Gardening salaries fail to breach 'grass ceiling'

Even the most prestigious gardening jobs have a "grass ceiling" that salaries are not breaching, which Professional Gardeners' Guild (PGG) chairman Tony Arnold says does not reflect the skills top head gardeners bring to their employers.

RHS Bridgewater: fifth RHS garden due to open in 2019
RHS Bridgewater: fifth RHS garden due to open in 2019

Analysis by specialist garden group PlantNetwork of 100 horticultural jobs advertised from April 2015 to September 2016 discovered the average salary rate for a garden/landscape manager was £39,500 - the lowest £30,000 and the highest £68,000 for the landscape manager at Kew's Wakehurst Place. The average salary for head gardeners was £26,452 - lowest £24,000 and highest £35,000.

RHS Bridgewater in Greater Manchester advertised a curator role at £45,000 a year, with Marcus Chilton-Jones getting the job this month. His former curator role at Dorothy Clive Garden in Shropshire has been advertised at £40,000.

On the Bridgewater role, Arnold said: "If you compare that to someone working in the construction industry running a building project of the same value, they would be on an enormous amount more than that. Absolutely there's a grass ceiling. It's what people's perceptions of gardeners are. Although £45,000 is a good salary for anybody, it's not recognising the skills that are needed to do that job.

"I don't think any of the big national organisations that have a big impact or input into horticulture pay particularly well for the skill set. How many people can propagate the rhododendrons and fix the lawnmower too? We also have to be quite discreet and politically correct."

At Bridgewater, a £30m project to build the RHS's fifth garden, which is due to open in 2019, Chilton-Jones' role includes managing a horticultural team that will grow to about 30 staff, six training places and a team of volunteers.

Chilton-Jones will also plan and deliver the initial horticultural project phases, facilitate aspects of community outreach programmes, work with planners and the media and manage budgets.

He has an MA in heritage management/heritage landscape management (distinction) and has also worked as BBC Television head gardener and deputy head gardener at Trentham.

Arnold added: "If the RHS led by example it would be £10,000 more." The top RHS curator role, Matthew Pottage's at the one-million annual visitor RHS Garden Wisley, was advertised at £50,000 a year. The RHS has an annual salary spend of £25m and has 27 staff on more than £60,000 a year, up from 21 in 2015.

The pay range at the National Trust's larger-sized gardens is £28,923 to £37,468 while for smaller gardens it is £24,587 to £31,852. Mike Calnan, head of gardens at the trust, said: "The National Trust regularly reviews and externally benchmarks its salaries across all market sectors. We work collaboratively with other charities, including the RHS, to research and monitor salaries in the heritage and horticultural sector." National Trust salary expenditure was £191m in 2016, with 98 staff on £60,000-plus, up from 97 in 2015.

"It's public perception," said PGG secretary Margi Comeau. "They (the public) just don't appreciate what gardeners are. They think they have a garden, anyone can do it. You need all the horticultural skills and then you need to be a manager on top of that. The media perception is interesting. In Downton Abbey the servants were key characters but the gardener was a bit simple. We are always portrayed as only doing simple tasks. You have to be clever to be a professional gardener. You have to give tours, do public speaking - there are such a range of skills. Diplomacy is one of the biggest skills involved. Silly phrases such as 'gardening leave' give the wrong impression. It's what you go on if you're no good at your job."

Colin Roberts, PGG area organiser and head gardener at Adwell House in Thame, Oxfordshire, said: "I have eight trout lakes and a fishing enterprise to look after. I also show people round properties on the estate. If you went into some of the other similar industries you'd be paid a lot more."

The RHS said it pays within PGG guidelines, is working to raise the profile of careers in horticulture and playing its part in building up salary levels at a sustainable rate in horticulture. "The RHS is committed to ensuring that all professionally qualified RHS horticulturists and horticultural scientists are paid at the upper end of the horticultural industry pay scale," said a spokesperson.

"The RHS is pleased to be able to offer the role of curator at RHS Garden Bridgewater at the upper end of the PGG-recommended starting salary band for this role. As with all of our horticultural staff, we are also committed to developing and investing in our people as they progress and cultivate their skills and experience with the RHS.

"The charity's investment of £30m over the next 10 years to develop RHS Garden Bridgewater reflects the scale, ambition and importance of the project as well as the reality of the cost of developing and launching a beautiful and inspiring garden for future generations to enjoy. The RHS will continue to recruit a team of horticulturists to bring this new garden to life and bring the joy of gardening to millions more people across Salford and the North West."

Clarification: Since publishing this story the RHS has asked us to point out that in his role as curator of RHS Bridgewater, Marcus Chilton-Jones will report into the director of horticulture, Tim Upson, who has overall responsibility for the horticultural elements of the project. Chilton-Jones will be part of an existing team which is project managing the £30m investment. This team includes the RHS's head of estates (north) and Bridgewater programme director. Tony Arnold has said he received the impression that the curator role on which he was asked to comment was project managing the whole £30m investment into RHS Garden Bridgewater. 

RECOMMENDED SALARIES 

The Professional Gardeners’ Guild (PGG) annual guidelines for 2016 recommend salaries for gardens managers at £33,950-£48,800+ and for head gardeners £27,585-£38,200+.

  • Deputy head gardener/sole gardener  £23,340-£29,700pa +
  • Gardener (skilled) £21,220-£27,585pa + 
  • Gardener £16,975-£22,280pa + 
  • Junior gardener (age 17)/trainee £14,855-£16,975pa

SALARY RANGES

PlantNetwork found head gardeners salaries range from £30,000-£68,000 and assistant head gardener/area supervisor average salaries were £21,447 — lowest £17,000 and highest £28,000. Gardener average salary was £17,467 — lowest £15,544 and highest £25,000.

  • National Trust head gardener pay £24,587-£37,468pa
  • RHS latest appointment £45,000pa

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