What have you learnt from your job over the years? I’ve been leading and managing The Garden Company since 1991 and recently I have found myself reflecting on what this has taught me. These ‘learning points’ happen to be set in the context of a garden design and build business, but I strongly suspect they are applicable to any small service firm – architects, consultants, accountants – let me know!
Point 1 – Clients must always be at the heart of what we do and how we do it
We provide a high-end, bespoke landscape design and build service; we aim to ‘wow’ our clients, who may be residential garden owners or commercial organisations, schools, hotels …. Sometimes, we have two clients to ‘wow’ – the garden/site owner and also a fellow designer (where we build to their design, not our own). With all of this in mind, it can still be surprisingly easy to fall into the trap of focusing on what we want to deliver rather than listen to what the client really wants.
So … the first learning point I want to highlight is that designing and building gardens isn’t about our wants and needs, it is about those of the client. What do they want from their garden or grounds? What are their aspirations? How do they want to use the space in future? Of course, we can add a lot of value when it comes to solutions (that’s why we’ve been chosen!), but we need to start from a very good grasp of the project’s starting point and the desired outcomes. We have learnt over the years to listen intently to the client from the beginning and all the way through a project. Our marketing materials speak about our clients, their stories and aspirations, not what makes The Garden Company great.
Point 2 – Failure to plan is planning to fail
A bit of a cliché maybe, but so true in my view. Any good project manager knows the importance of mise en place, a French term which translates to “putting in place.” This is the work that begins in the restaurant trade long before a meal is due to be served. Chickens are portioned, vegetables are peeled, sauces are prepared. It is certainly not glamorous work, but it is essential for a smooth, high-quality service.
We hold this principle very dear at The Garden Company and we have invested significant time and resource into making sure that projects are planned and delivered effectively and efficiently. We have captured our approach to this in both our Landscape and Maintenance teams by writing down a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for all team members to follow. The overall purpose of each SOP is to give detailed directions so that any individual can do a job correctly, on time, every time. They are great training (and cross-training) tools and we are glad we took the time out to document them.
Point 3 – True teamwork delivers results
Soon after setting up The Garden Company, I realised that to scale the business up I needed to develop individuals and teams to be able to help me to deliver our services. However, delegation has been one of the hardest lessons to learn because – even now – in such a competitive industry, every opportunity feels a little like gold dust. Once I have delegated a task, I know that I can neither ‘abdicate’ nor can I interfere – so I’ve learnt to keep things on track by making sure that I have shared any information about the delegated task that I already have, by communicating regularly and agreeing interim steps, deadlines and progress reviews. But it’s a work in progress and for the full picture, ask the rest of my management team how this is going!
Of course, the alternative – trying to keep doing everything myself – is not sustainable. Leading and managing my own small business has taught me to appreciate value of good team work in practice. As company owner and manager, there have been days when I’ve not been quite sure how I’ll get everything done – perhaps it’s the big finish on a project in time for a client’s garden party, along with a proposal presentation to be prepared and a new design waiting for my attention on the drawing board – these situations are challenging, but they do reinforce the message: on your own, you’d never meet all the requirements made of you. Together, through genuine collaboration and cooperation, teamwork can really save time, make great use of the talent available and deliver fantastic client service.
Point 4 – Being creative is rewarding in itself
Creating beautiful gardens for a living is extremely rewarding, not least because every project is unique. Every new project needs to be based on a robust thought process together with a sprinkling of design creativity and inspiration. In my January blog, I wrote about the factors that have most influenced my design work over the years.
I am always impressed at RHS Shows and elsewhere by the creative talent in our industry and the opportunities to be creative that come our way. I’m so grateful to remain highly motivated by this and not ever feel stifled by my job! It’s clear to me why many people switch into second careers in this industry because of the opportunity to be creative and work with nature, compared to so many deskbound professions. As a garden builder as well as designer, I’ve worked closely with other designers over the years – building gardens to their designs and interpreting their concepts as sensitively as possible has been a great additional source of creative energy and inspiration for me.
