Careers in professional gardening

Want to be a professional gardener? Then you will need plenty of passion, practical experience and a formal qualification, writes Rachel Anderson.

Gardening apprenticeship: combines practical experience along with part-time study
Gardening apprenticeship: combines practical experience along with part-time study

A career in professional gardening can lead you to work in some of the finest gardens, both in Britain and across the globe.

RHS Garden Wisley horticultural courses manager Tim Hughes is a prime example of this. "I have been working in horticulture for 33 years and have been lucky to have worked in some amazing locations," he says.

"I have the ability to work all over the world and I love the diversity in the range of opportunities that the industry has to offer for me - and I have met the nicest people in the horticulture industry."

The job clearly has its glamorous side - gardeners can work in botanic gardens, heritage gardens or major private estates - and there are jobs available for those entering the profession for the first time thanks to the increasing popularity of garden tourism and many gardeners reaching retirement age.

There is, however, a far less glamorous side to the job that only those with a passion for plants can willingly endure. It is, of course, the weather, and in particular the harsh winter conditions that gardeners must brave when carrying out their day-to-day tasks - planting, pruning, weeding, mowing and mulching - so that gardens can look their best when spring arrives.

Neil Miller, head gardener of the award-winning Hever Castle & Gardens in Kent, says: "In our business you are going to love it or hate it. It's not everyone's cup of tea, so you have to have a passion for it.

"If you do have green fingers and soil in your blood, I cannot think of a better vocation. There are no negative people working here because they want to be here."

Many gardeners advise getting some work experience first if you are thinking of entering the industry. This way, you can find out whether or not you have the prerequisite passion, while at the same time gaining some of the essential, practical skills that employers are looking for in a job candidate.

Leigh Morris, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) head of education and Institute of Horticulture (IoH) chairman, says: "My top tip would be to get experience. Two years in college does not necessarily make people employable. You need to get experience any way you can - even by volunteering."

After experience comes study

Once experience has been gained, the next step is to complete a course that gives you a foundation in horticulture, such as a level 1 certificate in practical horticulture skills.

Hughes says: "Employers are looking for two things: practical know-how and (theoretical) knowledge about why they (the employees) are undertaking a task. So this is your aim, to get those two.

"Contact your local land-based college and see what horticultural courses they offer. My advice is not to specialise from the start but get a good, broad foundation first. Choose a course that delivers a range of subjects. For example, my old OND (Ordinary National Diploma) covered amenity horticulture, production horticulture, sports turf, arboriculture, science, horticultural management, ecology and conservation."

Professional gardeners agree that getting onto an apprenticeship scheme is an ideal way of combining practical experience with basic theoretical training. These allow you to earn a basic wage working as a gardener while studying part-time at college and, according to Hughes, are "a great way to get a foot on the ladder".

A drive for more apprenticeships is one of the biggest changes Morris has seen in the profession in recent years. "I believe that we are training for our own success," he maintains. "Our demographic of staff ages is getting higher, so we want to help young people in particular. We need to progress those young people into our own posts.

"There's going to be some good jobs available in the near future in professional gardening with groups such as the National Trust, English Heritage and National Trust for Scotland."

For this reason, RBGE started a two-year apprenticeship scheme two years ago. Cameron Tasker, 17, whose passion for gardening began when he was eight years old while helping his grandfather on his allotment, is one of RBGE's new apprentices. He has been gaining practical horticultural experience in several different garden areas - alpine, display and research glasshouses, herbaceous, turf and nursery.

At the same time, Tasker has been attending Oatridge College in West Lothian one day a week to study towards an SVQ (Scottish Vocational Qualification) level 2 in amenity horticulture.

"It (the apprenticeship) has taught me everything," he says. "Take pruning, for example. I did not know about it before I started the apprenticeship. I would just try to prune plants in the garden and hope for the best. But now I enjoy working with nursery stock - growing things on. I didn't know how to do anything like that before."

His college work has included plant identification, tree planting, learning how to grow cuttings, a hard landscaping and machinery module, a health and safety unit and designing a summer bedding scheme.

When Tasker finishes his apprenticeship at the end of June, he hopes to study for a Scottish Higher National Diploma in horticulture and may, eventually, take a degree in horticulture.

Tasker's experience demonstrates how apprenticeships - or, alternatively, gaining both work experience in a garden and a basic horticulture qualification - can lead to further opportunities. Young gardeners can also apply for a bursary scheme or a traineeship where, like an apprenticeship, they can get paid to learn new skills.

Paid work experience

The RHS Wisley Diploma in Practical Horticulture is a two-year course of paid work experience with academic studies led by Tim Hughes. The Professional Gardeners Guild has a three-year traineeship, where trainees spend a year at a time in a famous garden - such as Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, or Waddesdon Manor in Bucking-hamshire. There is also the National Trust heritage gardening certificate or the English Heritage Historic & Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme (HBGBS) to consider.

English Heritage head of gardens John Watkins says: "The HBGBS is a level 2, year-long bursary scheme designed to provide first-level support in a good-quality workplace. We get a lot of applications. We choose those who are the most enthusiastic and who will most benefit from the scheme and from the industry."

He agrees with Morris that there is a skills shortage. "We desperately need more people in the historic and botanic gardens sector," says Watkins. "Up until 20 years ago, parks used to be the major producer of people getting into horticulture, but with more recent cutbacks it's very difficult for councils to deliver the training targets that are required. We have got to do something about this."

Watkins reveals that English Heritage has applied for lottery funding for a new two-year scheme where people will be able to work towards an RHS level 3 diploma. "If we get the funding we need, we should be producing the kind of people the industry needs," he adds.

Once gardeners have found employment in a garden, they can then start to find their niche. Morris says: "There are different ways to progress, but one of the most important things to do is to join a professional body like the RHS or the IoH and network. Meet new people and, if a door opens, walk through it."

Fast track

Gardener career path - You will need natural green fingers and a love of plants. 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, 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.

For more information, see

Advice from a head gardener

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into the professional gardening sector?

Hever Castle & Gardens head gardener Neil Miller says: "Work experience or volunteering is the first step into the profession. Most large gardens would be delighted to take on a volunteer. It gives people that foot in the door and, if the employer is considering hiring them, it gives them a feel for what the person is like.

"I always look at a new starter CV to see if they have done any work experience. I always find it's easier if they have work experience or just a bit of volunteering Then it's about taking up a level 1 qualification in horticulture."

What advice would you give to someone already working in the professional gardening sector who wants to take the next step up - for instance, becoming a head gardener?

"Keep going to college - that always leads to more senior jobs - and there are always short courses people can do as well - a pesticides application (PA1) spraying course, for example.

"Networking also works well once people come into the horticulture industry. When you get into the trade, you tend to find your own niche - and there are so many contacts out there who can help you to focus on that. Horticulture is a small family, but it's a big family."

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