Category Archives: Business, philosophy and ethics

A brief trot through what makes us tick and a reflection on how things ought to be done.

People: the most valuable asset (notes from FutureScape ’17)

For those of you who either missed my talk at FutureScape this year, or just want a second read, here is a transcript. All businesses are built on two things: the quality of their ideas and the quality of their people. So the question is, how do you find and retain the best people? The first thing to ask yourself is…

WHY?
Why are you hiring? The obvious answer to this is ‘because I’m busy’. If you are a one-person organisation, you should think about what it is you want somebody else to do and what you want to keep doing yourself. What are you good at? What are you not good at? So, we have gone from why to What…

 

WHAT?
What are you looking for in an employee?  First step – write a job description. This will help you focus your thoughts on what duties you want someone to carry out. There are loads of ways to structure a job description with the minimum being simply a list of duties. I find it is helpful to start with the basics: Title, Place of work, Line manager (who does the holder of this post report to?), Accountability (to whom will they have to explain themselves if something big goes wrong?), Development path. Then move on to some general stuff about the business and the post. Next a short summary of general duties relating to this post. Finally, a list of specific duties, grouped under headings. There are different ways of doing this. Some people find it helpful to list them in order of importance. Others use some sort of chronological order. Personally, I favour listing them in the order of the percentage of time they will take up, but noting if there are any that are particularly important that appear further down the list.

Next step – write a person profile. Again, there are many different ways of approaching this. I usually divide these into sections under the headings:
Character
Experience
Qualifications
I then mark each with ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’. For example, ten years’ experience in your sector might be desirable, three years’ might be essential.

What are they looking for in an employer?

  1. Salary is a key decider for many people – around 60% put this top of their list
  2. CPD opportunities and career development come next – important for around 45% of people
  3. Company ethos and values is also really important, particularly with younger employees – I’ll come back to this later
  4. Company reputation is next – most people want to work at a company which has an excellent standing within the industry, and somewhere that will ultimately add to their CV
  5. Location is important for some people
  6. Flexibility of working can also be important.
  7. Size of business not important to most people, nor is job title.

WHO?
The character section on the person profile starts to touch on another area completely. The experience and qualifications are, if you like, ‘tangibles’. But at least as important are the intangibles. What is a person really like – who are they? And even if you knew the answer to that question, would it help?

The answer to this is in the culture of your business. Culture is made up of the intangible parts of a business, the non-commercial aspects. This includes things like purpose, DNA, values, ethos etc. It affects not only the sort of place it is to work, but also ultimately has an impact on the ‘tangibles’ – the commercial aspects of the business. If you have already thought about this, then you will be able to take some of this and use it to feed into the general section of the job description. More importantly, it will allow you to much more directly profile the sort of person you are looking for. Having done all this background work, where do you then look for the ideal candidate?

WHERE?
Whereas previously you would have had to rely on classified ads in the back of magazines or recruitment agencies, now there are a multitude of routes to candidates. Here are a few of them:
Your own website (Website Career Page)
Social Media – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook
LinkedIn Career Section (on your company page) or LinkedIn Paid Job Ads
Job Sites / Talent Acquisition Platforms / Aggregators, such as SmartRecruiters, Indeed, Monster, CareerBuilder, Neuvoo.
Niche Job Boards and Sites – SGD, BALI, LI etc
University Career Boards
Referrals from current employees
Agencies. If you go down the agency route, there are costs – typically 15-25%, but they will cover most of the options above, and it does take a lot of the hassle out of it.

HOW?
So, once you are flooded with applications, how do you go about selecting who you want? It is almost impossible to glean anything reliable about character from job applications, so in the initial application stage it is best to stick to the experience and qualifications sections of the person specifications you have already done. Normally this is straightforward – the candidates are well spread, and it is easy to pick out the obviously strong ones. Sometimes you have several candidates who are very similar. In this situation I often use a scoring system against my criteria. If it is still difficult, start by telephone interviewing the candidates you are most interested in. I tend to find that it can be quite good to cover experience and technical issues on the telephone. I stick rigidly to a script scoring each participant and then compare the scores afterwards. You can always weight the scores for areas that you think are more important.

When it comes to face to face interviews, allow plenty of time. Chat first to put them at their ease. Spend a little time telling them about the role and the organisation if you need to, but remember that at least half to two thirds of the interview should be the applicant talking. Ask open rather than closed questions and give them plenty of time to answer. A good part of the interview should be taken up with cultural questions. Some of these could be scenario questions. Others could be ‘give me an example of when you…’ So, if your core value is around excellence, you could ask – “Provide an example of a time when you went out of your way and jumped through hoops to delight a customer” or around team work you could ask “When you work with a team, describe the role that you are most likely to play on the team.” Followed by “How would co-workers describe the role that you play on a team?”
Apply the two-hour test… could you spend two hours (say on a train) with this person? Could you enjoy their company at the dinner table for two hours, or would you be bored stiff? And how will they fit in with other people in the team? Whilst it is important that you can get on with potential employees, it is also important that you don’t just hire people like yourself. The best teams are made up of lots of different types of people. Imagine a football team of all strikers (or worse still, all goalies!). And don’t just hire people who will make you look good. There is an old management adage that says: ‘Hire people who are smarter than you.’ I believe that learning is a two-way process. We learn a lot form our employees at all levels, just as they learn from working with us.
Don’t rule out some sort of test – particularly if you are a sole trader or very small business and this is a major step up for you.

Finally, Check references. Not long ago, we were looking to appoint a new member of the design team. Interview went well, applicant seemed good on the verge of appointing we took up references. This popped into my inbox (just an anonymised excerpt from a longer email): “My experience with XXXX is that she is motivated only by his/her own self-interests. S/he is extremely poor with client follow-through—does not provide any customer service after s/he has been paid his/her commission. Often s/he does not reply to email requests nor questions. S/he spends a great deal of time in the office FaceTiming with his/her partner and has taken 5 vacations or extended leaves of absence in the last 8 months. S/he has very poor people skills is the most moody employee I have ever employed.” We didn’t employ them.

Salary is a motivating factor for around 60% of people applying for jobs, so naturally enough there is often some negotiation on a starting package. Salary in particular is a difficult one – people starting often using their leverage at the time of appointment to drive up starting salary. Make the salary range clear from the start and do not ‘promise’ the job before agreeing the package. Bear in mind where the new person will fit into the range of salaries of existing employees. Sometimes agreeing a higher salary but tying it to no review for say eighteen months allows both situations to be addressed. Offering ‘one-off’ items such as help with moving costs can also ease the situation without affecting the position permanently.

