A paradox afflicts today’s heritage and botanic gardens. Hugely popular with visitors from both home and abroad, and pressing all the right buttons with regard to education, conservation and the environment, they struggle to attract skilled staff and are all too often taken for granted by both the Government and the public.
ritain’s historic gardens and estates are arguably unrivalled anywhere in the world, attracting more than 27 million visitors annually, including 20 per cent of all foreign tourist visits. Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) has 38 botanic garden members in the UK — a density thought to be unmatched in any other country.
“The Government needs to be reminded of how indebted it is to the heritage and botanic sector,” says Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) Kew curator Nigel Taylor. “These gardens are a big part of UK tourism, bringing hundreds of millions of pounds into the economy, but are taken for granted.”
ational Trust head of gardens Mike Calnan agrees, but says the sector must take some of the blame. “Around 83 per cent of our 10 million visitors come to see the gardens, but gardeners like to just get on with their job,” he says. “We haven’t banged the drum loudly enough in the past on the value of gardens to the country in economic, social, health, environmental and cultural terms. We’ve got to get better at it.”
The upshot of this is that a generation of skilled gardeners are coming up to retirement and are not being replaced by committed younger staff. An English Heritage survey in 2005 found that only five per cent of workers in the sector were under 25.
School leavers too often see gardening as something their parents do, says Calnan — and few careers officers are aware of what a job in the sector can offer.
As a result, recruitment is becoming more of a headache. “Twenty years ago, an advert for a head gardener’s job might bring in anything from 20 to 100 applications — now it’s more like three,” says Calnan. “It’s a real issue for the whole sector — outdoor craft jobs are seen as less appealing.”
The National Trust’s Careership programme, jointly funded by the National Gardens Scheme, has been running since 1991 and has trained over 190 gardeners. It also provides one-year scholarships at Knightshayes Court in Devon, and is committed to improving training for existing staff.
“The trust has many excellent staff who can provide this, but occasionally we will want to buy-in training,” says Calnan. “For example, Garden Organic is helping to train gardeners who are keen to know more about organic and environmental gardening.”
he RHS, meanwhile, has more than 40 trainees at any given time. According to a representative: “We have no shortage of applications — it’s a world-class programme.”
RBG Kew has also taken action to arrest the decline. “We struggled a lot till five years ago,” says Taylor. “We would advertise positions and no one of any calibre would apply. So we introduced our rotational training scheme. We already had the Kew Diploma, but there was a big lack at the other end of the spectrum.”
The scheme “has been a lifesaver”, though it is currently undergoing a revamp, partly to make it shorter. “It was originally a three-year rotation, but often trainees were promoted to full-time positions within two years so they never completed it,” he says.
Volunteering also has a key role in allowing gardens to maintain high standards of horticulture and customer care within limited budgets. According to VisitBritain, the average English heritage garden has 15 unpaid volunteers along with 13 full-time staff, four part-time, two full-time seasonal and eight part-time seasonal.
Taylor says that the “cultural mix” of lifelong plantspeople, career changers and volunteers at RBG Kew is mutually beneficial. He also commends schemes run by the RHS and the National Trust. “We’re all in the same boat, so we collaborate with each other and with [sector skills council] Lantra.” A consequence of this has been the Historic & Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme, set up last September.
Low pay, however, remains endemic to the sector, though there is some variation depending on whether gardens are owned privately, by local authorities, charities or learning institutions. Indeed, the high proportion of women and second careerists currently entering the sector might give the impression that for -financial security, one needs either to have a partner to provide the household’s main income or to have made a comfortable income of one’s own in another field first.
One popular option to emerge from English Heritage’s 2005 survey was to standardise rates of pay across the industry depending on length of service, skills and qualifications.
Calnan agrees the subject needs addressing. “No employer is likely to stick his neck out and pay more,” he says. “It needs a move across the board.”
Since 2001, RBG Kew has seen steady growth in visitor numbers, though the current financial year is likely to see a dip from last year’s figure of 1.5 million, which made it Britain’s 13th most-visited attraction.
“Last year’s Chihuly glass sculptures exhibition was a blockbuster for us, giving us our best year for half a century,” says Taylor.
Such big-ticket events have pulled in visitors to RBG Kew who might otherwise have been lured away by the increasing number of other leisure options now available.
“Competition has increased for Kew, so in a sense, figures from earlier years are irrelevant,” says Taylor. “But the current trend is very positive.”
Hosting events has become an increasing attractive option for many gardens, both as a revenue source and to further gardens’ wider mission in society. But such moves are not without their drawbacks.
BGCI secretary general Sara Oldfield says: “All gardens have to balance a range of priorities such as visitor numbers, their scientific purpose and their historical and cultural role. It’s good that people see them as fun places to visit, though some traditionalists prefer to emphasise the scientific role.”
PlantNetwork’s conference in May will be given over to the theme of “striking a balance” when putting on events in gardens.
