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Allandscaper's Essays / Garden Designers – Protective Check List
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 01, 2016, 04:28:55 pm »

I could not think of a more appropriate title for this post – perhaps Designers Survival Guide might fit the bill! Just for the record, although I am ‘known’ as a Contractor and Consultant, nowadays concentrating on the latter (it’s an age thing!), I have designed some 250 gardens, including 37 RHS Show gardens, and worked with many of the finest designers of the time (and today) in the country in producing private gardens large and small.

As I have explained, I grew tired of people wanting free advice, and resolved that problem by splitting my designer persona from the contractor side of my business. However, I decided to use my experience as a contractor when dealing with my ‘design’ clients, adapting some of the practices previously so invaluable when creating the documentation for a tender/quotation reference construction projects.

Amongst these forms was a Client Instruction Form (my title, call it what you wish) which began by identifying the client and the site address. The form starts with these important notes, together with date, time and weather conditions at the time of interview.

The initial form did not include details of site survey, concentrating on the Client’s Brief To Designer, as these instructions will be needed to establish the basis of the clients requirements. It is extremely important at some stage – and why not from the outset? – to register/record the actual Brief.

I have mentioned Dangerous Words on another post, but on this initial interview, they can be very useful if the client asks for Wildlife Friendly, Noisy and exciting water feature, Safe water feature, organic vegetable garden, or any number of elements to be included in your proposed scheme. The list may be as long as you wish, perhaps even as a separate menu as a reminder, and can be adapted to your style of designing.

The main purpose of this Check List is to ensure that you have a written record of your instructions, to prevent the client from denying they asked for this or that when it comes to paying the bill! Included in the list will be a note of your fees and payment structure. By including these as a part of the Check List, they will be seen to be a part of the job, inasmuch as you are selling your time and expertise.

By highlighting the various ‘types’ of design input you offer, you will include office time, travelling time/expenses, research time – when you are investigating something special that the client has requested, perhaps a type of pumping system, lighting variations etc, that will require you to spend time on – site visits and the anticipated number, again including payment structure and dates. Certainly, when a client asks to have something they have bought/been given e.g. a statue, specimen plant, fountain etc, you may have to take advice or alter your original ideas to accommodate the item.

At the end of the initial  interview, both you and the client  should sign the document, copy for each, as this Check List will ensure that you have established the grounds for your engagement, avoiding any disputes regarding the clients instructions at a later date. (I know that most designers already operate a similar system, but I know of others who do not!)
Alan Sargent Philosophy / Keeping The Faith
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 01, 2016, 04:28:08 pm »

There has been a lot written and spoken lately, about the need for Designers and Contractors to ‘Work Together’. Whilst we all know what this is supposed to mean in practice, but in reality, there should be no need to remind ourselves of the benefits of Working In Harmony (which is more pleasant sounding – more friendly).

I have been blessed with a long and varied career, which has included a successful period as a Garden Designer, with over 250 domestic schemes, including 37 RHS medals, and feel quite entitled to call myself a Designer. At the same time as working on my ‘own’ schemes, I was also working for 25 of the leading Garden Designers of the 80s and 90s, all of them fully aware that I was also a professional designer.

I developed a strict Code of Conduct which I called Keeping The Faith. This code stood me well for over 20 years, and I have never fallen out with any single one of those designers, as we had a clear understanding about ‘Working Together’

On my behalf, I never told any of my staff of any dealings I may have had with the designer. My contract, written or verbal, was an agreement, and nobody else’s business – including the client. My undertaking with the designer was to produce the scheme as specified or drawn, using all materials and techniques as described on the plans/specification, without question or comment.

Any problems that arose, and they were frequent, especially on larger projects, matters of materials, inaccurate drawings, general hiccups etc were quietly dealt with in conversation – rarely if ever in writing – and issues resolved. On the odd occasion, a Variation Order may need signing off (more of these VO’s later), with the client very happy with the smooth running of the contract.

On the designers side, he/she would trust me completely to produce the scheme, albeit with any minor alterations if and as necessary quietly dealt with as above. The designer would never, under any circumstances, try to blame me for any problems that may have arisen due to inaccurate planning.