Once an appointment is in place and a starting date agreed, make all the necessary arrangements swiftly and efficiently. Make sure that the new starter has all the necessary hardware (desk/chair /phone/computer/vehicle etc) and software and logins (including email addresses etc). They will have enough to worry about when they start without adding to it with hassles over their working environment, plus it will send the right message from the beginning.

So how do you retain staff once they are in post? Although money is important when people are looking to change jobs, curiously it is not the main issue for most people in whether they stay in a job. These are the top issues:

  • Feeling valued and rewarded. Money is important here, but it is not nearly as important as feeling valued
  • Knowing clearly what is expected of them
  • Quality of management – especially sticking to promises and being fair and consistent
  • Ability to speak their mind freely and being consulted
  • Opportunities to learn and progress
  • Chance to use their skills and talent

Your culture and values once again play into these points. Consult staff constantly on important (and less important) issues and have an open and democratic culture. Regular appraisals or reviews also help as well as give employees a framework for improvement.

It is all too easy to be ‘busy’ with work. Remember that your business – all businesses are built on two things: the quality of their thinking and the quality of their people.

Are you doing enough to attract and retain the best people?

So, what does the future hold (and why should I care)?

Setting aside what’s for supper and plans for the weekend, for most of us, our plan for the future is to carry on doing what we do now, but perhaps a bit better and a bit more. But is that good enough? That was Blockbuster Video’s plan and look how that ended up. I am always suspicious when people say to me that we are living through a revolution – I have been told that for most of my life. But there is no doubt that that we are being buffeted by winds of change, some of which will lead to permanent alterations in how we work. I think there are three main socio-economic changes that we face, along with a couple of further trends within our industry.

The first is an obvious one – digital technology; although it is not always quite so obvious how it will affect us. Some of these changes have already taken hold – social media, digital design tools, Skype, etc., and we ignore these at our peril. However, some of the biggest upsets in markets come around delivery of service rather than the actual service – look at Uber or Air BNB for example. They are also difficult to predict and take hold remarkably quickly. The key here is simply to be open to new ideas and quick to adapt.

The baby-boomer demographic has had a an impact on the economy all the way through.

The next two are to do with demographics and are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin. So, my second big change is Baby-boomers. That’s me and some of you. Essentially this is people born between 1945 and 1965. This group has distorted the economy all the way through from the 1950s onwards. The oldest of these people are already retired and virtually all will have stopped being economically active in terms of earning over the next 15-20years. Research shows that people spend significantly less (particularly on capital items) after the age of 70, which includes things like garden design. How many of your current clients are 52 or older – most?

The millennial generation have a different outlook on consumption from their parents generation

And what of that group the millennials, my third big trend? This refers to people born between 1982 and 2004. There are significant differences between how this and the previous group spend their money. In short, Baby-boomers spend on possessions and millennials on experiences. With the costs of education and housing rising sharply relative to earnings over the last twenty years, this group either cannot afford to buy a house in the first place, or cannot spare much to spend on it.

What do these changes mean to us? I would argue that it probably won’t change the overall size of the landscape industry significantly, but it may change the focus. For example, there may be a drift away from private gardens toward communal spaces in long-term rental estates (as in parts of continental Europe). There is already a noticeable trend for the upper end of restaurants, hotels etc. to spend more on gardens. And an aging population may mean more spending on lifecare and healthcare institutions.

Finally, I promised two trends within our industry. The first of these is what I call the ‘blurring of boundaries’. Partly due to the pressures of change, there are no longer sharp boundaries between the professions, sources of work, and how it is delivered. To give you an example, twenty-five years ago, public space would have been paid for some form of local government and designed by a landscape architect. These days it may be planned by an Urban Designer, paid for by a developer and detailed by a Garden Designer (who is probably employing a landscape architect!). So an ability to be flexible and form partnerships (in the broader sense) is essential to survival.

Bosco vertical by Stefan Boeri – green infrastructure at its best?

The second industry trend is that of green infrastructure, again much of it paid for by development. Green roofs, living walls, the high-line and even community gardens are all examples of the more granular end of this, but at all levels and scales there are opportunities for our profession here.

There may be many changes afoot, some of which will undoubtedly be negative in their impact. My view is that if we remain open to opportunity and collaboration, then we can insulate ourselves from the worst sides of flux and take advantage of the most positive aspects.

(originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal, November 2017)

 

Who is Chris Bowles, how did it all start and where do we go from here? (or a short history of Bowles & Wyer)

Presumably, if you are reading this you have heard of Bowles & Wyer, and indeed of me. You may be less familiar with the ‘Bowles’ half of the partnership. Chris Bowles is fairly well known to most of our clients and to many of our suppliers, but less well known in the broader industry. As Chris is retiring at the end of September (to spend more time with cricket!), I thought now would be a good opportunity to give a potted history of Bowles and Wyer, Including how Chris and I met.

Sowing the seed 1984-1992

The partnership’s genesis goes back to April 1984 when Chris and I met on a landscape site in Lower Thames Street. Shortly afterwards I started at Clifton Nurseries as a designer. Chris had been there for a year at that point, having been taken on as the contracts manager following a job in Maracaibo, Venezuela establishing a botanic garden and a brief stint at another contractor in London. By the late 80’s we had begun to explore the idea of going into business together, with some helpful advice from Michael Johnson at the Needham partnership. Although recession in 1990 slowed the process, the break finally came in 1992.

Germination 1992-1994

In May 1992, John left Cliftons to start up Bowles & Wyer, initially called ‘John Wyer – Landscape design and construction’. Both partners had made an investment at that point with me putting 70% of the money in and Chris 30%. Their first big job was a private garden in Weedon, near Aylesbury for one of the founders of Virgin Music. Initially the business ran from Shoreditch Studios in Scrutton Street (we were ahead of the Shoreditch curve!). The following year in April 1993, Chris joined up and the business was renamed Bowles & Wyer, with the share capital being equalised. At the end of 1994 the partners decided to move the office from Shoreditch to Hertfordshire and took space in the attic of a serviced office in Berkhamsted. Turnover went from a modest £80K in 1992-3 to £350K in 1994-5

Potting on 1995-2000

All the construction work in those early years was done by sub-contractors. Meanwhile Chris was out on the mower maintaining our first few gardens, in between project managing the business’s first really large garden – a three acre plot on the Bishops Avenue in North London. Our first really big break came in late 1994, when we were retained by Northacre (still a client today) to design their project at Earls Terrace, having done some design work the previous year for them at Observatory Gardens. Earls Terrace was the job which really put Bowles & Wyer on the map. The project comprised 24 rear gardens and a 160m long communal front garden in Kensington, with a host of construction challenges. It was finally finished in late 1999. The maintenance portfolio was growing and in 1996 we were joined by two old friends in the shape of Jeff Stephenson and Richard Pantlin to form our maintenance arm. The business became a limited company in 1998 and after several moves within the business centre, made the bold move of relocating to our own rented offices. By this time, as well as Chris and me, we had two designers, as well as Barbara Northcott (still with us) on the admin side. Turnover topped £1m in 1997

Chris and me around 2002, taken at the newly completed Pavilion Apartments project for a ‘Gardens Illustrated’ article.

