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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!

Hints and Tips / Laying A Patio Using Concrete Products
« Last post by Alan Sargent on February 26, 2016, 09:46:23 pm »

(‘Trade Tricks’ denote Hints and Tips that you may find extra helpful during your works programme. They are designed to save time, effort and money, helping you to gain maximum benefit from your project.)

Planning is the most important part of any garden project. Planning is the key to the success of Hard Landscape schemes in particular, and the benefits of careful forethought will make things run more smoothly from the outset.

The face work or finished slabs are only one element of a project, and each stage, from excavating the foundations to completion should be carefully laid out as areas on a plan, and to a schedule of costs. You need to decide how much you want to spend on the job – some costs will be the same no matter what type of paving slab you choose. When choosing your paving, be careful to consider your choice of colour. What may appeal to you when it is dry, may not be acceptable when seen wet (and vice versa)

Excavating to levels and falls for example, will require careful calculation. The finished level of any paved area against a building must be 150mm below the damp-proof course, thus the volume to be excavated will directly relate to the height of the existing ground, together with the thickness of the slab plus foundations. When calculating the amount of material to be removed from the area to be paved, you should allow for the ‘bulking factor’ – the amount of increase in volume between the original compacted ground and the loose material once excavated. This volume factor may lead to additional costs in skip hire and should be included in your calculations.

Plan ahead and assess how you propose to carry out the work. Do you have sufficient dry storage space for those materials that need to remain dry e.g. cement? Can you receive crane off load vehicles to site, or is your driveway too narrow? Are there any over-head power cables that will affect delivery vehicles (including skip lorries)?

Draw up a scaled plan of your proposed patio or pathway. It is easier to use the metric scale, as the products you select will be described using centimetres. Once drawn, it is a good idea to peg out the proposed area, with wooden pegs and canes laid out, leaving the layout in position until you are happy

Trade Tricks  -  Having laid out your proposed patio, live with the idea for a few days, noting how the project appears in scale to the rest of the garden; check that the patio is large enough to accommodate the required number of tables and chairs; does the patio catch the morning/evening sun and is it perhaps in a wind tunnel. Make a careful note of all of these factors before finalising your plans.

When drawing up your plans, you will need to find a visually dominant line; a line that will ensure that your project appears to have been designed as part of the house and garden, and not simply ‘added on’ without thought of overall balance. The dominant line is normally the longest and therefore most important visual line in sight, often the main wall of the house or building.

This dominant line will become and remain your base line. All other measurements will be taken from this line. It is perhaps worth noting that not all buildings are in fact ‘straight’, especially those that have had extensions and alterations built over the years, and this is the primary reason you need to rely on your guide line – a builders string line firmly secured at each end and tightly stretched between two pegs.

The dominant or primary line should be set at finished level of works i.e. 150mm (minimum) below Damp Proof Course (DPM). This line may also be used as The Datum Level from which all levels and falls are taken.

The Datum Level is that point chosen to be the finished level of all works, and is usually taken from a fixed or constant point – often a door thresh hold – with all other levels being fixed in relation to that point, either as matching heights i.e. levels or as cross-falls, ensuring that rain water does not lay against the house.

Tools & Equipment

For all hard landscaping projects you require a basic set of tools. These include a laying trowel (usually 20cm long) a spirit level (not less than 90cm for paving works), a pointing trowel (125 or 150mm), a rubber or nylon mallet, a shovel and spade. If the project is fairly large, consider hiring a concrete mixer (electric machines are quiet, although on most sites, you will need to hire a transformer to reduce the power from 240v to 120v) and perhaps a stone cutting angle grinder. Always ensure that you wear protective gloves and glasses when using these tools, and never ignore safety instructions. You will also need at least one Builders wheelbarrow for use on every aspect of the scheme.

Most Builders Merchants supply a wide range of paving materials, in various sizes and weights. Care must be taken when carrying or moving these products, and steel toe-capped boots are essential, together with a pair of tough gloves. Wherever possible, slabs should not be stacked laid flat, as the weight of the upper slabs may cause damage to those on the bottom of the pile. If possible, store the slabs in a fairly upright manner against a wall or other substantial strong surface. If you suspect that a slab may have been damaged (hair line crack) it is better not to use that unit as the fault will remain and appear as a damp line for hours after rain fall has dried the rest of the paved area.

