Getting youngsters into horticulture: why bother? by Rachel the Gardener

October 19, 2017

in Articles, General Interest

Our regular readers will observe that we have a new advert in the sidebar. I had practically given up on adverts as worthless clutter, apart from our trademark and faithful Everedge. But this is good stuff by another reputable company. If you want to learn how to plant like Piet Oudolf and be taught how to by himself and Noel Kingsbury, this is a click worth clicking. See also here.

To other things: the question before us is do we want to be promoting gardening as a career? There is an almost overwhelming emphasis currently on getting young people to garden, as if, for good or ill, it wasn’t something that most people arrive at later in life. But do we want them to get so stuck in that they make it their job? Would you want your son to marry a gardener? Here are Rachel the Gardener’s thoughts.

Anne Wareham, editor






Getting youngsters into horticulture: why bother? by Rachel the Gardener

Over the past few years I have heard some sad tales from estate gardeners (as opposed to independent, or self-employed, gardeners like me) about their despicably low pay, the often poor working conditions and general lack of respect. Increasingly they are finding themselves sacked or downsized, as the estates on which they work strive to save money by contracting out the unskilled jobs, by taking on volunteers, and by reducing paid gardening staff to the minimum.

Yet these same estate gardeners are very insistent about getting respect for themselves, combined with the old chestnut about the average age of us professional gardeners rising, with no new young’uns coming through.

It seems such a set of contradictions: they feel underpaid and undervalued, yet they want gardening to be taught in schools and pushed as a career. They want to encourage young people into the trade, yet the number of jobs is shrinking.

So I started to wonder why they want gardening to be seen as a viable career for young people.

We’re all having Opinions these days about the despicably low wages offered to professional gardeners (agreed), and the lack of government interest in teaching children about gardening, the great outdoors and botany: and how these factors are combining to lead to a lack of youngsters in our trade. Not to mention a generation of fat little piggies!

At the same time, those of us who work in horticulture are striving to get people to recognise that gardening is not necessarily a career for thickies who were no good at school: it requires a complicated mix of skills, both physical and mental.

We are all quite rightly concerned that children are no longer even allowed to play “in the dirt” at school: no more nature rambles, –  “too dangerous” – if you want your child to have a modicum of engagement with the natural world, you now have to pay to send them to a Woodland School in the holidays.

But before we all start campaigning to get “Gardening” put on the curriculum, perhaps we should look more closely at the logistics.

These days gardening is not really a job for a young person. They need to earn enough to buy their first house, start a family, live a little and we all know that gardeners don’t get automatic pay rises. And often we don’t value our own skills enough to insist on a living wage. The days of being given a tied cottage on the estate in the knowledge that you could be working there for 40 years or more are long gone: gardeners are now hired and fired like any other employee.

And if you choose to be self-employed, well, it’s not for everyone, and can itself be financially uncertain.  Many of the gardeners I know, both estate workers and self-employed, came into it later in life, once they were past the “young family” stage, and often only once they were financially established. I’m one of them: there is no way on earth I would have started out as a self-employed gardener in my 20s, with a huge mortgage to support.

Even if finance is not the issue, there is the question of experience: a young applicant, by definition, lacks experience. Who wants an inexperienced gardener? Yes, you can take courses and obtain qualifications, but unless they are apprentice-type work placements, such as those offered by the PGG (Professional Gardeners’ Guild) or the WFGA (Women’s Farming and Gardening Association) then they are not the same as experience.

Then we have to look at the number of actual gardening jobs available: how many estates are increasing staff numbers in the gardening department? Any? How many councils are blatantly admitting that they are reducing or closing their parks departments? Of those few jobs, how many are genuine careers? With opportunities for progression?

If you prefer the more cerebral route, may I remind you about the ash dieback issue. If you remember, when it was first discovered in the UK, the government had to hire in experts from Scandinavia, because there was no-one in the UK qualified to investigate the disease. This led to howls of “we must bring back botany into schools, and at degree level” but no-one seemed to realise that there are very few jobs for botanists these days, so what is the point of offering a degree in it?  How many botanists did the government have to bring in? I read one report which suggested two, or maybe three of them. That’s three jobs – at most – but only while the ash problem exists, then they are back on the dole. So there is no point at all in investing four years of university to produce a crop of them, is there?

