The Chelsea Flower Show – the employment garden

Sheila Fahy

What has the world’s most famous garden show got to do with employment? The connections are less tenuous than you might at first think. No, it’s not the concept of garden leave. Neither is it the fact that the entry from the first black Gold Medal winner, Juliet Sergeant, is named after the Modern Slavery Act 2015. It’s not even the association with Chelsea’s all-male judging panel and workplace gender diversity (or the lack of it) in senior positions. No, what I see at Chelsea and in gardens up and down the country, both big and small, is a reflection of the workplace, and what makes them great or not so great places to work.

I see the workplace as an employment garden with just the same dimensions. There are the leaders (trees) who tower over the flowers and shrubbery, giving perspective, a focal point, shade when required, and breathing life into their domain and beyond by converting CO2 into Oxygen.

And, of course, the workers that are the backbone of gardens, and they come in many shapes and sizes:

  • The flamboyant peonies and wisteria that shine bright for a short period and then fade into the background
  • The annuals, who not unlike some millennials, are only here for a season
  • The weeds that grow and multiply with ease, and need to be exited sooner rather than later
  • The climbers and creepers that get to their destgardenination by various means
  • The evergreens that are dependable and come into their own once Autumn arrives
  • The wide variety of graduate trainee seeds that are potted and grown in the greenhouse until they are ready to be planted in the wide world of the garden
  • The exotics and mobile workers that come from far afield that adapt and thrive along with English flora and fauna
  • The lawn, green and forever growing, and a necessary staple of support
  • And the roses – the fragrant stars of the garden that keep giving on every level.

Like people and workplaces, there’s an element of design in making a garden work. It’s true that nature plays its part, and random seeds are blown from nowhere to set up home in the garden without a helping hand. We love these but they are few and far between. Generally, plants are high maintenance (some more than others) and need to be chosen carefully, with an eye to the other plants in the bed, to see how they will work together; they need to be nourished, and each year they require appraisals, which could entail pruning, staking, mulching or replacing.

Truly spectacular gardens have diversity. That’s not to say that a bed with a single variety might not dazzle: anyone who has ever seen lavender en masse cannot fail to be impressed but its one dimension does little to help the ecosystem, and fails to deliver on multiple levels.

But it is the nurturing and time investment that pays dividends. Take roses for example, when they arrive from the nursery as bare root plants, they are nothing more than thorns, stem and roots without anchors. At first glance, there is very little promise in these specimens. It takes a seasoned gardener, or careful reading of the many gardening books, to bring them on to be the stars of the show.

And the similarities don’t end there. The garden is dependent on the weather – in some years there is a drought (recession), and in others rainfall and sunshine arrive in equal measure (boom time). The rules about where and when to plant, and what soil type works with what plant, operate in just the same way as workplace policies and procedures. I could go on and on….

So why does the comparison matter? Simply, if you want a garden that is a thing of beauty, full of diversity, highly productive, fragrant, with seasonal interest and balance, while being a magnet to wildlife, and a net contributor to the environment, then it takes proactive management, hard work, investment and an understanding of nature and nurture. If that’s not your objective, you can opt for something less. You could always pave the space over with concrete, or just leave it alone. Who knows, you might get lucky.

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

Read comments below or add a comment
  1. C Alexander says:

    Fantastic blog. You created a visual picture with your words. I was lucky enough to visit the flower show at the weekend as I wondered leisurely around the gardens, the words of your blog came to mind. The foxgloves and irises standing next to the peonies and poppies trying to stand out from the crowd. The different exhibits, the exhibitors, members of the public the joy on their faces. Collectively they all had their part to play all working together as a team to make Chelsea a success.

  2. Helen Powell says:

    I wonder if the analogy works for pensions, too? Personally, I’m not much of a gardener – I’m more the ‘stick it in the ground, and if it grows, it grows’ type. I do the basics and hope for the best. I do like fruit trees, though, and the idea that they’ll give me a crop year after year at some point in the future. How to make that happen, though, is beyond me. I read things about how to prune and mulch, and I know this would yield a better return – but I just don’t really get it, and don’t invest the time to work it out.

    I think this is remarkably similar to many workers who are auto-enrolled into a pension scheme. They’re defaulted into membership of a scheme, and they pay the minimum contributions; the vast majority will also leave those contributions in the default fund because they don’t know what else to do with them and are baffled by the information they’re given. They hope for a good return in their retirement years – but the honest truth is that without more cultivation, that’s pretty unlikely to happen. Minimum contributions aren’t enough, and many ‘safe’ default funds won’t give the kind of returns members hope for.

    The keys to a fruitful financial future in your ripe old age are to start early, to dig deeper, and to nurture growth. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

  3. Cleuma Nascimento says:

    Don’t forget about those behind the scene workers, the PA bees, who are busy organising, pollinating, and making honey. Without these support workers, the garden would have very little colour or fruit and vegetables

  4. Steven Rix says:

    Great blog Sheila. The virtual tour you have provided of the Chelsea flower show, introducing us to the different plant varieties and highlighting the degree of maintenance needed to produce truly spectacular results, brought to mind some analogies with the life sciences sector. Workplace diversity is not a million miles from human DNA, or the unique genetic code of an organisation’s staff that ensures their development, growth, and good health. Let’s call this the life sciences garden.

    Like the employment garden, here there can be good and bad DNA, which may need to be manipulated from time to time through a thoughtful process to achieve a healthy, productive environment. As it happens, gene editing is a very hot topic in life sciences currently with a particular gene-editing technology called CRISPR/cas9 being deployed in the life sciences sector to develop new and innovative therapies to treat serious diseases by replacing faulty genes – the very interesting topic of personalised medicine! Maybe the employment and life sciences “gardens” have more in common than people may realise, at least in the sense that a bit of scientific thinking may be needed to achieve the desired result, whether that’s a balanced, diverse workplace or prevention of disease!

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