Just a gardener – Just? by Stephen Hackett

June 28, 2013

in Articles, General Interest

We’ve had a lot of responses to Nick Turrell’s piece, ‘Would you be a Gardener?‘. Including what amounts to a whole new article, which I am publishing below. Keep up the comment – but more, perhaps, let your views be known and the pieces circulated wherever they may make a difference?

Anne Wareham, editor

"Just a gardener" risking life and limb...

“Just a gardener” risking life and limb…

Stephen Hackett:

Alan Titchmarsh caused a bit of a brouhaha recently when he commented on a new RHS report about young people and horticulture (Gardening not for thick or dull.). Gardening, he was quoted as saying, is not just for the ‘thick and the dull’ – a perception which prevails out there, apparently.

Speaking as one who is neither thick nor dull, I was reminded of two things people say to me a propos my own work as a gardener. Firstly: something along the lines of ‘what did you do before you became a gardener?’, or ‘you’ve obviously not always been a gardener…’. This latter comment, I think, reflects my modest physique and weak tan … I don’t wander about with a straw in my mouth and string holding my trousers up. I read The Guardian and speak with an accent which belies my Lancastrian roots. Does that have to mean I must be a refugee from some other trade (or, should I assume, profession)?

As it happens I am, but the reasons why I am now a gardener are very complicated. Gardening is certainly not something I took up lightly: it took many months of thought (on top of many years of gardening for myself) to decide to pursue gardening as paid work. Neither is it – and this is another interpretation people sometimes fall back on – a ‘stop gap’ activity, something I am doing simply until I ‘get back on my feet’ and ‘things sort themselves out’. How patronising. I never question how or why people in other jobs got into them: “oh dear, but don’t worry, I am sure being a solicitor will keep you busy until something comes along…”.

Bramble removing at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Gardener getting well scarred removing bramble from rambler rose…

Secondly. there is an assumption – particularly when I meet people socially, away from their gardens – that I am (surely, must be) a Garden Designer, Landscape Architect or some such. Again, the underlying feeling is that ‘someone like me’ (whatever on earth that might mean) cannot be merely ‘a gardener’. In fact that is what I am. I am just a gardener. I garden, I help people to keep their gardens looking nice, and I help them to make their gardens better if they want me to. I spend most of my time weeding, mowing, pruning – working (shock, horror) with my hands. That is what I am good at, that is what I am (belatedly) qualified to do, and that is what I enjoy.

If I do any ‘design’ it is making planting schemes and plans, and implementing them to improve cllients’ gardens. This I love. I do a little basic garden DIY work – edging, paths, fencing – but I don’t especially like it, and wouldn’t go looking for it. I certainly don’t want to get involved in ‘hard landscaping’ work: I have spent time in other jobs managing building projects, liaising with other trades, sorting out the numerous problems along the way – and that is not what I want to do now. I am strictly a secateurs and trowel, seed tray and watering can, merchant.

There really should not be any need to apologise for being ‘just a gardener’ (sic) – but, and Alan T has clearly hit a nail on the head here, it seems lots of people think there is.

Stephen Hackett 

Stephen Hackett is a gardener, living in Salisbury. Stephen’s Blog

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Ingram June 29, 2016 at 8:23 am

Interesting Anne, and a good article by Stephen Hackett. I’m never really convinced by the regular argument that ‘gardening’ should be presented as more ‘sexy’ in the media (although I imagine having sexy presenters would have an impact, and sex is what most plants are all about!). For me the great strength of gardening is most of all its relationship to the wider world we live in (i.e: the Science and Natural History associated with it which are rarely ever presented effectively in the media. How often do we actually see natural landscapes and look in detail at the plants and their ecology – once in a blue moon). More and more, as I get better at gardening, the artistic and aesthetic results come to the fore, and this is something Nigel Dunnett is so skilled at creating. These latter come slowly, are very personal and very hard to achieve and maintain, so the level of skill and craft involved is of a high order. But the viewer of course, if not a gardener, just looks and then glances away again. So it all comes down to whether or not you personally understand the value that gardens have because of the experience of making them and how they connect you to the world. I think for a new generation of gardeners it is the environmental conciousness that they bring which is all important and the key to how plants and gardens will be valued more properly in the future.

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Rycke Brown July 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Emma: “However, the vast majority of visitors respect what we do, and I wonder if some of the attitudes towards horticulture as a career are a generational thing. My peers think what I do is brilliant and they love that they have access to advice and plant ideas as most of them have absolutely no clue. We would do better to describe what we do as ‘horticulture’, because ‘gardening’ is such a tiny part of it and in no way conveys the sheer range of careers within the industry.”

