Managing the Horticulture on a private estate comes with a huge level of responsibility. It is often played down by most, but the reality is somewhat very different. Estate and Manor magazine caught up with Carl Donnelly who specialises in the Management of Horticultural design and maintenance on private estates.
Carl started his career at sixteen, attending Myerscough College where he studied Landscape design and Construction, which included a one-year placement at the Crown Estate Windsor. Since then he has worked for The Commonwealth Wargraves Commission and on several Private Estates.
Private estates demand a high level of professionalism and discretion which most struggle to upkeep. The clients can be very demanding and give you specific timelines, so you have to be highly organised and ensure that regular communication with the client is upheld.
What does managing horticulture on a private estate involve?
The most important factor in managing private estate gardens is having a good strong relationship with your client and clear communication with your team. In the past few years, I have been a stickler for organisation. In a typical week I spend every Monday morning going through my schedule and delegating responsibilities based on my team’s skills. One of my key focuses is making sure I am forewarned of upcoming events and visitors to the estate. Therefore, I can plan my Horticultural maintenance around the client’s schedule. The other factor is having a skilled and reliable team surrounding you all with the same vision for perfection. A typical working week changes from season to season, but in the summer the focus is on watering and caring for turfed areas.
Whilst Managing Private Estates who do you communicate with if the Client is away?
For many years, this has been a stumbling block for many Head Gardeners. I learnt from an early stage to build up good working relationships with all estate staff. This saves so much time, having strong communication with the Close Protection Team also makes life so much easier. The team can keep you up to date with any changes to arrivals or departures on the estate. If the client is due to go away, having a meeting before they go is paramount. In this meeting, I like to discuss my plan of action whilst the client is away, and to make sure the client is happy with my team’s direction of focus.
What type of specialised maintenance is required for private estates?
As a Head Gardener, your focus is always on the aesthetics of the garden. I always take a stroll around the estate prior to starting any job, to identify any key areas that require immediate attention and to assess the Health and Safety. After taking a stroll, you have to imagine yourself being a visitor to the estate, and focus on the focal points of the garden first. Making sure the lawns are kept immaculate, and the borders closet to the entrance and exit are kept to the highest standard is paramount. Additionally, a key factor which is the icing on the cake is checking the schedules of key visitors to the estate and ensuring that the borders have good colour and interest throughout the year. The clients of the estate always like to return from overseas to an estate which has superb colour and seasonal interest. Making sure that even during bad weather spells that you are not caught short, for example: growing plants in greenhouses and bringing them out on the day, this type of pre-planning is vital.
How do you know how to design a private estate?
The planting and the design of private estates are extremely important. As previously mentioned, communication is vital. I have learnt tricks in the past which include asking the client’s children which colours are their favourite and taking this into consideration during the planning stages. On other estates, you can find that you have complete freedom to express your own creativity on the garden. I always have an emotional connection, whilst designing and building a space, it should be a place for people to relax and enjoy. It takes a level of professionalism and trial and error to reach the desired target. As a Horticulturist you have to absorb your surroundings, you can’t jump too far out of the box because you’re not at a flower show. This space is for a specific genre and depending on the client needs, is what you will be required to deliver; it’s as simple as that. The garden has to be based around the client’s hobbies, desires, and needs and then as the Head Gardener you have to take this knowledge in and try to surpass the clients expectations.
What is required from your estate staff whilst on a private estate?
Estate staff are required to maintain high levels of professionalism throughout. I achieve this by always ensuring that all individuals on my team are given the best training possible. The training involves setting out some rules, to maintain confidentially and professionalism, some of these rules differ on each estate in order to accommodate each client’s requirements. The main rules involve, refraining from swearing and not using personal mobiles whilst on site. Good levels of manners must be upheld, and a good level of Horticultural knowledge and initiative to be able to motivate yourself is important too.
Additionally, focusing is vital and maintaining the highest of standards with every task. The key thing to remember is you’re not employed to watch the client or take interest in their lives. The client’s needs always come first, and my team are always reminded of this.
What are the Major setbacks or problems managing a garden on a Private Estate?
It is important to be flexible, when managing a garden on a private estate and appreciate that it takes a good first year to fully understand the garden. From then on you can start the forward planning of the estate in order for the garden to evolve. It is also very important to make sure that when planning the garden you take into account the seasons so that the garden looks colourful and to a high standard all year round.
Horticulture is hugely dependent on weather, and in the UK we don’t get exclusive access to the sun, unfortunately. When working on Private estates you have to be permanently monitoring the weather, adapting your plans to weather changes to try to keep with your schedules. It doesn’t always work out, sometimes you might have a client arrive by Helicopter at 6 pm, it’s raining and you end up working overtime praying that a window presents itself so that you can carry out the tasks prior to the arrival. I have always been committed to providing the best possible standards, whatever the weather.
How do you prioritise your work?
Head Gardeners are all different, but we all work on the same platform which is to ensure an estate looks the best it can. My work schedules include the maintenance of plants at the correct time of year, which includes pruning and upkeep. I also prioritise hedge cutting, if you have an entrance to an estate that includes a hedgerow, it always makes a good impression if the hedge is straight, cut clean and left sharp. This relates back to training your estate staff to exceptional standards and attention to detail. As a Head Gardener you need to have a good eye for detail, and always be on the ball, with no room for exception.
Keeping up with the latest fashions whilst designing on private estates?
This is a question most will never connect with but it’s actually incredibly important. I have previously worked in London, in specific areas that require design to keep in with the latest fashion. Mostly I devote a huge amount of my time to watching documentaries or reading fashion magazines, you are able to see how clothes magazines take into consideration of their surroundings. I also get inspiration from these and always try to remain ahead of the game, which is extremely important when managing private estates. Key important factors are colours and structures and creating focal points for the gardens.
Arranging a meeting with a client who has extremely busy schedules can often include a long wait, so I often take a look at existing features and then incorporate what I think will work. Fashion in the garden is a carefully thought out process which requires an individual to be creative, and also know the boundaries! I have spent years judging which colour schemes to use and what structures of planting, which blend appropriately with surrounding buildings.
Choosing the correct planting is important, my personal favourite is using Acers they have a sharp presence in garden design, and always create a good strong focal point.
Would you like to learn more about Carl? Connect with him on LinkedIn