Planting out 2000-2006

This started with a period of rapid expansion, with lots of large and small projects on the go and many new members of staff joining – several still with us today. Stuart Wallace joined us in the spring of 2000 with Neil Percival on the design side in 2002, having started as a summer student the year before. Dan Riddleston also started working with us (as a consultant) during this period. The business growth slowed to a steady consolidation from 2002-2004. In 2005 we had an exceptionally busy year with three major projects in the form of Victoria Square in London for Grosvenor Estates, a country Garden for a Pink Floyd and a large garden in Kensington Palace Gardens for an industrialist. James Smith joined in the same year. Turnover for 2005 reached about £2m

 

A team picture taken in Sept 2006, shortly after we moved into the new offices in Pitstone.

Transplanting 2006-2016

2006 saw two defining shifts in the business. After eighteen months of talks, Dan Riddleston and Matthew Maynard joined the Business with Bowles & Wyer Contracts formally launching in June 2006. This had a slightly different business model, concentrating on construction of schemes for other designers rather than the pure design build model of the mother company. Also in that summer, we had finally outgrown our rented office and made the move to our current location at Pitstone, buying and converting a building to add more space. The business continued its rapid expansion for a couple of years or so until the recession finally began to bite in 2009-10. However, 2010 did see a major milestone with B&W winning the BALI Grand Award for a private garden in Surrey, built with cooperation from all parts of the business. Although we had our problems, after a bumpy few years we climbed out of recession to a more solid and predictable turnover across the group, although individual divisions do still have their ups and downs.

Today

The business is in good shape overall, with strong cash reserves, a loyal and committed team of people and an expanding client base. In July 2017, Chris Bowles stepped back from day to day running of the business, leaving me as CEO. I am supported by an exceptional team including Dan Riddleston, Matt Maynard and Vicky Wyer along with Stuart Wallace, James Smith and Jeff Stephenson. The B&W group is seen by most of the industry as a single brand and is well respected. Group turnover hovers around £5.5m.

And the future

..is exciting! The business is going through something of a revolution at the moment. The management team have written a paper outlining want we want to achieve over the next ten years. From this, we are in the process of developing a more detailed strategy. There are also various different projects running internally which have spun out from this, and I will come back to in more detail in later posts. The first is one on Purpose and Values, which is being run by Vicky. This is really exciting stuff and is all about what drives the business, the values that are common to all the people that work here. The very first post that I wrote in December 2010 talked about this:

“…everyone at B+W has a commitment to high quality that borders on the obsessional. It is difficult to achieve a really good result without staff at all stages of the project being focussed on the same thing. It doesn’t matter how many forms are filled in, how many checks are done or how much snagging. In the end it will only happen because people want it to. This may seem smug and even a bit facile. But it strikes me that communication, training, camaraderie and a relentless focus on quality are the only way to produce consistently good results in the long term. The bottom line follows – not the other way around.”

The values project that Vicky is running attempts not only to capture this, but to define and feed it back in the business so that the values become embedded in everything we do, in every process in the business.

Meanwhile, Dan (and I) are looking at a Capacity plan and Stuart is just to starting an exercise on Workflow and Engine-room. This latter will look at every aspect of the business and involve everyone. The aim is to iron out all the wrinkles, all the bottle necks so that internal stress is reduced (to us and the business!) and customer experience is improved.

Finally, I am going to be looking at Positioning. This is also quite a big one but from it flows brand identity, a marketing strategy and a really good understanding of how our work comes to us.

So – the next few months and years are looking eventful. We have some other plans too, but I am going to keep those under wraps for the moment – you’ll just have to keep reading to see!

Am I a bad loser – and is that a good thing?

‘Nobody likes a bad loser’. These words rung in my ears through my childhood. Being a bad loser was one of those cardinal sins like not sharing with your siblings, taking more than your share of cake or not writing thank you letters to elderly aunts. I can remember shouting matches at the end of games of monopoly, with the board upended and me (or one of my brothers or sisters) storming out of the room.

I learnt over the years to be a good loser, particularly when I was doing something for the pleasure of doing it – a game of table tennis for example. Winning is the motivation but the play is the pleasure. But not all competitions are like that. Industry awards for example – one does not enter these for the pleasure of filling in the forms. There are of course consolations (‘finalist’) but winning is the only real reason for entering. We all put a brave face on it at the awards ceremony, but that moment when someone else gets the prize – however well deserved – is a bitter edged one. Just look at how the camera always cuts to the fixed smiles on the losers’ faces at the Oscars.

When you look at sportsmen and women – in tennis for example – bad losers are everywhere. Not only that, but the bad losers are often the best players. The drive to win is so strong that anything that frustrates that attracts rage, whether it is the umpire, their opponent or themselves. That relentless drive to succeed, to overcome whatever obstacles are put in the way is what allows many successful people to reach the top in their field, whether it is business, sport, or something else.

Of course, this is all dependent on how success is defined. Many sports and business people complain in later life that their focus was too narrow – that in concentrating only on a narrow set of criteria (winning gold medals, grand slams, their first million) they missed enjoying the rest of life – relationships, family, holidays and so on. But if they hadn’t defined their success with such narrow criteria, would they have got to the top? Probably not; and of course very few of us are able (or indeed would want) to get to the very pinnacle in our field. In any case, once you get to the top, there is only one way – down.

But even with more realistically defined criteria for success – a closer alignment of life and work in other words – the drive to succeed is important. Settling for second or third best is something that we all have to get used to, but only if we still yearn to achieve number one.

So please, at the next awards ceremony, try not to look at my face – unless I am winning that is!

 

 

Perfect Pitch – how to make sure you and your clients are singing the same song.

I was asked by a group in London to talk on how to pitch recently. This grabbed me – I spend most of my time in the business doing two things (other than answering emails like everyone else!) – having ideas and pitching them to other people. In this post, I put forward (mostly) my own ideas and views on this, but also borrowing some material from others I admire or who have helped me.

Why is a good pitch important? Like most jobs, ours is a lot about communication – ideas are only part of it. A landscape architect or garden designer is only as good as their schemes that get built. This is obviously founded on good ideas, but it is also about being able to convince people of the validity of those ideas – more than that – to excite them. Not just clients, but also those who will build, look after and ultimately use the project. The quality of your communication is at least as important as that of your vision.

