Maintenance matters, few thoughts on the maintenance gardener industry 

I went to the maintenance matters discussion panel, set by Nicola Gammon of Shoot and hosted by college, the panel included Helen Elks-Smith (garden designer, MSGD,MBALI), Gary Edwards (The Gardeners Guild)’ Gareth Manning (vice president of The Chartered institute Of Horticulture) Sophie Guinness ( Capel Manor College) and Caroline Tatham (The Cotswold Gardening School)

The meeting as a whole did raise a lot of questions about how we work together with garden designers to help make the garden become the beautiful oasis that they put to paper and of course this is a two way process, with the gardener needing guidance and direction from the designer, not just about the design of the garden but the ideas behind it, the height of shrubs and hedges, the sacrificial plants that have been added to fill gaps while other plants develop, plants that have sadly died and where they were sourced so the correct replacement can be found, plants that need replenishing like bulbs, annuals etc, not even touching on how to maintain the hard landscaping but this has to be a two way communication with the gardener also being able to feedback questions about plants that aren’t quite working together, ones that are becoming too dominant, just things like this, that without this two way communication, the whole of the design could be sadly lost. 

One of the designed gardens I manage
Biggest question had to be on finding the right gardener in the first place. Trouble is the whole garden maintenance industry  isnt regulated, so it makes it very easy to become a self employed garden care or maintenance person. All you need to do, is go to somewhere like B&Q and 45minutes come out with everything you need to be come a self employed gardener. experience and knowledge isn’t always required is it? After all we all can go into our gardens and garden can’t we? Yes we can indeed BUT we can all cook can’t we, but is your cooking good enough to be able to make a 12 course menu for 100 people? It’s the same in gardening, doing it as a business or as an employee, is different than being able to do it at home, in a relaxed environment. Not saying amateurs can’t be skilled in horticulture, indeed I know a few that will give the top professional a run for their money, but it’s different doing a job for money and you don’t get the same choices, 8 hours weeding on a wet day is never fun! Yes you can go for gardeners with qualifications like RHS hort2 and that will get you a gardener with good grounding in training but like any practical job, qualifications are only a base from you to work from, plants and gardens are living changing environment that doesn’t conform to the text books ever, that’s where experience kicks in. Sadly to gain that knowledge, you have to work hard for it and keep working, if anyone tells you that they know everything about gardening, then move on, they have given up wanting to learn. One of the Panel, said becoming a gardener needs more knowledge than being a doctor, just think about the areas of knowledge a good professional will need to do the job properly, plant identification, plant maintenance, pest,diseases and health, tool and equipment knowledge, soil and soil care knowledge, different styles of gardens, health and safety, admin and advertising skills, tree knowledge, garden management skills, chemical knowledge, laws and regulations, the list is endless. So much knowledge is needed to become a skilled gardener, Shoots excellent plant list does help you learning new plants and having all the information in one place, linked to a clients garden, used well, it is a brilliant learning tool. But we also need to start thinking about horticulture as a skilled valued job, up there with all the other skilled jobs and not a job that just the dumbest in the class get advised to take, but one that has so many fine branches that need so much knowledge and understanding, let’s celebrate the gardener and what they bring to us.

So many skills needed to be able to carry out the job from propagation to planning
That leads me to the next thing and that is the dreaded ‘hourly rate’! This is my biggest bug bear, just purely on the misunderstanding of what paying the hourly rate is. It shouldn’t ever get confused with a salaried persons rate, this is the rate your boss pays you for your work, the way it should be thought about is what your boss charges you out for, that rate covers all the companies expenses and a profit margin and that’s the rate you are paying a self employed person for. You are paying for the persons time, experience, knowledge, equipment (hand tools and machines) purchases now and the future, phones, internet, computers, repairs, storage costs, fuel, transport, clothing, safety clothing, training, admin help, taxes, national insurance, accountant fees, I would go on as the list is almost endless! That’s what you are paying for. Everyone’s cost is different, from what they pay out to what they want to earn or need to earn to keep the wolves from the door. Let’s not also forget the amount of time looking at work, writing up quotes, phone calls, social media, advertising, reading, picking up materials that we all do that isn’t chargeable to anyone, comes as part of running a business, can be as little as 1hr per night or 4hrs, all unpaid on top of a working day. Maybe it shouldn’t be, what we should be doing is adding this admin time to our overall costings for running a business as a whole and like any larger business, pass this cost back into the money we charge. Also charge should also reflex that persons knowledge and skill base, pointless comparing the hourly rate of 2 people with vastly different experiences. Not moaning but just saying it ain’t easy at the end of the day, long hours are the norm. Not even touched on different people work at different rates, say joe bloggs down the road charges £15per hour and I charge £25, takes joe 6 hours to do the job costing you £90, I manage to do it in 3hrs costing £75, value for money has changed a little bit hasn’t?