So why, I have to ask, are we getting hot and bothered about the lack of youngsters coming into gardening?

Yes, maybe school children should be encouraged to garden: it’s healthy outdoor exercise, it’s a way of reconnecting to the natural world, it’s “good for them” in every way, and I fully support it. But there’s a big difference between teaching children to garden, and training children to become gardeners.

And is there any point banging on about careers in horticulture, when there are so few that pay a living wage?

Anyone who goes on to study for a degree feels that they deserve a higher wage than those who did not: and how many actual “careers” – as opposed to “jobs” – are there for qualified botanists? Or horticulturalists? Or plant pathologists? Very few, and usually regionally situated, so what is the point in churning out hundreds of applicants for half a dozen jobs?

To be really selfish about it – if we encourage a massive surge of youngsters, all bright-eyed and bushy tailed, wanting to work in the low-stress, rewarding, heart-warming, utterly satisfying environment that we enjoy, then what becomes of us, the older generation? The limited number of jobs would go to the (cheaper) younger applicants, and the law of supply and demand would dictate that our already low wages would drop even further.

So I have to ask the question: why are we pushing to increase the number of youngsters choosing gardening as a career? Do we really need them, or are we just trying to validate our own career choice by making it known as desirable and socially acceptable?

Rachel the Gardener

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Catherine January 14, 2018 at 8:51 pm

I wonder if the way that work is changing, with more people working remotely, might mean that more children garden when they grow up as part of life. Certainly I hope that my children would rather work in their own gardens when they’re older than have a gym membership. But as for employment prospects, garden fashions do have a part to play too. There’s such a trend for hardstanding that it must be hard even for full time designers / gardeners to really strike out because as you say, there’s a finite number of estates that can sustain gardens for the sake of beauty alone.

Mary Harrison October 25, 2017 at 9:52 pm

I think your first paragraph says it all.
Encourage people, perhaps they will change the game.
But having worked for Historic Royal Palaces for two seasons it’s clear that certainly the trend is for more volunteers (usually older people), fewer staff.
This needs to be discussed as part of the gardening/horticulture is there even a career there?
Also the trend is to get “young people” in, for a short while, to get some investors initiative award. To pretend that you have apprentices, or to use people as apprentices to do all you leg work. …. it’s not that hard to see how the new way is going.
All leading to not very much often. In terms of a career.

Also, the emphasis in “gardening” on design, landscape, architecture, whatever…. it’s not about plants.
And great people who are good at the above mentioned are fine but, is that different, yes, it is, as a focus.
So to even talk about gardening as a career, hmm, don’t we then have to say the ways into it, which is good and right, but plants are important. Or also to acknowledge that people get into gardening through architecture, design and landscape design etc.

I was terribly excited when I got my seasonal job at Hampton Court Palace. I learned a lot. But a lot of what I learned was very negative about the prospects for anyone in gardening. I worked with people who were highly skilled and had been there for over 12 years but weren’t earning over £25,000 a year. It is both hierarchical and hugely misogynistic. And the people employed are so keen to keep their jobs that they will never speak out about that.

The misogyny deserves another whole strand.
Which is fine. But it means things can’t change. If they are never talked about. Perhaps if more people, young or otherwise, people get into gardening, they will change it. They won’t put up with it. Or horrifyingly, they will learn to put up with it. That would not be good.

Susan E. Yoder October 22, 2017 at 8:03 pm

I read your post with interest as I work with organizations and businesses who are interested in promoting horticulture and encouraging more people to pursue careers working with plants. While I can’t speak to the state of horticulture in the UK, I can share some of the things we are learning about promoting horticulture in the US.
Our research finds that most people have a narrow view of what “horticulture” jobs are and what horticulture expertise means to the future of the world.

As you know – but most people do not – “horticulture” is the art, science, technology and business of growing plants. It is the food we eat, the landscapes we live and play in, the environments we thrive in. It is the business of managing and using what we grow, while maintaining the health of our soil, air, and water, and the well-being of our children, our communities, and our world.