Point 5 – As company leader, it’s vital to preserve some thinking time
Many of us started out in business at a time when lunch was for ‘wimps’ and we all carried bulging time-managers or Filofaxes around alongside our over-sized mobile phones. However, as The Garden Company grew, I found that being very busy and rushing from one activity to the next without a pause was becoming a problem. These days I have learnt that a vital part of my leadership role is to carefully protect some of my time for thinking and reflecting on the business and its future growth and development. While day-to-day operations will always be a high priority, I know I need to balance my time spent on short term ‘stuff’ with bigger, long term thinking and decision-making about what we do and how we do it. Tactics that help me to do this are:
· delegating to others as highlighted already
· listening and staying open to new ideas from others, inside and outside the business – otherwise, it’s so tempting to stick to old tried and tested solutions, and the listening skills I deploy with clients are also very useful with colleagues and business contacts
· applying some good old stress-management techniques – for me, it’s about getting good quality sleep, eating healthy food, taking exercise, relaxing with the family and/or my guitar, walks in the fresh air enjoying my surroundings (remembering why I do what I do!). I think it’s well-recognised that time away from the ‘coalface’ can often be the time that new ideas come to the foreground.
And also … I’m glad I chose this career path
While this is not exactly a ‘learning point’, the golden thread through all of this is that we are a friendly bunch in garden design and construction. Sure, it’s a highly competitive world, but at least it is friendly competition! In my view, the work just attracts nice people (!) – I’ve written before about how much I enjoy being immersed in this industry. It would be easy to take this for granted.
A good example of the positive culture that we work in can be found in the support that many give to industry charities such as Perennial and Greenfingers. More selfishly perhaps, as a member of the Society of Garden Designers and the British Association of Landscape Industries, I can honestly say that I have met lots of lovely people through these organisations. Otherwise, I can see how being owner-manager of a small business could be a lonely place to be.
So, while most (maybe all) of the points listed are well-established in theory, I believe that it is my personal experience of leading and managing The Garden Company that has driven them home for me.
If you are a business owner, what would you add from your own experience? I’d be very interested to hear – whether you are new to the industry, or in the middle and later years of your career …. Or from a different industry altogether!
And if what I have said here about life at The Garden Company resonates with you personally and you are looking for a new challenge – we are always on the lookout for people who are passionate about beautiful gardens and want to ‘wow’ clients … please get in touch.
‘It must be lovely to be a garden designer and create all those beautiful spaces for people to enjoy’. People have said this to me many times over the years and it is of course very true. Designing gardens is extremely rewarding, not least because every project is unique. Every new project needs to be based on a robust thought process together with a sprinkling of design creativity and inspiration. So, where do the design ideas for each new opportunity come from? I’ve been reflecting recently on my own design process and this blog post lays out the factors, people and places that influence me the most. For those of you that are fellow designers, I would be interested to know about your personal influences and sources of inspiration. For those of you that are in search of a professional garden design service, I hope that this gives some insight into how we approach garden design at The Garden Company.
Early years and influences
Looking back to my earliest memories of being outdoors, I have realised how fortunate I was to grow up immersed in the beauty of the Cotswolds. My brother and I had a 2-mile walk to school through woodland and we spent a lot of time happily exploring. My grandparents lived in a 1-acre plot with a somewhat overgrown garden and orchard – it was a place of excitement for children! While my brother and I would often play games or climb trees there, just as often we would help with pruning or fruit picking. Although I didn’t realise it then, I was engaging with nature every day. Now I am very aware of my attempts to recreate those feelings and emotions when designing gardens. I’m often aiming for a certain atmosphere, a ‘sense of place’, a garden that doesn’t just look good but feels good too – overall, a relaxed and comfortable feeling.