Leading on nicely to the timing of these events, there’s always an argument about timing for self employed gardeners and not taking time off work to attend such events, losing money etc, I do get it, with the day’s loss of earning and train fare, oh and not forgetting food, it cost me a fair packet to attend  but it’s money I had planned to spend and time off I allowed myself to take when I worked out my amount I needed to charge. It’s time and money well worth spending, both learning new things, ways of work and networking. It’s about thinking this as a career and taking time out to learn new things, whether it’s a day out visiting a garden, a training course, or attending an event like this. It is all things to add to your knowledge base. We need to start thinking about these events less as money lost more as knowledge gained! Same also can be said about joining organisations like The Gardeners Guild, The Chartered Institute of Horticulture, The Professional Garden Consultant Association, The APL etc, just another step on the internal career ladder of the Self employed gardener, giving you access to so much information for you too achieve your long time goals.

It is also very important to get a gardener who not only understands the garden and it’s aims but also feels comfortable in handling the size of the garden and is able to manage to work both to the clients requirements and also to the requirements of the plants and garden, pretty easy in a smaller garden but the larger size garden does need a slightly more different skill set, managing the garden as a whole instead of small sections, balancing all aspects of the garden needs instead of just a small bit that they like doing. All it takes is an ability to take a step backwards and plan, project management is an ideal skill to have.

There is so much more I could say, yes it is something I am very passionate about and it is because I have pride in my industry and my career pathway, I hate seeing gardens ruined by poor workmanship. things do need to change within the industry, we need to understand more that is a career. We need to start working closer together and build more of a working relationship between garden care, designers and landscapers, and I did come away from the day away feeling more positive about the future, things aren’t going to happen over night but it’s a start and with the right people (as there is) I have the feeling it could bring change.

Pruning is just one of the highly skilled parts of the job

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Nick says:

    A well thought out and considered post although you are probably preaching to the converted . It has always seemed the case that people ( us ) will grumble but pay £30 – £40 / hour to a plumber , to have the car serviced or even if you work it out to have our hair cut but want the garden maintained for £10 / hour .

    1. thomashort says:

      Thank you Nick, I think I am but it’s also great that we all start talking about it, we can then start giving us a bit of self believe and start to charge more and become more appreciated within our trade

  2. David Stone says:

    So many important nails, and all hit firmly on the head! Experience is important, but takes time (and the opportunity to make mistakes) to acquire. Experience plus ability is, however, everything. Even after a lifetime as a professional gardener, I am still learning and still passing on the knowledge of my experience to others. I am convinced that there is a massive pool of experience out there just waiting to be tapped, but how do we access it, and how do we share it about? Perhaps via blogs like this one.
    Keep up the good work, Tom, and, yes! Be passionate! It shows that you care for the future of our honourable and under-rated profession!

    1. thomashort says:

      Thank you Dad 😀😀😀 that’s the thing isn’t we all make mistakes it’s what you learn from them that is important, indeed I think you learn more from mistakes than you ever do from just being taught. There is a huge pool out there and it’s also getting others to realise how much they know and have learnt during their lifetimes, the Japanese gardener culture is ideal in a lot of ways and the older more experienced gardeners are used as consultants still teaching the 40-50yr olds. Would love to think my little bits of writing are helping someone somewhere 😀

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