If we don’t teach young people about plants (which often starts with learning about gardening at home, at school, or in community-based programs) they won’t grow up to have an appreciation for our world. The won’t understand that we need horticulturists to feed the world with food that is safe and nutritious; to preserve native habitats; to imagine landscapes and bring them to life; to tend to landscapes that welcome us home and invite us outdoors to play; to soothe and delight with flowers and greens; to wonder and experiment; and to ensure the future of our planet.

Horticulture careers range from arborists to zoological horticulture with so much in-between, and broader careers such as marketing and education set in a horticultural context. I don’t know the situation in the UK, but in the US, according to a recent study by Purdue University, only 61% of the average annual openings in the horticulture industry will be filled because of a lack of qualified candidates.

I appreciate your perspective on “estate gardeners” (a term not as resonant in the US as the UK), and I don’t know the situation in that narrow slice of the industry. However, I do know that by introducing gardening and plant-based concepts to children it can open their eyes to the possibilities of future careers across the art, science, technology and business related to plants.

We know that here in the US, we’ve not done a good job of making the connection from some terrific growing movements (e.g., farm-to-table, field-to-vase, school and community gardens, etc.) to the future careers that are out there for the taking. We aim to change that and are creating a national movement to welcome others to help tackle these issues as well.

Thank You. Susan E. Yoder, Executive Director,

Joff Elphick October 21, 2017 at 3:39 pm

Great article Rachel, one I’ve been thinking about myself in recent years, but I find myself agreeing generally with the sentiment but not necessarily with your arguments. There is definitely pressure on us all to leap around like Tigger extolling the virtues of our profession to the younger generation; any dearth of excitement pointing surely to our ‘lack of enthusiasm for our vocation’. And just like being told to ‘like and share’ on Facebook I just won’t do it.

I guess some of your argument may be true in certain locations in the UK but in my experience Estates do still need gardeners and will house them too. I can think of half a dozen within 15 miles of me that have advertised positions with accommodation within the last few years. These Estates also struggle to get ‘good’ gardeners. Ok, money may not compare to those of computer programmers but most HGs now expect to earn in excess of £30k and many approach £40k. When housed on a 1000 acre country estate a good life can be had.

All this makes it hard for me to understand the dichotomy in the argument that on one hand we’re underpaid but on the other there’s no gardeners out there or coming through. Why gardeners are still working for min wage if there is a problem with supply I don’t know but it’s broadly what anyone working for the NT or RHS would probably expect to be paid. (I’m not up to speed on those figures) Certainly as a self-employed gardener I can tell you that many of my colleagues in a similar situation expect to earn £40k in an average year working for private clients. And I’m talking hands-on gardening not just consulting or design.(Possibly more lucrative than book writing? Anne?)
The reason Scandinavian experts were brought in was because they’d had first hand experience in dealing with ash die-back; they were hit by the disease before us. Our experts would have only been well-read on the subject which isn’t always enough.

I don’t think the lack of botany degrees is because there are no jobs at the end of it. I think it’s because no-one wants to study botany at the moment. Just look at the explosion of Forensic degrees available at the moment. Hugely popular but I’d love to see the post study employment stats on that one!!

I’ve always felt there is a career in horticulture for anyone, whatever their skills, ability, or interest. Science-Research. Practical skills-Landscaping. Creative-Design. Music??? uuuhmmm? Talk to Tom Stuart-Smith about that one.

As I say Rachel, good piece but not quite as I see it in Gloucestershire.


Joff Elphick

annewareham October 21, 2017 at 4:30 pm

You’re right – no money in writing. Outwitting Squirrels has sold 22 thousand plus so far (most garden books sell 2 thousand if they are lucky) and that means I’ve just reached being paid some royalties. Wouldn’t pay the grocery bill for a month. Nearly as bad as opening the garden to the public. (and if anyone mentions teas, I will be round to see them with a Big Stick.)

Rachel The Gardener October 28, 2017 at 11:19 am

Hey Jeff, thanks for your comments: you raise another good point which didn’t come across sufficiently clearly in my article – yes, a Head Gardener can earn £30-£40k. But there is only one HG per property, and they mostly stay in place for 30 years, 40 years. I recently met an under-gardener who had been an under-gardener (in the same place) for 25 years! Not much of a career progression.

Which does beg the question, why do I think there has to be a career progression at all? It shows how influenced I am by modern business practice: but that’s the modern world, and that’s what our children are taught in school – that to be successful, you have to have a “career” within which you have to progress.