Garden designers past and present
When I was first studying garden design, the designers that most influenced me were those such as John Brookes, Robin Williams and Geoffrey Jellicoe. They were very active at the time, with exciting schemes, stunning show gardens, and inspirational books. I still dip regularly into their books on my office shelves – Geoffrey Jellicoe’s ‘Private Modern Gardens’ is a wonderful source of ideas. More recently, leading garden designers including Cleve West, James Basson, Tom Stuart-Smith and Christopher Bradley-Hole have been a big personal influence. Their show gardens have left a lasting impact on me and added to my mental ‘bank’ of ideas.
Large family garden
As a garden builder as well as designer, I’ve worked closely with several designers over the last 25 years, including Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith at Acres Wild, also Julie Toll and Andrew Wenham in Hertfordshire. Building gardens to their designs and interpreting their concepts as sensitively as possible has been a great source of insight into their creative thinking.
We are so lucky in the UK to be able to visit some truly outstanding gardens and flower shows. Early on in my design career, I was really influenced by Hidcote Gardens in Gloucestershire, a well-known Arts and Crafts garden. I was struck by the series of outdoor ‘rooms’ and the atmosphere this generates. Along with many of my fellow designers, I visit Chelsea Flower Show every year, usually spending a few days there during Chelsea week, to immerse myself in as many ideas and schemes as I can – from design concepts to the finer finishing details. I also enjoy the National Garden Scheme, a great opportunity to view gardens not normally open to the public.
Small family garden
My advice to garden design students is always to make sure that they are exposed to as many influences as possible. Often I find myself looking for a design solution to a certain set of ‘problems’ and the main source of ideas is the collection of experiences that I’ve had before. It’s vital to expose yourself to as much creativity as possible – so that when your mind is working on a design concept, you’re more likely to come up with a better solution.
Looking beyond garden design
Of course, being inspired and influenced by what I’ve seen can apply to many things beyond garden design. Very often, I get my ideas from nature – the atmosphere created by an old tree surrounded by low level planting, or natural colonies of plants. Even the layout of agricultural land can be aesthetically pleasing.
Abstract art can be a great demonstration of the relationship between certain proportions, geometries and colours. A simple image can be a reminder that certain proportions and balances are pleasing to the eye – Piet Mondrian’s pieces based on squares and rectangles and Wassily Kandinsky’s work on the ‘harmony of colours’ are examples of this.
In terms of architecture, I value Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy, especially for his sense of balance and proportion and the blending of buildings into the landscape. Rarely were his buildings imposed on the landscape. It’s a shame he never came to the UK because it would be wonderful to have more access to his work.
Design trends vs timelessness
There are trends in garden design as in all creative work. I don’t think I really follow them – although I am influenced by them and sometimes actively avoid them! Being heavily involved in the British Association of Landscape Industries and the Society of Garden Design helps me and my team to stay up-to-date and able to anticipate what clients might be considering. The other side of the same coin is that garden design is quite timeless. The end of a design project is the start of a long process of nurturing a garden to its full potential and – although obviously we introduce new products and materials as appropriate – in the main we are designing with a long-term vision in mind.
I’ve commented here on a wide range of ideas and experiences that influence my approach to each new garden design project. I think this reinforces what a highly subjective process garden design is – it’s certainly hard for me to imagine a time when the type of bespoke service that we provide to our clients will be automated. I hope that these reflections have been interesting to my fellow designers, to clients – old and new! – and to people interested in creativity generally. Please do share your thoughts by commenting as shown at the top. If you would like to know more about our current and recent design work, then please see my updates on Instagram (@thegarden_company) and Twitter (@gardencomp).
The Garden Company team is grateful for another successful business year and very happy to send a Christmas donation once again to Perennial, the charity dedicated to people who work or worked in horticulture and are facing tough times. We know that this wonderful charity makes a real difference to peoples’ lives and we are proud to be a Perennial Partner.
