Last month, I described a situation where the role of a head gardener was brought into focus by the ever-expanding needs of an estate — where the traditional role of maintaining the gardens was overshadowed by the needs of modern society, both in terms of legal responsibilities and the needs to increase financial income into what may be described as a business.
I described the role of a head gardener as being primarily concerned with the day-to-day running and maintaining of the gardens within the estate. While clearly recognising that not every garden could be described as an estate, the use of the term does allow us to envisage a set of circumstances and adapt them to your own.
In essence, the primary difference between a head gardener and a gardens manager is not necessarily horticultural knowledge, nor is it the number or type of formal qualifications that one or the other may hold. Some gardens are highly specialised, with organic vegetables, historic influences, famed for their alpine or topiary collections etc, where the role of head gardener may hold sway. In such specialist gardens, a curator may be employed instead of a head gardener, in which case the role would be the same even with a different title.
The primary difference between a head gardener and a gardens manager is that of responsibility. There is therefore absolutely no reason why a head gardener could not take on those responsibilities and learn new management skills and take on the title of manager.
I have already covered the role and responsibilities of a head gardener, albeit in the most simplistic of terms. To recapitulate, the head gardener normally reports to either the owner (if the site is modest) or a line manager (on larger estates). He or she does not take on the responsibilities of any other element of running the garden.
A gardens manager, on the other hand, is responsible for a very wide range of matters, many of them subject to legal charges. A gardens manager will normally report to the owners or board of directors/trustees, presenting not only his or her business portfolio but also acting as the representative of the head gardener. The gardens manager should act as the mouthpiece, eyes and ears of the gardens department, and represent the gardens team at board meetings.
They will work with the owners or company secretary to ensure that all legal requirements of the estate are dealt with in a timely manner. These will include any planning permits, insurance matters, health and safety policy, possibly even security issues and a host of other important subjects.
The gardens manager will probably have a high input, along perhaps with the human resources manager, in finding and contracting new staff for the gardens, including casual and seasonal staff, ensuring compliance with all employment law. He or she may become involved in setting or recommending wages and other benefits.
The role of gardens manager is only one step below that of director in most cases. It is a hugely responsible job and while there is no reason why someone should not be employed with the title of "head gardener/gardens manager", it is important to recognise that at some stage during a period of employment, if legal problems arise, it is the gardens manager who would be held liable.
For this reason alone, the Professional Gardeners’ Guild recognises the gravity of the role by having a separate section for gardens manager and listing the role profile in its documents.
Across the board, from formal qualifications and experience, training and length of service, wages scale and personal skills, the gardens manager is held to be superior to a head gardener. Please note, this is not to say that gardens managers are more skilled than head gardeners but that their role and responsibilities are different.
Just as directors are legally liable for their actions within a company, so the position and title of gardens manager can be a heavy weight. Understanding the needs of the gardens department and marrying those with the duties and inter-departmental charges of the rest of the estate is not a simple task.
Training programmes, devised for use by all and arranged at the right times at the best possible price, include first aid and various safe working courses. These are the province of the gardens manager.
There is the age-old problem of senior gardeners being given responsibility without authority, which is a current theme even today. Employers fail to appreciate that we all live in a world where responsibility is not always someone else’s problem. Only by employing those with the appropriate proven skills are they able to discharge their duty of care.
As you will see, there is no easy answer to the question: "What is the difference between a head gardener and a gardens manager?" Every garden/estate/site is different and the demands of each will vary. Some gardens will continue working happily as they are now, without any need to address these issues.
However, as I mentioned at the outset, when changes occur and legal responsibilities become more complex, there may be a time when decisions have to be made. It is best to recognise those requirements and be ready to meet the commitments as soon as possible.
Alan Sargent has recently published his latest book, Employing a Gardens Manager or Head Gardener (email email@example.com).
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