To complete the Keeping The Faith, I would never mention, or allow any mention of the fact that I was also a professional designer, and if the clients found out (via Chelsea etc), then I would state in polite terms that their garden had been designed by XXXXXXX, and it was not ethical for either of us comment on the others work! We worked as a Team, and we worked well together. Most of my work came via recommendations from other designers, so it was a very happy and prosperous business period for me, and only ceased when I became Head Gardener to Goodwood, and my son James (Arun Landscapes Ltd) took over from me. He still operates the same system of Keeping The Faith, working with the leading designers of today!

Marketing Ideas and Strategy / Giving Value For Money
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 01, 2016, 04:27:33 pm »

As I wear several hats – as a designer, contractor and consultant, nowadays probably 30/30/40 percent with an increasing workload as consultant, after nearly half a century in the industry I believe I offer good value for money. I often hear and read of designers and contractors who are uncomfortable with their rates; honestly believing they are worth more than they can command, yet seemingly unable or unwilling to raise their fees for fear of losing work.

If you are able to mentally step back and examine your business and services, and think about what you are really able to offer to your potential customers in terms of quality, originality, and the cost savings involved in their project, you will begin to understand what value you can bring to their lives.

I never think in terms of quantity. I am not going to enter any competition by trying to offer more for less in the same way as a commercial operator is obliged to when tendering for (say) a major planting scheme. This has never been my market, and I do not fully understand the benefits of providing clients with the cheapest option, always the best value. (Perhaps this is why I have chosen the domestic marketplace, unless working on specialist projects requiring a particular ‘niche’ expertise, when I work on some larger Historic properties.)

I have never been awarded a project by being the cheapest, (as far as I am aware!) and therefore have no real difficulty in providing  potential clients with my rates. I do not make a big issue out of these figures. They are quietly provided with my ‘personal’ documents at the time of initial interview, along with my insurance, bank details etc. I do not feel the need to prove myself to anyone – after all, I have been invited to discuss their project at their request. When discussing design or consultancy, my hourly or day rates, including expenses, together with payment terms are clearly set out. Nothing to excite them, nothing to hide, just my terms. (Obviously, construction contracts are presented in a different manner)

As such commissions are sequential, with initial layout, detailed designs, planting plans etc, all subject to invoice at each stage, it is easy to allow the client to manage their funds as they wish.
Provided that you can show and explain at each stage the benefits of undertaking the project in your nominated fashion, together with any cost savings that may be made – not only in terms of the actual construction, but perhaps in terms of future savings and additional value to the property (all of this is explained subtly, and each project should offer the designer a vision and ‘storyboard’ of the benefits of their chosen design/material choice showcasing their expertise and knowledge both of landscaping but also the lifestyle/lifestage advantages of their creation.)

This Value For Money approach should transcend any thoughts of your charges. Why not experiment by raising your rates by 25% for the next couple of enquiries and see how you get along?
Perceived value is highly valued!

Head and Senior Gardeners / Surviving as a Self-Employed Gardener
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 01, 2016, 04:26:43 pm »

Surviving as a Self-Employed GardenerFinance Matters Really Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always remember – all you have to sell is yourself!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan Sargent FCIHort

The School of Garden Management (

(Originally published in The Professional Gardener Magazine in July 2015)

Allandscaper's Essays / First Contact – Dealing with other Professionals
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 01, 2016, 04:24:56 pm »
FIRST CONTACT – Dealing with other Professionals

There are many occasions where we are obliged to deal with other professionals during our business lives. They may be engaged in the same line of work, but on a different track e.g. Landscape Architect, Surveyor or Supplier, with a number of trades all connected by a common project. Professionals in this instance may include those clients who are also Business People, who are interested in buying something from us – a complete garden or design perhaps, or even a number of gardens, in the case of a Developer or Property Consortium Leader.

They will have one thing in common – they like to be treated with the respect that their position should command. By this I do not intend to imply that any one of us would dream of being disrespectful in any way!

However, by following a certain Philosophy, you can create a favourable impression without detriment to yourself in any way. By adopting a set of rules of personal engagement – a body language of your own in many ways – you can both control an initial meeting and ensure that your personal status is enhanced. Your Professional Contact will be established in a manner that will remain in the mind of the other person long after the meeting is over.

