Career profile - Head Gardener, Private Estate

Working for private estate owners, a head gardener is responsible for year-round management. In many cases, the gardens are vast — made up of many hectares of lawns, woodlands, borders, kitchen/walled gardens and glasshouses. The head gardener is also often in charge of under gardeners who help with the busy seasonal schedule. They might also have to design and plant new areas and features.

What is best about being a head gardener for a private estate?

"It’s a very creative job," says Beverley Aspinall, owner of the Oxnead Hall estate in Norfolk. "You have to have a real visual impression of where you are taking the garden in the long and short term." Viscount Ashbrook, owner of Arley Hall in Cheshire and patron of the Professional Gardeners’ Guild, notes that some private estate owners leave a huge amount of responsibility to the head gardener. "Some like that kind of arrangement. They love the freedom and feeling of authority that gives them. But my wife and I take a close interest in what’s going on in the garden. We have always worked with the head gardener. It’s a sort of partnership."

What skills, attributes, knowledge and experience are most in demand for this role in the recruitment market at the moment — and why?

Practical horticultural knowledge

"Above all, you need horticultural knowledge," Aspinall maintains. "It’s something that has to be learned. You have to show employers that you have academic and practical experience."

Creative vision

"Gardening is a very long-term activity," notes Aspinall. "Something that you plant this year you might not see flower for another three or four years."

Design and planning skills

Aspinall says a head gardener also needs to understand design at all levels — from planting an avenue or renovating a woodland to deciding which plants go where in a border.

People/management skills

As head gardeners often have to direct several under gardeners, Ashbrook says: "The head gardener has also to relate to the owners, so they have to be flexible." Aspinall adds: "You have to manage other people — and we, the owners, have ideas of what we want so the head gardener has to liaise with us and communicate that to their team."

IT skills

Ashbrook says it is "very helpful if you can make a garden plan on the computer". Aspinall adds: "You need spreadsheets to keep track of all of the activity in the garden. It also helps to keep a record of what works."

Ancillary/health and safety skills

Aspinall says head gardeners carry out and manage lots of ancillary skills such as mowing, so they need to be able to safely operate heavy machinery.

What sort of qualifications and experience would you need to see from a candidate to be convinced that they possess these qualities?

Both Aspinall and Ashbrook say the level of experience and qualifications needed depend on the size and type of the garden. "If it’s an important garden, the more qualifications the better," says Ashbrook. His current head gardener has the equivalent to a degree in horticulture and in the past he has employed a head gardener with a Kew diploma. Aspinall says: "It’s not as straightforward as doing A levels and gaining a degree. I look for some sort of academic qualification. Our garden is 15 acres so a head gardener needs a wide range of knowledge. We would say 10 years as a gardener and three or four
as a head gardener is the minimum."

Are any of the skills that are in demand transferable from any other horticulture roles?

"I am sure you could move to the role of head gardener from other horticulture roles," says Ashbrook. "It’s all gardening, whether you are growing roses on a private garden or on a corporate site, and people do transfer from one to the other." Aspinall adds: "Yes, all of those types of skills would be transferable. The only difference is the upward management. Equally, having been a head gardener for a private estate there are all sorts of other roles you can get into."

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