The National Trust has also increased the number of events it hosts — due, says Calnan to public demand. “There’s a whole range, from the purely entertainment — pop concerts, fireworks — to smaller-scale events that interpret the property to the public, though we’re tending towards more of the latter,” he says. “Big events haven’t -always turned out as profitable as you might think. It’s a risky business, especially with the weather. They can be damaging as well as bringing revenue, and staff are diverted from doing other work. But you do get in people who wouldn’t otherwise visit, and some even join up there and then.”
The trust has produced a toolkit for properties considering hosting events, helping them to assess likely profitability, potential damage and resource commitment, allowing them to decide whether such a move is worthwhile or not.
For many gardens, education provides another means of broadening appeal. The National Trust’s From Plot to Plate scheme has encouraged visitors to see the links between growing plants in the gardens and the foods they subsequently become — including those served in the sites’ restaurants. A pilot project at Knightshayes Court brings local schoolchildren in twice a year to sow and later to harvest and cook crops in the estate’s gardens. The trust has also taken its education remit wider — not without controversy — to educate the public on peat use and climate change.
Education also provides the RHS with a way of engaging with the public. Director of science and learning Simon Thornton-Wood says: “We’ve had enormous demands placed on us to inform, inspire and -educate the public, so much of what we’ve done is demand-driven. Schools, for example, expect the RHS will advise them on their gardens and that they can use Wisley as a resource. Gaps have arisen in that provision, which we are now addressing.”
He describes RHS Garden Wisley’s Bicentennial Glasshouse, due to be completed in June, as “a physical demonstration of this commitment”.
Already the RHS has more than 4,000 schools in its membership scheme, a number Thornton-Wood expects to grow. “We don’t wait on schools to knock on our door. We ask ourselves, ‘which are the ones that aren’t benefiting?’”
Meanwhile, the Flourish programme currently being piloted in Yorkshire and on the south coast aims to make the connection in young people’s minds between growing and healthy eating. Raising the profile of plants in this way will both increase young people’s awareness of environmental and health issues and stimulate more to consider working with plants in the future, he believes.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people on our doorstep who don’t see our gardens as a day trip. Yet our surveys show that they find our message attractive. We need to make the connection for them with what we have to offer.”
Oxford Botanic Garden curator Louise Allen says: “Marketing the gardens and putting on events fit in with the educational element. We put on a summer picnic season to attract local families who aren’t regular visitors. It’s a chance to promote issues we feel people should take note of, like sustainability. Almost everybody on the staff is involved in education — from guided tours to primary school groups and education programmes.”
Key role of conservation
For both botanic and heritage gardens, attracting the public and fulfilling a wider social remit have to be balanced against their role as plant conservers.
RBG Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place already stores seeds of over 18,000 plants, in what Taylor describes as “the biggest natural history insurance scheme in the world”. The project will safeguard genetic diversity and feed replanting schemes as opportunities arise in future. He adds: “We aim to have 10 per cent of the world’s flora covered by 2010, but we have room for 40 to 50 per cent.”
While RBG Kew has been the driver and main funder of this, it required the co-operation of partner organisations in more than 40 countries around the world, who determine which plants should be prioritised as well as retaining their own seed collections.
Oldfield says: “UK botanic gardens are looking at their role in preserving British native flora — particularly those plants whose natural provenance is nearby.”
The Eden Project, for example, preserves the flora of south-west England, while Wakehurst Place contains a Site of Special Scientific Interest within it.
Likewise, Calnan describes the National Trust’s role in conservation as “immense”. He adds: “We have the largest collection of cultivated plants, a vast collection of wild plants and native heritage plants such as the Ankerwycke Yew in Berkshire that are over 1,000 years old.”
He adds that the trust could still do more. “The scale of what we do warrants more investment, but the trust has so many commitments to conserving other things.”
Historic and botanic gardens are also increasingly serving as role models for sustainability in their internal operations.
RBG Kew, for example, ensures that all vegetable matter arising on site is composted, augmented only by stable manure provided by the police.
And the Eden Project has put a strong emphasis on sourcing as much as possible of its material needs from local sources, while its catering offer relates directly to plants in its collection. Oldfield describes these efforts as “terrific”, but adds: “There’s plenty more scope for this.”
The Historic & Botanic Gardens Bursary Scheme, established by a group of sector bodies under English Heritage, is about to move up a gear, says scheme co-ordinator Fiona Dennis.
In September 2006, 13 trainees were taken on in 11 heritage and botanic gardens. The next intake, starting next week, will consist of 23 trainees, each working at separate sites.
“They become full employees, contracted for six months or a year, and do everything a normal gardener does as well as carrying out projects, plant idents, and keeping a diary,” Dennis says. “The -emphasis is on practical learning rather than exams.”
The scheme provides 50 per cent funding, amounting to around £5,500 per trainee, out of a total Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £721,000. Gardens are expected to match this, but may invest more.
“People have been very keen to join,” says Dennis. “These are not novices, they’re up-skilling, and are doing so at some of the finest gardens in the country.”
Twice-yearly seminars form part of the training programme. The first is scheduled to take place in York next month and will allow trainees to learn from each other’s experience on the programme.
At the end of the four-year bursary programme, “between 80 and 100 gardeners” will have passed though, Dennis says. “When the scheme eventually ends in 2010, we hope it will be so well established that it will attract other funding sources,” she adds.