Sargent's solutions - On the value of good staff

The importance of highly skilled senior gardens staff is overlooked in the rush to make cost savings, Alan Sargent warns.

A worrying phenomenon has become increasingly apparent within the realms of senior and head gardeners employed at a variety of different estates with other departments sharing the work of maintaining the grounds. During the past three years or so, what at first appeared to me to be a fairly unusual set of circumstances is now more widespread. I refer to the lack of comprehension of some owners and directors (or boards running the properties) in the vital works carried out by skilled head gardeners and the paramount importance of retaining those irreplaceable talents.

Typically, these estates — places of learning, sporting estates and commercial properties — have traditionally employed a gardens team, greenkeepers/grounds team and/or land management departments to run the different aspects of the site, each as separate entities using their own specialised equipment and skills suited to each trade, and headed by qualified and experienced leaders. The very titles of each were considered to be the pinnacle of someone’s career. Head gardener, head greenkeeper, head of grounds or perhaps head of land area management — all of unequivocal status with the kudos and responsibility that went with them.

I have to be careful not to mention names or places, but in one instance in which I became involved as an independent consultant, a well-known and highly regarded garden that was open to the public and hosted many weddings and other events, both annual and shows, became compelled to save money.

The board made a decision to make the head gardener redundant and rely on the other gardens staff plus a group of volunteers to manage the site. The opportunity to save £40,000 was too great and in one simple move they could make this significant financial gain.

The result was a disaster, with the staff unable to cope without instruction. They were told to check back and use previous diaries and notes to ascertain which jobs should be worked on each month and to cope as best they could. The volunteers were rudderless and very soon most had given up and moved to other stately gardens where they could continue with their training.

Costly savings

Other sites have made similar decisions, either shedding experienced head gardeners to make savings or not replacing those who have either left or retired, and placing another head of department (either greenkeepers or grounds departments) in charge of the gardens team thinking there is little or no difference in the skills set required. After all, grass is grass and plants are plants — where’s the problem?

Why replace a head gardener when they are becoming increasingly difficult to find and an expensive luxury we can do without?

I have never yet come across an estate that has successfully managed to integrate gardeners and a grounds team. Both are simply too specialised to co-exist in the same team. Working together as a joint-venture group, with the gardeners helping with, say, hedge cutting, and the grounds team helping with cutting the larger areas of lawns, where their super sharp, fine cutting greens machines can make a superb job of mowing the most prestigious areas to "front of house", is a sensible use of site assets.

But gardeners are growers, planners, producers and custodians of trees and shrubs, many of which may be very rare or ancient, requiring specialised skills and techniques learned and practised for many years. Greenkeepers are agronomists, skilled in the care of fine turf and the use of highly complex and expensive machinery. Both are highly talented skill sets, with recognition of the importance of long-term planning.

Recruitment issues

I agree that it is becoming more difficult to find suitable head gardeners in the current climate. Part of my work as a consultant is to find, interview and place new head gardeners for very prestigious sites. I am not an agent. I work only for those who seek assistance with the work involved in this procurement.

While there are those with the horticultural talent required to maintain sites, there are many more who lack experience in managing a department, with so many diverse laws and rules governing the well-being of the gardens, staff, budgets, site evaluation, forward planning and a host of other non-gardening yet fundamental aspects of running a modern gardens department.

Because these skills are not as finely honed as they should be, head gardeners have instead become increasingly reliant on other departments (or passing problems on to the owners) including human resources and the board of directors to take over everyday problems — especially dealing with staff gripes and matters concerning health and safety or other legal issues, instead of dealing with them confidently and within their own department. The simplest of issues now involve too many other people and old-fashioned common sense is lost, leaving head gardeners appearing weak and insecure in their position.

It is this loss of confidence that leads so many talented head gardeners to leave their jobs and seek new less-stressed opportunities. I suggest that managing your department and proving your ability to do deal with all aspects of your team will become even more important to those seeking employment, certainly when facing an interview panel. Horticultural knowledge is very important. The ability to build, train, enthuse, respect and manage your team is perhaps even more important.

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