Every gardens manager knows that their greatest asset is their staff. No matter which sector you represent, you will be blessed or otherwise with the workers under your control. If you are a new manager, you will have to establish the level of knowledge your labour force really possesses.
This may seem a strange statement, but some firms or gardens may have been paying lip service to training — simply sending staff on courses that have little practical use unless that training is continued every day thereafter — and convincing themselves that their staff are fully trained because they have been on a course and have the certificate to prove it.
I am a firm believer in constant training — every day, every opportunity. Talk to your team, especially if you work alongside them. Do not do anything without being prepared to explain to them what you are doing and why you are doing it in that particular way.
Perhaps their previous experience is different from yours and you do not approve of their current methods. If you explain yourself, you will gain the respect of the team, and once you have that respectful authority, you will be able to train them more easily.
Make your case clearly
You need to make your case clearly, especially if you are not happy with their techniques. Take pruning as a classic example. How many times do you see people pruning roses with a hedge cutter — lopping off next year’s fruiting wood from fruit trees and bushes, just to make the plants "look right" and to make the job quicker?
Some aspects of training are self evident. No one should be allowed near a mower, let alone operate one, unless they have proven themselves capable of handling it, setting it up correctly for different cutting heights and maintaining the machine.
I do not care how many certificates a person holds, if they are not able to look after and have respect for a machine — its ability to be very dangerous and expensive to repair — then they should not be permitted to use it. I appreciate that it is very difficult to stop people who may have had years working in the garden and think they know everything, but if you are really not happy, you must express your reservations. In some cases, it may be politic to send them on a refresher course to earn a fresh certificate. It may be a salutary lesson to them.
There is no reason why you and your employers cannot authorise individuals to operate certain equipment regardless of existing licences or certificates. You may consider a meritorious system that, subject to your employer’s approval, you reward staff according to ability.
For instance, if someone passes a first aid course and becomes a qualified first-aider, such a person is of great value to the firm in case of emergency. A pay increase of around £100 per annum should be made to recognise that value. Other useful, often essential certificated skills, include ladder training, working at height, access platform (cherry pickers) lorries, safe use of strimmers, chainsaw (various operations) — a whole host of such skills requiring formal documentation. Each may be rewarded in a similar manner. Apart from the financial benefits to the employee and employer, copies of certificates should be displayed in the mess room.
If one person is the approved and qualified operator of a particular piece of equipment, others should be prepared to act as labour on any project. They may be the qualified person on another job, and the previous leader becomes the labourer. This system is regularly used in landscape companies, where multi-skilled workforces assist each other as required, and maximum use of the team is thus of benefit to the whole team. Using the carrot-and-stick approach to becoming the approved site operator, regardless of current certificates, you will find people very willing to be trained.
Not all staff members are able to undertake such formal training, however, due to learning difficulties or disability. In these cases, the estate approved system comes into its own. There is no reason why someone who is excellent at watering — which I believe to be quite an art form if properly carried out — or weeding cannot be rewarded both financially but also through estate certificates.
Training is another word for encouragement in my book and the greater the encouragement, by whatever means, the greater the interest. The better trained your team becomes, the more efficient and proud each individual feels and the better the garden will become.
Inductions and introductions, perhaps with seasonal workers, students, volunteers or new staff from other departments, become part of the training experience. If you have a new staff member on your team, introduce them to the garden and the team in an unhurried and friendly way. Remember — first impressions. Find the time to welcome them properly.
Subject to the suitability of both newcomer and existing staff member, appoint a mentor with clear instructions to look after and out for the newcomer. Make sure that the existing staff member knows this is a position of responsibility and thank them for being helpful. This mentorship should continue as long as necessary and if they make a great partnership for the future, all well and good.
Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant with 40 years’ experience as a designer, contractor, head gardener, author and trainer. His book, Head Gardener’s Survival Manual on running a garden effectively and efficiently can be ordered via www.alansargent.co.uk.