Friday, April 8, 2016

Gardener Abuse

Gardeners are underpaid. We all know that. They are also often not understood. All too often I have been involved professionally with a garden where garden staff are employed but those employing them only have the dimmest idea of what they do and even less of why they do it. Garden staff, of course, work outside – so tend to be in isolation from both any other staff employed or their employers. They work with living things in an environment which is never predictable, and which inevitably remains mysterious to those employing them. 

Of course people who are employed, outside, doing things which remain a mystery, they will get asked to do other things, which appear to those in charge to be a) more urgent, and b) less of a mystery. In my experience of working with both large garden owners and gardeners I have come across too many examples of what could be called 'gardener abuse'. This takes many forms.
In many cases this abuse is exacerbated by the problems caused by employers with TMM (Too Much Money). Just because someone has been very successful in their particular field, i.e. has made a pile, in no way reflects on their abilities in any other field. The extremely successful/wealthy are often dysfunctional and chaotic in fields other than that in which they have succeeded – indeed are often more so, or they marry dysfunctional and chaotic people, or employ likewise. Having lots of money and being D&C can produce some pretty spectacular results.

General Dogsbody
Its winter and there are pile of chairs in the great hall that need moving back into storage after that wedding party. There can't be anything useful the gardener is doing. Get him to move them. Ditto painting, odd DIY.
As any gardener can tell you, there are plenty of things to do in winter. Try telling the average employer-of-a-gardener that and their eyes begin to glaze over. You can see they don't believe you.

Waste Disposal
Gardens are big places, often big enough to bury, or at least hide, large quantities of unwanted building materials or other debris, which the local authority rather inconsiderately charge for removing. And of course there is the gardener who, because he/she spends all their time outside knows the best places to bury or hide them. Or burn them. I once had dealings with a nursing home (since closed down) where one of the gardener's weekly jobs was to take away and burn all the old incontinence nappies from the residents. Yes, really.

Vehicle management
One thing those afflicted by TMM tend to do is to buy too many cars. These need to be taken out every now and again and 'exercised', though not as much as horses of course. Some gardeners quite enjoy taking the Bentley out for a spin every now and again, but it is not exactly horticulture. Sometimes it all gets a bit too much. I once visited a garden where, in an out of the way corner, I came across a Hummer parked next to a Ferrari: all their tyres were flat, they were covered in leaves, and grass was beginning to grow on the tarmac around them.

Animal Husbandry
The gardener is outside all the time, as are the animals, so it seems reasonable enough for the former to look after the latter. Not all the time of course, just sometimes. Animals are sometimes bought and installed without much thinking through basic welfare provision, like access to water or food; inevitably it is the gardener who notices and has to deal with the situation. Animals tend to escape and if they are sheep or horses, tend to gravitate to the nice juicy vegetables or tasty perennials which the gardener has responsibility for, necessitating the gardener spending rather more time on fencing than gardening.

Packing the children off to boarding school may strike the rest of us as callous (and is something which tends to horrify non-Brits), but at least (these days) they are kept amused, safe and stimulated at school. Not always so if they are at home, especially home and alone. I sometimes think that many of the children of the extremely wealthy are so neglected there should be a charity especially for them, a bit like the charities that have been established in India to look after the children of drug-addicted western hippies. So it is the gardener they hang around, either because they are the only other human being on the premises, or because the housekeeper has had enough of them hanging around their ankles and sent them outside. Fine, if they can be gotten interested in what the gardener is doing and in some cases this can be the beginning of a great gardening life, but not so fine if they can't be. Or, if they are, as I have heard more than once, “psychotic spoiled brats” who actually have to be supervised if they are not to wreak havoc.

Actually this is not so much a problem for the gardener, as the garden designer or consultant, who is more likely to be seen as a social equal and therefore someone who one can pour out one's problems to, especially if one is a neglected spouse (let's face it, usually a wife), abandoned in a vast house, with no neighbours in sight, with a load of responsibility you never wanted (managing the gardener for a start) and an overstocked drinks cabinet.

Garden Design
The distinctions between what a garden designer does and a gardener does are pretty hazy to people who don't really know what goes on outside anyway. The gardener comes in every day, plants stuff, grows stuff, they can do something with that new bit half way up the drive can't they? One could get a designer in, but that would be expensive, better get the gardener to do it.

The other side of the story
There are the lucky few who garden for employers who they almost never see, but who pay them well, resource the garden well, let them plant what they want and trust them with property while they are away (which is most of the time). The gardener may feel a bit unappreciated but if they have the run of an enormous house, can have their friends round every now and again, have lots of expensive kit to charge around the acres in, who can complain?

Then there are the employers who are dedicated gardeners themselves, who work their socks off, the ones who go to parties painfully aware of the dirt beneath their fingernails they can't quite get out, but who are afflicted by hopeless gardeners, who came with good references and solid CVs, who interviewed well, but are actually.... well what do they do all day? Sacking them is difficult because of employment protection legislation. 

Finally, there are those, not that common, but oh so wonderful when you do come across them, employer-gardener relationships which are truly synergistic: mutual trust, shared interest, goals you both agree on and understand. These have made some of the very best gardens.


Renate Waas said...

Dear Noel,
I had a pretty good laugh with that one - but... oh yes ... sometimes :-)
I´m lucky to have really nice, interested customers. But it was a very long way to get there.
Fortunately our job is so very satisfying.
Greetings from munich - Renate

Jillsa! said...