Preparing The Ground

The success of the project will be greatly improved if careful thought is given to the preparation of the site. The old adage that Preparation Is Everything is true.

In order to achieve the required levels and cross-falls, the main Datum peg should be identified with the top painted in a bright colour. A series of other pegs, set into the ground and driven in to the same level as the Datum peg, using a length of straight timber and a spirit level to ensure that the whole of the project area is delineated with a number of pegs, each painted with the same bright colour to indicate that they are Datum pegs.

Trade Tricks – Having set out the level/datum pegs, place a second peg against each one and drive it into the ground either higher or lower than the datum pegs, dependent on which way you want the rain water to discharge. These secondary pegs become the finished level pegs, the height above excavated ground of which will depend on the thickness of the chosen paving product.  You should aim for a cross-fall of a minimum of 1 – 100 (If you set pegs two metres apart, and raise/lower the secondary peg by 20mm, this will give you a 1 – 100 fall). This is the minimum fall for smooth slabs and should be increased if an irregular faced product is selected.

If the ground is reasonably solid, the best method of providing sufficient foundations for a domestic hard wearing patio is to lay a foundation mix of one part  Ordinary Portland cement to six parts of sandy ballast, to a depth of 75mm and consolidated using a straight length of timber, with no low or high spots, all laid to levels and falls. Leave this concrete to harden before continuing with the project – usually 48 hours is sufficient.

The slabs are then bedded onto the concrete foundations using a mortar mix of one part Ordinary Portland cement with six part of soft builders sand, to a bed depth of 25mm laid as a full bed – not ‘spot bedded’ as the resultant air gaps may cause problems with frost damage or allow ants to colonise the spaces – and the thickness of the slab (usually 37mm – 50mm).

The make-up of the patio structure is therefore 75mm concrete, 25mm mortar and 50mm slab giving a total thickness of 150mm between the depth of the excavation to the top of the secondary pegs.

Trade Tricks – If you think you may, at some future stage, wish to expand the area of paving, push a length of steel reinforcing bar into the concrete base by around 90cm, and leave 60 – 75cm extending beyond your current work. These bars should be below ground, and will provide a very strong ‘key’ between the present scheme and future works.

Laying The Slabs

The laying mortar mix should be one part cement to six parts of soft builders sand, mixed in uniform batches, each the same strength as each other to avoid any variations in porosity in the mix. The mixture should be sticky, not too wet, nor too dry.

Lay the first slab in the corner of the area to be paved, using five or more trowel spots of mortar, depending on the size of the slab. There should be sufficient material to ensure that the whole under surface of the slab is covered once the slab is tamped into place.  The slab may be bedded into position by gently tapping with a rubber mallet, starting from the centre outwards, not corner by corner as this will result in a ‘domed’ shaped mortar bed.

Using taut builders string lines to ensure accurate levels and falls, carefully checking dimensions especially when using more formal types of slabs, designed to be laid either butt jointed or fully pointed, progress the laying of the paving.

If you are using a random pattern with multi-sized slabs, ensure that a correct balance of sizes are used, and thus avoid having too many of one size in a given area. Mix the various shades of slabs, even drawing from different packs as the work progresses, to ensure that there are no areas of one colour or hue, thus creating a visually uniform finish. Too many small slabs, too many large or same size slabs in one area can also spoil the effect.

Some regular sized slabs lend themselves to the use of spacers  to ensure that all joints are uniform. These may take the form of (say) 13mm battens or plastic strips, in the same way as glazed tiles are set in an indoor bathroom or kitchen.

If you are laying a large area, take the slabs from one or more pack to ensure colour variation, even if nominally the same product. Batches can vary very slightly due to age and length of storage/manufacture. Once an area is complete, seal it off completely to prevent anyone from walking on the work – including dogs – and if you think that any slab may have become loose, re-set it immediately whilst the mortar is still soft.