Looking back over 2018, it’s been ‘a good one’ business-wise. Our highlights have been:
Building lots of exciting projects, both to our own designs and for other professional designers too. We’ve been very busy, and we know that our culture of quality and teamwork has been vitally important. On one memorable day we mustered a Garden Company team of around 12 of us to plant up a scheme in Sarratt in Hertfordshire – a beautiful location with views over the Chess Valley (and luckily the rain stayed away!).
Garden Company team members (and client’s dog)
Finding out that The Garden Company has been shortlisted for two SGD (Society of Garden Design) Awards. Now in their seventh year, the SGD Awards are designed to recognise and reward outstanding achievement in the garden design profession. They are the only Awards dedicated solely to landscape and garden design in the UK. Being nominated as finalists is wonderful recognition not just for our own teams but also for our suppliers – and so a special mention and thank you to London Stone, CED Natural Stone, Coles Nurseries, Rochford Gardens, Greentech Ltd and JC Wildflowers. We are looking forward to a great night out at the Awards Ceremony on Feb 1 next year, whatever the results! The shortlisted Garden Company projects are Laurel Cottage in Northwest London and The Threshing Barn in Hertfordshire – pictured below, with more images and information available on our website.
Small Residential Garden, Pinner, London
Medium Residential garden, Tring, Hertfordshire
Partnering with other professional designers, including Julie Toll, Ian Kitson, Taylor Tripp, Peter Reader, Andrew Wenham , Sarah Jarman and Anna Murphy (Jarman Murphy). For many years we have built gardens for other designers and I find the results as satisfying as building our own designs. These collaborations have been a very important part of my professional development over the years. Working with and seeing how others tackle the design process is fascinating. In return, I think we are able to add additional value as a contractor due to our understanding of the challenges that designers and contractors face in delivering projects that delight our clients. I have known Anna Murphy and Sarah Jarman for a while and it was a pleasure to build our first garden with them this year. Their design restored a lovely old walled garden creating a beautifully tranquil space. I’m pleased to include a couple of images provided by Sarah and Anna here:
Designed by Jarman Murphy & constructed by The Garden Company
Designed by Jarman Murphy & constructed by The Garden Company
There have also been a number of very enjoyable industry events this year, including Perennial’s Festival Dinner (image below) and the opportunity to join the judging panel for Pro Landscaper’s inaugural ‘Small Project BIG IMPACT’ Award at Futurescape. This Award process celebrated top-quality projects produced for under £20,000. In my experience, small projects can be just as rewarding as bigger ones – and sometimes even more challenging! The quality of work and creativity underpinning all of the shortlisted entries was impressive, setting a high standard for entrants in future years to come
At the Perennial Festival Dinner
Looking ahead to 2019, we have plans to grow the business further and ‘hit 2020 running’ in 12 months’ time – this will make our focus on quality, staff development and great communication with clients and business partners more important than ever.
I would like to close with a huge personal thankyou to our valued Garden Company clients, team members and business partners for your continued support and loyalty throughout 2018. And – of course – we wish everybody a fantastic Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year!
If you’re looking for landscape design services for next year across the UK – or are based in the South-East and need construction or aftercare/maintenance services, we’d love to hear from you on 01442-832666.
Garden Company team members setting out plants on a client site
I watched a recent episode of The Apprentice with increasing exasperation – and almost switched off altogether. Very wise, those of you that generally avoid reality TV might be thinking – but my reaction was nothing to do with the ‘falseness’ of a reality TV format, it was all to do with the misleading image that was portrayed of our landscaping and horticultural industries.
As the programme format dictates, two teams of young business people were set a task by Lord Sugar. The teams were briefed to set up their own urban gardening businesses, carrying out commercial and domestic jobs across London. On day one, both teams visited corporate clients to pitch a plan and secure a price for a large rooftop renovation. On day two, the work was carried out and client feedback was given. The outcomes were not good. One client was presented with a badly-painted bench and various plants randomly scattered about the space (she did not pay up). Overall, the picture was one of shoddy work and despite our heritage as a nation of garden lovers and years of popular TV gardening programmes, it seems that we still have difficulty portraying the services offered and the skills deployed by those working in landscape and horticulture industries accurately and positively.