The premise of a pitch is that there is a problem; one that needs to be solved. Sometimes clients are aware of the problem, sometimes not. We have an idea, a solution. The successful marrying of the two results in a satisfied client and money changing hands.

The quality of the ideas is obviously important – indeed vital – to the success of a business. If you look at a really successful business like Apple, it solves problems that people didn’t even know they had; nobody knew that they needed an iPad until Apple launched it. What’s more they found really innovative ways of multiplying and monetizing their ideas. They created a whole new market for Apps (written by others) which essentially enhanced the value of their products. And what’s more took a cut in the process.

Courtesy of Contexis Ltd. www.Contexis.com.

This diagram (from Contexis) demonstrates the Waterfall of value that derives from good ideas. But without the link in the chain marked ‘sales’ (or indeed any of the links), the value will not flow. Indeed, it may even flow off into someone else’s waterfall.

What do you need to know before you start pitching? Clearly, given what I have said above, having a good understanding of the value you offer and the problems you solve is the first step. As Daniel Priestley (www.danielpriestley.com) says in his book ‘How to be a Key Person of Influence’, “You are already standing on a mountain of value”. If you are in say the Alps, surrounded by mountains, they all look very high. If you look down, all you can see is the ground. But, of course, you are also standing on a mountain. The key here is to understand what makes you unique, what special properties you bring. It may be something simple like geographical closeness, a special skill, or maybe to do with the size or scale of your business. As well as this, think about why and when clients come to you – what are they in the process of doing? Buying a house? Selling a business? Down-sizing? Spending a bonus? Understanding this will help you get a grip on what problems they are facing and how you might be able to help them solve those problems. Think of three good reasons why they should buy from you rather than your competitors. One of these should be a real killer.

Think about who you are pitching to, what their level of knowledge is and their likely level of spend. This last is critical. There is no point in getting in front of someone who will not spend the money on what you are offering. If they are after a Ford Focus, they will not buy a Porsche, however hard you sell it.

Knowing when to pitch.

Don’t pitch too early. You know how annoying it is when you walk into a shop and before you can do anything, an assistant comes up to you and says “Can I help you”. Mostly, you just want to look around for a bit first. Clients are just the same. Plant a seed, let it grow. Let them research you a bit, then pitch. And if it’s the wrong time or place, if they are distracted, too busy or don’t have enough time then reschedule to a slot when they are going to be more receptive to your ideas.

Structuring your pitch. Most of the time it works best if you have a structure to your pitch, although you should always be prepared to change with the circumstances – everybody hates sales patter. The first thing, before you start with a plan is to make sure your visual aids are professional and that you are practiced with them. Have decent photographs of your work (preferably professional) and make sure the software runs smoothly. Fumbling looks terrible. This is the structure I roughly follow:

  • Introduction as to who you are
  • Company background
  • An outline of the problem your product or service can solve
  • The solution you’re offering
  • A conclusion where you round up what’s been discussed so far and re-emphasise your key points
  • Next step.

Delivering your pitch – 9 key points:

  1. Establish a rapport. People are influenced more by people who they feel a sense of connection with. If you’ve shared a laugh, a story, or identified a common connection, your pitch is more likely to land with its audience.
  2. Listen first. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember. Let them describe their problem and what the issues are. If you don’t do this, you won’t succeed.
  3. Be enthusiastic. This is the biggest seller: deliver your pitch with passion, grounded enthusiasm and with unique flair. Share your beliefs and your story so that people can remember who you are and what you stand for. It’s not a great pitch if it’s easily forgotten
  4. Be confident. If you’re not sure what you want, or sound unconfident, the client will pick up on this. You need to sound authoritative – learn the FAQs that people come up with and have the answers at your fingertips. You also need to believe in your product and your ability to deliver
  5. Be credible. Although you need to believe in your ability to deliver, you also need to be credible. There’s no point telling people that you’re going to be the next market leader when you’re just starting out because they will switch off. Even if you do have something of great potential you must never leave people questioning your credibility to deliver the promised result. If what is being asked is outside you’re ability to deliver, say so or find a partner to work with.
  6. Be clear. Ensure that your communication could be understood by anyone aged 12 and up. Don’t use jargon or acronyms and don’t try to impress people with your insider lingo; instead aim to reduce confusion.
  7. Don’t waffle or be boring. You may well feel nervous and sometimes this leads to a tendency to waffle. Be aware of this and know when to stop talking. Once you have secured what you are looking for, this is your signal to conclude the pitch.
  8. Close the deal. Decide in advance want you want out of the meeting, when you feel the time is right, close it up and get a commitment.
  9. Follow up. The follow up is as important as the presentation. Record details of any questions which need answering. Get back to them promptly and comprehensively.

The best advice I can boil all this down to is that people buy from people they trust and like, and people who are enthusiastic. I tend to take a lot of time making sure that I am only in front of people who are really in the market to buy at the right level. Once you know this, it is better not to discuss price straightway. Show them what you can do, show them photos of finished projects, talk about how you can help them. Once they start to understand and get excited, they may well reassess what they are prepared to spend. In the end, much of our job is finding the ‘Sweet spot’ – what people want to spend is always less than what it would take for what they want. What we need to do to be successful is to find the point at which they are satisfied with what they have got without feeling that have overspent. That way, they’ll go and tell all their friends how wonderful you are!

How do you do Blue Sky Thinking if it’s raining all the time? (notes from FutureScape ’16)

daily-grindI am sure you recognise the classic bind for a small business – daily grind. You’re always on the treadmill. You don’t have time to do any marketing because you are always busy. Because you don’t do any marketing, soon you don’t have any work; so you have plenty of time to do marketing. You rush round madly trying to drum up work, then it’s back to the grindstone. But if you could step back from the switchback – the yo-yo – what would you actually do?  And why is any of this important? “Why can’t I just bumble on as I have for the last few years?” I hear you say.

Here are a few reasons.