It is often held that an opinion is formed in the minds of people when they first meet, that will decide the success or otherwise of that social intercourse within the first three seconds. We are all conversant with the ‘open smile, firm handshake’ first contact, but by developing this philosophy further, other rules should be brought into play.

Presentation of business cards; always carefully inspect a proffered card – check both sides in the case of a multinational company director as often English is printed one side, and perhaps another language on the other. Treat this card as ‘special’ and don’t simply push it into your pocket. Examine it, and be pleased to have received it. This small point will not be lost!

Personal Space; we are all  ‘animals’ and react in different ways to another ‘creature’. Some people are very tactile, others less so. Respect peoples personal space by maintaining a certain distance – the other person will dictate that area – between yourselves.

Eye Contact; it is important that eye contact should be made and held (without staring!), yet at the same time, never let your eyes drop below nose level – especially if that person is of the opposite sex. Staring at the mouth or bust/chest of your associate is no way to carry on a business discussion!

Always make a note of all people involved during a meeting, and keep a record of their presence as this may be valuable for future negotiations. If you forget that someone was at a discussion, they will not be too impressed!

Allandscaper's Essays / Finding The Right Employee
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 01, 2016, 04:24:14 pm »

A significant part of my consultancy work involves finding the right person for the right job – usually but not exclusively in senior positions as managers or head gardeners. My clients eschew the more usual routes of Job Centres or Employment Agencies as they wish to pass the whole business over to a third party, either for political reasons – they cannot be blamed when something goes wrong (!) – or to save themselves  the time and trouble. It is much easier to agree a Day Rate with a consultant, and I pleased to say that there are very few people handling such work, therefore the majority of my commissions are by word of mouth.

My first task is to receive a full briefing from the client with a full and accurate description of the person they wish to employ. This operation is often quite illuminating, for both parties, as it may be only when they are obliged to describe in detail exactly their requirements do they actually realise what that person does for the company. A general job description is of no practical use to a consultant, as I would have fulfilled my brief simply by promoting anyone fitting a vague description!

Armed with this information, I then set about locating such an individual. This statement of fact applies just as much to an employer trying to attract a competent labourer as it does to a high flying manager. Being in possession of a written statement, complete with job description and details of the job offer i.e. salary, hours, holidays etc, I then decide which marketplace to investigate for the said employee. I rarely, if ever, use ‘public’ forums e.g. Job Centres or LinkedIn, preferring to use my own sources and industry knowledge. However, I appreciate this will not be the case for most firms and employers due to their workload, and they will rely on (perhaps) placing an advertisement in an appropriate paper or magazine (such adverts may be  extremely expensive).

 Whichever method you use, you will hopefully attract a number of candidates – in some cases, several hundred applicants! How to sort the wheat from the chaff?

It is rarely any use providing the candidates or  their providers (Job Centre?) with a minimum status schedule e.g. must have a clean driving licence, must be skilled etc, as those rules will simply be ignored, no matter how firmly they are written. So many applicants have absolutely no interest in the job anyway, but are applying just to keep the ‘system’ happy. These professional timewasters need to be sifted out of your application process as early as possible! One way of achieving this is to insist that the Agency – Government or private – are in possession of a set of your rules of engagement. These should take the form of a set of written statements and questions, to be completed by applicants in their own hand writing (there are specific Laws that allow for handicapped or illiterate persons to use a proxy for this). You may ask a series of questions about the applicant, but again, these must be legally worded with care. For example, you cannot insist that applicants have a minimum period of experience e.g. ‘must have at least five years experience’ as this statement would exclude school leavers who may have may have worked prior to leaving school.

I recommend that you include a series of (say) ten questions that cannot fall foul of any Laws, but will provide you with a lot of information. Create a tick box form placing their opinions in order of importance from 1 – 10. Include such questions as ‘What do you think an employer is looking for? What are the most important things, in order placing the number 1 for the most important, down to number 10 for the least important. In no particular order then – Punctuality – Reliability – Honesty – Computer Ability – Tidiness – Cleanliness – Appearance – Fun & Outgoing – Pleasant – etc.
The results may be quite illuminating! You may be amazed that some people have no idea that Reliability and Punctuality are valued more highly than IT skills!