Why does this matter? In my opinion, this recent example highlighted two key issues:
Issue 1 – how can we expect to attract people into landscape and horticulture roles if the work is so misunderstood and undervalued? With Brexit on the horizon combined with an ageing workforce, employers and managers across landscaping and horticulture are faced with an ever-more challenging ‘war for talent’ and urgent skills shortages.
Issue 2 – how can we expect our clients to appreciate the ‘value-add’ in our services, if it is seen as such low-skilled, low-budget, quick turnaround ‘stuff’? The Apprentice contestants were actually on a hiding to nothing – it was completely unrealistic of the producers to expect them to do justice to the roof garden projects with the tiny budget allocated and a few hours to carry out the works. I am sure I would have been unsuccessful too in their shoes!
In the real world, there is some good news with regard to attracting new talent to the industry. I know in my role as MD of The Garden Company that there are a number of hugely talented young people already enjoying early success. Last week, I enjoyed attending Pro Landscaper’s presentation of awards to the Next Generation 2018: 30 under 30. This is a wonderful initiative that seeks to recognise and reward the achievements every year of 30 inspiring young people in our industry. The youngest winner this year was only 21 and the range of roles encompassed by the group was inspiring in itself, including landscapers, garden designers, maintenance services, landscape architects, arborists and suppliers specialising in technical products.
It’s great that Pro Landscaper is driving this forward, and of course there are other initiatives that share the goal of inspiring more young people – I would like to give special mention to BALI’s Golandscape and the Landscape Institute’s #ChooseLandscape career campaigns, along with the Green Plan It challenge for schools led by the RHS.
However, with regard to the TV programme makers, the media and the wider public’s perception of what we do and how we do it: there seems to be very long way to go to get people ‘on side’. Of course, every time we talk to prospective clients we need to demonstrate our value and results, and help people to appreciate the range of disciplines that we draw on – design, hardscaping, softscaping, horticulture, planning regulations …. I could go on! I have always seen this as part of the ‘day job’ – but I would love to think that it could be made easier in future through a wider understanding of our services.
What else can we each start doing (or do more of) in our ‘day jobs’ to address both the skills shortages and the general lack of insight into our services?
Education, education, education - We need to keep shouting out about how rewarding it is to have a career in landscape design, construction and horticulture …to schools, colleges and anyone with an influence on shaping young peoples’ career choices and aspirations. By helping to reassure doubtful parents, teaching staff and careers advisers then we can show school-age children what the industry is really all about in the 21st century – and its advantages over other jobs and career paths that may be in decline. I always to try respond helpfully to any requests for information/careers guidance etc from education providers, but it strikes me that I could also ‘push’ for the opportunity to do so.
Create opportunities for work placements/internships. A common complaint within British businesses is that colleges and universities do not prepare their graduates for the real world. Our industry is no exception – new job starters need to be ready to work in challenging situations, for discerning clients, applying the skills and knowledge that employers reasonably expect them to have. A vital ingredient here is the availability of work placements and internship. We are delighted to offer 2-3 students a paid work placement every summer at The Garden Company and we are just starting to explore design placements as well as more operational site-based roles.
Promote apprenticeships. Real apprentices (unlike Lord Sugar’s candidates!) carry out real jobs while they study, learn and acquire relevant skills and knowledge. Many employers use apprenticeships to upskill existing workers as well as providing training for new employees. At the Garden Company we have benefited greatly in the last few years from ‘growing our own’ team members and team leaders through our own apprenticeship programme. We aim to do a lot more of this going forward.
In summary, the recent Apprentice episode illustrated a couple of very real business challenges for providers of landscape and horticultural services (although not the ones that the programme makers intended). We are lucky to have various trade associations, societies and others working hard on our behalf to address both the ‘war for talent’ and our industry’s professional reputation. Those of us that are ‘oldies’ with years of experience of fighting these two familiar battles must continue to play our role – I hope this blog post has prompted some ideas about where we can build on our efforts … your thoughts and comments of course are very welcome.
