Sargent's solutions - what you need to know and do before becoming a sole trader

Careful preparation is essential for anyone moving from a full-time job to being self-employed, says Alan Sargent.

Alan Sargent
Alan Sargent

Changing status from being an employee to self -employed is becoming common practice, especially among those individuals who feel they could make a more profitable living by selling their skills to a wider and more appreciative world than they currently inhabit.

I have recently written about self-employed gardeners who wish to work full-time for one employer and examined the various ramifications involved in making such a change (HW, 31 March). This article is intended for those currently employed who wish to become garden contractors. If you are interested in becoming a garden designer or landscape contractor, you will need more specific advice - The Landscaper's Survival Manual (2013) covers these topics, and is available from the RHS Library.

Timing your move is of utmost importance. Let's assume a scenario where you are working full-time in a senior position, either sole gardener, deputy head gardener or above. For whatever reason, you decide that you wish to move away from being located at one site and offer your skills to owners of private gardens by building your own business. You are a free agent and not living in a tied cottage, therefore are completely independent to make the change without detriment to your family.

It is important to establish a business plan, no matter how basic, before making your move.

Take every personal expenditure into consideration, including rent or mortgage, vehicle costs, living expenses, etc. Be totally honest with yourself. If you have been living on a certain income, you will need to double that amount to compensate for the fact that you will no longer have any holiday or sick pay. You will have to pay for everything from now on, including telephone, vehicle expenses, work clothing - all outgoings will have to be covered by your earnings.

You should divide your essential income amount by 45 - the number of weeks per year you will be able to work, allowing for mandatory holidays and downtime (weather, illness, breakdowns, etc). You should not expect to work more than 40 hours per week, so your working year will amount to 1,800 hours.


  • Calculate what you need to earn to cover ALL your expenses
  • Calculate your minimum earnings per week
  • Define your offering, target market and location
  • Research your competition
  • Create engaging marketing materials
  • Budget for any new equipment
  • Plan your amicable resignation
  • Notify the tax office
  • Take out insurance

Forward planning

When you start your campaign to find work you need to plan your area of interest, both the type of work you want to offer and the location of your target market. Carry out some research and establish how many others are offering the same services, and try to differentiate your publicity material to appear more interesting than your opposition.

The amount of money you will need to start your business will materially depend on your choice of work. If you want to offer lawn mowing you will need at least two mowers, probably three different cutting blades including a wet weather collecting-style machine. These are very expensive items and will require suitable transport and security plus ongoing maintenance.

If you have the necessary skills, then I would suggest that you style your marketing and aim for those customers who want a "proper" gardener. Devise some leaflets, postcard size, with the words "head gardener" as the lead heading. This should attract attention if placed in a shop window or parish magazine.

Add words along the lines of: "After 10 years working as a head gardener I am in the process of setting up my own business offering traditional professional gardening, and I am seeking work in the X area." Be completely open about your wishes. Everyone will understand your passion and reasons.

If you add that you are offering half or full-day visits, on a weekly/monthly/ad hoc basis, you will discourage those who only want you for one hour, which is the least efficient use of your time. If you can fill four days per week on a regular round, try to leave one day a week free to undertake commissions - creating a vegetable garden, planting an orchard or restoring a rose garden, for example. Such one-off projects can be lucrative and attract more comment/work from friends or relations of your clients.

If you tender your resignation very early in January, and give more notice than your contract stipulates, your employer should appreciate the fact that you are going at the quietest time of the year. You could offer to work part-time, gradually phasing in your new customers, and lessen the time you spend in your old employment (charging whatever rate you both agree as a self-employed person).

Your old employer may wish to offer you part-time/seasonal work or recommend you to their friends and associates, thus it is important that you leave on friendly terms.

Resigning in January will mean you have used up your previous year's holiday entitlement and you can start your new career without any unfinished business. Delay starting out until the spring and you may find that people have already made arrangements for the year.

You should notify your local tax office of your intentions. They will issue you with a self-employed number and open new tax records for you. You should also ask them to check your tax records because you may have overpaid at some stage in your previous employment and could receive a welcome rebate.

Do not forget to take out public liability insurance, plus employers liability if you think you may need a hand on any of your projects - even volunteers need to be insured, with or without money changing hands. Be professional. Be successful.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant

Alan Sargent will be running a workshop at Parks & Gardens Live on 28 June at Woburn Abbey & Gardens. For more details and tickets to the event, go to


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