  1. Digital revolution. This sounds so obvious, but most people constantly underestimate not only the impact that this will have on our lives, but more importantly, the way it will have an impact. If you look at the way markets are disrupted by those who use technology to their advantage, it is generally because something starts off as marginal then moves mainstream. Either it starts too expensive and then the technology improves and the delivery cost comes down, or it starts off crap but cheap and the producer works out a way to improve the quality. Now, I’m not exactly sure how technology (particularly digital technology) will affect our market in the future. If I did know, clearly I wouldn’t be here writing this, I’d be on my yacht in the Bahamas. But it will be disruptive. Look at Uber, AirBNB for just a couple of examples.
  2. Austerity. This is here for a while. It doesn’t mean that the government isn’t going to spend, but that money spent on say HS2 or Heathrow won’t be there to spend on say parks, schools facilities or smaller, more localised infrastructure projects.
  3. The graph on the left shows how the number of households with older people has changed in the last 15 years. Households are getting older. The graph on the right shows overall spending per household. This is falling, partly because of austerity and partly because older people spend less.
    The graph on the left shows how the number of households with older people has changed in the last 15 years. Households are getting older. The graph on the right shows overall spending per household. This is falling, partly because of austerity and partly because older people spend less. Source www.ft.com

     

    This Gantt chart shows how spending falls with age. Note the sharp reduction after the age of 64 and further still after the age of 74.
    This Gantt chart shows how spending falls with age. Note the sharp reduction after the age of 64 and further still after the age of 74. Source www.ft.com

     

    Baby boomers. (The baby-boom years are approximately between the years 1946 and 1964. This includes people who are between 52 and 70 years old in 2016.) If you look at a graph of how and when people spend, typically disposable income rises through their thirties forties and fifties when it peaks. It declines slowly through their sixties and more sharply thereafter.  What is more, the population is ageing. Not only are we all living longer, but over the next ten years, the ‘Baby boomer’ generation will be entering retirement age.

  4. This graph shows the ratio of average house price to average earnings. The red is London and the green UK as a whole. Given that the average advance is around 3.5x earnings, the unaffordability of houses is obvious.
    This graph shows the ratio of average house price to average earnings. The red is London and the green UK as a whole. Given that the average advance is around 3.5x earnings, the unaffordability of houses is obvious.

    Millennials. (defined as those ages 18-34 in 2015; they currently make up about 25% of the UK population) This is a generation centred on experience rather than possession. Most can’t afford to buy a house on flat, certainly not one with any substantial outside space.

What are the nett effects of these factors going to be? Well from our point of view it is difficult to predict, but one thing is clear – only the best organised, most fleet-footed firms and practitioners will benefit. You know how some firms or individuals always seem to get the plum jobs? Why is that? In this changing world, who will work go to? Simple:

  • People you can trust.
  • Firms you’ve heard of.
This diagram (courtesy of Dent Corporation) shows what you need to address to become a ‘Key Person of Influence’ in any industry. There are essentially 5 components: Pitch, Publish, Product, Profile, Partnerships. This process applies particularly to Individuals – sole traders – but would be equally relevant to business leaders.
This diagram (courtesy of Dent Corporation) shows what you need to address to become a ‘Key Person of Influence’ in any industry. There are essentially 5 components: Pitch, Publish, Product, Profile, Partnerships. This process applies particularly to Individuals – sole traders – but would be equally relevant to business leaders. www.keypersonofinfluence.com

I went to a lecture recently by Daniel Priestly of the Dent Corporation (www.dent.global). He said that there were certain people in all industries who were ‘Key People of Influence’. These people tend to clean up on many of the opportunities available. Everybody wants to work with them, for them, get them to speak at events and so on. They can charge more and they can select which projects they take forward. He put forward 5 key activities which these people tend to capitalise on Pitching, Publishing, Partnering, Productising (i.e. presenting their services in a clear unique product that appeals to consumers) and Profile. you can read more about this on his website www.keypersonofinfluence.com.

 

So, what is the most valuable thing in your business? Could someone buy it, assuming you wanted to sell?
Is it –

  • A brand?
  • Culture?
  • IP? Ideas, copyrights, etc.?
  • Your website?
  • A relationship?
  • A product or products?
  • You? – Your experience, qualifications, knowledge? (If so, see the 5 ‘P’s above!)

For most of us, it is probably a combination of several of these.

Let’s look at most of what we ‘do’ every day or week and sort it into columns. Now I don’t mean here ‘designing gardens’, ‘cutting grass’ or ‘building walls’. I am talking about generic tasks that are applicable to all businesses. We’ve been working with some business consultants recently (Contexis.com) and they helped us sort day to day activities into three groups.

First, there are the things that are necessary to run your business or add to your productivity, but don’t contribute directly to your turnover. Many of these will appear as costs or overheads on your profit and loss sheet, but that doesn’t mean that they are not important.
Examples would be:  I.T., Finance, Legal, Premises, H.R., Compliance, and Administration

Secondly, there are the things that add immediately to sales – to your turnover. So these are effectively better ways of delivering your product or service to the market, better channels, if you like. Examples would be:  Sales, Marketing (short term / tactical), Programming and Project Planning, Design, Site works, Client loyalty.

Lastly, there are the things that add to long term value. These are the interesting ones, the more ‘nebulous’ ones:  Culture (includes Intent and Values), Vision, Joint Ventures, Client Base Management, Channels, Brand Architecture & Positioning, New product / service development.

culturewordle
Is this the culture in your business? What words would staff and clients come up with if asked?

Let’s look a culture, vision and values first. If you think about it, there is probably a culture which defines your business (regular readers will remember me writing about this before in this blog). This should be something that you could ask anyone in the business about and you would get pretty much the same answer. It doesn’t happen by accident though, and needs nurturing. There is a lot of overlap between this and values. The latter is like a distillation of culture. At B&W, we narrow our values down to three words – Excellence, Creativity and Trust. These values underpin everything we do at the business both externally and internally. It should be evident to clients when they deal with you and when they look at any of your marketing material.

Developing a BrandNext Brand. Branding is more than a fancy logo, website or snappy slogan; effective branding captures the essence and values of a company. Tactical marketing generates sales; strategic branding generates loyalty. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are you trying to sell to?
  • Are you correctly positioned in the market?
  • Is it immediately clear to potential clients:
    • What you are selling?
    • How they will benefit?

go_to_market_large_sq-300x300Finally, let’s look at the market and how to get to it. One key thing to think about is to try and analyse why your clients buy from you, and no, I don’t just mean ‘because you are good’! For example, what problems are your customers trying to solve when they buy from you? Is it that they need a lower maintenance garden, or maybe they want to add something – a vegetable garden or a swimming pool? Perhaps there are complementary services or products that come before or after they join you – furniture? A glass house? also, think about what situation your clients are in just before they buy from you – what events are they likely to visit for example? Are they developing property – new extension or house, commercial building etc. Have their financial circumstances changed – got funding, sold a business, inherited? Or maybe they are going through some lifestyle changes – having children, kids leaving home, retirement, etc.

Where's all the time gone?One question you’re probably asking yourself right now is ‘But how can I find the time to do all this?’ The short answer of course is because you need to. Try to set aside a particular time each week to think about ‘conceptual stuff’. Perhaps arrange some time away from the business. I know that my best ideas often come while I am doing something else, often when I am away for a few days. A more practical tip is to use the time spent and lessons learnt from pitches to change the way you present the business. To take advantages of these opportunities (and because you never know when you might get a spare timeslot!), make sure you always have the right data and materials to hand – keep data on enquiries; photograph your work, preferably professionally; get testimonials.

But above all – have fun!