This filtering system – reducing the number of potential applicants to the smallest number - is designed to save you a lot of time and energy. I use a similar method when assessing even high profile £40 – 50,000 p.a. job applications, because if someone with a fistful of paper qualifications cannot understand the needs of the company at a personal commitment level, they do not even make the interview stage.

Moving on from whichever method you choose to select your chosen candidates for interview, the next step is to invite them to attend at a given date and time. This should ideally be a fortnight or so after selection, but in any event, a timed programme should have been provided to the candidates as soon as you feel you have sufficient interviewees.  Those selected to attend should be given clear instructions; including a location map and postcode of the interview venue, a statement that they should bring with them any documentary references with both the originals and three copies of each, letters of reference from previous employers (if any), a full curriculum vitae with a note to the affect that they should be able to explain any gaps in their employment, and any further information they feel may be necessary e.g. holidays booked or periods they are unable to work.

These rules should apply to all applicants, although I appreciate that you will produce your own template of those you deem necessary for your personal requirements. I am including my suggested methods in a comprehensive manner recognising that you will probably not wish to follow my methods except in a general manner.

Turning now to ‘qualifications’ – I am not persuaded by reams of school certificates except they are relevant to the job requirements. Anyone with a highly graded award in English or Mathematics will be of interest, as will someone with perhaps an NVQ Level 2 in a relevant subject. I have experience of individuals with BA Hons and BSc Hons degrees that were essentially useless at the job they were given (based on those meritorious documents) because their employer had not been more selective in respect of their personal abilities and skills – great on paper, useless on the ground.

I do prize progressive awards of merit. NVQ at progressive levels, ACI Hort , MCI Hort and FCI Hort, or any industry award that follows an upward trend of achievement is to be valued as a major asset. Similarly, hobbies that include relevant subjects e.g. fish keeping, poultry or game keeping may be of use to a firm, but they also display an attitude towards responsibility (to their charges) which is an attractive trait. I care little for ‘Walking, Country Dancing or Theatre’!

The interview venue need not be the place of work. Consider instead a suitable neutral site – perhaps a local National Trust garden, with restaurant or tea room. This venue will be easy to locate, offer dry weather comfort and car parking. It will also provide you with an opportunity to walk around the gardens asking open or closed questions regarding what the candidate thinks, sees or thinks about the grounds and their working methods. The choice of venue is easily explained – you do not want to be disturbed by work pressures, your office is too small/busy (recognising that many of us work from a yard or home) or you simply want to use the opportunity to evaluate their knowledge.

Finally, once you have chosen your preferred candidate, and offered them the position, be aware that on many occasions, they will eventually turn the job down, having gone back to work and told their employer they are leaving, only to be offered a pay rise/promotion. Always – if you are lucky enough to have a second choice in mind – give the chosen person a deadline to start work and confirm their acceptance in writing – and if you are let down, you may wish to offer the job to your second choice without the need to go through the whole process again!
I cover this by saying to the second choice that it is a toss up between two very good candidates; you both have X factors, but different ones. You cannot decide immediately which one to choose, so could they bear with you for a week, when you will definitely give them an answer.

To reiterate – most of my commissions are for senior personnel, but if you construct your own template using even some of my techniques, you will attract a level of candidate commensurate with your requirements.  Simply advertising a vacancy then sitting back and waiting for right person to walk through the door is not going to happen. By operating in a professional manner, you will both raise the apparent standards of your business in the eyes of the candidate, and have a greater appreciation and awareness of what your business stands for.

Head and Senior Gardeners / Selling Yourself – Part One
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 01, 2016, 04:22:37 pm »
Selling Yourself - Part One

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

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

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

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

Beginning a Portfolio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time, I will be covering the production  of your curriculum vitae, offering advice that will hopefully set you apart from your competitors and ensure that you are offered an interview.
One final thought – employers go to great lengths to try to find the right person for the job. Each job interview process costs a lot of time, energy and money, and is not undertaken lightly. In my experience, employers are delighted to find their problems solved by taking on someone with initiative and enterprise. An obvious statement maybe? Finding the right person to do the job is by no means easy, any more than it is finding the right job for the right person!