I prefer “gardener” because it also encompasses the full range of what we do, and the full knowledge thereof. “Horticulture” is just a longer, fancier word that people don’t understand as well.

I also find that our peers younger than 70 respect the knowledge that they don’t have and know that they need, now that there are so few gardeners, commercial or private. They can see that “mow and blow and spray” landscape maintenance does not do the full job of maintaining a property.

I pass out informational leaflets on the street at my protest and elsewhere. My protest for ten years was against the drug war, but with politicians jumping on that bandwagon, I have moved on to our lack of enforcement of nuisance codes, that has resulted in a town that is seedy, weedy, and littered. I find that people love “News You Can Use” about gardening more than any other topic. They love leaflets on how to kill specific weeds. They love leaflets on crowning roses: http://voices.yahoo.com/beat-black-spot-crown-roses-12068639.html.

They can see that cutting and spraying doesn’t do it all, but they don’t know that they know it yet. We have to keep pointing out that gardening is detail work, that God and the Devil are in the details, and share those details. We have to train people how to pull weeds and not be intimidated by plants. I have recently started gardening classes in two of our local dog parks, concentrating on weeding. I get brain pickers in the city dog park almost every week, but no weed pickers yet.

We have to make clear that gardening is not just growing fruits, vegetables and flowers. It is keeping order in the landscape, the first line of defense in the battle for civilization, which means city living. God created gatherers. Lord God built a garden, and built Adam and Eve “to dress and to keep it.”

Yours in ordered liberty,

Rycke

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tom attwood July 12, 2013 at 12:12 am

The opportunity to showcase Horticulture in a positive (non lamenting the plight of the industry) light is repeatedly being missed. The significance of the discussion that Mr T and Co. spark is not a signal for the bulk of the industry be they self-employed gardeners, landscapers, greenkeeprs, nurserymen and women to respond by going on ad nauseum about the (seemingly relentless) fixation of peoples perception of a gardeners cognative agility. All this does is drown the actual opportunity to promote the industry. So many professions face the same challenges; attracting school leavers, persuading the wider public as to the merits of your particular craft.

Positivity should shine through, showcasing the next generation who buck the trend should dominate the scant coverage, they are out there we just don’t hear enough about them. A crisis in an industry makes a great headline compared to a positive story to showcase and I’m very aware of this.

My wife and I are in a distinct minority in our age bracket (25-30yrs) Owning and running a nursery today is not exacly brimming with 20 and 30 somethings. That’s plain to see whenever you attend a plant fair. I’m concerned for the sector but lets avoid the inenvitable watered down annual debate that does the rounds and settles down for another season. Mr T, i’m calling on you to take a different tack next Chlesea and pull out the stops for a new, lamenting free sound bite.

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Colin Elliott July 7, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Interesting that the general view should be that it is up to others – the TV companies, the RHS – to sort out the image of our industry. What about doing it ourselves?

Now amusing myself in France, my English company had no difficulty recruiting the very best staff, because we created an environment in which they could excelle.

We constructed a fine 100 sq.m. office / showroom which we located within half-acre show gardens within a large garden centre. Advertising, brochures, web sites and the office (open 7 days a week) promoted a high end but accessible image. In the office the staff were mostly qualified to Honors Degree level – in garden design, landscaping or horticulture – while the landscapers (we employed 20 or so) were selected for their skills.

We wrote magazine articles, built show gardens at all the major RHS events and attracted clients who were prepared to pay to have us create something of real quality. The excitement this created attracted good people, who were only too keen to be involved.

I myself have been involved in the industry for 40 years, attended three horticultural colleges, giving me five years of full-time training at the beginning of my career. I did a couple of years with the Royal Gardens, worked in or ran nurseries, garden centres, a seed company and a landscape firm before feeling I knew enough to go my own way. We started with nothing, literally nothing, but had a clear vision of what we needed to do to achieve success at the level we required.

We were always the most expensive but, I would like to think, the best in our area. Twenty years ago I was charging £45 per hour for my services: I charge much more now.

When you see top chefs on the television it is rarely one-man-bands you see featured; more usually it will be someone with skills and personality running a clutch of London restaurants and with a manor house in the country.

I have no problem at all with people mowing lawns and weeding for a living. Just don’t kid yourself it makes for exciting, prime time TV viewing. I hope and expect to be gardening on my last day in this world, as I have been since the age of 14. My passion is not to everyones taste but there is a career and a lifestyle which should attract young people to get involved. It is a story that needs to be told, but the evidence is out there for all to see.

