Building on skills

Times may be tight in professional gardening, but that's all the more reason to get skilled up, says Gavin McEwan.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is taken as read in most professions. Indeed, it is a requirement for membership of many professional bodies. Yet few gardeners can say they follow a structured CPD programme, and those who do often do so on their own initiative.

This is not for want of opportunities to further professional knowledge and skills. At the advanced end, the RHS Master of Horticulture has been available for some time, but Kent's Hadlow College is believed to be the only land-based college currently offering the qualification.

The college has created a dedicated hub run by course leader Malcolm Withnall. Here, Master's students conduct plant identification, hear guest speakers and discuss (and even argue) with each other. "They run it - I'm just the facilitator," Withnall says.

He says of the Master's course: "It's a valuable component of CPD. It's equivalent to a degree, but I would rate it higher than that - it's the gold standard.

"It suits the careerist. If you started in gardening at the age of 20, by your late 20s or early 30s you have something unusual to put on your CV. But those later in their career may simply want a broader understanding of the subject, such as the science behind it."

The course consists of eight modules over three years. "It's an enormous challenge from the point of view of work, family and cost, and a lot of people have failed," Withnall says. "But what we do here could be extended to other parts of the country."

He says more could be done to make gardeners aware of such courses. "Few of the people who require the courses know what's available and that's partly down to the RHS, which could put more firepower behind them."

Hadlow's course is currently being studied by horticulturists from "a pot-pourri" of professional situations, he says. Having started only three years ago, it has just produced its first graduate, Sadie Marshall, a professional gardener with more than 12 years' experience.

"The course was a natural progression from the RHS General and Advanced Certificates," Marshall says. But she admits it was a challenge. "I continued working full-time, attending classes in the evenings, though I got days off work for exams. Fortunately, I have a very understanding partner."

Her employers, at a private garden in West Sussex, were also supportive, but she adds: "I'm not sure they realise what they get out of it."

On her personal development, Marshall says: "The course has built up my confidence in the management aspects of the job. I can still follow my instincts, but now I can give a reason why. It's also a way of keeping in touch with other professionals - as a gardener you can feel quite isolated. And it's an investment if I need to move on."

A minimum of three years' professional gardening experience is required for the course, which is explicitly geared towards management in horticulture, says RHS head of accreditation and qualifications Philip Windle. "It's ideal for someone looking to move into a management position, such as a head gardener at a large garden."

But other RHS qualifications also provide a means for gardeners to continue to develop their skills, he says. "The majority of people taking our qualifications would already be working in the industry."

Windle explains that the Level 2 Certificate is "a recognised entry-point into the industry, such as for people changing their career, but may also be taken by those already in (horticulture) to improve their theoretical knowledge". The Level 3 Diploma in Horticulture, he says, "starts to introduce management and business aspects, such as resource planning".

Being geared to current workers, all qualifications "are designed to be taken part-time", Windle says. He adds that in line with the Government's Qualifications and Credit Framework, "all vocational qualifications have to be broken down into units which you then build up into qualifications".

He adds: "We are in the process of doing this, which will make courses more accessible and flexible for learners, though they cover the same material."

He describes demand for courses as "steady", even with changes in government funding. "The colleges have shifted focus more towards the 14- to 19-year-old age group as that's now the Government's priority. They have to charge full cost for the adult courses, but the effect has not been significant - there's only been a small decline in demand for these courses."

For gardeners seeking a more quick-and-dirty way of boosting their management skills, the range of courses operated by the Historic & Botanic Gardens Bursary Scheme (HBGBS) may be the answer.

The English Heritage-backed scheme offers a five-day course endorsed by the Institute of Leadership & Management; a two-day course on team-building and problem management; and a single mentoring day. HBGBS coordinator Fiona Dennis says: "We identified a lack of management skills as a weakness in the sector, so we have put on management courses for the past few years. It's something that a lot of gardeners have no training in at all, and it's a good way for them to progress."

For candidates, she says: "There are few jobs around right now, which is all the more reason to improve your skills and experience, so you're ready when opportunities arise."

She adds: "Each employer has a different attitude when it comes to giving staff time off to train, and paying for it. But the enlightened owners will want their staff to be trained. For them, good-quality management saves on costs."

HBGBS also supports secondments and exchanges for gardeners lasting from a week to a month. "They are hugely flexible," says Dennis. "You may want to learn more about prairie planting or topiary, of which a garden has a specialist knowledge, or you may simply want to see how another garden works.

"It's also useful for the host garden - being asked questions can be stimulating. Many gardens are justly proud of their skills and happy to share them."

Professional Gardeners' Guild president John Humphris is enthusiastic about the HBGBS range of training. "We encourage our members to do this," he says. "Before HBGBS, there was very little formal training for professional gardeners."

He says the standard of gardeners' initial training is generally high. "But once you're out into a private garden, it's all a bit ad hoc. Yet often those who have good skills in practical horticulture find they need other skills once they reach the level of head gardener - they can find managing a team of gardeners a bit daunting. These courses help fill that gap.

"The means are there for them to do it and the courses are quite heavily subsidised, but take-up is not as good as it should be. The problem for gardeners is that they can't always get the time off - it depends on the willingness of employers, and that varies. Local authorities and charities tend more to think that training is important and something they should be doing."

As the country's largest employer of gardeners, with more than 450, the National Trust uses a mixture of internal and external courses for training. "Staff don't have to do them - it's for their own career development," says a National Trust representative. "But the more experience and skills they have, the better for us."

At RHS Wisley, one of the largest single sites for horticultural employment with close to 60 gardeners, curatorial administrator Stephen Colfer says: "We have annual and mid-term appraisals where staff can highlight what training they think they need, or where management sees a need. It comes from both sides."

- Additional reporting by Alex Carnegie TWO-WAY LEARNING EXPERIENCE

For Trewithen Gardens, a private estate in Cornwall, hosting a garden trainee is turning into a learning experience for both parties.

Before being recently accepted into the HBGBS scheme, the garden had no prior history of training. According to head gardener Gary Long: "It's been a learning curve, especially when it comes to man-management."

Having taken on trainee Ivor Benoy on a one-year placement, Long and his colleagues have "gone from being reactive to proactive", he says, as the need to provide a full training and work schedule has meant thinking and planning.

Long sees involvement in the scheme as "an entirely positive thing to do". He has found the enthusiasm and willingness to learn - of Benoy and the other local college students he trains - to be rewarding.

"It's not just cheap labour," he explains. "It's a way of giving something back by providing a better starting point for the next generation of gardeners."

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