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

Alan Sargent FCI Hort
School of Garden Management

Head and Senior Gardeners / Selling Yourself – Part Two
« Last post by Alan Sargent on January 01, 2016, 04:21:40 pm »
Selling Yourself – Part 2

Producing a curriculum vitae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I have been asked for my opinion on the trends, market place and future for the landscaping industry in Britain. Although I have been in the business of designing and building gardens for nearly fifty years, including some in Wales and Scotland, the vast majority have been in England, and as there are many variations in English Law when set against those  passed by the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies, I do not feel confident in commenting on those regions.

I start by mentioning Laws, as the future of the landscape industry is very much bound up with legislation – indeed, it is difficult to even think about the next few years without recognising the impact that  so many recent Laws and Regulations have had on our working practices. Some have their roots in European Courts, but many others are the products of our own Government – or are implemented and administered mainly in this country  - whilst other countries blithely ignore them!

Over the past twenty years we have seen regulations restricting the purchase and use of a range of tools and equipment – top handled chain saws immediately spring to my mind – and the withdrawal and outlawing of many chemicals. A very wide range of skills based ‘tickets’ are now required for using even the most basic of day to day tools such as strimmers, chain saws and disc cutters. Most of these restrictions on Safe Use are to be welcomed, as they undoubtedly help to make the work place safer both for operatives and the public.

For many years, the ‘Commercial’ sector of landscaping and grounds maintenance have been subjected to very strict rules, and only those companies that can demonstrate their total commitment to these strictures will be included in Lists of Selected Tenderers. Without this inclusion, they will not be permitted to tender for Local Authority projects.

Firms wishing to gain Selected Tenderer status must comply with a very comprehensive range of regulations, not only concerning Law, but also demonstrating their compliance with matters such as insurance, staff training programmes, employment (including equal opportunities, CRB checks etc) Safe Use & Handling, Waste Regulations, Transport Laws including trailers etc. All of these items have become second nature to the commercial sector, and many companies belong to either The British Association of Landscape Industries and/or The Association of Professional Landscapers, both of whom carry out strict and comprehensive annual checks on their members, who are therefore generally acceptable as bona fide contractors having shown and proven their compliance.

I mention these facts as a background to my vision of the future of the Domestic Contractor. It is perhaps appropriate to establish some facts regarding what may be described as a ‘Domestic Contractor’. There are in excess of 100,000 people in England working as self -employed gardeners. The vast majority are individuals who have had no formal training, but are perhaps highly competent and skilled artisans, working for one or more employer during the course of the week. Many thousands work as self-employed in one garden, for one employer, despite the fact that such arrangements may be contrary to various Tax Laws.

Thousands more work as ‘One-Man-Bands’, offering their services to the general public, as ‘Gardeners’ (or Landscapers or Garden Designers – or a mixture of all three). These micro firms may or may not be properly insured, and often take on extra assistance when required without first taking out Employers insurance. A percentage of these ‘firms’ are only in business in the short term or quickly become disillusioned by rain, mud and low rates, and look for an easier life.

Many others are striving to build a genuine business out of their skills, and determine to operate legally, ensuring that all matters regarding insurance, accounts, appropriate skills and certificates are gained, seeking to expand and become bona fide firms, applying to join either The Association of Professional Landscapers, The Professional Gardeners Guild or  The Gardeners Guild. Some will extend their personal status by joining The Chartered Institute of Horticulture and continue to further their careers.

Some Domestic Contractors operate fairly large firms, turning over many millions of pounds. They too will have every legal issue covered, and be aware of the increasing and changing nature of the aforementioned Laws.

Every gardener, designer and maintenance contractor is facing a new range of unknown difficulties, and we all need to look into the future and take a critical evaluation of likely and potential problems, and seek to adapt our businesses to meet the challenges.

