Heritage and Conservation - Be a garden guardian

Competition is fierce for jobs in historic gardens but trainee programmes help candidates gain vital experience, reports Bethan Norris.

Maintenance: gardening roles at historic visitor attractions across the country can range from general estate upkeep to planting and recording collections - image; HW
Maintenance: gardening roles at historic visitor attractions across the country can range from general estate upkeep to planting and recording collections - image; HW

Gardeners wanting to work in the heritage and conservation sector can choose from a great many visitor attractions around the country, such as those managed by English Heritage or National Trust, or a range of private gardens and estates.

Day-to-day activities could include maintenance of a restored Victorian kitchen garden, or extend to a one-off garden restoration project enabled by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

What's on offer?

Entry-level positions include junior gardener or nurseryman - responsible for planting and potting on heritage varieties of plants - while top-level jobs can range from head gardener to environmental education officer or even garden historian.

Head gardeners may be required to monitor and record plant collections as well as designing and planting new areas in keeping with the history of the original garden.

Garden historians may come to the sector through a background of horticulture or an interest and qualifications in history. Their role is to research the history of gardens and ensure that this is communicated to the general public. The National Trust, National Trust for Scotland, English Heritage and Historic Scotland employ historians to maintain and develop their gardens of national significance, although they can also work on a freelance basis for private employers.

Opportunities for gardeners in this sector could soon be on the increase as the HLF has recently pledged £7.3m to support a wide range of specialist skills and training opportunities. Some £5m of this is being used to set up a Skills for the Future programme, which will offer work-based training in the skills needed to look after buildings, landscapes, habitats, species and museum collections.

Generally, job opportunities in heritage and conservation tend to be dotted around the country so applicants may need to be flexible about where they live and work. Some jobs may include free accommodation, although these tend to be for the higher-level positions. As gardening tends to be a low-paid profession, those in junior roles need to have a great love of their job rather than be interested in the financial rewards.

What are employers looking for?

Competition can be fierce for jobs at prestigious heritage gardens. Novices wanting to move into this sector should therefore consider gaining basic horticultural qualifications first and then apply to be taken on as a junior gardener by one of the major employers in order to receive on-the-job training.

There are also a number of traineeship programmes available through English Heritage's Heritage and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme (HBGBS) and the Professional Gardeners' Guild.

The HBGBS enables gardeners to increase their skills in areas such as propagation for historic gardens, record keeping for plant collections, management of veteran trees and restoration of garden features.

Gardeners wanting to improve their skills in this area can apply for year-long placements at famous gardens such as Chatsworth, Chelsea Physic Garden, Great Dixter, Sandringham and Trentham. They are paid at least the minimum wage and receive a HBGBS certificate to show they have achieved one year's practical experience.

But according to HBGBS administrator Fiona Dennis, this September more than 130 applicants will be competing for 19 trainee placements offered - double the number who applied last year. To stand out from the crowd, applicants should consider gaining experience in this area first, either through voluntary work or by gaining a basic horticultural qualification. Once on the programme however, the opportunities are numerous, with past students having gone on to regular work at their host gardens and elsewhere.

Employers in this sector are looking for commitment to their particular area of horticulture and an extensive period of voluntary work is usually expected. Voluntary placements in historic gardens can be found through the National Trust, English Heritage and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

How do I move on?

Apart from gaining a general horticultural qualification, such as the RHS Level 2 Certificate or a City and Guilds diploma, Reaseheath College in Cheshire has just introduced a foundation degree in historic garden restoration and management which requires students to study for two and a half days a week full-time or one day a week for two and a half years.

The entry requirement is 140 UCAS points or more, or a GNVQ/NVQ level 3 in a relevant subject, or BTEC National Diploma (merit) in a relevant subject or Access to HE Diploma. For over 21s, work experience rather than formal qualifications will be considered.

However, specific training in heritage and conservation horticulture is usually provided through on-the-job training rather than at colleges. The traineeship programme offered by the Professional Gardeners Guild prefers applicants to have some form of horticultural background but the guild's chairman Tony Arnold says this is not always necessary. "We provide three years of quite intense hands-on practical training as opposed to academic-type training," he says.

Successful applicants spend a year at each of three different gardens. These could be botanic and historic gardens such as Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, Ashridge in Hertfordshire, the Garden House in Devon or Harewood House and York Gate in Leeds.

"Most of the people we deal with are looking specifically for a career in historic gardens as opposed to parks departments and commercial horticulture," says Arnold. "There are some career changers and some coming out of college who haven't found it easy to find a job without practical back-up."

For those starting off in a junior role, career progression is usually achieved through gaining experience within a heritage garden setting and then applying for jobs higher up the ladder. Additional horticultural qualifications may be acquired through day release programmes, which can be advantageous in such a competitive industry, but employers generally value experience over formal qualifications.

Career changers can also undertake a traineeship while also working part time in another job. The Women's Farm & Garden Association runs the Women Returners to Amenity Gardening Scheme that sees them working in a garden two days a week in exchange for practical instruction.

Administrator Jackie Chandler says: "The year is designed for career changers or those looking for more experience but is suitable for anyone aged above 16. The current oldest participant is aged 64. They receive a small training allowance and work at estates and public gardens, including Hampton Court Palace."

How much will I be paid?

Gardeners working in heritage gardens are not likely to be well paid. Salaries start at around £12,000, although this may sometimes include added benefits such as accommodation. Hours may also be long at certain times of the year, for instance when planting spring bedding, but gardeners are expected to regard this as part of the job.

Head gardeners at prestigious gardens can earn up to £40,000 a year, although such figures are found more in the private sector. In 2011, the National Trust is advertising positions for gardeners at £16,000 and head gardeners at up to £26,000.



Level 2 Certificate in Gardening: WmSl YkSy

Level 4 HNC/HND in Professional Gardening: WmMm

Kew Apprenticeship/Traineeship/Diploma in Horticulture: LdKw

Certificate in Practical Horticulture: ScRb SeWi

Wisley Diploma in Practical Horticulture: SeWi

HND/BSc (Hons) in Horticulture with Plantsmanship: ScRb ScSa


Matt is one of the first intake of four apprentices to Wrest Park, which owner English Heritage has vowed to restore to its former glory after decades of neglect.

The apprenticeships are key to its 20-year plan for the 380ha Bedfordshire estate, which it describes as one of the most magnificent yet least well-known gardens in England, and have been made possible by a £1.14m award from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Matt is a former engineer and explains: "I had been working with a firm in Kent, but with the downturn I had more time on my hands, which I spent gardening.

"That gave me the idea to retrain in horticulture. I wanted to do work-based training but most apprenticeships only receive government funding if you're under 25, and I was 24 then. Being lottery funded, this wasn't restrictive in that way."

His two-year placement started last September, and requires him to spend one day a week at nearby Shuttleworth College, where he is studying towards a RHS Level 2 Certificate.

"The work and study go together well as they wanted us to have an understanding of the plant science too," says Matt. "After this I wouldn't mind furthering my knowledge, maybe at a botanic garden, and years down the line I'd like to have my own garden design practice. But I want to gain a sound basis of knowledge and experience first."

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