Over the past few months, you may have heard or read about the Repton Exhibition at Woburn Abbey. Maybe you have visited it yourself or you are planning to do so – if it’s within travelling distance that is! I’m in the fortunate position of living only 10 minutes away from Woburn, and I spent a day there recently in the company of my good friend and fellow landscape designer Andrew Wenham, and Andrew’s two brothers. The three siblings had decided to make a trip there as they grew up in Woburn (where their father was the vicar), immersed in a very English landscape. It was really a ‘day of two halves’, sandwiched nicely (ha!) with a pub lunch in the middle. We began by revisiting some of the Wenham brothers’ childhood haunts and spent the rest of the morning at the Repton Exhibition before visiting more childhood places in the afternoon. For me, the entire day reinforced a long-held view that the landscape in which you grow up (be it natural or built) has a huge influence on you.
Exploring the grounds at Woburn
I’m not sure I should be too specific about the morning’s escapades – bearing in mind that we were retracing the steps of three young boys let loose in the countryside. Let’s just say that it involved some wall-climbing, stinging nettles, scraped knees and at one point hiding from a Woburn gardener who may have felt the need to set us back on an official pathway (average age of our group was around 52!). The highlight though was to find our way to a ‘secret’ lakeside, with a view over to an island which the ‘boys’ had believed many years ago to be their own private retreat. The brothers were rather disappointed to find there is now a bridge to the island which curtailed the more exciting plan of making Andrew walk across fallen branches to get there! As children they were completely unaware that they were playing in a built ‘Repton’ landscape. The whole experience conjured up a great feeling of adventure, fun and a slight sense of risk.
Light reflected in a pond
A timeless sceene with deer
I thoroughly enjoyed the Repton Exhibition itself, which is being held to celebrate his bicentenary. Generally recognised as the first person to use the title ‘landscape gardener’, Humphry Repton regarded himself as the rightful successor to Capability Brown. A prolific designer, he produced over 400 designs and schemes for gardens and – of these – he stated, “none were more fully realised than at Woburn Abbey”. I found it fascinating to view part of the Woburn Red Book, one of Repton’s largest works, containing detailed designs covering the approaches to Woburn Abbey, the lakes and plantings in the surrounding parkland and the formal Pleasure Grounds.
This gate creates intrigue and invites exploration.
The present Duke and Duchess of Bedford have been restoring many of Repton’s designs over the last 14 years and following our exploration (after relatively recent discovery in their library) of Repton’s papers and design artefacts, we spent time outside enjoying the folly grotto, the Cone House, the menagerie and the beautiful Chinese-style pavilion. What stood out to me above everything else was Repton’s vision of the garden as an outdoor living space or room to be enjoyed. This is in contrast to the work of Capability Brown who tended to bring a very natural landscape right up to the house. Although it is over 200 years since Repton developed his designs, his work seems hugely relevant to our work today in landscape design, with his focus on blending a house into its landscape, on compartmentalisation of spaces around the house and then a gradual shift into more naturalistic styles further away from the buildings. I think this is a design principle that holds strong today. For this reason, I do think he has more influence on contemporary design than Capability Brown.
