How to find a gardener who’s perfect for your garden
What’s the first thing you think about when you decide to find a gardener?
Is it ‘how much does a gardener cost?’
Or ‘how do I find a gardener who will make my garden look completely wonderful?’
Let’s get the secret doubts over….
Am I imagining it, or is there just a smidgeon of embarrassment about getting someone else to do your gardening?
In the nineteenth century, even very modestly-off families expected to pay someone to help out. But by the 1970s, an uneasy middle-class guilt emerged – in Britain, at least – about paying other people to do chores you could do yourself. Or you may feel that you’re a bit of a fraud if you get someone else to do the hard work – as if it’s ‘not your garden’ any more.
Recently I’ve been asking fellow garden writers what they think stops people from having the garden they really love. ‘Well, I know what stops me,’ said garden writer/photographer Annie Green-Armytage.’ It’s lack of time. Finally, we decided to get a gardener.’
I met Annie when we were both short-listed as Gardening Journalist of the Year in the 2017 Property Press Awards. So if an award-shortlisted garden writer can admit she needs a gardener, so can we all.
Essential questions to ask yourself…
The first thing to establish – before you find a gardener – is what you want him or her to achieve. I asked the All Horts Facebook Group, which has many professional gardeners, what the main issues between gardener and client are.
Almost everyone said that communication is the biggest problem. Gardener Charlotte Bell advises you to ‘talk to your gardener so everyone knows what to expect. My clients range from the horticulturally knowledgeable to those who just want a nice looking garden with minimum input from them’, she says.
So do you want a stunning garden, full of must-have plants and the latest trends? Or a tidy and well maintained green space that you don’t need to think about?
Do you want a gardener who will do what you do, but save you time? Someone to take your garden to the next level? Or just someone strong enough to do the jobs you can’t manage?
Do you need to find a gardener with qualifications?
Would you go to a hairdresser with no qualifications? Or an accountant or a plumber? Would you try to cut your own hair, do your own sums and mend your own boiler, or do you pay someone to do it better than you can?
Some gardeners also learn by working for more experienced gardeners, such as in a garden that’s open to the public. So it’s not just about the paper qualifications, but who a gardener has worked with or for.
Essential questions to ask the gardener….
Warning! Not all gardeners are the same.
Gardeners can sometimes very roughly divide into ‘hedges/lawns’ and ‘plants’ (possibly otherwise known as ‘equipment’ or ‘flowers’).
And, on the other hand, I have met several professional gardeners who are brilliantly creative and knowledgeable with plants, but who ‘don’t do lawns’.
So you may have to decide whether to get a good horticulturalist and mow the lawn yourself, or the other way round.
Ask gardeners, when you’re interviewing them, about their expertise, enjoyment or qualifications in both areas. There are gardeners who are qualified in both handling machinery and planting, but even they may have tasks they prefer.
And gardener Nigel Cleaver says that he likes to have ‘an honest conversation’ about how a client feels about his work after the first three or four sessions. ‘It helps avoid difficulties later.’
Think in the medium and long-term…
If it’s beautiful borders you’re after, then a certain amount of planning is involved. Gardener Jeni Cheverton says ‘clients may not realise that in plant care, you’re usually thinking 2-3 years ahead, in terms of pruning management, herbaceous divisions, or the spacing of new plantings to allow for growth.’
Gardener Miranda Munday says ‘we work 1-3 years ahead to bring a garden up to scratch. It involves getting to know the garden, enhancing it, changing it and being adventurous (up to a point!)’
But can’t we just find a young person (at the minimum wage?)
Hmm – let us know how you get on with that one. You may have a magical source of reliable young people willing to work for the minimum wage, but I do not.
And will you be standing over this mythical being for hours, explaining exactly how to prune a rose bush and plant bulbs?
Or will you just hand the Young Person the chainsaw and hope they trim the hedges rather than lop their own foot off? In which case, may I remind you about Health & Safety at Work legislation and ask you to check your insurance?
Finally, remember that work experience trainees grow up. They soon turn into professionally qualified young men and women, often with young families. They will need to charge more or find other jobs. Those who are not interested in that sort of thing will disappear off around the world.
So you will have to return to your magical supplier of Young People quite frequently.
Oh, well…perhaps a retired gardener who just wants to work a few hours a week…?
Did I hear the unspoken phrase ‘for peanuts..’ at the end of that question? Or do we think that the recently retired are still charging 1990s prices?
If you retire in your mid to late sixties, there’s probably a limit to how long you want to ‘keep your hand in.’ Health or family issues may emerge.
But the retired gardener who just wants ‘to do a few hours’ (and who hasn’t raised his prices for decades) does exist. At least, I have heard of one, although he doesn’t seem to be around just at the moment….
OK, I get it. So how much does a gardener cost?
The Gardeners Guild, the association for qualified gardeners, points out that most self-employed tradesmen (eg plumbers, electricians, painters, etc) need to earn at least £150 a day. They say that usually means charging you £20-£40 an hour.
Gardeners need to invest in training. They have to buy good quality tools and maintain them. And they travel to different jobs, so they can’t afford to do less than two hours at any one job. Four hours is probably more practical for them.
