Finding your own hill.

My proudest hill moment (a few years ago).

As a cyclist (of sorts), I often use an app called ‘Strava’. This not only tracks your route, speed, altitude etc., but also lets you know how you are doing against your previous efforts (as well as other people).

Out for a cycle a couple of evenings ago, I tackled one of my favourite hills. ‘Personal Record’ gushed Strava enthusiastically after my ascent – this was apparently the quickest I had climbed this particular hill in the twenty or so times I had cycled up it.  My satisfaction was short-lived. After a little investigation, the app informed me that I was the 1188th fastest person up this hill in the last five years or so. That must include a few races of super fit young guys though, surely? Not only that but I was only the 23rd fastest up it today! I then found similarly depressing figures for my gender, age-group and weight, suggesting I suppose that quite a lot of other middle aged slightly overweight men had done better than me.

The lesson here is not to get sucked in to measuring yourself against other people. For most of us, for any task or achievement, there will always be someone who has done better. We are each our unique mix of talents and abilities. I don’t suppose many of those people who climbed the hill quicker than me could design gardens very well or probably cook an omelette as well as I can (I do mean scrambled eggs as well). Try your hardest and do better than you did last time.

Curiously enough, businesses do much the same. They often spend far too much time comparing themselves against their competitors. “How did they get that contract?” “Why are they able to sell that more cheaply than we can?” Instead, we should concentrate on what our clients want. In the end, they are what drive the business. if we get that right, the competitors cease to matter. As business leaders, we should concentrate on serving our clients’ needs as best we can, along with fine-tuning our internal processes to make improvements to our performance. We should also be looking for new ways to delight them, perhaps even identifying needs that they didn’t know they had.

And that is like finding a hill which no one else has cycled up yet.

Two gardens in Massachusetts

Last summer I spent a few weeks in the United States, travelling round seeing friends and family. We visited Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Boston and the Berkshires, where we went to a delightful wedding. While we were there, we took in a couple of interesting gardens.

‘The Mount’ viewed from the garden behind its serried ranks of conifers
The very green-looking garden

The first was Edith Wharton’s house from 1902-1911, ‘The Mount’ in Lenox, MA. Although delightful, this was in many ways what you would expect a New England garden to be: derivative of European Gardens, but with the scale and confidence of American sensibility. Wharton reputedly designed the garden (and the house) herself, living there for only about a decade, but ploughing much of her earnings from her books into it. However, what is interesting about the differences between this and European gardens is the use of plant material. It is distinctly North American – the use of rank upon rank of spruces and other conifers in particular. In fact, one of the distinguishing things about the garden is its sheer greenness – we went there in late June and it felt really fresh, despite the high summer temperatures.

The main avenue cuts assertively through the garden parallel to the house.
Interesting layering here – very American in style and plant choice (and noticeably C20th) but European in influence
The interesting (but slightly scary) change in level between the main avenue and the formal gardens below the house.

I also like the arrangement of the formal elements, the way in which the main avenue cut through the design, masking sharp changes in level. The house sits on high ground and has a commanding view over the garden, as you might expect. Plenty of flowers here, surrounded by pleasant rolling park and woodlands. There is also a stone plaque, with a delightful inscription which almost serves as mantra for life: ‘In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways.’

Naumkeag – actually a far more homely place than it appears here. Although grand, it did have the feel of a family house.
The Oak tree under which Joseph Choate picnicked as a child is the main feature of one of the terraces.

The second garden we visited was Naumkeag, in Stockbridge MA, just a few miles from The Mount. The name is of American Native origin, although it was originally the name of a people rather than a place. The house and garden have an interesting history. It was originally designed for a prominent New York lawyer, Joseph Choate and his family, although it was later much added to and changed by his daughter Mabel. Choate had a deep emotional involvement with the place, having picnicked as a child under a large oak tree whilst on summer vacation nearby with his parents. He later acquired the land and set to building a house and garden for his own family. Interestingly, the commission for the garden design was originally offered to Frederick Law Olmstead, but his designs were rejected after he suggested locating the house where the oak tree was situated – a lesson in ignoring a client’s brief perhaps! The tree still stands and forms a focal feature in the garden. Although the early gardens were laid out by Nathan Barrett in the 1880s, they were considerably expanded and altered after Choate’s death by Fletcher Steele over a 30-year period from 1925-1956 under the guidance of Choate’s daughter Mabel.

