Skills for the modern age

Teamwork, public engagement and social media are among the modern skills needed by professional gardeners on top of core knowledge, says Jack Shamash.

Hampstead Heath: among sites tended by City of London Corporation gardeners - image:
Hampstead Heath: among sites tended by City of London Corporation gardeners - image:

Professional gardeners are no longer expected solely to deal with the needs of plants. They also have to show that they can work as part of a team, engage with the public, get to grips with computers, deal with finance and be a powerful force on social media. A skill set designed to meet the challenges of the modern age that includes professional gardeners working in stately homes, private estates and hotels as well as those employed by botanic and historic gardens and in public parks.

There are good career prospects within the sector. But employers are increasingly looking for a broad range of skills. Sue Ireland is director of open spaces at the City of London Corporation, which runs Epping Forest, Hampstead Health, Highgate Woods, seven commons in south London and 200 city gardens or pocket parks. She maintains that old skills are still vital.

"We were talking about this a couple of days ago and one of my senior managers pointed out that to be a gardener you need a strong back - you've always needed a strong back," she says. "But now we expect our gardeners to take ownership of their jobs. The more skills you can learn, the better. Life is about solving problems and you need to show your abilities."

Personal qualities

When it comes to getting a job, top of the list of requirements is the right mindset. Gardening consultant and writer Alan Sargent insists that attitude is vital: "Most employers taking on junior gardeners are not looking for experts," he says. "They are far more interested in personal presentation - the way you talk to people - as well as basic things such as punctuality, reliability and honesty. The gardening skills can be taught, but these personal qualities are fundamental."

School-leavers wanting to go into the industry need to show commitment. One of the best ways to do this is to work as volunteer at a local park or stately home. Kate Nicoll is the National Trust's national specialist for garden training. "We get a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds applying to work with us. We want to see that they know what they are letting themselves in for," she says. "We like people who have done work in the school holidays or who have volunteered at a park or the garden, or have some kind of professional experience."

She recommends that gardeners build up a portfolio with photos and diagrams of work they have done. Fiona Dennis, who co-ordinates the Historic & Botanic Gardens Training Programme (HBGTP) is even more fervent. "Practical experience is gold dust," she says. "For beginners, a couple of references will really give you a boost."

Wider skills base

A thirst for plant knowledge is still important but not everything. According to Sargent, gardeners are expected to have wider skills. "I was recently called on to help at one school where they couldn't retain staff. They didn't know how to recruit the right people. It's not just about plants. We needed people who could work as a team and understand the needs of the school, the parents and the pupils."

He stresses that basic skills are vital. It is much easier to find work if you have the various tickets, enabling you to handle pesticides or operate a range of machinery. "It's particularly important to have pesticide application tickets (PA1, PA2 and PA6). It's not so important to have chainsaw skills - although seen as a bit glamorous, chainsaws are not often needed," he adds. Royal Botanic Garden (RBG) Edinburgh says employees should try to gain experience in the use of rotivators or lawnmowers.

Formal design skills, similarly, are not required by most employers. Sargent recommends prospective gardeners should get an RHS level 1 diploma because this will give a grounding in plant identification.

David Knott, Living Collections curator at RBG Edinburgh, takes on two apprentice school-leavers every year. "We primarily look for an enthusiasm for horticulture and gardening. But it also helps if they've got some GCSEs. We also look for ICT, literacy and communication skills, but they must be willing to learn," he says.

Apprentices normally progress to SVQ2 in amenity horticulture or landscaping, usually taught by day-release. They are then encouraged to do HNDs or BSc degrees. "We try to turn out skilled workers who are immediately employable elsewhere in the industry," says Knott.

Recognised qualification

Sheila Das, garden manager at RHS Wisley, says gardeners should get a recognised qualification. She particularly recommends diploma courses such as those offered by Kew or the RHS as well as the HBGTP diploma in botanic gardening.

For anyone wanting to get ahead, the right kind of apprenticeship offers a great grounding. The HBGTP has 33 apprentices who do much of their training in Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. Dennis points out that 98 per cent of the trainees go on to work in historic gardens or go into higher education.

Flexibility is vital, she adds. "One day you might be running an event for 15,000 people and the next day you'll be laying out an herbaceous border. Anyone with ambition should keep their eyes open and have a clear idea what they want to do during their career."

Das also stresses the need for versatility. "The most successful gardeners enjoy the range of intellectual work. At many historic homes, managers expect gardeners to know about the heritage, historic styles of planting and local history as well as the science of the plants. People who are only interested in plants tend to struggle."

Professional gardeners have to use a surprising range of skills. In many organisations, gardeners will be expected to control their own budget and even to obtain some sources of funding. "Especially in smaller gardens, they may have to get funding from individuals or local firms or grants from Government agencies or the Heritage Lottery Fund," says Dennis. She adds that Chatsworth House won best in show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show last year after the gardeners secured local funding for their display.

Social media is increasingly important. "Most head gardeners will have a blog. Most will promote their gardens and may put videos on YouTube," says Dennis, while Das calls social media such as Twitter and Facebook "fundamental" for gardens and other public attractions. Some horticultural organisations even provide a limited amount of social media training.

Meanwhile, with many parks and stately homes relying on volunteers, it is often the gardening staff who have to direct them, ensure that they are usefully employed and see that they come to no harm. "Volunteers are a double-edged sword," says Sargent. "They have to be monitored closely." Senior gardeners will also be responsible for staff and the public so they may need to know the basics of health and safety and employment law.

Managerial skills

Many gardeners work for stately homes or hotels. They may have to work closely with the wider organisation, providing food, cut flowers and helping to organise outdoor events or the erecting of marquees. All of this requires tact and managerial skills.

Professional gardeners should also join trade organisations and specialist groups. This will enable them to build their knowledge, demonstrate their enthusiasm and network effectively. "Joining the Gardeners Guild, the Professional Gardeners Guild or the Chartered Institute of Horticulture will help you up the career ladder," says Sargent.

Nicoll points out that she is a member of the Walled Kitchen Garden Network. "It has given me experience and taught me about wall fruit and the old methods of producing vegetables. It even offers some external training opportunities," she says.

According to industry experts, the most important thing is to make yourself useful - acquire a wide range of skills so that you are a genuine asset to any employer. By doing this you will give yourself the best chance to advance your career. "You have to understand what you can add to the job," says Ireland. "The more you can help solve problems, the more you will be valued and given opportunities."

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