Sargent's solutions - managing a garden part-time

Being asked to look after a garden on a part-time basis raises many issues that need to be addressed, says Alan Sargent

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

This is an ongoing problem in many gardens where the owners seem to think that just because they employ labour everything should be catered for. Some do not recognise that gardens require regular attention, including weekends as well as holidays.

Awkward situation

I appreciate that this is an awkward situation for any self-employed person, especially a part-time gardener. You arrive on site and work through a schedule of jobs, prioritising as you see fit. In two days you cannot possibly expect to maintain the gardens to the same standard as someone working full-time. Even if you managed to look after the general beds etc, the five days you are not on site need to be covered, especially watering and weeding the vegetable beds.

Between you and the handyman, you could easily manage, provided he carried out the jobs that you have identified - if only he did not find any excuse not to help you. As the part-timer, you feel that you do not have the authority to instruct him, even though the employers have asked you to make use of him. Instead of being frustrated with the situation, you could turn things to your advantage and perhaps incentivise the handyman.

Take control

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

The second step is to create a plan of the garden, even in rough form, identifying the various areas and naming them in a manner that cannot be misconstrued - for example, "the vegetable garden", "the library lawn", "the southern border" etc. It is very helpful to dimension these areas to enable you to complete the inventory - how much mulch is needed, how many square metres of lawn feed etc.

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

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

As soon as you begin to fill in the time sheets, you will clearly identify - and prove - your actions in the two days available to the owners. Thus time spent directing the handyman will show up as a cost to the employers, thereby reducing the amount of time you have to do your core work.

You should retain responsibility for all those jobs that require technical skills, such as fertilising and weed killing. Anything that may affect the pH and general balance of the soil and nutrients must be carefully monitored. Only one named person should carry out this work, and records maintained, with no exceptions to the rule to avoid over or under dosing of any chemical.

Proven case

Similarly, he will now have to explain himself to the employer. If he genuinely has no time to spend in the garden, you will have a proven case to request additional labour - perhaps a second part-timer. By naming the various areas of the garden, you can prove those parts that take the most time to look after.

You will also be enabled to nominate certain jobs or sections to be the sole responsibility of the handyman so that his lack of performance will be more easily identified. Equally, if he enjoys having responsibility for "his" areas, he may gain a sense of pride in the job and render himself more useful as an employee.

By adopting this professional approach you will learn much about time management and utilising available skills to the best advantage, a lesson that you may adapt to suit the rest of your business week.

Instead of jeopardising 40 per cent of your weekly income by becoming increasingly frustrated at the handyman's lack of willingness to help, and leaving a regular customer, you will have proven your management skills and educated the owners into appreciating the amount of work, time management and forward planning involved in looking after a garden.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management

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