Not quite sure what the influence here is… Gondolas?

As with other New England gardens, Naumkeag draws deeply upon the European Well although there are also several very unusual features in the garden. The house sits high up on the lower shoulders of the hillside, with spectacular views over the valley. The ground falls away beneath it in a succession of levels down to the valley floor. Away to the left of the house (looking out) sits a curious eclectic garden a small parterre, and carved timber poles which could have come straight from Venice.

I really like these riveted slate steps.


From this, beautiful riveted slate steps lead down from one side to a terrace, with the oak tree sitting away to one side on the ‘picnic lawn’. A rill runs from this level right the way down through the garden. It is an interesting feature – the water first begins to flow over several regularly spaced steps.

The beginning of the rill
This rill takes the water on the first stage of its long journey through the garden.

These set up a pulse in the water which is still evident several metres further down the rill. However, it is the feature beneath this that is Naumkeag’s (and arguably Fletcher Steele’s) most famous feature – the ‘Blue steps’.

The famous blue steps. Note the logarithmic step riser and treads.

A central rill runs through the feature, with a series of arched grotto-like spaces with landings above. One of the things that make this such a fascinating feature is the logarithmic steps which descend sideways from each landing to meet at a lower landing below each grotto; ‘blue’ because of the concrete used (itself an unusual feature).

The pleasantly understated planting that is the setting for the blue steps

The setting is admirably restrained with simple undergrowth and Aspen trees. It is in stark but playful contrast to the ebullient delphinium beds beneath.

Naumkeag’s other famous feature is Steele’s last piece of work at the property – the rose garden, although to my mind this does not quite work. Although the shapes are interesting, the roses seem at odds with the design – indeed all the various elements feel at odds with one another.

The rose garden – Fletcher Steele’s final addition

A much more pleasing feature is the formal garden below and to the right of the house. Here (as at The Mount) the interplay between European design and American plant material is at its most obvious. Steele plays skilfully with the serial views and perspective. Above it towers a ‘thunder house’ very reminiscent of the one at Hidcote, although if anything rather better – certainly grander. It was supposedly a place for ‘assignations’ which could be both observed from the house but private at the same time. Finally, a (for me) disappointing Chinese garden – a mish-mash of imported ideas and titbits from the Far East.

The view form the thunder house – supposedly used for ‘assignations’.

The curious thing about Naumkeag is that Steele was actually at his best when he wasn’t trying too hard. The picnic lawn, the formal gardens and the thunder house all have a comfortable elegance which is confident but accessible. The Chinese Garden, the Parterre and the Rose Garden on the other hand, all have a very self-conscious character which gets in the way of one enjoying them. The great exception to this is the blue steps, which is not only a masterpiece, but strikingly inventive and original.

If you are in Western Massachusetts at all, I would recommend a visit to both gardens, but particularly to Naumkeag.

Biosecurity at Highgrove


The horticultural and arboricultural world seems have to been beset by one wave of pest and disease after another. From Box blight to Oak Processionary Moth, Ash Dieback to Bleeding Canker and horse chestnut leaf miner every onslaught is as distressing and threatening than the last. Why is this, and perhaps more importantly, what can we do about it? Two weeks ago, I went to a conference on biosecurity and plant health which attempted to answer some of these and other questions.

The caterpillars of the Oak processionary moth Thaumetopoea processionea. This pest is already in the UK.

The conference was staged by Prince Charles at Highgrove House in Gloucestershire. At first, I have to say that I was initially rather sceptical. I received a somewhat mysterious invitation from Sir Nicholas Bacon. Mysterious in that it gave precious little details about the conference (other than that it was at Highgrove and the general subject matter). However, on acceptance, more information flowed. I was sceptical because there has been much said and written on the subject of biosecurity in the last few years, but actually precious little action. I wondered if this was to be another talking shop. It was far from that. Principally because of the draw of Highgrove House and its illustrious owner, nobody could turn down an invitation. As a result, the assembled company covered the owners and managers of many of Europe’s leading nurseries, UK importers, leading garden and landscape designers, foresters, contractors and other representatives from the industry. There were also members of the government including Lord Gardiner (the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity), Professor Dr Nicola Spence (Chief Plant Health Officer to the UK Government) and the Secretary of State for DEFRA Michael Gove (as well of course of one other notable guest!). The discussions that followed were generally of a similar calibre to the delegates.