 

A case for greater democracy in the SGD

Voting handsCan the SGD truly claim to be a democratic organisation?

I am a member of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD), British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) and the Landscape Institute (LI). Of the three, I had always considered the LI to be the stuffiest, the least likely to embrace real change. Which is why last night’s EGM for the Landscape Institute represents a remarkable sea change. At a landmark meeting, members voted to make a number of changes to rules governing the Institute, including the Royal Charter, its regulations and bylaws. In the words of Merrick Denton-Thompson (the incoming president, as of last week):

The results of the EGM now mean the LI is at the forefront of modern, progressive, inclusive and democratic professional bodies.
The changes mean those with a stake in the organisation’s future have a say in it. Licentiate and academic members will now have voting rights and a seat on the Board; experienced practitioners will now have a route to Chartership; those working in landscape and related fields will be able to join as non-chartered members; our disciplinary processes now represent best practice across the sector; the trigger for members calling an EGM is now in line with similar bodies; and our election and voting systems have been simplified to allow far greater online participation. All of the changes mean we can now focus on growing membership and representing the increasingly diverse range interests and practice that makes up the modern landscape world.”

As Merrick suggests there, the changes also include routes for experienced practitioners to full membership, which the SGD has long had. However, the rest of the proposals put the LI clearly at the front of the pack in terms of democracy – they include changes to allow online voting and a more democratic process as well as greater representation.

This is a huge achievement, but is not the work of one president. It builds on the progress made by a reform-minded group of members, as well as the last two presidents – Sue Illman and Noel Farrar, who were both hugely energetic and forward thinking and represents a major turnaround in mindset for the Institute.

I have long argued that the SGD should be more democratic in the way it is organised. The governing council is made up of nine people who are elected from roughly two hundred members who are eligible to vote, but represent the interests of around 1400 people in total. So only around 14% of the membership are allowed to vote. There has been some move to get this changed, principally coming from those that don’t currently have the vote, but the case has not yet been put sufficiently strongly to convince the registered members to change the status quo.

At the very least, there should be representatives on council of the interests of non-registered members, but I actually think there is a strong argument for much greater reform. Some of the reasoning I have heard put forward by registered members – that other grades of membership would dilute the standard needed for qualification once they had the vote – at best sound like restrictive practice and at worst like the sort of arguments used against the suffragettes.

The SGD is still a vibrant and influential organisation. However, if it doesn’t reform, it will find itself becoming increasingly detached from the real world and less relevant. A bit like the Landscape Institute was a few years ago.

Is that a whiff of revolution I smell?

Perchance to dream…

Copyright PollyWyer https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer
‘Beginnings’ by Polly Wyer – https://www.behance.net/PollyWyer

I was listening to Yann Martel (the Canadian author of ‘Life of Pi’) on the radio yesterday speaking about his project ‘What is Stephen Harper Reading’. Over a four year period form 2007-2011 he sent a book every two weeks with a written recommendation to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. This started because Martel had heard that Harper had stopped reading fiction as he felt it was not relevant to daily life. Martel’s opening line was “I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow…” Martel went on to say that he felt it important that leaders should be able to dream. If they are leading us into the unknown, they need to be able to dream a future, to be visionary. He could see no better way of strengthening this than by either reading fiction, or travelling.

Surely much the same is true of garden design? We are constantly dealing with abstract ideas and unrealised futures, the more so as uniquely in design, landscapes change hugely with time. Our ideas are elusive and the best ones often come to us from unexpected sources or at surprising times (read my earlier blog post ‘Where do ideas come from?’). Many of the core ideas for schemes I have worked on have come to me seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they arrive like a thunderbolt, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t thought about it before. Once you have had an idea like that, you can’t ‘unthink’ it. On other occasions great ideas just sort of sidle up to me. There I am playing around with a felt pen and paper, and it seems to kind of emerge, to seep out of the end of my pen in a quiet sort of way, like a flower opening from a tight unpromising bud. And, just like a flower from a bud, you can’t pack it up and put it back in again. I love that moment when the idea starts to take shape (literally sometimes). It really is the most magical part of the process and I get the same buzz from it now as I did when I designed my first project.

This process of disconnection from reality, this ability to dream is at the core of what we do. If we were entirely rooted in reality, our designs would be very mundane. Imagine visiting a client and trying to describe how you have reached the point you have, but doing it without visual language, without atmospheric terms. Difficult isn’t it? Our ability to verbally flesh a scheme out is what makes it ‘fly’. I always like to present a scheme in person to a client and these days I insist on it. In the past, occasionally this has not been possible, either because diaries did not allow, or because someone else wanted to control access to the client. It is always a disaster for a third party to present your design because they don’t know the story – designs are all about the stories we tell ourselves and others.

This week I’m going on holiday and I will fulfil both of Yann Martel’s conditions – travel (to Cuba) and reading – I always read loads when I am on holiday, and 80% of it is fiction. I also think loads. So while I am away I will be recharging my batteries, but I will also be in my own private dreamtime. Let’s see how it affects my work…

 

We all need to make a living.

Some of this piece is specific to contractors, some to designers; but much of it applies to both.

Do we work in an industry which undervalues itself and if so, why is that? Our nearest ‘neighbour’ is the construction industry. These figures speak for themselves: look at these comparisons between the various corresponding jobs in the construction and landscape sector (source: www.payscale.com).

Construction worker Landscape Gardener

Landscape manager Construction project manager

 

Landscape ArchitectArchitectPay at site level seems to be linked more closely to agricultural pay than industrial pay. The higher up the management ladder you go, the bigger the pay gap becomes. Do we undersell our skills, or are they just undervalued by clients – is that the same thing? And what can we do about it?

Once we get locked into a price-driven market, various things start happening:

  1. Driving the price down is the main objective, so Margins are slim. This has various knock on effects:
  2. Pay is driven down. If pay is low then…
  3. Recruitment is difficult.
  4. And staff are Unhappy
  5. Slim margins mean Low Investment.
  6. Low investment and pay levels mean… Low Productivity… and
  7. More Accidents.
  8. Bad practices start to creep in: Sharp practices, hidden charges, commission, corruption, etc

Let’s look at the opposite process. If you are in a quality driven market, then:

  1. Quality is the main objective. The best way to drive up quality is…
  2. Invest more,
  3. Attract better staff, which means you have to…
  4. Pay better, and
  5. Train more, which means it makes sense to…
  6. Retain staff. To do this they have to be Happy.