I guess I could start another whole discussion on “is it enough, to be happy in your job as a gardener?”. I’m certainly happy in mine, but then I haven’t remained as “just” a gardener (a phrase which vexes me highly), I have continued to garden but have added quite a lot of other elements to my portfolio, if you see what I mean. *laughs*

Kate Turnet October 20, 2017 at 5:33 pm

I currently work for the RHS as a community outreach advisor where one of my main remit is to try and encourage young people to consider horticulture as a career. Not one young person I’ve come into contact with has ever had any careers advice regarding horticulture yet nearly all the primary schools I work with have a school garden and promote it for health and well being and to combat obesity, why does this enthusiasm stop when secondary schools begin ?
I’m saddened that most of the comments here just focus on manual garden work. I’ve had a huge range of gardening work from parks gardener to project managing garden TV makeover shows. At Wisley where I’m currently based over 400 staff are employed with only 100 as gardeners and many of those are under 35 There are scientists, botanists, administrators, campaign workers etc. all staff have the opportunity to travel around the world on bursaries and most garden plant diseases are discovered by those scientists.. With the right qualifications people can work all over the world,
Mike Maundy from the Eden project gave a talk to 6 secondary schools recently where he talked of his work in Africa and running a tropical garden in Florida, these opportunities are out there, it’s not just garden design for the middle class and middle aged who can afford expensive courses and then do up their wealthy friends garden.
Encourage young people otherwise gardens will gradually disappear as too many young people are disengaged enough from the natural world as it is. Encourage botany and horticultural qualifications as without those skills we will keep losing species, I’d rather save a horticulturist in a nuclear war than a lawyer or banker as then we’d learn how to work the soil and grow food!

Ben Probert October 21, 2017 at 7:08 pm

Of Wisley’s 400 staff only 100 are gardeners, and when you say ‘staff’ does that include the army of volunteers used by the RHS to do the jobs they don’t want to pay gardeners for?

There are indeed glamorous technical jobs for the clever people, but the scientific, media and horticultural outreach jobs are the minority; young people coming into the industry will have to do hard work before they rise in the glamorous jobs.

But then what do I know, I’m just a gardener.

Shirley Ferriola October 20, 2017 at 1:20 pm

Good Lord! I thought only in America did we judge everything by money and esteemed it worthless when it didn’t fill our pockets to overflowing.
Why should we expect to make tons of money from the things we enjoy doing? When they pay you money for something it’s never enjoyable and always benefits someone other than you – that’s why they call it “work”.

Katherine Crouch October 20, 2017 at 1:59 pm

nobody goes to work in horticulture with a view to making a ton of money like someone may do in the world of business / finance / politics. However we do have to pay the basic bills and that is getting harder. It is still hard work, even if it is our passion too.

Ben Probert October 21, 2017 at 6:58 pm

Interesting and familiar point Shirley. So my question is this:

Why SHOULDN’T people make good money for doing a job they enjoy?

Patrick Regnault October 20, 2017 at 9:04 am

An interesting article and one I totally disagree with. From my own experience I started at age 15, 2 years of fulltine horticultural studies and I have been in the profession ever since.
We need young people to get in horticulture. What we mostly need to teach them is the wide scope of work horticulture can lead to. It is hard at times, demanding, challenging and requires the person to open their mind to learning, well, everything really. Design is great but if it is not done by someone with practical experience you are likely to end up with a very hard garden to maintain.
I have 2 early 20s employees who are enthusiastic, hard working and willing to learn
I may have 10 years left in me for hard work, I want to see the next generation to come up to be even better than we are
It is about passion and being present with our profession beyond our own time. Is it not what plants teach us?

Kate Cox October 19, 2017 at 11:36 pm

This is an interesting and timely article. I’m a career changer into horticulture – didn’t have a fixed game plan, just compelled to pursue a strong interest. After an absorbing and quite challenging year studying horticulture one of our tutors suggested a great opportunity to me and another mature student – cleaning solar panels for £9.00 an hour. That’s what a Double Distinction can get you. Aim high! I don’t think either of us gave that job any consideration.