Xylella fastidiosa

The morning session was largely taken up with speakers from different sides of the industry outlining the issues we face (particularly from Xylella fastidiosa, which was never far from the conversation). They began to venture on to solutions, but this was largely left to the afternoon.

Leaf Scorch on Oleander caused by Xylella

Global warming is often blamed for the spread of new pathogens and pests. Although this Is in part true, there are many other causes of which increased trade is the principal. Because of this, three overlapping strains of argument began to emerge fairly early on. The first of the was that of traceability (as in other industries such as food production or pharma). This accepted that trade would happen but argued that being able to trace the source of any infection would allow swift action to be effective in finding and isolating the source of the outbreak. The second was one of cooperation. This considered trade as inevitable and saw the solutions coming out of a collaborative process and good communication. The last was an opposing one which saw quarantine and strong border controls as the way forward. This had the added attraction of supporting the UK nursery industry. Although the arguments swayed back and forth, it became clear that the solutions probably lay in a combination of all three approaches.

Olives, one of the main plants at risk from Xylella and also one of the carriers.

In the afternoon, we broke up into tables of ten people to discuss the issues in more detail and propose solutions. there was some brisk discussion (at least on our table). While people agreed on many subjects, there was disagreement on others. At the end of the day we were joined by Prince Charles and Michael Gove and the chairman (Alan Titchmarsh) summed up the findings. There were a number of things that emerged:

  1. Awareness. All agreed that there needed to be more education about the issues involved, not only within the industry but in the broader public, particularly at air and sea ports. Better leaflets and other information needed to be readily available in places where people buy plants.
  2. Certification. A scheme of certification for nurseries is needed to ensure that all nurseries are complying with good practice, particularly those exporting.
  3. Traceability. It is essential that plants can be traced back to there source so that in the event of any infection being discovered, the source of the outbreak can be quickly discovered and isolated.
  4. Responsible Person. these should be one person in every nursery and plant retail centre who is trained and responsible for biosecurity. This might be extended to include landscape firms.
  5. Border Controls/Quarantine. There was considerable discussion and no real agreement on this. Many people felt that the plants that are the most prolific carriers of Xylella fastidiosa in particular should be banned from import (this is about ten plants on the list of 300). Others felt that 12-month quarantines needed to be put in place instead. This is unlikely to be entirely effective, partly because some of the plants are short term crops (such as lavender and rosemary) and also because  Xylella can take up to 18 months to become evident. Quarantining can also concentrate the infection and give a hotspot which is near other plants, unless it is done very carefully.

I left the conference not only more educated about the issues, but also determined to do something more on this, both in my own organisation and more widely.

Have you heard of the gardens at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon? You should have done.

On a recent trip to Lisbon we visited a couple of really interesting sites. I know I probably bored you all silly with my pictures on social media of amazing paving patterns, but that has already been much written about elsewhere. The Gulbenkian Park however, was a revelation. According to Wikipedia, it was originally designed in 1969 by the landscape architects Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles and António Viana Barreiro in close collaboration with Alberto Pessoa, Pedro Cid and Ruy Athouguia who were architects of the buildings of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation erected in the park. For me, it was almost like all the design books and manuals I had read in the late 1970s had come to life. A wonderfully cohesive mix of large boulders, large slabs of in-situ concrete and a simple but effective planting palette give a very pleasing experience which has weathered exceptionally well. I am used to visiting – and being disappointed by – iconic C20th landscapes (read my piece on Parc Citroen: “The whole life cost of a Citroën”), but this was reverse: an understated and little known piece of work that really deserves more attention. This was the first thing that interested me, it is very little written or known about outside Portugal. I can imagine that if this site was in London, or New York, it would have become one of those iconic landscapes that people would visit and write about. It certainly deserves to be written about and visited.