Trade Tricks – A Conduit for potential future lighting or perhaps an irrigation system should be placed in or under the concrete foundations, and a draw string (strong builders line is ideal), colour coded if more than one string is placed, and left exposed and secured at either end of the conduit. Normally, a 50mm plastic waste pipe is used for this purpose, available in three metre lengths. If the project is wider than three metres, and you require a longer conduit, a 50mm pipe inserted into a 75mm wastepipe much as a telescope, will increase the length without the need for any gaps.


For pointing, a mix of one parts Ordinary Portland cement to four or five parts of soft builders sand is suggested. Once again, the mortar must be carefully batched to ensure a uniform colour. The pointing mixture should be moist enough to roll into a ball, but not too wet that it will not crumble when rubbed in between your fingers.

Ensure that the paving is dry before commencing work to prevent staining. If the joints contain water, this must be allowed to dry before continuing, otherwise you will create more staining.

Place a small amount of pointing mix onto a piece of board (45cm x 45cm) and fill each joint with a pointing trowel, ensuring the gap is fully filled with no low or soft spots (another advantage of a full mortar bed under the slabs). Press the mortar into the joints using a piece of rounded metal, such as a bucket handle, and ensure the joint is filled with well compacted mortar to prevent weed seeds from gaining access.

With some products, you may wish to use a coloured mortar. These dyes are available in liquid or powder form. It is essential that you experiment with these colourants, and a wet mix will appear to match, yet when dry will turn into a vastly different – much brighter – colour than you wish. Try a small sample first, away from the site, noting the amount you have used and adjust to suit once you are pleased with the results.

Summary  Careful planning is the key to success. If you choose more than one type of slab, check the actual measurements of each size. What is listed as a size may be only a nominal description, and if your design is produced with little or no tolerances, this may prove problematic. Some products are nominally (say) 45cm x 45cm are actually 44cm x 44cm or 46cm x 46cm, and whilst the difference may sound small, it may have an overall impact on the scheme over a larger area, with each slab losing/gaining one centimetre.

Alan Sargent
February 2016

Hints and Tips / Site Survey and Logistics Template
« Last post by Alan Sargent on February 19, 2016, 06:38:29 pm »


For use on Garden Surveys and Reports

The following notes are intended for use by Designers and Contractors when tendering for projects, both domestic and commercial. The format is progressive, and therefore some of the information indicated in the survey questionnaire will not be relevant to all schemes.

Similarly, there will be occasions that you may identify, that require you to add more information than shown. Such is the nature of a template – it is purely intended as a guide, forming only a part of your tender documentation.

In all instances however, it is essential to record as much information as possible, discovered at the time of your visit. This document may form part of your quotation, as it is the basis upon which you have quoted. A copy should be placed in the client file at the office, for reference in case of any queries that may arise in the future.


Name of Client (This may not be the property owner or person issuing instructions, but is the person nominated by the owner for the purpose of this survey)

Address of the Property subject to this survey. Include post code and any other relevant information clearly showing the property and area/s to which this survey relates to.

Names and Addresses of Owners and Clients if different from those previously shown.

Date of Enquiry, plus details of person making the enquiry. Also record any third party involvement/recommendations.

Date of Site Visit

Weather and Site Conditions noted at the time of such visit.

Identifying Number of the Scheme or part thereof. This reference number should be unique to that particular site and quotation, especially if other works may arise from the same source to avoid any confusion.


Width of access roads/parking problems/overhead cables/turning problems/schools or hospitals/any other potential hazards or threats to the smooth running of your intended works.


Width of access into site

Turning difficulties or height issues ref. crane offload etc

Condition of roadside fences/walls/gates

Condition of driveway

(As in all surveying matters, ensure you take plenty of time dated photographs of each area, especially noting any existing damage)


Overall impression – Tidy, well maintained?

Damp proof courses – visible, 150mm above ground? Condition?

Air Bricks – Clean, clear, dry?

Gutters and downpipes – clean, unbroken, secure?

Windows and doors – Chipped glass or paintwork? General condition?

Brickwork/stonework/rendering – signs of movement or damage?

Taps – Number and location. Condition of pipework? Water pressure? Permission to use?

