Careers In Horticulture - Managing green places

Careers in the amenity horticulture sector offer numerous options for enthusiastic people who are keen to learn new skills, says Jez Abbott.

Parks management: major area of opportunity within the amenity horticulture sector
Parks management: major area of opportunity within the amenity horticulture sector

Horticulture offers almost unlimited career options in all sorts of job settings. But one of the industry's biggest areas is amenity horticulture, which includes grounds and turf care, parks management, professional gardening and arboriculture.

People treading a career path into these specialisms tackle everything from looking after ornamental borders to tending fine turf or climbing tall trees to keep them in trim. If the skills are varied, so too are the educational requirements and the personal qualities needed to carve out a rewarding and successful career. Some horticultural positions require a minimum of a degree.

In many other jobs, however, entry-level positions provide on-the-job training in return for little more than enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, insists ISS head of training Ross Minterne, is crucial: "It is a key personal skill we look for. We also want people who can adapt and be flexible."

ISS tackles grounds care for several public-sector organisations. Working for a local authority parks department or a private grounds maintenance company, such as ISS, throws up all sorts of challenges. A typical council has more than 100 parks and open spaces, from large formal gardens to heaths, golf courses and neighbourhood play areas.

Jobs involve planting and looking after floral displays, shrubs or trees, cutting grass and helping to co-ordinate major repairs to fences, signs, bins and playground kit. ISS has apprentices from Sparsholt College and also recruits 18-year-olds, balancing in-house training on the use of trailers and other machines with college training on subjects such as plant care, pests and diseases.

"Training for a career in horticulture in future will involve more online courses, downloading apps to mobile phones to view photography, illustrations and course work," says Minterne. "Horticulture, in all its guises, is very hands-on and in years to come career progression will be even more focused on learning on the job, as almost everyone these days has a smartphone or tablet."

Grounds-care firm Glendale has about 60 apprentices across the country, training for level 2 diplomas in horticulture. But the company also trains postgraduates and people well into their 40s at its academy. This has been successful at raising skills levels at Glendale and helping to fill a gap in skills shortages across the industry.

"We are not precious on age," explains director for the South West Terry Doyle. "Even people starting in their 40s can put in another 20-25 years of work and many have excellent life skills and motivation. We have done well in arboriculture. We work with Jobcentre Plus and Duchy College and to date have enjoyed a 100 per cent success rate in training then employing staff."

Doyle, one of several regional directors at Glendale who started on the grounds staff, says the firm aims to fill 70 per cent of management posts through internal promotions. So starting a career at the bottom "really can pay off" in terms of career structure and promotion prospects. Training lasts 18 months to two years - anything but the six-month quick fix in other career sectors.

"We need to encourage more people into the industry and rejuvenate its skills base. People looking to learn professional skills, either straight from school or after a career change, can not only find a way into the career but do well. Those who show potential are fast-tracked into management training, so this can be a fast-moving career to enter."

Even the public-sector budget cuts imposed by Government can be worked around to avoid dilution of skills, says Doyle. "The concern for our sector is that high-end horticulture such as care for herbaceous borders is being removed from contracts. Where possible, we work with clients to ensure staff in their training stages can work on sites taken out of our contract to round-off skills."

Glendale is one of many organisations to benefit from Duchy College, which is training up to 300 apprentices in horticulture and greenkeeping. It also teaches foundation, full degrees and other courses tied into work experience at the Eden Project, estates and National Trust properties. Duchy College horticultural lecturer Andrew Gunderson trains students between the ages of 16 and 60.

"It's not just about plants and being outside," he says. "Amenity horticulture also involves clever management and business techniques, communication and people skills. Many people who enter the profession take on supervisory roles and it's our job to equip them with the skills and confidence to sell themselves to a competitive, dynamic and technologically focused career."

Matt O'Conner agrees, and knows what he's looking for when recruiting for the grounds maintenance company he runs, John O'Conner. "Yes, a career in horticulture means getting up early and having a good work ethic. You will get wet doing this job but there is so much more to a career with a skills base as wide and varied as grounds care," he points out.

Like other employers, his firm will take people from all backgrounds. John O'Conner was the first company in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire to sign up to the Government's extended work experience scheme in partnership with Jobcentre Plus. The programme gives young people an introduction to the workplace and a decent entry on their CV.

O'Conner's firm works with Capel Manor College and land-based training provider KEITS, both with good Ofsted ratings. The company launched an amenity horticulture apprenticeship scheme four years ago but also teams up with the National Probation Service to provide work experience for young offenders and helps people not in employment, education or training into work.