Recently-installed portrait of Humphry Repton at The Inn, Woburn
On a more tactical note, I was also interested in Repton’s emphasis on presentation – his Red Books are famous throughout the design profession and I could relate to the need to ‘wow’ clients at the same time as providing sufficient technical information to enable the work to be done. As well as an enthusiastic salesperson, Repton came across as having quite an ego, he certainly did not take well to having his schemes rejected – I can’t think how that applies to our profession today… (!). I was also struck by one of his quotes: ‘beware of planting trees, they merely serve to magnify the brevity of life’. Personally, I like to think I’m planting trees for posterity, but I did find Repton’s view refreshingly pragmatic! It was a memorable and very enjoyable day out – thank you Andrew, Patrick and John. I highly recommend a visit to the Repton Exhibition, which runs until October 28th this year. I also thoroughly recommend trying to recapture a little of that childhood playfulness that affected us all on the day - those three Wenham brothers were lucky to grow up in such proximity to a world-famous landscape and to be given the freedom to explore it. I know how grateful I am to have grown up in the Cotswolds, with grandparents living nearby in Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley. That landscape has stayed with me throughout my design life. In fact, I often find myself trying to recreate the atmosphere of my much-loved Grandparents’ orchard or the natural beauty of the wildflower planting in their meadow. As designers, the gardens we design become the settings for others to rest, play, grow, learn and live in. We are lucky to have the opportunity to enhance all those experiences. And look what well-rounded adults we grew into after our own childhoods were spent in the great outdoors! To find out more about our team at the Garden Company and the factors that influence our work, please click here.
Have you ever wondered what it takes to run a professional garden maintenance service? Maybe you picture yourself thriving on the challenge of nurturing peoples’ gardens and grounds into their best possible condition – and enjoying being outdoors in all that fresh air. After all, many people switch careers into gardening and related industries. On the other hand, you may already feel daunted at the prospect of caring for your own garden this year (now that everything is growing again!), so the idea of being responsible to other people for maintaining their much-loved gardens and grounds fills you with horror …
Joanna Mège, Maintenance & Small Works Manager
Whether you dream of doing the job yourself or not, we thought that ‘stepping into the shoes’ of a garden and grounds maintenance professional would provide some interesting insights. Who better to talk to of course than the Garden Company’s own Garden Maintenance Manager, Joanna Mège – we persuaded Jo to leave her sites in the capable hands of her maintenance crews and talk to us over a coffee about the ups and downs of her role. Jo joined the Garden Company four years ago and – with her team – provides a domestic garden and commercial grounds maintenance service to 50+ clients in Hertfordshire, North London and surrounding areas. Client sites range from privately-owned gardens (large and small) to business parks and public spaces.
What has your career path been?
I was born and grew up in Poland. I always loved the outdoors and much preferred helping at home in the garden than in the house! I have childhood memories of loving the fragrances inside a greenhouse or in a florist shop. With this in mind I decided to study Horticulture at University and completed a Master’s Degree. During this 5-year course, I arranged to spend a placement year in England. This was where I discovered ‘the English garden’ and I loved being here so much that I extended my placement into an 18-month one. After completing my Master’s degree, I moved with my husband to England where we both embarked on careers in garden and grounds maintenance.
I spent 9 years at a garden design, build and maintenance company in North West London where I progressed to a leadership role. In 2014 I was appointed by The Garden Company to manage and develop its Maintenance division.
What do you see as your main responsibilities and how do you spend your time?
As Garden Company Maintenance Manager, I manage a number of maintenance teams who are dedicated to clients’ sites. I am responsible for drawing up weekly and monthly maintenance schedules that are tailored to every site, dealing daily with clients and their requirements, and making sure generally that the right people, equipment, gardening products and new plants are in the right place at the right time every day. I also handle enquiries from new potential clients as they arise and helping existing clients to develop their gardens through additional projects (e.g. new fencing, new planting plans). In addition to my own crew of Maintenance team leaders and team members, I work regularly with a close circle of specialists – for tree surgery, garden lighting and irrigation.
One of The Garden Company professional gardeners at work in a contemporary London garden
In terms of my time, I spend some time every day on scheduling (and re-scheduling!). I like to visit every maintenance site regularly so that I am in touch with the clients and can coach and support our staff. I also deal with garden design professionals. Our landscape teams build gardens designed by our in-house designers and we also build for designers who don’t have their own build teams. We are then often appointed to maintain (although we like to think of it as nurturing) the garden. It’s really important that I understand the maintenance regime required and pass the knowledge on to my teams – that way the gardens develop as envisaged by the designer.
