapse, but the evidence of movement will be more easily noticed if they break away from the main house walls.

To give some examples of recent projects I have been called on to produce reports in my capacity as a Gardens Consultant (specialising in construction and Historic Gardens) where schemes have failed, often within three or four years from practical completion and therefore out of normal warranty terms. (Nevertheless, they may prove negative to a designers’ reputation).

The first project was completed in accordance with the designers drawings, which showed only the effect desired, with no construction plans or details. The method of building the work was left entirely up to the contractor. The scheme was won on price, and it may be presumed that the technique was developed by the contractor as their preferred specification, and perhaps they may have avoided similar problems in the past due to working on a different site.

Their foundations, including risers and base raft for a Stand Alone flight of six steps, each 1.8m wide, with side rails, were constructed in pressure treated softwood timber ‘sleepers’, covered in expanded metal sheeting affixed to the timbers. Each sleeper was secured using metal locking screws.  The risers were finished in mortar render, as were the side rails. The coping and treads were clad in 22mm Indian Sandstone, laid on a 25mm bed joint of mortar. The slabs were pointed in a similar mortar mix.

The site in this case was on light sandy soil, with a high level of acidity and subject to water run-off from higher ground. The acid and moisture reacted with the timber and its’ metal fixings, and the whole ‘foundation’ started to flex within itself especially during hot weather. The result was that the paving veneer became loose, the steps became dangerous to walk on, and the side rail copings slipped.

A second project was constructed using lightweight thermal walling blocks, which were rendered in a similar manner, with Portland stone steps and side rails. Again, the steps were Stand Alone, and also on wet sandy soil. This time however, the problem that occurred was that of expansion and frost damage. The thermal blocks were chosen by the contractor because they were easy to cut accurately using a standard hand saw, and therefore provided a quick and neat construction technique when building the steps. Photographs of the completed project showed an award winning scheme, with superb finish and neat workmanship. However, within three years, the scheme needed a total rebuild, this time using solid concrete blocks.

The final example is a project involving stone steps leading from the rear door of a property, eight in number, approximately 1.5m wide, with metal railings acting as a handrail. Here, the contractor had produced a sound scheme, using solid concrete blocks and a substantial concrete foundation. However, the steps were built after laying the lower footings, straight on to the concrete foundation without tying the two elements together with reinforcing bars set into the base foundation and protruding above ground and integrated into the lower concrete blocks. The weight of the steps pressing downwards was sufficient to move the whole structure forward and away from the house, with the base foundation acting as a slip plane.

Each one of these schemes would have been presented to the client as superb examples of the work of the designer and contractor. The completed projects would have been well received, yet they all subsequently  failed because the builder had not recognised the essential requirements for the structure to be 100% solid and well thought out. Too much emphasis was placed on the cosmetic finish, combined with the lowest price, easiest handling methods and fastest completion of a pretty scheme. A short working period equals a happy customer and more profits for everybody.

I am sure that there was no intention on the part of anyone involved to ‘cheat’ the customer. There is absolutely no point in gaining a reputation for failure of schemes within  a few short years.

I would submit though, that if designers and contractors worked together to produce schemes that show clear understanding of the importance of the main construction, the technical aspects and engineering elements of the build, then cost would not be an issue. Getting the client to appreciate the absolute requirements for sound construction is not difficult. Price becomes secondary.

I well remember one of my clients who accepted a comparatively  high price to build a flight of twenty Stand Alone steps on a steep bank in Surrey. He came out from the house during the ‘concrete pour’ element of the job, took one look at the amount at steel reinforcing sheets and bars, the timber shuttering and depth of concrete. He stroked his chin and said “Now I know where the money is going” turned around and went back into his home office, a very satisfied customer (who went on to spend many thousands more on other projects in the same garden, without questioning anything!)

Alan Sargent FCIHort
Alan Sargent Consultancy Ltd
August 2016

(Alan is an Independent Gardens Consultant, Founder of The Association of Professional Landscapers and The Association of Senior Garden Advisers.)  See also

Head and Senior Gardeners / Selling Yourself – Part Four
« Last post by Alan Sargent on June 19, 2016, 10:31:35 pm »
Selling Yourself – Part Four

Becoming A Gardens Consultant
Alan Sargent FCIHort
PGG Member
The School of Garden Management . .

When I wrote the final part of the short series aimed at demystifying the inner workings of the world of seeking work in the garden industry (Issues 149, 150 and 151 refer), I thought I had covered more or less all aspects of Marketing your personal skills. Although the articles were written as stand - alone features, they followed a programme or pathway.
They were based on courses run by The School of Garden Management, which are in turn evolved from the original (2012) Head Gardeners Survival Manual.

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!

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 10