Thursday, June 7, 2018

So often it's gardeners make great gardens not owners or designers

I recently had an upsetting email from a colleague and friend who has just had his last day at the job he has had for nearly twenty years. He feels forced out because of decisions made about his job, over his head, which will so change the nature of what he does so much that he no longer wants to be part of the garden he has worked on, and whose reputation he has played a big part in building up. It was his efforts and ideas that put the garden on the map as a very distinctive project; the management now have other ideas. It's a story you hear time and time again unfortunately.

Any look at historical gardens makes clear that the successful ones were where there was a head gardener and owner pulling in the same direction. Toby Musgrave's recent book on head gardeners makes this clear. Some head gardeners indeed rather tyrannised their owners. I can imagine a number of Victorian garden owners, Lord this or that, who might have been a great power in the land (and indeed over their tenants), dreading a meeting with their head gardener. The man's status (in charge of a large team), hold over the family (producer of all the fruit, vegetables and cut flowers, which his cook and crucially, his wife, would expect daily deliveries of as a matter of course), knowledge (all those Latin names) and demeanour, could combine to make Lord Whatsit feel very small and humble indeed.

Those days are gone, and head gardeners of large gardens now work with diminished staff and, it has to be said, status. The biggest problems are often with gardens that are open to the public, and therefore run as businesses. The head gardener here will have a major impact on income. If the garden is run on a charitable basis then there will be a trust to whom the head gardener will be ultimately responsible (or 'board' in the US). The role of a trust is to oversee the charity, ensure that it is financially successful, and fulfils all its legal obligations. A good trust has clear objectives, consults the staff and works with them to enable them to make a success of the project. All too often however, trusts are made up of people who may have been very successful in some walk of life but know next-to-nothing about gardening. They may like gardens, but if they have never had experience in getting thousands of bedding plants ready for going in by mid-May, overseeing the replanting of an entire border, or dealing with a fallen tree the day before opening, then they will inevitably need a good imagination, and considerable humility, in approaching the task of how to give advice to somebody who can do all of these things. From the perspective of the gardener, too many people on trusts are interfering busy-bodies who have no idea what they are talking about.

Maximising income is a key goal of a trust. This can of course be used as a weapon to drive through all sorts of changes, often in the direction of thinking that the more people you get through the gates, the more the garden earns. The great danger here will be 'dumbing down', bringing in events, or developing areas that are 'lowest common denominator', avoiding innovation, experimentation or any sort of trying to stand above the common herd, and therefore taking a risk. I think this is what might have happened in my friend's case; the trust want to increase visitor numbers: roses are popular: => more roses = more visitors = more income: never mind that roses will not grow especially well there (they haven't asked the gardener). Another garden I knew decided to try to get more families in by having a scarecrow competition; ok. I can imagine that in a garden that actually grew vegetables this might have been a good idea, but it wasn't; the result – droves of overdressed scarecrows in borders of perennials, poking up amongst shrubs, hoist in the rockery etc.; the garden ended up looking ridiculous.

Bringing in volunteers is a way of getting more work done in the garden that appeals to trusts. There is the feel-good social mission of using volunteers as well. But has the head gardener got any management skills? Quite possibly not. Well-managed volunteers can transform a garden; badly-managed ones can (and do) wreck chaos and destruction. I hear so many stories of head gardeners being expected to manage volunteers and not being given any choice in the matter. The worst was a National Trust garden that decided it would offer horticultural therapy and expected the head gardener to take on a variety of people with a range of 'issues' and help turn their lives around. No consultation. No offer of staff help from people who had any interest in therapy or knowledge of it. She left. 

Another mad idea that trusts or owners indulge in is that of getting rid of head gardeners altogether and replacing them with the occasional visit of a consultant. I got wind of one such job assassination once, it was even hinted that I might like to be the 'consultant'. Apparently it was going to save a lot of money. The feedback I gave was that I thought it would be a disaster, and anyway, anyone who took the consultancy would probably find themselves face down in a compost heap with a sharpened trowel in their back. The head gardener concerned had a national reputation; the garden has since gone massively downhill. What a surprise.

It is the failure to talk to and listen to head gardeners and their staff that is so unbelievably arrogant and foolish. In the case of the garden I started to talk about, the result will almost certainly be to kill off one of the most successful genuinely innovative gardens in Britain. It will become just another vaguely historic rose-packed garden scrabbling for visitor numbers in competition with all the others.


Diana Studer said...

That sounds sadly like the other side of another garden blog I read. The back story. And the wonderfully unusual garden.

Penelope Bianchi said...

This is a tragedy. How short-sighted the people in charge are. He is obviously a treasure.

I am so sorry!


Unknown said...

Great article as usual Noel.

I have the pleasure of working in a private garden designed by a chelsea gold medal wining designer but it is the efforts and dedication of the head gardener that fulfil the owners and designers vision for the garden.

Fortunately the owner recognises and values our input, rare in this day and age, and the garden would not be a success with just a good design.

This is not always the case as you have indicated.

Unknown said...

Great article as usual Noel.

I have the pleasure of working in a private garden designed by a chelsea gold medal wining designer but it is the efforts and dedication of the head gardener that fulfil the owners and designers vision for the garden.

Fortunately the owner recognises and values our input, rare in this day and age, and the garden would not be a success with just a good design.

This is not always the case as you have indicated.

Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

What a wonderful crusading post. Absolutely spot on in every respect. Lets hope some organisations and owners are listening. Unfortunately our profession does not have much clout these days.

Andrew Peake said...

I can't imaging the amount of work required to maintain a large estate / trust as you mentioned.The poor sod who sign's on as head gardener would have his hands full indeed. I have seen some instances where the head gardener has actually knowledgeable volunteers to work with that is successful. I think just inviting any one in the neighbourhood to show up with a trowel would be a disaster. There was a post recently from a man Tony Spencer about volunteers going to help plant at the ( I believe ) Delaware Botanical garden , A Piet Oudolf et al Project , experienced volunteers were doing all the planting. So sometime it works. Can't imagine the logistics of planting a space that large.

Marcs Gardens said...

Again, great blog Noel. I totally agree with you. I’m a self-employed ‘maintenance’ gardener who works closely with both my gardens and my clients. I also do a lot of creative development and border design to help move the gardens along a bit. As i’ve always said, to have a great garden, all you need is a great gardener. In so many respects, I don’t even know if gardens can be designed. For this reason, I can’t neither watch nor go to Chelsea! I’ve worked in so many private gardens and I can always tell those that were originally designed: as an experienced gardener you can just tell. They have the whiff of sterility about them. The gardens I work in are those that have been created by interested, plant-loving owners… created and developed over a long time…. created through nurture, care, skill, and dare I say ‘love’ and coupled with a desire to create something beautiful. Only experienced and skilled gardeners know how plants behave; how they socialise with others and how they can combine to make beautiful bedfellows. Love your posts Noel. Keep it up! Marc

Clive foster said...

Yes very good article identifying the main problems surrounding head gardener positions. For me I've always felt that head gardeners have to get involved in too many distracting events (sadly a major part of the job) when their skills are primarily as gardeners and that trend seems to continue. As a consequence you can get inferior gardeners/placed in top positions who tick the boxes on the income generation side. I understand the need for income but really there has to be a balance to create a great garden with a great all round team and management structure to achieve. With all places of work that's difficult to get right. Volunteers can be great but sometimes I felt they were introduced to cover up operational shortfalls when really it was more important to get the existing staff working more effectively. So the management who brought them in just created another set of difficulties. Of course vollies can also breathe new life into a place but it's a disappointing trend that makes me as a professional gardener feel that skilled gardening is undervalued.