When I’m in the office, of course I have routine tasks such as invoicing and payroll; in addition, I need to keep an eye on relevant Health and Safety legislation and statutory requirements, keep our ‘standard operating procedures’ up to date, stay in touch with our suppliers and take part in a company management meeting every month. Over the year, as the seasons change, different operational tasks will keep me busy – organising for bedding plants in spring, bulbs in autumn etc.
What skills and experience do you think help you most in your job?
I believe that the job requires a combination of solid horticultural knowledge with years of practical experience – it is the experience that helps you to know what to expect (not that you can ever predict exactly what will happen!).
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Every day is different – in a good way! Obviously, the seasons repeat themselves, but on a day to day basis there is a lot of variety in what I do and plenty of challenge – I don’t get bored.
I love being outdoors, with a lot of freedom in how I organise my day and where I spend my time. I love working with plants – I really enjoy their colours and beauty – and seeing our clients’ gardens develop and thrive over time is a total pleasure. There’s a lot of job satisfaction to be gained from seeing our team members develop over time too.
I enjoy getting everything and everyone organised, but then sometimes it’s frustrating if the plan falls through – equipment can go wrong and of course the weather can be unpredictable. But failure to plan in the first place wouldn’t be very helpful to anyone!
Some of our clients are keen gardeners but many are not and sometimes this can be a bit of a challenge – people see wonderful plants in the garden centre or in a friend’s garden and may not realise that this sun-loving plant won’t work in their shady, woodland garden for example. I try to take the opportunity to explain to clients what will work best and also why – that’s also why plant knowledge is such a huge part of my job.
What advice would you give to somebody who wanted to work in a similar role?
It’s important to love gardens and to love being outside. It’s not a job for people who are too fond of being at their desks, you need to enjoy being ‘on the go’ and physically active. But you do need to be prepared to plan ahead too, to get the best outcome for every client.
A plant identification session at The Garden Company.
Building your plant knowledge is vital too, it’s surprising how many people don’t know the basics (even inside our industry). This is apparent quite often when we interview job applicants. There’s always more to learn too – that’s why we have regular plant identification sessions with the whole team at work, not just to reinforce plant names but also to learn key facts such as the best growing conditions, plants of seasonal interest etc.
And as is true of any service industry, being able to communicate clearly and proactively with clients is essential. We understand how important our clients’ gardens are to them, and we genuinely welcome the opportunity to discuss any queries or overall plans for their garden and grounds. We don’t see ourselves as simply ‘maintaining’ gardens and grounds - we care for them and we nurture them. In fact, the end of a landscape project is really only the beginning of creating a beautiful place.
‘Gardens are a process not a product’
Joanna’s reflections on her role as Garden Company Maintenance Manager really highlight that garden and grounds maintenance is about far more than mowing grass and weeding borders (important as these tasks are!). Professional gardening services are based on a highly skilled process of nurturing and guiding a garden or outdoor space with foresight as it develops. Put another way, ‘Gardens are a process not a product’ – wise words from a former Head of Gardens at the National Trust, John Sales.
If you are interested in beautiful gardens and would like to peek further into the world of professional gardening, you might like to get hold of a copy of Head Gardeners by Ambra Edwards. Featuring interviews with 14 Head Gardeners, it is a fascinating book and won last year’s Award from the Garden Media Guild for Inspirational Book of the Year.
And if you are thinking about a career change into horticulture and related industries (or have a family member or friend exploring their career options!), then take a look at GoLandscape. This is a careers initiative from BALI (the British Association of Landscape Industries), designed to inspire and educate new recruits and address industry issues, including skills shortages.
As for the Garden Company, Joanna’s passion for plants and beautiful gardens together with her in-depth knowledge and skills means that she can add huge value for our clients and – importantly for us! – also coach and mentor her teams to do the same. You can see examples of the Garden Company’s maintenance work on domestic and commercial spaces here.
Please leave a reply at the top of this blog post to share your thoughts.