Power points – Voltage limitation, circuit breakers? Permission to use?


Oil tanks?  Location? Condition? Any signs of leakage/spillage? Emergency cut off?

Gas inc Propane tanks – pipe runs likely? Emergency cut off location?

Trees – Sizes and types. Surface roots? Location issues? Shade problems? Leaf drop issues re. gutters and pools etc?

Manhole covers (inc BT etc) Location and numbers. Depth of drainrun if applicable ref damage by vehicles/weight/vibration.  Condition of covers and drains.

Swimming Pools – General condition. Paving condition inc. sinkage/movement. Soft areas nearby?  Size of pool? Gallonage? (Ditto reference fishponds and swimming ponds)

Water off site – Location and instructions ref. water disposal/pool emptying.

Fences and walls – Condition and type/s. Neighbour issues likely? Overhanging branches or encroachments on to clients curtilage?

Hedges – Type and size? Width, height and length? Bulking issues if reducing/cutting. Arisings left on site or remove off site?

Soil type – Depth of topsoil? Soil analysis undertaken – results? Bulking factor issues? Spread on site or remove off site? Weed seed or root contamination requiring removal off site? Shrinkage or heave problems identified?

Site Grounds – Soft areas requiring ground boards? Water run off? Drainage problems?

Existing Rubbish on site – amount? Client to remove?

Storage Areas – Dry cover? Access to store for delivery lorries? Area available?


(These items will form part of any quotation, shown as Prelims, with separate costs shown against each)

Site Office inc temporary telephone and First Aid Washing Station

Toilet Hire

Scaffolding inc. weather cover for works areas plus low lift work e.g. walling projects.

Ground Boards for traversing site.

Protection of areas/trees/shrubs/windows/driveways etc

Licences and Special Insurances

Removal of rubbish from site (volume to be assessed and agreed beforehand if impossible to evaluate) Skip hire or grab lorries?

Site dewatering, temporary measures inc pumping equipment.

Specific Hire Charges


Road sweeping or tidying of works external to site (during works or end of project)

Costs of setting up works (1) and Site clearance/final tidy (2)

Clients comments ref. timing/problem neighbours/quiet times/restrictions on access or working times etc.

Any existing plans or drawings available (do not accept responsibility beyond checking them as a guide only)

Any ALARM BELLS!  Are you completely comfortable with your survey?

Don’t forget to date and time the survey.

Head and Senior Gardeners / Selling Yourself – Part Three
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 27, 2016, 05:05:38 pm »
Selling Yourself – Part 3
Marketing Yourself – Philosophy & Strategy

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

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

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

Marketing Your Skills – As an Individual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing Yourself As a Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Sargent FCIHort
January 2016

Alan Sargent Philosophy / Professional Non-Payers
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 27, 2016, 05:03:07 pm »
Professional Non-Payers

It truly seems that no matter how careful you are with ensuring that your documentation is in order – fully specified quotation, detailed method statements, Terms & Conditions that you have devised over the years, perhaps using your own variation of one of the standard types of form to ensure that you have been as careful as you can possibly be, you somehow end up with The Client From Hell!

As a long term Landscape Contractor (since 1968) who has worked for some of the wealthiest people in the land, turned over tens of millions of pounds during those years, and dealt with some of the canniest clients, I am still aware that I am only one job away from serious trouble should a customer decide to be vindictive or decide not to settle their account.

Over recent years, and being well past ‘normal’ retirement age, most of my work involves Consultancy, with no landscape commissions over ten thousand pounds being accepted, therefore my options for being bankrupted by any one individual contract are remote, I am as wary as ever, ensuring that all documentation is as bullet-proof as possible.

As a Consultant, I carry out a certain amount of ‘Court’ work as an Expert Witness and come across sad tales of woe involving non-paying customers. Even with 100% correct paperwork, it is still possible to give some clients the green light to become very difficult especially regarding the final payment.

I have tried to analyse these situations and have arrived at a number of conclusions.

A large percentage of our clients are ‘Business’ people, and some pride themselves in winning at any negotiation, treating contractors working on their houses as though they were either business rivals or company employees, there to be defeated or subjugated by the all-powerful Boss. This may sound somewhat neurotic, but sometimes it is difficult to imagine any other logical reason for their attitudes and behaviour once the job has started!