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Ross Nevette July 4, 2013 at 11:54 am

This is a subject I give a lot of thought to, because I believe there is much more at stake than first meets the eye. In South Africa, where I am a gardener, the distinction between those who garden and those who don’t is to a large extent divided down racial lines. It saddens me to see how much the honorable craft of gardening is thought of as something to be elevated from, as if you are obliged to aspire to be more. It is even used by point scoring politicians as an insult – to compare someone to a gardener, is to say that they have the lowest form of life.
The problem, in my context is twofold; Firstly, that for the the hundreds of thousands of people who make a (very meagre) living off gardening, if the ‘educated’ and the ‘leaders’ see no value in it, it will always be viewed as something to be despised. Then the very little sense of self worth and pleasure that you derive from the work of your hands becomes debased. It will never then be seen as anything of importance, or even be remunerated as such. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I believe that it is folly that our society aspires to more self-important vocations, when, by losing touch with nature and the natural rhythms of life we actually lose so much more of what makes us human.
I’m sorry to say though, I don’t hold much hope of anything changing for the better?

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Rycke Brown July 2, 2013 at 4:06 pm

An acquaintance referred to me as a “landscaper” in e-mail, though my business is Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener. To me, a gardener is more than a landscaper, not less. Gardener pull weeds, and know a weed from a plant that belongs. Small and unfamiliar plants are not safe from landscape maintenance.

Gardening naturally,

Rycke

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Emma July 1, 2013 at 5:50 pm

I too am a career changer, though I wanted to go into horticulture as a teenager and was told by my snotty careers adviser that I was far too bright and should go to university (a sentiment backed by my parents). So I did, and spent 10 years working in jobs that were OK but ultimately unrewarding, all the time wishing I was doing something else.

Fast forward 15 years and here I am having done exactly what I wanted to do back then. Retrained via a foundation degree and haven’t looked back. Now working for the RHS. Yet even at Wisley we get visitors asking if we are all volunteers. Since retraining I’ve experienced the full gamut of visitor bad behaviour, from being spoken to like you’re the crap on someone’s shoe to actual sexual harassment.

However, the vast majority of visitors respect what we do, and I wonder if some of the attitudes towards horticulture as a career are a generational thing. My peers think what I do is brilliant and they love that they have access to advice and plant ideas as most of them have absolutely no clue. We would do better to describe what we do as ‘horticulture’, because ‘gardening’ is such a tiny part of it and in no way conveys the sheer range of careers within the industry.

Also guilty are some employers. My previous employers had no interest in training their staff and any attempt by staff to better their knowledge and skills was met with incomprehension and outright refusal to help.

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Richard July 2, 2013 at 7:18 am

” We would do better to describe what we do as ‘horticulture’, because ‘gardening’ is such a tiny part of it and in no way conveys the sheer range of careers within the industry.”
Could not agree more Emma

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David Herbert June 28, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Alan Titchmarsh did not say that gardening is ‘just’ for the thick and dull. I looked at the bbc link in the article and it seems to me he just wanted to change people’s supposed perceptions of gardeners as ‘thick and dull’
I am a gardener and I am qualified, I think it depends on people’s level of interest on gardening as to whether they respect you or not. I have found that customers interested in gardening or/and with knowledge of gardening show a greater respect to me than customers with no knowledge. These are the ones who only care about cutting lawns and hedges and don’t care or understand, for example, the technical skill of maintaining a border through the seasons. I have also found that knowing Latin names of plants intimidates customers. I understand that there are gardeners out there who just want to mow or cut hedges, I know there are gardeners who have a wealth of knowledge but no qualifications, both are fine in my book but I don’t feel it is pretentious to be qualified, and sometimes it’s the only way to gain knowledge and learn.

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Weeding the Web June 28, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Stephen, can you honestly say that you fit the profile of the majority of lifelong gardeners? People may not be particularly tactful, but they have picked up on this and perhaps it’s flattering that they’re interested in your choice. After all, you can’t castigate people for having the perception that you have probably done something other than gardening before now. You have done, and they’re right.

Richard, you seem to me to be criticising the very job that Stephen has taken on, as he says he is now “belatedly” qualified in gardening. The overall “problem” is that gardening is one of the very few jobs remaining that you can choose to do without major expenditure on creating a new life for yourself, or that you can turn to when, as you say, you “fail” at something.

People who do this manage to mow lawns and trim hedges as well as anyone with a gardening qualification and to cast aspersions on them for doing this is to denigrate them as much as professionally trained gardeners feel they themselves are denigrated. They carry out work that professionally trained gardeners would charge a great deal more for and which wouldn’t exist if more had to paid for it.