The general view is that because of the tendering process, ‘cheapest is best’ is endemic. In fact, I am not sure that this is the case – it comes down to whether that market is price-driven or quality-driven. We regularly win both design and construction work in competitive tenders when we are not the cheapest. This is because experience, expertise, resources and general approach all play an important part in the selection process. The quality of the tender response is critical. Of course if the quality of the tender response is critical, then the quality of the request is equally important, or how else can a sensible appraisal be made? My impression is that over the last thirty years, tendering on the construction side has got sloppier. When I started in the industry, full Bills of Quantities were the norm in construction tenders, as were full construction package drawings. Tenders were delivered in unmarked identical sealed envelopes and opened simultaneously at a given time. These days they come in dribs and drabs, multiple extension of time are often the norm. What’s more, Bills of Quantities are a rarity (unless the contractor pays to have them done) and drawings have far less detail than they used to. One could view this state of affairs in two ways. Either it puts the contractor at a disadvantage because they are open to the sharp practices of their competitors – under-pricing tenders deliberately and then clawing back cost later – OR it puts the contractor in the driving seat because it allows them to deliver a higher quality service and work more closely with the client and design team. It all depends on the attitude (on both sides). John Melmoe of Willerby’s recently said to me ‘Price tendering is a thing of the past – it is dead’. Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but you can see where he is going. The bulk of his work is now achieved through partnering and negotiation. This achieves higher quality, shorter programmes, more profit and less conflict. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the end result isn’t cheaper as well. But how do you break into a market like that? If established firms clean up all the work before it ever gets to tender, what hope is there for the others?

How do you know how much to charge – or put another way, what are the signs that you are not charging enough?

1 You have no time to market because you’re too busy serving clients

If you are constantly busy, running around after clients, working evenings to catch up – then you are not charging enough. Charging more will increase your returns, your quality of life and improve the quality of your clients – ones who appreciate you!

2 Your prospective clients compare you to someone else

If your clients are price shopping then you’re a commodity, and they are not seeing the value of your service. You quickly get sucked into the price-driven market cycle – not good!

3 Too many ‘Yes’s from practically every prospective client

If your hit rate is pushing 100%, then you’re not charging enough. Everyone likes a bargain and that’s what you are.

But other than the generalised statement of ‘moving to a quality led market’, what are the practical reasons for why you should charge more?

Here are a few:

  1. Not all your time is chargeable. If you are a garden designer or landscape architect, then this is particularly true. Probably only half your time, at most two-thirds can be charged for. Here’s the problem – in a 40-hour week, especially starting out, you’re going to spend half that week pounding the pavement (or more). You need to network, build your site/portfolio, blog, make phone calls, write proposals, and on and on. Once clients come in, you’ve got administrative work to do – somebody has to send the invoices, pay the taxes, and buy the toilet paper.
  2. Feast or famine. While you’re doing all that work you’ve got, who’s going to be doing the marketing, networking and getting the next job? Probably should be you – which means you’ll then have to take more time out doing that.
  3. Bills, Bills, Bills. As well as the rent, rates etc., there’s all those hidden costs – software, insurance, accountancy, coming here! Etc. etc. etc.
  4. Setting your own value. I bet you have something that you buy regularly, but only when it is on offer. If you make a habit of allowing others to negotiate your price down, or always expecting a discount, then it sends a message about how both they and you value your service. They will always try it on. You set the price – you set the value. If you want to offer a better deal, then don’t offer a discount. Drive a hard bargain for a decent price, but then over-deliver. That way the client will respect you but also think that you offer a really good service and recommend you. Getting a good price in the first place also allows you to be more flexible over small things that crop up along the way.
  5. You can only sell each day once. Consultancy and service industries are like hotel rooms – you can only sell your time once, and if you don’t sell it then it is lost for good. Your charges need to take account of this in two ways. Firstly, you need to cover for the down time, but also, when you are really busy you should sell the last bits more expensively. When customers book a hotel room or a flight, they always get a better deal when they book in advance online. Leave it till the day they travel and they’ll pay through the nose. It follows that you can charge more for last minute approaches by clients – and this is not unscrupulous – last minute rushes and running around are always disruptive.

untitledLook at this graph – it sheds some light on the relationship between value, price, and how a client sees the service they are buying. At the top is ‘Nuclear event’ – which basically means when a client has no choice but to hire you. This refers to the sort of service that you don’t have any real choice about and are not in a position to quibble about price – the business equivalent of calling the fire brigade. Bottom right is ‘Commodity services’ where you will be hired purely on the basis of price. The further to the bottom right you go, the less there is to distinguish between suppliers of service. The sweet spot is about 2/3 of the way up towards the left – ‘Hired for experience’, although you will notice that trusted brands also make an appearance.

Along the way, let’s look at a few other practices that go on.

Commission

In the insurance industry, we are outraged when we learn that an insurer has passed our details on to someone else because they get a commission payment. What’s more, in foreign defence contracts and the like, such payments are classed as corruption. Why should it be alright therefore for a client to pay for a sculpture, piece of furniture or the like and the designer or contractor get a ‘secret’ payment? It’s not alright; it’s dishonest and lacks transparency. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with an honest commercial mark-up – as a contractor you buy the furniture and you sell it to the client. Their contract is with you. If you are a garden designer and you take such payments, then you are either greedy or you’re not charging enough. Charge a decent rate and then you are free to recommend what works best rather than being tempted by whichever supplier pays you the most. And don’t be fooled; if it didn’t sway specifiers’ minds, then suppliers wouldn’t make such payments. (If you want to read more about this, I covered it in an earlier post in more detail: ‘Should Designers Take Commission Payments?’)

Who supplies what?

Should designers supply plants and other products? This is a difficult one – although many of you will probably already know my views on this – I have hardly made a secret of them. To my mind the process works best when it is crystal clear. It should be clear which part of the process the client is buying from which person, and who is responsible. In many ways, design and build is the clearest in this respect – there is only one person to go to when something goes wrong. That is how the world mostly works – if you buy a car or a telephone and something goes wrong, the manufacturer cannot blame ‘the designer’. However, let’s accept that that is not always possible or desirable to procure everything on this basis.

To me it seems obvious that the next best thing is if the client pays a reasonable price for the design part of the process and gets clear unbiased advice. The contractor then does the rest. The clue is in the name – the contractor does contracting and the designer does designing. In some cases, perhaps because the contractor doesn’t have the skills, or perhaps because the job is too small, it can make sense for the designer to supply the plants. But to my mind, this only works when the designer procures, supplies and actually carries out the planting. They are in fact then acting as a contractor, but it also makes the liability envelope clear should something go wrong. Otherwise the responsibility chain gets very tangled. What if a designer supplies the plant, but a contractor plants them and someone else is looking after them? See what I mean?

