Sargent's solutions - mentorship

Alan Sargent explains how mentorship can help company employees as well as self-employed horticulturists aiming to learn more about their chosen trade.

I have received several questions and comments since writing this column all asking more or less the same question but never quite in a manner that could warrant a direct answer, yet all touching on the same subject - how to both encourage, and be encouraged by others, in learning more about the huge range of knowledge that we must have to succeed as horticulturists.

This desire is universal, from growers to nurserymen, designers and landscapers, arborists to maintenance gardeners, both employed and self employed, it seems that once you leave college, unless you are extremely fortunate in securing work with an enlightened employer, you are pretty much on your own.

Providing answers

Modern technology provides many answers but, unless you know the right question, how do you know whether the answer you seek is correct - not only in reality but with regard to your personal circumstances? Excellent forums may be found on the internet with helpful advice from fellow gardeners and growers, yet they only form a small part of that which is essential.

If you happen to secure sound advice one day, and follow the path specified for that question, unless you manage to obtain equally sound advice for the next stage you could easily go off on the wrong track, perhaps even exacerbated by the original advice. This of course means that unless the chosen advice is from the same person, who will have at least a little knowledge of your circumstances having guided you on step one, the second piece of the puzzle may not fit the first.

An enlightened employer will wish to encourage your career with their company because it will further their own interests in having that person following a training programme. From day one, they will have teamed you up with a responsible and suitable fellow team member with instructions to show you the ropes. This should be allowed to extend almost into a partnership between two employees, each bouncing ideas off the other, as both career paths merge.

It is more difficult for self-employed people, especially one-man bands, a term that covers not only sole workers but those small firms that may have a few staff members but only one boss. Growers, landscapers, garden designers, gardeners of every shade and hue, most of us starting out as one and diversifying as we go along to become another.

Mutual support

Each sector of the industry has different groups, associations or guilds with the aforementioned forums forming a strong bond between those relatively few active members who frequent the sites. Some will be very proactive and not necessarily bound to one sector.

Several offer a great deal of wisdom and succour to individuals seeking help with a diverse range of problems, in a very friendly and supportive manner.

However, a much stronger benefit may be obtained person-to-person, perhaps with a newcomer to a sector of the trade being taken under the wing of an experienced person who has spent many years in the same sector as the "newbie". This relationship is correctly called mentorship, with the mentor training their protege, getting to know and understand all aspects of the protege's lifestyle/stage in a frank and open manner, including their financial situation and any potential impediments to their career path.

Only through such disclosure can a mentor be effective. If the protege pretends that circumstances are at variance to reality, fails to open their books or show their insurance documents and inherent limitations or admit to any county court judgements - anything that may materially effect the advice offered - then the relationship will fail.

If, however, the right protege is able to make contact with a suitable mentor and both parties agree to the chosen path, with each willing to be open and honest in respect of what they expect from the other, a mutually beneficial personal contract can transform both businesses.

Learning opportunities

The protege may at first sight appear to be the winner in this relationship, but a good mentor will enjoy and welcome the opportunity to look carefully at the way his or her business is operating and perhaps make suitable adjustments, maybe with involvement by the pupil.

After more than 45 years in the landscape/design industry, I still learn more and more each day. Not simply about plants, pests and diseases, but about the industry as a whole.

New laws come on stream, new tools and equipment, new ideas, old ideas are resurrected, new skills learned (over the past six years I have become a pretty effective florist, winning our village cup every year) and thoughts given to the future well-being of our wonderful trade.

To secure yourself a mentor, simply check out your chosen hero or heroine and compile a well-written letter, marked "private and personal". Be very clear and specific in your request, and ask in plain words whether they would consider advising you on your career path. Make it obvious that you are their first and only choice, asking only that they meet with you to see whether they could and would help. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Email your questions to:

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant. His latest book, The Landscaper's Survival Manual, is now available from

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