How to choose a good gardener

Given the previous post on guerrilla gardening, several people have asked how they should go about choosing a “good” gardener.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, there isn’t a simple answer to that. A gardener who is good for one task, or who one person thinks is fabulous, might not be the right person for a different task or a different person.

However, some guidelines may be helpful:

First of all, give some serious consideration to what you want a gardener for. Is it mainly managing lawns and hedges? Or do you have beds and borders with a diverse range of planting that need more careful management? Do you want to sustain a kind of status quo, or do you want to radically overhaul the garden?

Do you want to make the decisions without input from your gardener, or do you want somebody who will guide and advise you. If you know about plants and gardening, and in the main would just like some extra muscle to help you out, your task of finding a gardener (or possibly labourer) is considerably more simple.

Secondly, think about the business aspects of the arrangement: how much do you wish or are you willing to pay? How often will you want the gardener to visit? What time of day and/or day(s) of the week will you want them to come?

With these two points in mind, you can draw up a brief outlining the work you would like done. Don’t consider this as cast in stone, it is just a starting point for both you and your potential gardeners to negotiate from. Even if you feel you don’t have a clue where to start, let alone what you’d like the finished job to look like, you need to make the effort to define your requirements. If you don’t, you leave yourself wide open to abuse from unscrupulous tradespeople. Magazines and books are a great starting point to trigger inspiration.

Having decided what you are trying to achieve, it’s time to start looking for the person or team that can do it.

Have a look in your Yellow Pages, the local newspaper small ads, noticeboards at garden centres and nurseries, look out for gardeners working in your area, search the internet, ask friends and colleagues.

Some points to bear in mind as you search:

Recommendations can be useful, but if they come from somebody with very different requirements than you, they may not.
Qualifications: again, these may be useful, but so is experience. There is such a plethora of qualifications available, some that take years to achieve, some that basically take a couple of hours and an internet connection, it is very hard to know the value of any one certificate. Also, sadly, there are many fakes. What’s more, some fabulous gardeners are fairly allergic to taking any kind of exam, but that doesn’t lessen their ability. And every gardener has to start from somewhere and it may be that a keen, unqualified, inexperienced beginner will be a good investment in the long term.
Trade association membership: almost anybody can buy membership of some organisations, others are more discerning. In general, don’t set too much store by this.
Don’t be impressed by fancy, computer generated plans and designs. There are some amazing software packages that produce fantastic output, but if the gardener can’t implement it, it is meaningless.
As with all jobs, it is wise to seek several quotations. Any gardener who offers to quote without meeting you to view the site and discuss your needs is unlikely to be able to satisfy your requirements. All gardeners should be willing to visit and discuss requirements at no charge. However, don’t be surprised or offended if some decline to do this: it is better for a busy business to turn down work that they can’t commit to than waste your time. Also, don’t expect a free, comprehensive review of your gardening needs…

IN SUMMARY
1. Be clear about your requirements – write a list.
2. Set your budget (but realise that either your requirements or your budget may need to change).
3. Invite contractors to quote.
4. “Interview” those who come to quote:

  • Ask about the time it would take them to do x, y or z.
  • Ask whether they charge per visit or by the hour (be wary of by the hour charges).
  • Ask them about pruning / propagating / planting schedules to get a feel for their knowledge.
  • Ask them where else they have worked, what kinds of tasks they have experience in.
  • Check that they have adequate insurance.
  • Check that they will work at times and on days that fit in with you.
  • Most importantly – do you trust them? do you feel comfortable with them? are they easy to deal with? If the answer is “no” to any of these, then even if they are the most knowledgeable and best priced contractor you speak to, don’t hire them.

Hopefully you will find the ideal person or people to help you to achieve and maintain the garden you dream of.

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