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 …
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.
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.
What’s difficult or challenging about your job?
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.
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.