There can be few careers that offer as many options as professional gardening. Those people who enjoy the outdoor life and like getting their hands dirty can choose from small private gardens and large country estates, public parks or botanic gardens. Gardeners also branch out into associated areas such as plant advisory services, education and research.
Gardening is leading the way in green thinking, tackling issues such as biodiversity and climate change, as well as maintaining town and country landscapes. It's small wonder that job satisfaction levels are so high that most workers stay in the profession for life.
What's on offer
A traditional route into the profession is through a council parks department, in which many people have developed life-long careers, even rising to become managers of a city's stock of parks.
After many years of under-investment there's a shortage of skilled local authority gardeners, and many councils, along with London's Royal Parks, have revived parks apprenticeship schemes (see p9).
Martin Walker, manager at Leeds City Council's Parks and Countryside Service, says: "My route into horticulture as an apprentice involved spending a year in four different disciplines: garden maintenance; nursery practice; forestry; garden construction and golf course maintenance. For me there is no better profession if you have a creative mind and a love of plants."
Leeds City Council takes on a couple of apprentices each year to work across the city's green spaces, which include Roundhay Park, one of the largest city parks in Europe at nearly 300ha. Local authority work will usually involve looking after sports playing surfaces and playgrounds as well as the plants in parks and gardens.
Other major employers of gardeners are the National Trust and National Trust for Scotland, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), and botanic gardens such as the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and Edinburgh. These places offer outstanding opportunities to work in gardens that are open to the public, but that also have major roles in plant research and conservation.
Tim Hughes of RHS Garden Wisley says: "Working at the RHS means you're open to the great advantages of all aspects of what the RHS does, including our advisory teams and specialist scientific teams."
At the National Trust, there's an established career structure from assistant gardener through to head gardener, sometimes progressing to gardens adviser or curator. Alison Pringle became one of the Trust's careership students after changing from her previous job as a fine artist. Nearly 20 years later she's head gardener at Cragside, the National Trust's 15ha garden in Northumberland. She says: "On a good day it's the best job in the world, although after a tough winter like the one we've just had you'd struggle to say that. But I'd certainly rather be doing this than sitting in an office block."
Initiatives such as the Diploma in Environment and Land-based Studies are steering more young people into the profession, and the number of horticultural apprenticeships is rising steadily.
At the same time, the National Trust estimates that about three-quarters of its new gardeners have had a different career first, bringing other skills such as management, science, and design to the profession. This means that people entering horticulture range from school leavers to highly qualified graduates, with ages from 16 to the mid-30s.
There are three main entry-level qualifications. The BTEC, which includes work placements, is ideal for 16- to 18-year-olds with four GCSEs at grade C or above. The one-year National Certificate of Horticulture is part of the BTEC but it can also be taken separately; staying for a second year leads to the level 3 National Diploma.
The RHS Level 2 and level 3 Advanced Certificates are also recognised by employers, and are good options for those people who cannot study full time.
"Level 2 qualifications are more practically based," says Tom Cole of Writtle College in Essex. "Level 3 is about applying knowledge; if you do both it makes you more saleable in the long term."
Courses and apprenticeships are fully funded for 16- to 19-year-olds, but course funding for 19-plus age groups is being cut. Work-based study schemes are often paid for by employers, and there is help available from organisations such as the Prince's Trust for 19- to 30-years-olds. Career changers must generally expect to fund their study themselves.
Work-based Certificates and Diplomas (NVQs) are usually offered to people in work-place training such as apprenticeships with landscaping firms or parks departments.
Apprentices attend college one day a week, and learn skills such as health and safety training and use of pesticides. The three-year apprentice scheme run by the Royal Parks in London, which looks after seven parks including Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, accepts older candidates.
The three-year National Trust careership scheme includes 10 weeks of training each year, leading to the BTEC and subsequently the Work-based Diploma (NVQ) Level 3. Competition for places is fierce, however, with thousands of applicants for the 12 places on offer.
There are also many informal ways into gaining a job as a professional gardener. The Royal Botanic Gardens at both Kew and Edinburgh offer unpaid internships, and volunteering can also can lead to work.
Raoul Curtis-Machin, gardens and parks adviser for the National Trust says: "Volunteers might work for a summer or for a year, and if the property decides it can fund training they can become a paid gardener. One volunteer gardener at Nunnington Hall in North Yorkshire is now employed full-time."
Once you have your basic qualifications you can take your career forward with further education to degree level, or a diploma course.
There are two main paid-for diploma courses, both highly regarded. Gardeners with at least two years' experience can apply for the elite three-year Kew Diploma, described as "the world's foremost qualification in botanical horticulture". There's training in horticulture, botany and technical subjects, and students gain practical experience as a member of staff at Kew. There is a great deal of competition for places but Kew students go on to some of the highest-level positions in horticulture.
Another prestigious course is the two-year Wisley Diploma in Practical Horticulture, which offers students the chance to work as a member of staff at RHS Garden Wisley while studying.
Hughes explains: "We operate three-month rotations through eight distinct horticultural sections including propagation, fruit cultivation, rock and alpine gardening. Mainly the students stay in the amenity sector, and many will go on to be curators and head gardeners around the world."
For students who want to specialise in heritage and garden history, the Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme offers training placements in relevant gardens. Working in other gardens on secondment is another excellent way to expand experience: the Professional Gardeners' Guild (PGG) offers a traineeship with paid secondments in three gardens over three years.
Tony Arnold, chair of the PGG, explains: "Students keep a diary for each year and at the end of the three years it's assessed by an independent assessor. It provides a good, solid, practical training in the hands-on skills you need."
Salaried internships are also offered by the Garden Museum in London and English Heritage, which offers one candidate the chance to gain experience in the conservation, management and presentation of historic parks and gardens through a year-long internship with its gardens and landscape team.
Junior horticulturist at a botanic garden: £12,500-£18,000
Assistant gardener: £14-£18,000 pa
Private estate gardener: £18-£24,000 pa
Senior parks department gardener: £20-£25,000 pa
Self-employed gardener: £20-£28,000 pa
Senior horticulturist at a botanic garden: £20-£28,000 pa
Head gardener: £23-£35,000 pa
Garden adviser and curator: £45-£50,000 pa
Qualifications to Consider
Diploma in Environment and Land-based Studies: Offered in partnership between schools, colleges and employers - which have included both heritage gardens and council parks departments. This new qualification for 14- to 19-year-olds will become fully available across England in 2013.
NVQ (in Scotland, SVQ) Levels 1 to 3: These work-based qualifications have a taught element. Most parks apprenticeship schemes lead to NVQ Level 2.
BTEC National Award, National Certificate and National Diploma in Horticulture: Level 3 qualifications that are considered equivalent to one, two and three A-Levels respectively.
BTEC Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma in Horticulture: More advanced qualifications, aimed at people who have some experience and want to move to more senior positions.
Qualifications from horticultural bodies: Government-backed training within the National Qualifications Framework, individual horticulture bodies offer their own highly regarded qualifications. These include: the National Trust for Scotland's Craftsman Gardener Award; the RHS Certificate, Advanced Certificate and Diploma in Horticulture; and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew's three-year Kew Diploma.