I had a look at jobs, but nothing paid well enough, so I went down the self employed route. Tough. I undertook supplementary business training (free) which I now consider to be an absolute essential – business basics should definitely be taught in schools. Joining The Gardeners Guild gave me the confidence to set my prices at a rate I was happy with. My clients (private garden owners) are prepared to pay well to keep their gardens maintained to a high standard. Pricing design work is a different challenge.

Gardening is a skilled job and it’s a shame that some of the best regarded institutions in the horticultural world pay such low wages. Until this changes I think it’s best, once people of any age feel sufficiently trained and experienced, to pursue the self employed route. But this requires the additional teaching of business skills so people can create other opportunities for themselves when the jobs available don’t pay. And of course those business skills could be applied to anything – not just horticulture. I like the thought of young people being empowered to not think they have to look for a job, but that they might carve their own futures and perhaps be employers themselves.

Ben Probert October 19, 2017 at 10:03 pm

You know I love to court controversy, and Thinkingardens is the place to do it!

My biggest issue with the current attempts to recruit new people into horticulture is that the concern is for the age of new recruits, not their calibre. Horticulture has been working hard to embrace technologies that make life easier (makes looking after the garden cheaper!), such as bigger mowers and more efficient hedgetrimmers, and this means that the need for ‘volume’ labour (lots of people beavering away at big jobs) is no longer what it was. Instead modern horticulture needs people with brains who can do the specialised work machines can’t.

But it is WORK. There’s a lot of satisfying work to be done, but there’s also a lot of tedium. Wherever you are in the industry (or in your own garden for that matter) there is boring stuff to be done like weeding and planting out; these jobs require sustained concentration for many repetitive hours, not something young people seem to be very good at. There is experience to be had, there is a lot to learn, but the nature of the job is that at every level there are long periods of less than exciting work.

Gardeners will plant out new areas, but will also have to spend hours mowing, weeding and hedgetrimming.
Head gardeners get to meet visitors, go on trips to nurseries etc, but also have to spend hours doing paperwork and working on budgets.
Nursery people get to use their knowledge to sell plants to customers, but that comes with lots of weeding, potting, labelling etc.

My prediction for the next decade is that we will see huge success recruiting young people to horticulture as a career, but that the majority will drop out when they realise that there’s a lot of hard work involved.

We need instead to focus on picking up and retaining skilled individuals, to stop the loss of skilled people already in the trade who are sick of the trade’s poor image.

annewareham October 19, 2017 at 10:59 pm

True, Ben – this is the place where you can freely speak your mind. Appreciate you doing that. Good point. Xxx

Tim Ingram October 19, 2017 at 9:52 pm

Somehow this deserves an Essay in reply… “and a man shall ever see, that, when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately, sooner than to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection.” — Why bother indeed?

We could do with the sort of Radio programme that Jennifer Jewell ‘conducts’ in the USA – ‘Cultivating Place: Natural History & the Human Impulse to Garden’ – because that says precisely why young people should consider gardening as a vocation: it IS a vocation in the same way as any other that you commit your life to that has depth and meaning. The value it has is the value you yourself decide that it has, not one imposed from outside.

annewareham October 19, 2017 at 4:49 pm

I guess I’m allowed a comment. Which is simply that as a garden maker at Veddw I wouldn’t want a gardener with qualifications. Even experience can be treacherous. I need a gardener prepared to do things my way (see Deckchair Gardener) and not waste my time and money. Thankfully, I have one and he’s extremely good. I’m not sure then that age is critical to me so much as the ability to learn and be responsive. But for him – it’s heavy, hard work, which must get harder with getting older?

Maurice Wilkins October 19, 2017 at 4:35 pm

I would very much like to encourage youngsters to get into gardening, as long as it’s the ‘right’ sort of gardening and that there are actually the ‘right’ sort of jobs available. By this I mean professional gardening, a career that leads the young person to aim to be a knowledgeable, responsible and respected gardener. I don’t include the ‘straight out of school and couldn’t do anything else’ sort of jobbing gardener – there are too many of those about already, giving horticulture a bad name.

