Sargent's solutions - protecting your professional integrity

There is a way to ensure your clients appreciate that you are more than just a general dogsbody, Alan Sargent advises.

I am thoroughly fed up with people thinking that being a gardener means that I empty bins, collect children from school and clean out gutters. I am a gardener. Is there any name or phrase that you can think of to get that across to my clients?

Your heartfelt plea is echoing around the country. It is a strange phenomenon that customers seem to think that by employing a gardener they are also hiring a general dogsbody.

Polish the car, clean out the rabbits, backwash the swimming pool, chop the kindling wood, deliver parcels to the Post Office — they all seem to come under the gardener’s duties. Never mind that he/she has a garden to maintain. After all, gardening is fun. Why on earth gardeners would want paying to do what is surely a pleasant hobby is often beyond the comprehension of some clients, who think the gardener should be happy just to potter in the vegetable garden.

This is a very old problem and there are so many influences that shape the way some people think. Yes, they enjoy working in the garden and riding around on the lawn tractor is better than the fun fair. Pulling up a few weeds and leaving them for the gardener is OK because they need to find something to do — and, after all, they let them grow in the first place.

Television programmes, especially makeover shows, only show the fun part of the project, often glossing over the fact that the real hard work is time-consuming and involves a lot of forethought in logistics and site management.

How often, when giving a price for a project, do the producers leave out the labour costs altogether?

Other duties

I understand that you are a self-employed gardener working in several places during each week and are expected to maintain the grounds in good order, come rain or shine. When you are obliged to carry out "other duties", this is time taken away from your core business of gardening.

If you start and maintain job sheets or time-related diaries at each site showing start times and durations of various duties on a regular basis, after a couple of months you will have enough data to show a work pattern. Identify and schedule those tasks that are not garden-related and record the time taken. It is then a simple matter to actually prove, in black and white, the effect on your working life that such diversions create.

You could also produce a working pattern programme that would be ideal for the garden. How many hours per month should be spent on borders? How many on mowing, strimming, hedge cutting, etc? By working out percentages and proving the figures, you should then educate your client regarding the effects on your workload of non-gardening projects.

The term "gardener" is often treated almost as a description of someone who is partially skilled at best. OK, so they can mow the lawn and edge the borders, but proper gardeners do not work in small domestic plots.

Real gardeners are only found in proper gardens such as stately homes. Real gardeners are head gardeners, with lots of staff running around carrying out their instructions. Real gardeners do not arrive in vans and blow leaves or strim the rough grass. These are just "jobbing gardeners", not proper ones, even if they call themselves qualified gardeners.

There have been many attempts over the years to try to raise the profile and awareness of the value of skilled gardeners, but so many times stories abound of mediocre or substandard workmanship, setting our cause back to square one. Facebook and the media are full of film clips showing idiotic behaviour and dangerous practices. I suggest that you follow the principles described above, maintain a weekly diary and prove the hours involved.

Public image

Trying to find a word to get away from this public perception is more difficult and it will take many gardeners working together to destroy this image of a dogsbody. Various titles have been suggested in the past. One such was "craft gardener". Others included "qualified gardener" and "professional gardener". All are too subjective or alien to the minds of our customers. What is a craft gardener? I do not need one of those. Qualified or professional? Too expensive or fussy.

If enough gardeners started to call themselves "career gardeners" — someone who has learned a great deal, goes on every course available, constantly strives to improve their knowledge of what is the most wide-ranging and complex of sciences and always gaining more experience by achieving accreditation and meritorious certificates, with no end in sight towards their goal of becoming master gardeners — customers might then begin to appreciate it, but only if you educate them that gardening is a huge subject. It involves so many different sciences, techniques and skills that one could never stop learning.

A career gardener is someone who understands the complexity of the science of nature and is also a highly skilled artisan. Gardening is a science without boundaries. Add that epitaph to the bottom of your headed notepaper and be proud to be a part of a wonderful industry.

At least you will have the satisfaction of knowing that if you follow that mantra throughout your life you may end your career as a well-paid professional gardens consultant, perhaps employing your own gardener. 

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant and founder of the Professional Garden Consultants Association.


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