"The good thing about being employed by a specialist grounds care company tackling several contracts is we can move staff around to fill an individual's skills gap," says O'Conner. "So we can switch someone who's tackling mainly sports turf care to a Green Flag local authority park with really good horticultural features such as complex flower beds, decorative features and ornamental trees.

"To date, we have provided more than 70 apprenticeships and work placements and around 40 per cent have been converted to permanent employees. We believe the 'grow your own' approach benefits our business. Encouraging diversity in the workforce helps train future managers from the ground up."

Institute of Groundsmanship head of education Chris Gray says those seeking to make it in horticulture, and particularly the grounds care sector, have "massive career potential". Horticulture newbies can choose from basic levels of training up to masters degrees and from a host of colleges, grounds care businesses, awarding bodies and professional groups such as the institute.

"Upskilling is important and there are numerous pathways to improving your knowledge. Yes, it's a hands-on career, but you also need to understand technical aspects such as soil science, grass cultivars and fertiliser. Computers and software play increasing roles. Today's grounds staff use IT to work out cash flows and budgets as well as grass-upkeep regimes.

"But what represents one of the biggest opportunities for people entering the career right now is its ageing workforce. Average age in grounds care is about 50, and who will replace those staff and fill the skills gap? Here lies enormous opportunity for young people or career changers to get their feet under the table and learn the basic skills. This is a brilliant time to enter the horticulture profession."

Me & My Job - Alan North, head gardener, Audley End

- How did you get started in the industry?

I always wanted to have a career that allowed me to be outdoors and practical, but also something real and purposeful. When I spotted a trainee gardener position at Madingley Hall I jumped at the chance and never looked back. I remember my first day and instantly feeling certain this would be my future. It was an exciting and special feeling.

- What advice would you give to others starting out?

Ask lots of questions, read lots, make notes and most importantly take time to observe the garden. Watching the behaviour of plants and wildlife is perhaps the most insightful and enjoyable way to learn.

- What does your typical day involve?

A cup of tea and a catch-up with my senior gardeners before the rest of the team arrives. I aim to join the team in the garden perhaps three days of the week, allowing me a couple of days to catch up on emails and planning. The office work is important but I love to be in the garden.

- What is the best aspect of your job?

Working with talented and like-minded people, learning new skills and knowledge in beautiful surroundings and seasons.

- And the worst?

That's easy - the less available time that I have to be in the garden and working alongside the team.

- How do you wind down after a hard day at work?

My two young children keep me entertained. We love to go for walks and enjoy our surroundings on the estate. I also play golf and tennis.

- What does the future hold?

We have some exciting upcoming projects and events. We are beginning to prepare for the nationwide project and celebration of Capability Brown's 300th anniversary, who was influential at Audley End. It is fascinating to be involved in an historic landscape and I would like to further my studies in garden history.

First steps

Groundsman career path

Straight from school, keen students can get a position with a club and embark on college courses for National/Scottish Vocational Qualifications in sports turf. These start with a basic first diploma through levels 2-4 and the higher national diploma to a foundation degree in golf and sports turf management and a national diploma in sports turf and amenity horticulture. There is also a higher national certificate in sports turf.

Arboriculture career path

Beginners will often take short courses - usually an NPTC course - in chainsaw use, tree climbing or aerial rescue. The Royal Forestry Society Certificate in Arboriculture level 2 qualification is offered by several colleges and is recognised as proof that the holder has a good theoretical knowledge and is proficient in practical skills. Specialist tree surgery courses are offered by a range of colleges and many amenity horticulture courses include tree surgery. Packaged courses include a three-year national diploma (BTEC), and a one-year NCH (arboriculture).

Parks career path

Apprenticeships last for three years and provide training in all aspects of working in a park. They offer NVQs at levels 1-3. For those wanting further or higher education, qualifications start at BTEC, diploma and City & Guilds national certificate in horticulture, moving on to levels 2-3 national certificate and national diploma courses, BTEC higher national diplomas and bachelor of science courses in areas such as green-space management.

Grounds care career path

Some of the larger companies offer apprenticeships that combine formal diplomas such as NVQs with personal skills training in teamwork, problem-solving, communication and IT. Private contractors often learn their skills in the public sector first, working in local authority parks departments.

Gardener career path

Relevant qualifications range from NVQs to horticulture degrees, but your biggest asset is practical experience.

Head gardener career path

Head gardeners are usually practical gardeners with many years of experience working in gardens, ranging from privately-owned estates to National Trust properties. A formal qualification from a horticultural college is also a requirement.

Botanic garden curator

A strong plant knowledge is key to running botanic gardens, so professional horticultural qualifications are recommended, along with a period of work at a suitable garden - for example, RHS Garden Wisley or Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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