Noel, thank you for posting this. Virtually every single point you raise resonated with me. And some! In twenty years of professional gardening, garden design and landscaping the only thing I haven't been expected to do was take out the Bentley! Sadly the ill-informed do not appreciate the skills, expertise and experience that we as an industry are required to call on every single day. Botany, geology, meteorology, physics, mathematics, engineering, all walk hand in hand with planting, pruning, sowing, growing, cutting, tidying, to list but a fraction of the multifaceted tasks. Add that to customers being devoid of common sense about how long things take, how much work is actually involved and also how physically draining it can be, it amazes me there are any of us suckers left in the industry at all. Perhaps we are our own worst enemies.
A day planting up a garden is a heavy duty commitment. But it doesn't start and finish there. For some, there is firstly designing to do, plants and materials to order often from several or many sources, plants to look after prior to planting if deliveries cannot be synchronised, loading of trucks, planting (which in truth is the best part) and finally the clearing up and unloading. Big chunks of this are not seen by the customer so surely cannot possibly be chargeable can they? Er, hello? Am I a charity? I think not!
It's a hell of a job but Mother Nature is a wonderful creature and responds to our interference beautifully and magically.
I wouldn't change what I do for the world but I won't be walked over either. said...

Always an emotive subject Noel. Mary keen also wrote an article in the Telegraph back in 2011. The sentence I always remember; "Does any other skilled job require people to do things for which they were not trained?" She also points out that "Although some gardeners get houses as well as salaries and some are properly rewarded and appreciated, the majority are still expected to clean cars or swimming pools or help with moving furniture". So true. I wont go into a long list of the things I've had to do, you've done a pretty good job of covering them all, but the owners go on to wonder why the lawn isn't cut that day or the Encarsia are still in their bubble wrap. On the whole as a freelance gardener I find my customers to be very understanding and appreciative of the skills I have to offer.

Joff Elphick

Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

Very insightful Noel
Nothing is worse than working for an interfering, horticulturally ignorant, uncaring employer. I am not speaking for myself, I used to get away with murder! But I have known things so bad that good gardeners have had to reluctantly leave their tied cottages.... or worse been dismissed

Stefanie said...

As a non-Brit (albeit living in London) I kept wondering whether I was reading about days gone by, but I clearly just do not move in the right circles :-). However, some points even I did recognise since an acquaintance asked me last summer if I would look after his - rather large for London - pub garden on a part time basis (he knew I "could do plants").
As Roger above says, it's often the combination of ignorance and interference that can prove difficult - even if this interference does not extend beyond the garden. My acquaintance e.g. asked for a border to be designed and planted: immediately, in the hottest days of last summer, and we had to rely on mail order...
What I find more challenging is when, despite having professed he "doesn't give a monkey's" about what I plant etc., he suddenly turns up with several baby palms and small olive trees he got as a bargain lot somewhere, clearly proud with his canny purchase. But there are no pots etc. for me to pot them on into. He hadn't thought of this. I then had to prise the plants out of their old pots with a crowbar: having long outgrown their original container, another, bigger, was literally nailed on top to cover the roots - always a sign of a quality supplier... And whilst I have made a plan of changes to be done to the original "stock" so they fit the situation, which plants to get and where to plant them etc., he keeps coming with surprises of the kind above. As you write, Noel, it's difficult convincing an employer he may not have made the wisest decision and should perhaps just leave things to someone more qualified...
Of course, I could always walk away from the job as my livelihood does not depend on it. But that's just pure luck in my case.

Rachel the Gardener said...

Noel, it is all so chillingly true.

In the interests of fair play, I will admit to having only the haziest idea of what a, for example, hedge fund manager does. But if I had one, I wouldn't interrupt them to ask them about post office savings accounts, would I? Likewise, I would never ask my plumber to crochet me a pot stand while he's waiting for his blowtorch to heat up: or ask the butcher to put a new zip in a skirt for me. But it seems fair play for gardeners to be expected to do allsorts... whilst not neglecting the garden, and that's the bit that makes me cross!

I'm in the incredibly fortunate position of being an Independent (or "self-employed" if you prefer) Professional Gardener, and I will do pretty much anything (within reason) for my much-loved Clients, including trimming their hair when housebound (them, not me), putting a new tap on the water butt, clambering up on flat roofs to prune climbing roses, abseiling down one-in-one slopes to weed steep banks: one Client sends me into the lake in her husband's size 11 waders to thin out the reed mace, but at least all of them appreciate it, and as a member of the Professional Gardeners' Guild, I have to say that I am constantly shocked and horrified at what my "Estate" colleagues are expected to do.

Unknown said...

Dear Noel,
Was Rubeus Hagrid not also a gardener? Send to jail!

Andy Morley said...

Thats shocking.. people with TMM leaving their vehicles just sitting there, especially the Ferrari, which would equate to a value higher than 80% of the houses in the UK.. makes me sick!

Daniel Collins said...

Finding the perfect employer/employee is always a big task regardless of the profession, to be honest. Everyone is different and has different values that they adhere to, and sometimes these values just clash. Whenever it happens with me I just push on and get on with it.

Daniel - Landscapia

Brian Skeys said...

Haveing worked on some large estates in the past I can relate to many of the situations you mention.