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

October 19, 2017

in Articles, General Interest

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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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