Fifty years ago, garden centres were unheard of, but they have grown enormously as TV gardening programmes have become popular and self-sufficiency and the environment have risen in people's consciousness.
There are now around three thousand centres employing 10s of thousands of staff. And, despite the recession, sales were up 10 per cent in 2009, helped by a boom in the grow-your-own market and favourable spring weather.
Work in garden centres is varied and can involve ordering stock, sourcing suppliers, designing displays, operating stock-control systems, dealing with deliveries and warehousing, customer service, managing cash, looking after plants and managing staff.
No longer just places to buy plants and fertilisers, many garden centres are out-of-town shopping destinations that offer restaurants, play areas, show gardens and events, as well as an array of non-gardening products for sale.
This means there are roles available beyond horticultural jobs, including events organisers and chefs.
Many garden centre staff start as weekend workers and progress to management roles. Having knowledge of or an interest in plant care from the start can be useful but this can be learnt on the job. More senior roles may require experience in retail or working with plants.
Most garden centres advertise jobs as they come up on their websites although it might be worth sending in speculative CVs to garden centres in your area, particularly in the run-up to the busy spring season. Evidence of an interest in gardening is helpful and any horticultural qualification or practical experience would be looked on favourably.
Bedfordshire Poplars Garden Centre managing director David Little says personal attributes come first when he is looking for staff. "Anyone interfacing with customers has to have a good personality. Second, a passion for the products is important - our plant people are all passionate about plants."
For those interested in making a career in garden retail, the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) offers a range of training courses at different levels. For new entrants, HTA one-day workshops offer insights into different areas of garden retail. National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) Level 2 programmes in customer service are also a relevant qualification.
NVQs are work-related, competence-based qualifications that are achieved through assessment and training. Candidates produce evidence to prove they meet the NVQ standards. Assessors sign off units when the candidates are ready.
A new Diploma in Garden Retail combines retail knowledge with horticulture within one qualification and the course is delivered through an interactive workbook. Learners complete activities in the garden centre and record these in workbooks without the need to go to college. Learners who successfully complete all 12 modules achieve the nationally recognised qualification, the Level 3 Diploma in Retail Knowledge (Garden Retail).
HTA training and careers manager Tanya Robinson says the flexible course fills a gap for worker. "The diploma is proving very popular," she says. "We're approaching the first 100 now with new applications coming in every day."
Garden centre staff are often encouraged to undergo training while working and may be given time off or extra help to complete their course. Sally Cornelissen, joint manager of Burleydam Garden Centre, Merseyside, says: "I believe that workshops to back the diploma are essential. A mentor with experience in the real world of retail horticulture and with the technical knowledge ensures the course represents value for money."
The Squires chain of garden centres is also enthusiastic about on-the-job training. HR manager Jo Ripley, who has recently enrolled 11 staff onto the diploma, says: "We know that it's our people who make the company successful. Training our staff motivates them."
Students on the diploma can get funding from Skillsmart Retail, the Sector Skills Council for Retail.
The diploma has been designed to lead on to a Foundation Degree in Retail Horticulture Management at Kingston Maurward College in Dorchester through Bournemouth University and led by industry veteran Ken Crafer. This course is targeted at garden centre managers and started in January 2010, with delegates from Dorset-based Stewarts and national chain Garden & Leisure. It takes four years to complete and is delivered through e-learning supported by block weeks out of the garden centre.
Wages range from national minimum wage for newcomers to the industry to £30,000-£35,000 for a manager of a large garden centre. Office-based staff could earn around £20,000 a year for HR jobs, for instance; section managers, for example in the plant department, would earn similar amounts. Catering staff earn less.
Till operator/garden centre assistant: £6.50 per hour
Supervisor: £15,000 pa (plus bonuses)
Department head: £30,000 pa (shop/plant manager)
Garden centre manager: Up to £50,000 pa HTA diploma
Carl Beiersdorf from Webbs in Wychbold and Tom Oliver from Webbs West Hagley will pilot the new year-long training diploma specific to the garden retail environment, which has been launched by the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA).
Oliver says: "It is a struggle to move from the shop floor to management but this is rewarding. I've come from working part time to full time and been given the opportunity to extend my knowledge. I'm gaining experience in the business in everything we do and that can only be a good thing."