Clawback

I’ve touched on this earlier. However, I’d like to explore it in a little more detail. At the point of awarding a contract, the client is in the maximum position of power. The (prospective) contractor wants the job and there is always the real possibility that if he doesn’t jump through hoops, then the client will go to the next cheapest on the list. It is of course not in the client’s longer term interest  to force the price down at this point, and this is one of the drawbacks of the tendering process when price driven. Because once the contract is awarded and the work is well underway, the boot is on the other foot. It is too difficult and expensive for the client to kick the contractor off site. Generally, he wants to get the job finished as soon as possible, which requires the co-operation of the contractor. At this point the contractor has the scope to make hay – charge more or less what he wants for extras and variations and claw back all that money he artificially cut from the tender in the first place. Both practices are short-sighted and unethical. How do we protect ourselves against this? Work with good consultants and reputable clients and don’t get drawn into these games. And don’t expect to win every job. It is always possible for someone to undercut you, but it frequently means they can’t deliver a good quality product or service, so the practice is not really sustainable in the longer term.

So… in summary it is best to be:

Clear

Quotations and proposals should be clear and unequivocal and make a good basis for any future variation. Drawings and specifications should be well defined, comprehensible and unambiguous.

Honest and fair

… even when there are easy opportunities to be otherwise. This is the only way to earn respect and build a business.

Compete on quality, not price

That way you get the sort of clients you want and a decent return for what you do.

(This piece was originally delivered as a talk at FutureScape in November 2015.)

What’s the point of community gardens?

John has invited me to write this month’s blog post as it is 15 years this year, since we started the Triangle Community Garden (www.trianglegarden.org) with a group of friends around our kitchen table in Hitchin.

Over the years, the question I get asked most often is: what is the community garden for? So I thought I’d try and answer it properly this time …

As many of you will be aware, the community garden movement started in the 1970s in cities, where plots of land lay undeveloped awaiting a better financial climate. High rise populations looked longingly at the waste land and sought ways to cultivate it and use it in the meanwhile. Once these ‘meanwhile gardens’ became established they took on massive importance to urban communities, as oases of usable productive green space and a way of bringing people together for positive ends.

Making a garden, as a community
Making a garden, as a community

At the Triangle Garden our tagline is ‘Connect, Grow, Enjoy!’ and it’s the sharing of the process of growing, creating, planning, gardening, harvesting, baking, making and just soaking it all up, that is what it’s all about.

Many people assume that community gardening is all about food growing, and for many projects it is, but the Triangle Garden has always been about the making of a garden, for everyone to enjoy.

That’s not to say that we don’t grow food – we do – but there are other, equally important, yields to be had. Over the years we’ve shared in the creation of a place of unexpected peace and beauty; a magical place between a busy road and a noisy railway line, with a magnetism for children and a time of its own … a secret garden.

Volunteers have come and gone, and as the Triangle Garden has evolved, so those involved have grown with it. We’ve learnt skills, like willow weaving, composting, pruning, mosaic making, peace-making, delegating, problem solving. We’ve shared wildlife adventures: the discovery of bats, hibernating newts, basking lizards, new froglets, bumblebees, butterflies, the creation of a wildlife pond, a bug hotel and a pollinators’ garden.  We’ve made mistakes, missed opportunities, suffered setbacks, had successes, been inspired, worked hard and had fun.

Volunteers picking this year's apples, and showing off a bottle of last year's juice
Volunteers picking this year’s apples, and showing off a bottle of last year’s juice

This month we’ve been busy picking and receiving donations of apples, to be processed locally into bottled juice, and sold to raise funds. We don’t make much money out of it, but it’s positive and fun, and makes use of fruit that would otherwise go to waste. People can’t wait to give us their apples or offer us their orchards to pick.

They say horticulture is a de-stresser because plants can’t talk back at you, but I think it’s more than that. Working with nature grounds you in a way that nothing else can: nature works to its own agenda and at its own pace – try and tame it at your peril! But when you observe it, try to understand it and work with it and not against it – then it gives back in spades!

One of our gardeners with some of the things she's grown this year
One of our Growing Ability gardeners with some of the things she’s grown this year

Our Growing Ability project for adults with learning disabilities, demonstrates that in abundance. In between the weekly sessions, nature is at work, rewarding our ‘gardeners’ for nurturing their plants and helping to achieve a small step towards a result they can be proud of, whether it be a crop of beans, a bed of strawberries, some bee-friendly flowers or a long-awaited and much-revered aubergine.

For those who attend, the project is a place where they can come together for a purpose and interact with the natural world.

Through planning their crops and tending their plots, our gardeners are learning and consolidating their literacy and numeracy skills, recognising cause and effect, and taking responsibility for seeing something through. From choosing and buying seed, to enjoying and sharing what they’ve grown, there is much to discover, learn and remember.

Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment
Growing Ability gardeners and staff at our allotment

Observing and interacting with nature, even just being outdoors, can be therapeutic – individuals enjoy sharing their knowledge and feelings about the life around them: whether it’s birdsong, butterflies, earthworms, bees or the robin that frequents our allotment.

The social aspect of the project cannot be underestimated either. For some of our gardeners it is the only activity they do outside the house during the week. With no work, no spare cash and a limited circle of people who accept you, life can be very isolated. Sharing one morning a week in a supportive, positive, natural environment is a highlight to look forward to.

Our Growing Ability project has a sister initiative, born a couple of years ago from the desire of many of our gardeners to lose weight and get fitter. Growing Health provides a supportive environment where individuals can learn about weight management, portion control, and how to plan and cook healthy food on a limited budget, using the facilities available at home – usually a microwave and a kettle. The group share cooking and eating experiences, support each other in setbacks and successes, take regular walks together and play outdoor games in the summer.

Cricket with Growing Health
Cricket in the park with Growing Health

In the first year of the project, the group lost a total of 3 stone 12lbs, and this year another 14lbs was lost overall. As well as playing basketball and cricket, and walking together around the park during sessions, individuals are now choosing to walk into town instead of catching the bus and several have joined Hitchin library, making regular visits on foot. At break times in both projects, biscuits have been replaced by fruit as the snack of choice. Impressive stuff .. . and thanks overwhelmingly to our amazing staff team led by Project Manager Liz McElroy.

I must end now, having probably gone on far too long, but that’s what happens when you’re passionate about something…  (just don’t get me started on latin drumming).

Any questions on this blog, please drop us a comment below.

Vicky Wyer (landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, wife and mother to his children,  mad drumming woman).

If this has inspired you to find out more, please visit our website at www.trianglegarden.org.

Our community gardening sessions are on Friday mornings and the last Sunday of every month and are open to all. Our learning disability projects: Growing Ability, Growing Health and Growing Gang (a community-based work-experience project), run during the week from our allotment and the Triangle Garden.

If you’re in the area, come and find us at our next local event: Apple Day in Hitchin town square on 17th October 2015, 10am-2pm. Follow us on twitter @triangle_garden and Facebook: TriangleGarden