As they are used to dissecting contract documentation, actively seeking any loophole or item open to interpretation, having discovered these ‘defects’, they are able to exploit them should they wish to be awkward.

I have personal knowledge of one client who boasted that he ‘never paid the last 10% of any job!’ He actually prided himself in this matter, considering anything less as a ‘business failure’ on his part. His attitude was that the contractor marked up their prices by 20% and therefore felt it his right to ‘share’ that profit.

Another decided that he had overspent his budget by ten thousand pounds, and whilst he was very pleased with the work, and that he knew he would have to pay in the end if ‘chased around the Courts for a couple of years’, he would settle the final account (£16,000) on the spot if the contractor would agree to reduce the bill by the ‘overspend’. Either take £6,000 now or chase me for the £16,000! (And he was a Lawyer!)

How to prevent or try to avoid these difficulties? Ensure that your paperwork and contract documentation are substantially in order. If a case goes to Court, the Judge will not be too sympathetic towards a Plaintiff (the Client) if he/she thinks they are trying to be pedantic in most cases. (Obviously, this will depend on the precise nature of any complaint). Trying to outwit a genuine contractor by using loopholes and technicalities in their quotation is frowned upon if the firm have used common sense and exercised reasonable caution, Duty of Care and due diligence. (And an acceptable job of course!)

Secondly, concentrate on your Terms & Conditions of Payment. For any reasonable sized project (dependent on the size of your business, say from £1,000 upwards) present the client with a Pro Forma invoice for the mobilisation portion of the project.
Pro Forma invoices are not invoices in the normal sense, and should not have an invoice number, only the date of issue and perhaps a reference number. Only once this Pro Forma has been paid in full and the money safely in your bank should you issue a normal invoice complete with Date and Tax Point, number etc.

Pro Forma invoices should be presented in an agreed sum or percentage of the project, usually 25% of the contract total. This may however vary if the client has chosen an item (an expensive garden seat for example) that will require payment at the time of purchase and will be of little or no use to the contractor should they change their minds and not go ahead with the job. It such cases, the whole cost of the ‘special’ item should be paid in advance plus the mobilisation element i.e. the garden seat cost plus 25% mobilisation payment.

Depending on the size of the job, you may require either Stage Payments i.e. against the completion of an agreed amount of work, or Interim Payments i.e. at certain agreed times e.g. weekly/fortnightly/monthly. These must be settled in full within agreed time scales, usually five days from date of invoice. (If the client is not always available due to business commitments or holidays, these must be recognised and included in the programme of payments.)

Essentially, monies must be settled in a timely manner as the job progresses. Nobody would dream of walking into a car showroom and ordering a new model without accepting the payment structure of the garage business. Business is business, and terms are terms!

Within your Terms of Payment there should be a clause stating that all late payments are subject to 2.5% above Basic Bank Rate if not settled within your time scales. I have been known to issue invoices made out as a separate item showing the sum of 2.5% of the outstanding monies (2.5% of £3,000 is £75.00, and the raising of an invoice which become ever larger in the event of non-payment is quite salutary). Of course, you may opt for 5 or even 10% - if the figure is part of your Terms of Payment, the Court will honour that figure and order it to be paid if you are successful in your case.

Similarly, a written reference  to additional costs that will be levied should you be obliged to leave site/suspend the project until funds are in place and will be incurred at a rate to be decided. (Often shown as ‘all reasonable costs’ in leaving and returning to site, this will include off-hiring and re-hiring equipment/transport costs, re-scheduling the works etc.) This can be a costly exercise and must be paid for by the client.

If you decide to include all of these recommendations into your tender documentation you will certainly clip the wings of any awkward customer. Knowing that being unnecessarily difficult is going to start costing money will ensure that boastful and bullying behaviour is much reduced!

Never forget that we are contractors, and to work carefully within our own chosen framework and terms and conditions. Sometimes we have to protect ourselves, and such protective measures must be in place before acceptance of the work. We cannot add such clauses afterwards once things turn difficult!

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