The large lake, Park Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

The second thing that struck me is the completeness of the vision. It is not a large site – about 7.5ha (19 acres), but the design has a coherency and the relationship between the brutalist architecture and the naturalistic landscape works very well, as though they are different parts of the same musical piece. The slab-like buildings sail gracefully over the water and the softness of the trees provides the perfect calm note to counterpoint the concrete. Nearer the building there are also drifts of orange Strelitzia, which although they don’t quite work with the parkland, do make an interesting contrast to the concrete.

The smaller lake, crossed by a stepped slab path

The layout of the park is relatively simple, with a large lake in the northern part of the gardens and meandering paths through glades of trees. Like much modern architecture of its period, it borrowed much from both European brutalism and American modern architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright amongst others) which in turn borrows from Japanese design. So common is this language in design now, that the stepped bridges and panels of concrete seem entirely comfortable to us. At the time however, this must have been a bold but also incredibly comprehensive piece of design – and what a commission! The planting also has a slightly oriental feel, but uses an eclectic palette adapted to the local climate – Papyrus reed, grasses, Brazilian pepper tree (Schinnis terrebinthus), oak, eucalyptus and poplars.

Calm restraint and elegance (if one can ignore the rope-and-posts!).
Pleasing use of water, boulders and bamboo.

Finally, it is a landscape from a much under-represented period; it reminds me of some of Preben Jacobsen’s work or some of the better pieces from the English modernist landscape movement of the sixties and seventies.
Sadly, like many C20th landscapes it is suffering a little, although not as much as one would have expected. There is a steady income from other activities on the site and there is good support from the Gulbenkian foundation. So, I urge you – go there; visit! You won’t regret it.

The Journeys we Make to Become Gardeners.

(Written by Jeff Stephenson. Head of Horticulture and Aftercare at Bowles & Wyer)

A glimpse into my student days at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; 

As we made our way up the steep wooden ladders, which were perilously lashed (Heath Robinson fashion), to the gnarled root encased hillside, our t-shirts already clinging to our backs with sweat; we looked up through the morning gloom and dense canopy to make out  the mottled buff-grey stone wall of Temple IV  up ahead of us. We emerged around dawn onto the precarious stone terraces of the structure to sit and rest, drawing breath whilst we surveyed the dizzying panorama now displayed. The moisture laden air swirled below us like a low  fog over the sea. As the sun rose higher in the sky the white blanket of mist slowly rolled back, revealing one of the most memorable and awe inspiring views I had ever witnessed. My heart was beating fast in my chest. There, set out in emerald green, was the Guatemalan rainforest.



View towards Temple IV showing summit shrine; Tikal, Guatemala.

Majestic Kapok trees, festooned with Spanish moss and orchids, shouldered their way above the uninterrupted canopy which, when viewed from way up here, looked like tufts of lichen attached to a diorama. A cacophony of shrills, melodic woodwind like whoops and deep baritone honks could be heard emanating from the impenetrable green below. The hollow reverberating primeval ‘chant’ of howler monkeys could be identified in the distance.  A small flock of Scarlet Macaws in red,  blue and yellow passed in spirit-like effortless flight over the tree tops , whilst a pair of toucans bobbed and cavorted through the bows of a nearby tree, turning their heads on their sides to inquisitively eye each other, seemingly unhindered by their oversized tangerine bills. 

I couldn’t believe I was really here amidst such rich natural beauty; I was in the heart of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.”

  • Excerpt from my R.B.G. Kew Travel Scholarship Diaries; Tikal, Guatemala; 18th September 1992.


A client once said to me, only a few years ago and with much sincerity;

“When are you going to get a proper job, not just gardening?”

Unfortunately it is all too often that many people outside of our profession make assumptions about exactly who and what gardeners are and where they have come from. They have a very narrow perception of how large, interesting and diverse the horticultural industry is and how long good gardeners have spent in training (which never finishes), or indeed where it may have taken them.

My journey:

I began the Kew Diploma in Horticulture back in 1989 with much trepidation, being surrounded by extremely bright students with amazing backgrounds. I’d already studied sciences but only spent one year learning horticulture and countryside management at Capel Manor College in Enfield whilst also volunteering with The Colne Valley Park Groundwork Trust; my peers had spent years at places such as R.H.S. Wisley, Hampton Court Palace and Singapore Botanic Gardens. I was woefully outmatched, so I set myself on a route of committed study to justify being amongst my classmates.