However, an experienced gardener with good tools can probably achieve much more in 2-4 hours – and do it better – than someone inexperienced who borrows your tools. Your tools may not be the best, or may not be well maintained.
Andrew Palmer, Lawn Ranger Ground Maintenance, charges £22/3 per hour plus refuse removal charges. ‘One-off jobs like hedge cutting are budgeted separately. I’ve invested thousands in tools, plus running costs of my company and wages. The days of £12/15 an hour are long gone, I leave that to one-man bands or the recently retired.’ Admittedly, Andrew is based in South East England, which – along with the big cities – will be the most expensive part of the UK to employ a gardener.
If you just want a regular job done, like mowing the lawn, then the gardener will probably charge you on a fixed basis rather than by the hour.
But what if I pay cash?
Your gardener will need to pay tax, however you choose to pay them. It’s illegal not to pay tax and National Insurance.
Not paying tax also affects whether someone can get loans, credit or a mortgage.
How many hours a week do I need a gardener for?
All Horts member and gardener John Bates says: I do gardens of up to 1-2 acres and do everything in them, but that means 6-8 hours a week. I work year round so can’t accept a 9 months paid and three months off. I expect customers to be engaged with plans for improving the garden and I make recommendations to make the garden better not just for a quick buck.’
How much time your garden takes is also a question of what you plant and how you design it. My garden, which is about one-fifth of an acre, takes about two hours a week to garden, plus mowing the lawn. Annie Green-Armytage has replaced some of her high-maintenance beds with easy-care shrubs and perennials, rather than plants that need fussing over.
John Bates suggests you think of a gardener as an ‘asset manager’. ‘If your garden is an asset to your home, and your home is your biggest investment, then you should pay gardeners the way you pay an asset manager.’
I did some sums, which are not very accurate, to find out how much you would pay a gardener if you paid them the same sort of percentage you pay your asset manager. There are no reliable figures on how much value a garden adds to a house, and quite a lot of other variables. But my rough calculations on the back of an envelope came to…£20-£35 an hour!
John might ask why fund managers earn so more than that, but that is because fund management can be scaled up (you can manage hundreds of funds at once), while you can only garden one piece of earth at a time.
Is there anything else I need to think about?
Parking. This can be a problem for gardeners in cities and towns. If gardeners are bringing tools, they need a car.
Insurance. A professional gardener should be insured, but you also need to check your own insurance, especially if power tools or diggers are involved. Gardening involves a surprisingly high number of accidents.
You (or your gardener) need a licence to use some power tools and other machinery.
Now where do I actually find a gardener?
The Gardeners Guild has a list of qualified members.
Also many gardeners learn by working or volunteering at professional gardens (ie those that open to the public). So it is probably worth contacting good gardens near you to see if anyone in their gardening team is looking for more work.
And check with neighbours who have the kind of garden you like. A gardener who has a full book of clients may be able to fit another one in if they live really close to a current client. All Horts member Joanna Crosby suggests asking at local garden centres, too, as staff may also do private gardening work. She also suggests you ask for references, or if you can speak to another of the proposed gardener’s clients.
Lastly, there’s a huge growth in community gardening. If you have a community garden near you, they should be tapped into the gardening expertise in your neighbourhood. Ask whoever runs it to put out a call for gardener (and quote the rates you intend to pay!) in their regular newsletter if they have one.
The same goes for Facebook and Twitter. However, in my experience, jobs on Facebook and Twitter are widely shared and get a huge response, but in the end, not much seems to come of it. Still, it’s worth trying.
Lastly, may I mention the loo…?
Your house and garden is your home. But it’s also your gardener’s work place. When you go to work, do you expect to use your employer’s ‘facilities’?
And has any employer ever suggested that you should “go” behind the shed or outside?
I was completely amazed to come across a long and lively Facebook thread from gardeners whose clients don’t allow them to use the loo. Even when the loo is downstairs and they have offered to take their boots off! As gardener Jeni Cheverton says: ‘We can’t all pee behind a bush.’
There was also alot of comment about people who don’t offer their gardeners tea, hot drinks or even a glass of water. Many gardeners take their own thermos, but if you are working outside for 4-5 hours, especially in the winter, fresh cups of hot tea or coffee are important.
However, at the other end of the spectrum, I have also seen professional gardeners posting photos on Instagram of tea, cake and Christmas presents from ‘lovely clients’.
As many good gardeners quickly get fully booked, it is worth being a ‘lovely client’ and getting out that tea, coffee and cake!
Finally, say when you like what your gardener has done – Miranda Munday echoes a number of others when she says ‘appreciation is wonderful.’
Let me know your tips on finding a good gardener, or if you are a gardener, leave a comment to add your point of view.
PS I am starting a new series on the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel called ‘Middlesized Garden of the Month.’ It will be uploaded on the first Saturday of every month.
The aim is to show you middle-sized – but beautiful – gardens that you might not otherwise see, either because they don’t open to the public or, if they do, they are only in small local schemes. But these gardens have great ideas and have the same challenges that you do. The first one is here:
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