Interview - Leigh Morris, president-elect, Institute of Horticulture

The after-dinner speaker at this year's Institute of Horticulture conference was its new president-elect Leigh Morris who, following the theme of the conference, talked about the challenges of tempting young people into the profession. Morris, a globe-trotting head of education at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, must now tackle those challenges.

Leigh Morris, president-elect, Institute of Horticulture - image: HW
Leigh Morris, president-elect, Institute of Horticulture - image: HW

Q: What will your priorities be in your new role?

A: I'd like to target younger people in a really proactive way. We need to take the first step in making contact and hook up with students on their visits to gardens.

I'd also like us to identify somebody at every college and give them membership. In return, they would promote us - put up posters, run quizzes, that sort of thing. We'll give them such a good student package that it will be a no-brainer for them to join. The word has to spread. To a few 16-year-olds, the institute may come across as a little old-fashioned, so I think that some of our members and branches could, perhaps, be a little more proactive.

Q: How will you get more young people involved?

A: Take the Grow initiative, of which I chair the steering group. The trouble is that not many people in horticulture have embraced it and I want the website to be the best portal for people to find out about arboriculture or growing careers or getting the facts and visuals on work in Lao. We also need to start a dialogue on Twitter - my Twitter link is @MorrisLeigh and Grow is @GrowCareers.

At Edinburgh, we recently created a new certificate in horticulture and have set up a Facebook page. I asked people to add it as a friend and all of the 16-year-old apprentices took me up on it.

They all have smartphones now and I want to get people revved up. We have to engage with young people in a more contemporary way and look at how we communicate and brand ourselves so that we are positive and inspiring.

Q: You have travelled extensively. Tell us about some of your projects?

A: I'm helping with a Charles Darwin Foundation bid for £250,000 to develop a botanic garden in northern Lao that could be used to link schools and villages.

I've also helped with a botanic garden for the Sultan of Oman with five biomes.

A few years ago I went to Ethiopia with the VSO to help struggling flower farmers and later this month I'm off to Haiti to help create a post-earthquake national botanic garden.

Q: Any lessons to be learned from your trips abroad?

A: Gardeners in many countries have a real status and are looked up to as people with high-level skills. In Japan, for example, they are held in very high esteem. When I was 17, I was embarrassed to say what I did for a living. But what we do is a profession, just like in Japan, and we shouldn't be dissed.

Q: Isn't it all down to poor pay though? Doesn't everyone want money?

A: Not at all. I gave a talk recently at a very posh school, where all the girls are being streamed to be lawyers and doctors. Some of them came up to me afterwards and said that they wanted to work outdoors and help the environment. They'll certainly do that in horticulture, helping to tackle climate change, deforestation, food shortages and problems caused by dwindling oil resources.

Ours is, and always will be, a really important job. The problem is getting the message to parents, teachers and careers officers who still think that horticulture is for non-academic kids. So jobs for propagators are hard to fill, yet hundreds will apply to be an administrative assistant, which I think some will feel could be dullish by comparison. There are more ways than money to motivate and bring youngsters on board. I fit into the people-not-totally-motivated-by-money category and so are those I really admire.

Q: Who would you list among your heroes?

A: Askham Bryan tutor Tony Thompson, Frank Hardy and Colin Perkins at Pershore, Bob Mackey at the Welsh College of Horticulture, Phil Lusby at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Ian Nelson, who helped me when I was a 16-year-old youth trainee at Johnsons of Whixley. None of them accepted apathy and each one had horticulture coursing through them like the words through a stick of rock.

I admired the late football manager Brian Clough, who said something along the lines of: "Give me no epitaphs or profound history, but say I contributed." It's contributing that matters.

1983-87: Commercial nursery worker, Johnsons of Whixley
1988-89: Sandwich student, Challis of York (Nurseries)
1990-98: Nursery manager, Avonbank Nurseries
1998-2004: Head of horticulture, Welsh College of Horticulture
2004 to date: Head of education, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

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