I was recently at the Professional Gardeners Guild Annual General Meeting and one of the subjects under discussion was the low status that gardeners seem to have compared to other professions. There are very few young people entering the trade, although in recent years there has been an upsurge in people changing careers midlife to enter horticulture.

It seems ironic that as a horticulturalist you can often spend upwards of seven years or more studying your profession, not unlike a doctor or a lawyer, and you never stop learning. However unlike these trades, salaries for Head Gardeners are often in the region of £15 – 20,000 p.a. Accommodation may be included along with some other benefits, but there are frequently things that you are expected to do which are not relevant to your post, such as a friend of mine who had to walk the family dogs every evening and worse still, when the Great Dane died she had to bury it (with a mini-digger!). Or posts will advertise for ‘Head Gardener, wife to work in house’ (not illegal for private employers), which is not very good for women gardeners.

Another common problem is that the kind of people who are encouraged to join the profession are the low achievers. ‘Oh, he’s not very good academically,’ you hear teachers wanting to organise work placements say, ‘he will be better off working outside’. Naturally there is plenty of outdoor work and lots of hard physical graft, but that doesn’t mean to say there is no academic side to the job. There are plenty of jobs in a horticulture where studying to degree or doctorate level is essential. When I was at Kew I was witness to an incident where four women gardeners were working on a flower bed. A woman walked past with her daughter and said ‘See, if you don’t get your O Levels you’ll end up doing that!’ Of the four gardeners, one had a degree in botany, one in history, one in garden history and one in English literature!

Despite the low wage and the fact that we are not regarded as intelligent, gardeners are expected to be experts in every field of their profession. It doesn’t matter whether it is turf care, arboriculture, pest control, design or just how to grow a good tomato, people ask our advice on every subject imaginable and are not impressed if we don’t know. Yet these are all specialist areas; a brain surgeon would never be expected to know about osteo-arthritis, yet if you ask a groundsman about pruning a cherry tree he is expected to answer. Chances are they can’t even tell one tree from another.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the increase in gardening TV programmes. These often demonstrate tasks in the simplest way, as if all plants are text book examples. Of course every plant is different, as is every garden, and knowing and understanding plant physiology and anatomy is key. Only by understanding the science can one adapt the techniques appropriately, so that pruning a large overgrown shrub, for example, is done correctly. So often people think ‘oh I saw that on telly’ but they can’t adapt what Monty Don did to their own enormous Philadelphus. Then it gets done wrong and they come and ask why it isn’t flowering. I personally would never attempt to re-wire my house, but most people think they can do things in their garden that really need an experience. TV has also done a lot of damage in expecting instant results. Very few people seem to realise that the makeover programmes are often prepared a year in advance to make sure that everything is organised; materials, skips, machinery, plants and hordes of workers ready to do everything in a three day period. Then there’s always the weather to contend with, which can scupper the best laid plans. A real garden is constantly evolving and changing, no plans work indefinitely as plants don’t grow to order, we as gardeners manipulate nature by the very nature of our jobs.

Of course there are many of us who are lucky enough to earn a decent living with a good job where we feel valued. But unless and until things improve to bring our wages into line with other professions there is always going to be a skills shortage. One way of improving this is to raise awareness of the skill levels involved, and I hope this article has done a little to do this.


Article first published in the November 2013 parish newsletter.

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