LABOUR.  I know that many people are concerned about the fact that ‘gardening’ is seen by some as an easy to enter business. Anyone who can stand up and push a wheelbarrow can be a gardener and earn a living, even if it is as a £5.00 per hour pusher of a lawn mower. Anyone can place a postcard in a local shop window and become a Gardener. ‘No income tax, no VAT, no money back, no guarantee’ (with due acknowledgement to the writers of Only Fools and Horses) Add to that, no insurance, no PPE, no legal status whatsoever. They will happily cut down trees, having no concept of Preservation Orders, and go on to dump the rubbish in the nearest lay-by. Yet still they manage to find garden owners willing to have them on site, just because they are cheap.

As an industry, we will never beat them. There will always be the ‘bottom end’ of the market, and the best thing to do is not try to compete with them. Even the smallest firm can and should be looking at working as ‘Professionals’ and eschew such poor quality clients.

Why should you try to compete on price and be ‘the cheapest of the cheap’!

Good labour will always be hard to find, and more firms are offering their staff ‘in-house’ training, including secondment to other ‘friendly’ companies who are willing to teach new skills to their competitors on a mutual assistance system, thereby adding to the pool of available talent in a low cost manner.  Loaning labour for training, and receiving labour in return is a very effective method of inter-company improvement.

REGULATIONS. Looking to the future, which is the primary purpose of this article, and having due regard to the past (and current) legislation, I would expect to see not only more and more regulation taking place in England, but consolidation, by the Government, of those rules that are already in place.

Consider for a moment, those areas designated as National Parks. Many contractors have been astonished and alarmed to find the powers that the Regulatory Bodies (usually Local Authorities, but often with a second tier of Officers employed by National Parks) are potentially all encompassing. No reasonable sized landscape project can go ahead without the express authorisation of the ‘Authorities’, and even basic items such as walls and fences are subject to their demands.

Changes of soil levels (e.g. following the installation of a pond or pool, spreading the spoil on site) are not permitted, and heavy fines may be imposed. Designers as well as contractors must be aware of these rules. Consider too, that there is nothing to stop ‘The Government’ from extending those areas to include most or all of the country. By definition, National Park status would bring in much greater scope for interference simply by claiming it is the best interests of the Region and may be broadly welcomed by residents (until the powers of the Officers becomes tiresome for home owners – too late!)

Regulations do not stop at ‘Horticulture and Design’. All self-employed persons - not only ‘Gardeners’ will soon have to submit quarterly tax returns - bringing even the smallest firm into line with Limited Companies. Anyone employing staff is now obliged to pay into and administer a Company Pensions Scheme. All this at our own expense as unpaid Government Agents.

It is only a very short step in one’s imagination to envisage the Government regulating the Landscape Industry, enforcing each and every one of these recent ‘Laws’ and legislation brought in to demand that each and every person offering their services as a Garden Designer, Landscape Contractor or Garden Maintenance Contractor must be LICENSED to carry out such work.

In order to obtain the necessary licence, one would have to apply to the Local Authorities  and submit written proof of insurance cover, including Public, Employers and (in the case of Garden Designers) Indemnity Insurance, plus of course Waste Carriers/Chemical Storage & Handling/Safe Use of Machinery/etc – as many ‘add-ons’ as you require to carry out your chosen sphere of work.

The Licence would be administered by your local District or County Council, renewable annually on production of various documents including and especially appropriate insurance cover and of course – a fee for admin costs. Anyone who is unable (for any reason including No Fixed Abode) to obtain insurance cover would not be granted a licence.

In the same way that only qualified gas fitters, electricians (even window cleaners and chimney  sweeps in some cases) and mechanics are able to operate and obtain insurance, so it will be with Gardening. I envisage that you would keep the same Licence number for use on your headed paper and business cards, presenting both your licence and current insurance when quoting for work.

No License equals no work – legally at least. Homeowners may be obliged to ensure that they have been given a copy of your License before they are permitted to use your services, or risk become subject to a rising scale of Court fines in the event of a problem with works carried out by an unlicensed operative (much the same as anyone using a rogue tree surgeon is treated currently).

THE FUTURE?  Who knows?  But I am positive that new legislation will be brought in, and existing Laws consolidated, ensuring that only bona fide firms are permitted to operate.

Sanctions already in existence e.g. destruction of vehicles and equipment as directed by a Court (e.g. Fly Tipping cases) could be brought to bear on unlicensed garden contractors.

