Alan Sargent: How to be a 'great' head gardener

Learning how to gain the respect of your staff and how to enthuse them are the top attributes that make a great, rather than good, head gardener, according to master gardener and consultant Alan Sargent.

Leading a workshop at Horticulture Week's Parks & Gardens Live showcase, held at Woburn Abbey & Gardens on 27 June, Sargent shared half-a-century of wisdom with a packed room of delegates.

He said the horticultural "heroes" he has met over 50 years in the industry all had "enthusiasm, unbounded knowledge and a willingness to share those skills with others" in common. They went further than managing, however expertly, the horticulture at their gardens, to cultivating their team as well. It would be a shame to have a wealth of horticultural knowledge and experience and not pass it on, he said. Although it might not come naturally, training is "the very lifeblood and essence of our industry".

"Horticulture must be as trialled an industry as medicine — there are constant trials," said Sargent, yet many horticulturists do not like formal education. So head gardeners should institute a rolling programme of education for gardeners as soon as possible. Instead of leaving it to staff to decide what indoor tasks to complete in bad weather, a great head gardener has a training programme that gardeners can pick up each time it is too cold or wet to work outside.

It is important to enthuse staff to learn more and not to assume that you know more or better than the people with whom you are working, he added. "Ask people to show you their technique, then compare to yours. Get them involved. Respect their knowledge. To enthuse your staff, make things happen. Get your bosses involved. Get the funding if you need it. Put people on the right courses."

Sargent advised making a conscious decision to build and mentor the gardens team to "become a super team". This creates a positive and enthusiastic environment at work and makes everything more meaningful. Be an inspiration, he urged.

He said employers often shy away from training because they fear better-trained staff will only move on. "In my mind it doesn't matter if people leave," he added. "People go with my blessing." Successful leavers will spread a positive reputation about your garden and your gardens team, and if it does not work out they can always return.

Basic laboratory

Sargent also advocated creating a basic laboratory somewhere on site where strange fungi, bugs, diseased wood, leaf types, flowers and seeds can be brought to be examined and identified.

Consider all the tasks your team needs to do and whether they could be done differently or by different people, he advised. Avoid carrying on doing things the same way simply because that is how they have always been done. Visiting other gardens is a good way to get new ideas and a fresh perspective, he added.

Individual gardeners can be given responsibility for a specific border or area and it can be named after them. Giving ownership in this way helps people to feel part of a strong team. Invite creativity, he recommended. Allow staff to be experimental in some areas, such as a wild flower meadow.

Sargent said he is often unpopular as a head gardener at first because he sets down clear rules, such as no mobile phones or listening to music while working. He advises being clear about what is expected from other gardeners from the start. Gardeners not distracted by smartphones or headphones are also much better assets for events, the subject of Sargent's second talk of the day.

He said the same issues need to be considered for opening your garden to visitors for the first time as running a big event. Without a very strong team effort, turning your garden into a garden attraction or running events is not easy.

First on your agenda should be a business plan, developed with the owners. Setting up a separate limited company with the head gardener as a director with voting rights is preferable. Then head gardeners should ensure that they understand insurance, traffic management, parking and signage. "These things will be writ large on your watch," said Sargent. "If an event runs into the evening, you're going to have a whole lot of problems. Drunken people are going to step on your beds. You need effective signs.

"The reason I was offered the job of head gardener at Goodwood was because Lord March wanted somebody who could handle events without going to pieces. Because of my background doing Chelsea and all the other shows, my attitude was 'you bend it, I'll mend it'. So if the park got trashed by the Festival of Speed, I'd pick it out and put it back together again in a fortnight. I learned a hell of a lot about running events and running events from the point of view of a head gardener. It's a big impact on your jobs."

Team spirit

Staff need team spirit even more when dealing with events and need to be given training to interact with the public, and, for those who are keen, training on being a tour guide. Consider where the hotspots are in your garden to which the team can lead the public and create clear routes. Decide what makes your garden different. "Careful research should provide you with a number of different opportunities to start a publicity campaign or allow you to establish a number of allied business openings based around the fame of the garden. Your recognition of the history of the garden may provide many such links."

Some may be resistant to change, said Sargent, so training is key. Arranging regular meetings with a timescale showing alternations to how the site will be operated and involving staff in decision-making will help them feel involved.

It is a good idea to put one person in charge of health and safety, and that person should do a walk around the site every morning, checking it for issues. "You need a health and safety assessment. You need things like woodchip, salt and rope," he said. Ensure you are prepared for extreme weather and potential problems on site.

When working with outside contractors, written instructions are crucial. He advocated a system of fines if contractors fail to comply with the rules — for example, if an event blows a huge hole in the lawn through letting off fireworks. "Efficiency is a key word," he added. "Have good systems in place and you will have no hiccups."

He concluded by assuring attendees that all the hard work will be well worth it. "I do recommend it," he stressed. "It does build morale and it is big business."

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