Kews’ intensive programme covers everything from systematics and genetics to surveying and landscape design. One day you are dissecting flowers under a microscope, another you are micro-propagating orchids in a test tube.  With plant identification tests, every fortnight, covering wide agenda such as ‘The Palm House’, ‘The Pinetum’ or ‘The Order Beds’, you had to quickly build up your observation and recall abilities. We were privy to lectures from Kews’ own scientific and living collections staff (favourites included Mike Maunder and Tony Kirkham) and external lecturers with the likes of John Brookes, Peter Thoday,  Sir Roy Strong and Brita von Schoenaich.  Studies were both ‘in house’ and held at other centres such as West London Institute of Higher Education (now part of Brunel University), Otley College (Suffolk) and Writtle College (Chelmsford); we were influenced by wide ranging teaching styles and facilities.

Appennine Colossus; Villa di Pratolino, Tuscany.

There were study trips to Tuscany to see Medici Villas and Pistoia’s nurseries and field trips to Dorset and Sussex to survey coastal zonation and soil profiles respectively. I built a ‘Japanese garden’ for the NCCPG at the very first Hampton Court Flower Show and designed the interpretive Bee Garden which used to reside near Kew Palace. We worked in numerous living collection and administrative departments including ‘Planning’; one of my roles was liaising with film crews, book publishers, TV companies and celebrities (inc. David Bellamy), who wanted to use the gardens for filming and photo-shoots.  A high point was winning two Travel Scholarship awards which allowed me to investigate ecosystems in Central America, both on land and around the coast via SCUBA; surveying mangrove swamps, seagrass lagoons and coral reefs with ‘Coral Cay Conservation’ (but that’s another story!).

After three years at R.B.G. Kew and a fourth intermediate industrial placement year with Clifton Nurseries’ landscape team (during 1990-1991, which incidentally is where I fortuitously first met Chris Bowles and John Wyer), I managed to graduate with Honours as the highest scoring student of each year; the focused study and sacrifices had paid off.

So the next time a gardener passes your way, have a thought for where they have been or where they could be headed. They may have rich stories to tell and extensive knowledge to call upon; your garden could greatly benefit from their experiences.

by Jeff Stephenson.

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 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 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:
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.

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?

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.

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)


The Natural History of Flint

(This blog is the first from Jeff Stephenson, head of Bowles & Wyer’s Aftercare and Gardening division)

From a driveway on the outskirts of Berkhamsted to the chalk seas of the Upper Cretaceous;

When you walk into a garden, do you ever think about where everything originated from? You might find plants from such diverse places as the swamps and wetlands of the Kamchatka Peninsula (e.g. Lysichiton camtschatcensis), the prairies of eastern North America (e.g. Echinacea purpurea) or the coastal forests of Chile (e.g. Fascicularia bicolor). That’s just the chlorophyll containing contingency; what about the supporting cast of hard features; decking materials, manufactured corten steel edgings and natural stones?

In this blog I’m going to concentrate on one of the most unglamorous and overlooked materials we use in gardens. It has been a mainstay material for infilling drainage channels, adding to compost mixes, covering driveways and paths or incorporating into traditionally crafted, regional, walls.  I’m going to share with you what I know about flint. Before I took up horticulture, long before I joined Bowles & Wyer, I studied natural sciences; geology was and still is a particular interest of mine; so when I go into gardens I’m not just thinking about gardening, I’ve also got one eye out for the past; the vast expanse of the geological past.

Flint driveway in a Hertfordshire garden.
Knapped flint wall in a garden in Berkshire.

The flint that you would handle as a landscaper has much more dynamic origins then simply being extracted, graded and bagged. It originates way, way back, over 65-90 million years (Ma) ago during the Late Cretaceous Period; a time when, on land, Tyrannosaurus rex was stalking it’s prey, ancient bees were pollinating the first flowering plants; and in the sea, gigantic mosasaurs swam amongst ammonites and sharks.

What is flint? 

