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The UK may be renowned for its gardens but it has a peculiar attitude to its gardeners. A few – such as Sir Peter Crane, the former head of Kew, now at Yale, and landscaper Andy Sturgeon, who has offices in Singapore as well as the UK – achieve recognition and reasonable pay. But most struggle to make a living let alone gain recognition.
This is odd because the horticulture industry employs 300,000 people (or more given how many jobbing gardeners operate on the black market) and is worth about £9bn to the UK economy, according to the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA). Employers in the sector struggle to fill skilled vacancies and blame the problem on the perception of horticulture inculcated at school.
A common assumption is that horticulture is a career for the hard of thinking. The UK continues to laud academia over practical skills and so pushes its young into universities, leaving industries such as horticulture foundering. The result has been outlined this week in the Financial Times’ Class of the Crunch series.
So how do you change a nation’s mind? In Danny Boyle’s London Olympics opening ceremony everything from the dark satanic mills to the UK’s dazzling tech and musical talents were celebrated – but not the UK’s garden brio. The green and pleasant land that featured was, largely, a farming landscape and yet much of the UK’s admired scenery is the result of pioneering horticulture and human artifice so subtle that it is difficult to distinguish from nature.
Gardeners themselves are unlikely to change people’s minds precisely because their work scatters them through the land and the landscape. Gardeners do not inhabit Silicon roundabouts or valleys so much as isolated valleys and municipal parks and gardens. And so, while financial industries, digital employers and biotech companies set up their stalls to attract the brightest, one of the UK’s finest areas of achievement often goes underrated or ignored.
That means low wages, which in turn reduces the appeal of gardening as a career. My first job in the holidays from boarding school was as a gardener in Waterlow Park, north London, where entertainment was provided by visiting groups of communists on their way to Marx’s tomb in nearby Highgate Cemetery and a flasher who added a surprise element to the flower beds.
My uninspiring title, “labourer”, was matched by a dismal pay packet. Still, I loved the work. Gardening as a career had never occurred to me until after my degree when I stumbled into a John Brookes design course, took City and Guilds horticulture exams and started to design gardens and write and broadcast about them in between my day job as a journalist.
Since then the UK’s attitude to gardeners’ education does not seem to have changed much. Horticulture Matters, a gloomy report published earlier this year by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to demand support for the gardening industry from the UK government, stimulated little interest and even less action.
A few beacons flicker in the horticultural wilderness, still all but invisible to careers advisers. The RHS runs respected schemes and bursaries for young horticulturists; courses at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have an international reputation; and well-known gardens, from the Eden Project and RBG Edinburgh to Capel Manor and Pershore, run their own schemes.
Then there are courses run by the National Trust, the conservation group set up more than a century ago which is now one of the UK’s biggest landowners. It recommends three years of practical training for competent gardeners, five years for a head gardener. “Being a competent gardener in the private sector, possibly working alone and doing other duties, is a different order of job entirely from that of head gardener in an internationally important heritage or botanic garden attracting thousands if not hundreds of thousands of visitors a year,” says Mike Calnan, head of gardens at the National Trust.
The National Trust is high profile enough that it attracts talent despite the UK education system’s lamentable attitude to gardens, but horticulture businesses struggle. According to the RHS and HTA, 70 per cent of horticultural businesses cannot fill skilled vacancies, nearly 20 per cent are forced to recruit overseas, and almost 70 per cent claim that career entrants are inadequately prepared for work.
It is a shame that an area of the UK’s creativity is so undervalued. Gardens are a defining part of the UK, a cradle of biodiversity and, more broadly, they are fundamental to a rich life. As Thomas More put it: “The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human.”
Jane Owen is editor of House & Home and a Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist
This article has been amended since publication. The original article incorrectly stated that the tomb of Vladimir Lenin is in London when in fact it is in Moscow
Jamie Butterworth, 19, from Wakefield in northern England, has a place on the RHS’s prestigious Wisley Diploma course. His dissertation focuses on how to encourage young people into horticulture. “Otherwise those skills might be lost,” he says. At school he was advised to steer clear of horticulture because he was considered too bright. Luckily for the world of horticulture the bug had already bitten: after watching a television programme about growing from seed, Butterworth, then aged nine, was inspired to buy a packet of cornflowers. Enthusiasm turned into a passion and he took over his parents’ garden until a plague of caterpillars took over his parents’ house. In 2011 he was a finalist in the BBC’s Young Gardener of the Year competition, at which point he was approached by the RHS. “I work in gardens for four days and in a classroom for one day . . . In the last two months I’ve learned more than in rest of my life,” says Butterworth. “So long as I have a spade in my hand and I’m outside, I’m happy.”
Jonny Bruce, 23, discovered an affinity for plants and landscape during his gap year between school in Oxford and university at Cambridge when he Woofed (worked on organic farms) in Japan and Russia. Gardening became an antidote to the pressures of undergraduate life. “I was intimidated by a Cambridge degree and thought it would be good to have a place where I could get away from the exam schedule,” says Bruce. Three years ago, the Girton College Allotment began life, run by Bruce and his fellow enthusiasts. Bruce enjoyed his history of art degree but wishes that his school had offered practical alternatives to university. During the summer holidays he did work experience at the Renaissance revival garden at Villa La Pietra in Florence. Bruce became so interested in the garden world he decided to write his dissertation on film-maker and gardener Derek Jarman. Bruce completed his degree this year and, in September, he began a 14-month practical skills apprenticeship, supported by the RHS and the Heritage Horticulture Skills Scheme, at 15th-century Aberglasney in west Wales. “I wanted to do something manual and practical,” says Bruce. After completing his course at Aberglasney, he hopes to apply to Kew, Edinburgh or possibly Berkeley.