I left school at sixteen to join the civil service as suggested by my Dad, a life-long civil servant. One year was enough to get that idea out of my system and I went to work for a friend who ran a landscaping business. I was embarrassed by his almost total lack of plant knowledge and his frequent suggestion that clients’ gardens be planted up with ‘alyssumandlobelia’, that well known bedding plant! It was only after taking up a job with the Department of the Environment in the Woodland Garden in Bushy Park that I began to be really enthused about plants, and a subsequent transfer to Edinburgh and the opportunity to attend college on day release awakened a huge enthusiasm to know more. While my fellow students spent lunchtimes in the pub I spent them in the college library and although the job wasn’t too exciting it gave me the chance to learn.

Meanwhile, with the advantage of a tied house (dating from 1588!) I was able to save a little and before long, at the age of 28, I accepted a Head Gardener’s post with the University of Strathclyde. I was probably lucky and I know it was my enthusiasm rather than my knowledge which got me the job, but it led to another sixteen years in a beautiful woodland garden with the decisions regarding planting largely my own. It was during this time that I joined the PGG and then went on to become a Head Gardener/Property Manager for the National Trust for Scotland, where I stayed for 24 years before retiring in 2016. Having had the advantage of a rent-free house for forty years was definitely a bonus, though it was never fashionable to say so, but it enabled me to save and to buy a small house to retire to.

To me, gardening has been a good career, but it’s the plants and design side of it rather than the actual gardening which really turned me on. It’s enabled me to organise a couple of plant-hunting trips to Nepal and one to Chile and to meet a lot of fellow enthusiasts and plant lovers from all over the world. I admit that things ain’t what they used to be, but there are jobs available for the right people and there’s a definite shortage of the right people.

Gardening should not be a job for those who can’t do anything else, but a career for enthusiastic young people who want to do nothing else! Bring them on!

Katherine Crouch October 19, 2017 at 3:45 pm

A very though provoking article . Having occasionally guest-lectured 2nd year Landscape Design degree students at Cannington, I was appalled that my presentation on commonly used landscaping shrubs and how to use them was completely new information to them. Learning about plants apparently was a third year module, well after global botany and health and safety.
They were a keen and enthusiastic bunch of 9 students. Of the few I am still in touch with, not one got a ‘proper’ salaried gardening job. Some went self employed and rather regretted the course fees they had to pay back, as most of the gardening they were doing was basic garden clearance and mowing. One works in a garden centre, mostly shifting trolleys and watering plants, on not much more than minimum wage, in hope of progression.
A friend of mine as a mature student has just passed her RHS level 2 in the hope of adding to her considerable knowledge as a jobbing gardener. She has concluded that while it was thorough and fascinating and a feather in her cap, it is sod all use knowing about plant Kingdoms, Division, Class, Order. Family etc when you are up to your arse in a pond full of waterlilies.
As for me, I wish I had pursued it when I was 18, but the message back then was that it wasn’t really for girls – well not ones who had ‘A’ levels and ‘should be able to do better than that’.
My favourite landscaper is desperate for an apprentice to train, and send to Cannington on day release, but he has had no applicants who can stick a day in the cold and damp.
So best not ask me about my horticultural qualifications. None of my clients do. None of my clients have ever heard of the SGD or RHs Level 1 or 2. But they have heard of Chelsea Gold medals, BBC Gardener of the Year and my local media work and that seems to be a better endorsement for what I mostly do – garden consultation and talks.
So young or old, qualified or not, salaried or self employed, all of my colleagues agree that we don’t earn much, but we could not bear the thought of wearing a suit and sitting at a desk all year.

Gareth Manning October 19, 2017 at 2:22 pm

“Gardening is not really a job for young people”. I have to say this is, in my opinion, quite an appalling comment, especially when combined with comments about the importance of experience in gaining quality employment (especially when self employed). Surely, unless you start young you’ll never get the experience required to get these supposedly diminishing jobs (I don’t agree that they are). I am a gardener. I’ve always been a gardener. I’m also a homeowner (house in Hampshire – so not cheap) and have never had problems with paying the mortgage or any of the associated “living costs”. It’s not about whether the job pays a decent wage compared to other professions but how you manage your income. Yes, we should campaign to improve the image of the gardener (and the rate of pay you should expect to fork out for a professional) but not at the expense of those who will take over our “heritage” – both private & public once we are too old or infirm to continue.

Bring on the youngsters, is my opinion. At least when I’m knackered I can teach them what I know.

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