This is the scientific bit; Flint is a particular type of chert that is specifically found in the chalk deposits of the Upper Cretaceous. It is made from the mineral chalcedony, an opaque, unified coloured and cryptocrystalline (micro crystal) form of silica.

What is chalk?

To talk fully about flint, I first have to discuss it’s bedfellow chalk. Have you ever walked atop the White Cliffs of Dover or around Beachy Head? Well the rock you’re standing on is chalk. If you were to take a piece of this chalk, crush it and view the pieces under a microscope you’d find rather unusual disc shaped structures called coccoliths. These were once part of tiny spherical units called coccospheres; the hard calcareous (calcium carbonate) skeletons of billions of microscopic organisms called coccolithophores, a type of marine plankton (they can still be found in parts of the oceans today).

They lived in the upper sunlit reaches of the Cretaceous sea. During this time the supercontinent Pangaea was breaking apart and volcanic activity was producing greenhouse gases which, through increasing global temperatures, prevented the formation of polar ice; leading to elevated sea levels.  As they died they would have ‘rained’ down onto the sea floor forming a lime mud. These sediments eventually compacted into chalk.

Sponge spicules under a light microscope.
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Coccolith plates in Upper Cretaceous Chalk.

How did the flint form in the chalk?

Take a closer look at those chalk cliffs; interspersed in dark hard bands you will find the garden familiar flint.  But where did it come from? From a rather unexpected source. Living on the ancient sea floor were sponges whose bodies contained silica in the form of tiny needle like structures called spicules.  It is mainly the silica from these spicules which, upon the death and burial of the sponges, broke down and enriched the water in the pore spaces of the buried sediments.

These siliceous rich waters then migrated along bedding planes and precipitated out in burrows made by the activity of organisms such as shellfish, sea urchins and worms. Over time and with further burial this material becomes flint. Millions of years of this cyclical process led to the accumulation of chalk deposits within which regular flint bands are found.

How did the flint get separated?

This is where plate tectonics comes in; movements of the earth’s plates (leading to the formation of the Alps) caused the uplift and exposure of these deposits which were then subjected to weathering and erosion. The chalk degrades but the hard resistant flint material gets eroded and re-deposited a number of times through the activity of seas, rivers and glaciers and can be found in numerous deposits laid down during the Tertiary and Quaternary Periods (65 million years ago to present). This is particularly evident along a number of beaches around our coastline.

The most recent part of it’s journey is via human activities; quarrying and extraction.


Flints reworked into beach deposits.
Chalk cliffs containing nodular flint bands.

So from a journey of over 70 million years ago in seas where mosasaurs once swam, to a designed driveway to keep your car on; flint has a story all of its own. You’ll never look at it in quite the same way again.

Jeff Stephenson

Designer to Design Director by James Smith

I’ve been working at Bowles & Wyer for 12 years now, that’s a long time I hear you say! Well yes, it certainly is but, to be honest it really hasn’t felt like it. I have been fortunate to work on some great projects during this time, honing my skills as a designer and project manager and working with some amazingly talented people along the way. I have had the freedom to enjoy my work, with my respected directors John Wyer and Chris Bowles, having given me enough rope to take chances, make mistakes and learn from them. Without this trust I would never have progressed into the position I find myself in as Design Director of Bowles & Wyer, a role I am very proud of. Trust without a doubt breeds motivation, creativity and success!

When I started out at Bowles & Wyer in 2005 the Iphone hadn’t even been introduced to the market and tablets were only of the medicinal kind! Edgar Davids (the chap with the odd specs) was playing for my beloved Tottenham Hotspur and the office was located in a cosy attic of a shared building in Berkhamsted. I remember my start date well, both nervous and excited, plus my eldest son Noah was born a couple of weeks after, making life even more interesting. He is now in his first year of secondary school and it’s scary how time moves on in the blink of an eye! I’ve had some ups and downs over the years as everyone does, I have been divorced and remarried in that time, and count myself very fortunate to have an amazingly supportive wife in Becky, and a young family of 5 fun loving and characterful children (Isla 15, Rosie 13, Noah 11, Isaac 11 and Finley 3) Life is never dull in our world and the fridge is never full for long!

