Sargent's Solutions: What is the difference between a head gardener and gardens manager? Part 1

In the first of a two-part article, Alan Sargent looks at the functions of the head gardener and gardens manager roles

Alan Sargent: Image HW
Alan Sargent: Image HW
I have been asked, by several people to explain the difference between a head gardener and gardens manager. Both terms are used for the same job responsibilities and are confusing. Is there a difference and, if so, what is it?

This is a complex question because it covers such a wide range of employment situations, and I will make my proposals and personal observations on the subject and it will have to be spread over two articles. I have thought about trying to divide my comments into two separate features, but have decided to offer one lengthy reply over two columns to avoid more confusion.

It must be recognised that job advertisements are one of the primary causes of confusion, usually because the author did not fully appreciate the precise description of their requirements and simply used an all-encompassing phrase in the hope that it would attract the "right" applicants. Hence head gardener becomes a synonym of gardens manager in their eyes.

Leaving that issue aside for now, there is an ever growing recognition on some larger estates for the need to expand into areas that may be considered garden-orientated and therefore should be dealt with by a head gardener. I am thinking of those who have successfully diversified into a wide range of new activities — new in the sense that the Estate was never set up to cope with the complex needs of modern life.

These expansions, if I may use that phrase, often take rise from changes in the lifestyle or life stage of the owners. Families that may have for generations lived and worked the site as a garden estate, partly funded by personal income, perhaps combined with a farm or forestry element, now find the need to increase funds to cover ever-growing wage costs and overheads.

Commercial world

This change may happen quite rapidly. If a new generation takes control of the estate and decides to move away from traditional "family" methods of working, into a commercial business world whereby every member of staff — especially senior employees such as head gardeners — is suddenly obliged to act in a commercial manner.

On such occasions it is not unusual for the head gardener to discover that sound horticultural practice, which has been time-honoured for many years, is now subject to strict financial constraints and budgetary understanding that has never been part of the traditional responsibilities of the position.

A board of directors is formed, with perhaps a member of the family as chair, and every part of the estate is now operated as a business, with each sector either becoming an income stream (such as farm or forestry) or a cost centre (gardens department). Income streams provide money into the estate and future finances are allocated to cover capital expenditure and taxes, while the cost centre appears to become a financial drain on the estate.

This is not a correct analysis because the gardens department costs help to offset the profits and tax liability of the estate. Without attractive gardens, the profitability of the estate would not be as great. Unless the grounds are neat and tidy, wedding parties and other functions would not wish to come and spend their money.

Unless the head gardener learns to adapt and become a manager, he or she will probably find that a new level of hierarchy is put in place and a gardens manager is sought. The job description written for the new employee will major on efficient management of time and labour as well as working knowledge of spreadsheets and company law. Health and safety policy will need to be clearly understood and new policies produced by the gardens manager along with reams of other management matters.

In some case, the gardens manager may have only a cursory knowledge of horticulture, having attended an estates or agricultural college or passed a suitable degree at university.

I have heard it said on more than one occasion that the head gardener could not come to terms with the new regime and refused to make any changes at all, except with the greatest reluctance.

This is not an uncommon scenario and, while it may not accurately relate to any situation you may have encountered, it is a true anecdote and one that serves to illustrate the difference between one and the other, even though you may only recognise certain elements of the story.

In complete charge

Essentially, a head gardener should be in complete charge of the garden. This includes taking responsibility for the day-to-day operations, plans, ordering of materials and supplies, decision making, minor purchases without reference to anyone else (hold a cash till and be authorised to spend up to a certain amount on minor items).

The head gardener should be in charge of the day-to-day running of the staff, including managing the holiday roster, making decisions on the running of site operations and staff allocation.

Normally, a head gardener would report directly to the owner — everything depends on the size and nature of the garden — or to a line manager, who may be the general works manager, on a weekly basis. Regular meetings should be held, with the staff in general and owners in particular, where monthly plans are drawn up and implemented.

I will continue this article in next month’s issue by describing the transition from head gardener to gardens manager.

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