Contractors accepting cash payments – no invoice, tax avoidance etc would be stripped of their licence and therefore lose their business as well as paying any HM Inspectors penalties.

Those unable to pay their tax/VAT bills could be similarly threatened.

Please don’t think I am preaching doom and gloom!  I am sure we would all welcome a world in which Cowboy operators were put out of business, and that we are competing against other professionals and not the ‘cash in  hand’, ‘dump it in the lay-by’ brigade.  I have no problem with competing against good contractors. At least I know I am quoting like for like and not expected to down grade my offer to beat an artificially low price.

A wise person would keep a close eye on the trends concerning legislation, and move quickly to adapt and use any changes to their advantage by keeping one step ahead, and turning what could be considered meddlesome intrusion into your own Unique Selling Points by reinforcing your credentials and professionalism to your potential clients.

Alan Sargent
December 2015

Allandscaper's Essays / Mixing Business With Pleasure
« Last post by Alan Sargent on September 08, 2015, 09:58:24 pm »

I have been asked by a member of The Gardeners Guild to comment on a query regarding a client who required time sheets and official invoice/claim forms to be submitted to their Account Department for work carried out in their private garden.

There are a considerable number of owners of firms, businesses and companies who are not averse to trying to put the cost of maintaining their own private gardens against their income and other business taxes as a legitimate expense. Some do this (I suspect) just to try to use any pretext to reduce their tax bill illegally, whilst others will attempt to get these costs offset by their accountants by claiming that a neat and tidy garden is vital to their companies success as they often entertain potential clients at home, and the costs of maintaining a neat and tidy garden are genuine expenses.

As contractors, we must always ensure that we are 100% open and honest in all our dealings, and even if the client insists that everything is legal and above board, we must ensure that we do not become privy to anything that could be construed as illegal. The only circumstance where I would suggest that you are safe from prosecution is if you were given a bona fide letter of confirmation from the firm’s accountant (not in-house accounts department).

Some examples I have had to deal with include a client who ordered a substantial number of mature shrubs and specimen trees to be planted at his private home address, with all tender documents and contracts clearly showing him as the client, and then attempting to pay the bill with a PLC cheque made out by a different firm altogether – one the contractor had never heard of or had any dealings with. In this instance, quite correctly, the contractor refused to accept the cheque in payment for the private works, and firmly stood their ground. They were then given a cheque in the name of the client – which promptly ‘bounced’!
The upshot of that case was that the director responsible was charged with a number of offences against The Companies Act, and no longer works for the company.

Another case involved a chap who owned a factory, and wanted to have his garden maintained by a contractor, but demanded that the invoices were to be made out to his firm, with the wording showing ‘Gardening works to factory premises’ or words to that effect. The contractor went along with this, becoming increasingly uneasy about the legality, until the inevitable happened, and the ‘Tax man’ visited the factory premises and amongst many other matters, picked up on the garden contractor’s invoices and then began a full in-depth investigation into the garden firm’s business, the result of which was bankruptcy.

To be absolutely clear; there are no half way grey areas here. A private client can insist that you submit a time sheet of your hours worked, and operations carried out. He can then have those time sheets checked out and recorded by his business office. How he conducts his affairs, and his relationship between his contractor and his business is not an issue. It is entirely up to the contractor to submit to his regime – or refuse to work on those terms.

What is not acceptable is for the contractor to submit paperwork made out in the name of one person, and accept payments from a third party without good cause and clear direction, an example of which would be a gift from a family member (picking up the bill for works to Gran’s garden).

If you are ever given a cheque paid against an invoice made out to one named person, the cheque being in another (business name, especially Limited Companies, LLPs or PLCs,) if you do decide to accept it, make sure you photocopy the cheque and keep that copy in your records as an insurance against future questions. It is quite unreasonable to expect a small gardening operation to turn down payment because of a doubt – if the cheque clears, that’s all that matters!

But do protect yourself, and never allow anyone to dictate potentially illegal terms. Always remember – we are CONTRACTORS. We should work under clear and concise quotations otherwise we are wide open to being involved in creative accounting by unscrupulous employers.

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