Although many things have changed over the years, there are of course some reassuring constants, Bowles & Wyer is still a great place to work, we continue to take on and deliver the highest quality schemes, and the powerful 10am coffee can always be relied on to reset the pulse (brew for 4 minutes, no more, no less!) Plus John Wyer’s hair cut hasn’t changed one bit!

Now, I will be the first to admit, I never saw myself as a natural front man let alone Design Director, I haven’t always embraced the limelight over the years and I can be very quiet at times (the power of silence is a wonderful thing!). I am however fully aware that being introverted at times, means I can go unnoticed in a world and industry increasingly saturated by extroverts. My challenge to myself over the coming months and years is to work on this, raise my profile more in my own way and above all help to further promote Bowles & Wyer from the front foot. During my 12 years as a designer I have never stopped learning and listening, and never will, that’s the beauty of our profession. This has made me confident of holding my own against the best designers in our industry, I have just preferred to let my portfolio do the talking for me. The projects I am most proud of to date are The Lancasters (detailed design and project management), Eaton Square (concept to completion) A Surrey garden (BALI Grand Award winner) and more recently a Regents Park Garden (BALI Award Winner) and a large country garden in Cookham (recently finished). They all have different elements I am proud of but, above all they have felt like a real team effort to create and maintain.

A Regents Park Garden

Despite the varied and successful schemes we have worked on to date, I know there is so much more to come at Bowles & Wyer, and as Design Director, with a talented design team around me, I am convinced we will hit even greater highs over the coming years. So like my first day at the office, is it with nervous excitement that I look forward to the next chapter!

Eaton Square

Horticulture, travel and global imperialism

Vinca minor ‘Bowles Variety’

Most garden designers, indeed most gardeners are aware of the diverse origins of the plants in their gardens. It only takes a brief look at the specific epithets to realise that terms like canadensis, japonica, europaea, lusitanica, etc. are direct geographical references. It is possible to take a swift journey around the globe in a few minutes in most gardens, from Hebe in New Zealand, to Tulips from west Asia, Rhododendron from the Himalaya and Japan, perhaps ending up at Dogwoods from North America. These plants were collected by dedicated and pioneering plant collectors who travelled the globe to bring back ever more exotic fare for the discerning Victorian gardener. their names are also commemorated in specific epithets and varietal names – fortunei, davidii, wilsonii, banksii, etc and of course ‘Bowles variety’!

Much of the time we forget this and simply take gardens and the plants they are stocked with at face value, arranging them in terms of colour, texture and flower period in what we see as a pleasing combination. The more practised tend to look for subtler combinations – planting associations that speak to origin or habitat; it is these that tend to prove the most interesting and longest lasting arrangements.

There are of course other ways in which we ‘travel’ in our gardens: countless references to Mediterranean or Japanese gardens; snippets of designs collected magpie-like from here and there. As a child I remember being fascinated by a grove of bamboo in our local park. It was quite a big area (to an eight-year-old anyway) with paths winding through it. I imagined I was in some tropical bamboo forest – I expected to discover some long-lost soldier at any point. Later (in my teens) I was captivated by Canizaro Park in Wimbledon, which I visited many times – a fantastic garden well stocked with exotics as well as areas of simple woodland. I was transported when wandering around it and felt that I was really somewhere else completely.

Tea – Camellia sinensis

Britain is famously a nation of gardeners. But it was actually our obsession with gardening combined with our growing sea power that led to the birth of the empire. Far-fetched? Give it a little more thought. Let’s start with the spice trade. The ability to grow spices in different locations from their origins aided the breaking of the monopolies. The same with tea – the Chinese monopoly was broken by the English (and to a lesser extent the Dutch) successfully cultivating tea in India and Ceylon (as it was then). In fact, the horticultural story for coffee, sugar, rubber, tobacco and an endless list of other products are closely bound up with colonial expansion. So principally for commercial reasons, horticulturists and botanic gardens were very important to the expansion of the empire. Along with mining and extraction, it can be argued that the European fortunes were almost entirely built on these products.

So next time you site in your garden (perhaps with a cup of tea or coffee?), give some thought not only to the origins of all the plants around you, but also to the broader role that horticulture has played in the development of society, for better or worse, over the last two and a half centuries. Alternatively, you could just be transported into another world by the beauty around you!