Some will find it’s not “easy” and will drop out; others will find an interest worth developing; others will be happy with their work as it is, but the fact that people can become gardeners in this way is something to be celebrated at a time when finding work that doesn’t demand all sorts of qualifications is getting scarcer.

What is the alternative? Probably making gardening into something that demands a whole new raft of qualifications and joining a whole lot of regulatory bodies just to pick up a trowel, and I’m betting that quite a few contributors to thinkingardens are very thankful that that isn’t the case.

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Tristan Gregory June 28, 2013 at 6:19 pm

This is a debate you need to have with yourself before you feel confident having it with others. I came to the conclusion that there is great pressure on everybody but especially the young to be able to either declare themselves one of the winners by pointing to the number of life’s boxes they have manage to tick or at least indicate how they are going to go about it.
It used to make me uncomfortable as peers made their cases but now it seems so futile, their scramble to the middle; a little like the Emperor Penguins trying to ease themselves into the middle of the group to escape the blizzard only to find that everyone else is trying to do the same thing and pushing them back to the edge.

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Bethan Green June 28, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Richard I don’t think that at all – every industry work place has poor workers. It is the lazy sweeping of that brush that means people think all nurses are lazy or all care workers are thieves. If this perception is there, then it is not new, the hard working classes and toilers and people who work hard with their hands maybe have always been looked down at by the rest of society. The political correctness of renaming cleaners to hygeine specialists shows us this sort of discomfort. My husband who is a fab gardener is as confused by why people would sit a desk all day in white collar as they may be to see him climbing up 12 foot hedges. He would say “oh poor you I couldn’t work for somebody else” or “how sad to work indoors all day”

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annewareham June 28, 2013 at 3:05 pm

(and he’s brilliant at it)

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lucy June 28, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Is there also an element that because everyone can at some level ‘garden’ they don’t feel particularly respectful towards the professional? Not many of us would feel confident with electricity but most would have a go with a pair of shears.

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Richard June 28, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Just a thought: do you think that people’s perceptions of gardeners are clouded by the number of people that call themselves gardeners yet, in fact, have no idea what they are doing? They do it because they failed at whatever they did previously and think that mowing a lawn, trimming a hedge, weeding and so forth is “easy” money especially as many of their clients are going to be clueless as well!

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Rosie June 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Yes I do – do you think for a lot of people its a second career (including me), because of this stigma?

I did a Plant Science degree (50% horticulture 50% chemistry/genetics), and then spent ten years doing a corporate job which I was good at but hated, before realising that it would be possible to make a living in gardens rather than waiting to spend time gardening at the weekend.

If I had had the courage (or foresight) to know that I would be happier using my qualifications I would have done it when I was young enough and fit enough to make the most of it.

Perhaps if gardening was taken seriously by all of us more young people would take it seriously when they make their career choices?

As for people who are winging it – there are some in every industry/profession.

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Bill June 28, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Great bit of writing and I liked it very much.
(Been there and got the same sort of comments…)

Love the idea of being a ‘Rebel’ gardener, out there just me and the garden… A no-mans-land of horticulture and human. Face to Face. Man V Plant…!

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Rosie June 28, 2013 at 1:38 pm

I used to work for a garden maintenance company in London (naming no names) and found other people WORKING for private houseowners looked down on my own work. In particular when clients were out, if there were housekeepers, cleaners and nannies working in the house they treated me as a lowly, unskilled person prepared to get wet. In the worst of weather they rarely offered tea/made conversation and hated me coming in to use the bathroom.

Clients, on the other hand, were generally really pleased with results and happy to be able to chat about the plants they had invariably inherited with the house. They still raised an eyebrow at hourly fees – despite being a fraction of an electrician/plumber whose training took far fewer years – but had a great respect for knowledge.

I focus on design now not because its better or a progression from pure gardening, but for health reasons. I introduce myself as a gardener at dinner parties, mainly because I would rather hear about the plants in people’s gardens than watch them assume I don’t need to earn a living and it must be some sort of fluffy job – neither of which are true.

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lucy June 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Hello – I just wanted to say my experiences of people towards me when I said I was a gardener was completely different. I find it’s like being a doctor and people at once start to tell me all their gardening problems (and triumphs, but mainly problems) hoping I can give an answer. I have never had a ‘what are you going to do for a proper job. Is that because I’m a woman? …

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Bethan Green June 28, 2013 at 11:49 am

I think that gardening TV needs that very sexy man from the top of your hornbeam hedge – especially when he takes his shirt off. People would flock to gardening in their droves. (did i miss the point?)

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