Horticulture Week Podcast: A life in professional gardening with Alan Mason of the Professional Gardeners Guild

Matthew Appleby and Alan Mason

Garden designer and professional gardener Alan Mason was a founder member of the Professional Gardeners’ Guild. He became chairman 45 years later, taking over from Tony Arnold in September 2022.

"I avoided being chairman for as long as possible", he says. " I was vice chairman. I had been treasurer. I had been secretary, but it was never my desire to become chairman. It just happened."

After stepping in as interim chair, he has enjoyed the support of the "fabulous team" on the committee around him and says "in the last 12 months particularly there have been some very exciting developments. It's a great place to be at the moment."

He talks about the focus for the Guild, which, as with all trade associations, is how to drive up the membership and also how best to serve it.

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The importance of visiting each others gardens and learning ways to cope with pest and diseases, planting tips and the like from other head gardeners is still key: "There's more information to be gleaned from other head gardeners than there is from Google."

He wanted to be a footballer, but while waiting for his break, began a four-year horticultural apprenticeship at a hospital with studied with the Institute of Groundsmanship.

"I thought I might become a groundsman. Surely I'll get spotted kicking a football at lunchtime. I'll be playing for England in a fortnight. It never happened. But while I did the apprenticeship, we did four-years day release at Askham Bryan College and I found I enjoyed it" .

After completing his studies he landed the job of head gardener at Bramham Park, a French style garden where in some ways, his learning was just beginning: "I always said I learnt more in the first six months as a head gardener than I had in eight years at college. And that's not meant to be a slur on what they taught me at Askham Bryan. It's just that when you're in position, you have to learn."

Castle Howard's Brian Hutchinson formed the Professional Gardeners Guild around this time and Alan was offered the gardener's manager's job at Harewood House which is where he got his TV break when Yorkshire TV started filming there.

"I actually ended up with 15 years on the television with initially Yorkshire TV and Channel 4, Anglia and for a short time BBC."

After leaving Harewood in 1987 he set up a garden design business, got a contract in France, bought a 14th century manor house set in eight and a half acres and decided to create a garden there which Yorkshire TV (later on Channel 4) turned into Le Manoir "and this was 25 years before Escape to the Chateau".

Alan talks about PGG's work with horticultural charity Perennial and how he's looking to make links with other garden organisations including National Trust and Historic Houses.

He's also involved with encouraging people into the industry, via traineeships  in collaboration with English Heritage, Historic and Botanic Gardens Trainee Programme and the MacRobert Trust. 

"It's so easy just to become an insular little group for head gardeners. And we don't want that at all. We want to be what Brian Hutchinson thought we should be at the very start, great for our own members, learning from each other."

Alan talks about his view on pay grades for gardeners, financial pressures and how, post-Covid, many places have replaced professionals with volunteers.

"What the PGG does is offer a salaries and rates guideline...you can use that guideline to show to your employer...and very often it does help with negotiation.

"It is a negotiating tool, but it will never be perfect. But it is a great assistance. And I know that other professional bodies look to the PGG for our salaries and rates guideline and use it as a good example.

Presenter: HortWeek editor Matthew Appleby
Producer: HortWeek digital content manager Christina Taylor

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