A world of opportunities in green-space management

The green-space management sector offers a variety of different workplaces from historic gardens to professional football clubs, Rachel Anderson discovers

New Place: Pershore College graduate Christopher Cunningham (left) and apprentice Charlie Smith (right) in historic garden - image: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

A career in green-space management is "a way of life - a calling", according to Christopher Cunningham, who is currently managing the restoration of the gardens at William Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon family home, New Place. He adds: "It's an industry in which people tend to stay. I don't know many people who've left and most of my friends are in the industry."

From working in an historic garden like Cunningham to preparing the pitch for a Premier League football fixture, the opportunities in the green space sector are so varied that those who accept their calling are bound to find a role that suits them perfectly.

Career changers

Many are drawn to this sector a little later in life after trying other roles. Professional Gardeners' Guild (PGG) chairman Tony Arnold says: "There are a lot of career changers for a host of reasons - they've tried other jobs and decided gardening is for them.

While salaries might struggle to compete with other industries - Arnold says the average salary of a head gardener, a role that many people would be working towards, is between £28,000 and £33,000 a year - school leavers too are choosing a career in the sector as more recognise that working on a sports ground or in an historic garden can be really exciting.

Cunningham, a graduate of Pershore College, says: "People tend to get into horticulture later on but there are also lots of people like my apprentice Charlie Smith who are starting out at a young age." Smith (19) is studying a level 2 diploma in horticulture at Pershore, which he visits once every couple of months to complete his course.

As part of his 18-month apprenticeship Smith is helping to plant 4,500 Euonymous japonica for the restoration of the Tudor-style knot garden. He says: "I saw the apprenticeship advertised on the apprenticeship matching service, a governmental portal, and here I am. It's been great to work on something that people from all over the world are going to visit and enjoy."

Institute of Groundsmanship education manager Dan Prest agrees that young people are realising that it is quite fun to work on a pitch or a green. "I think the upturn has been fantastic over the last couple of years," he says. "There's a passion for it, there's an interest in it - be it aesthetics or playability issues. Not many people would link groundsmanship with horticulture unless you are fully in the know, but it's a great career to get into."

James Pashley, head of horticulture at Plumpton College in East Sussex, says: "We've always had a strong contingent of sports turf management students, especially greenkeeping because we seem to have a very good relationship with Sussex golf courses. The upshot is that we have perennial trainees - people who started out at level 2 are now training our students.

"With the trailblazer programme that's coming online we are looking at putting on specific training events so they are not coming in every week any more. It will be a case of: 'When does the employer want to send them?'"

He adds that groundsmanship also opens up career opportunities for youngsters who would like to be involved in sport but who are not necessarily good at playing it. "This is therefore an excellent avenue for them because they can engage with sport and be on the front line. You can be two seats away from the manager of a football team. That's how they are participating in it."

Routes into the sector

RHS horticultural courses manager Suzanne Moss says there are pathways that those who love gardening and being outdoors can take once they have answered their calling. "Try to get as much practical experience as you can, ideally in a professional environment, and keep an eye out for apprenticeships becoming available," she advises.

"A horticultural apprenticeship is a great starting point if you are straight from school or approaching the industry with no horticultural qualifications. Alternatively you could study horticulture at level 2 or 3, either at a college or by distance learning, and apply for one of the practical student or traineeship places, which are available at many good gardens throughout the country. Horticultural degrees are available at colleges around the country. Above all, keep gardening, keep working hard and you will achieve a rewarding career."

Land-based colleges throughout the country offer both level 2 (intermediate) and level 3 (advanced) qualifications and apprenticeships in horticulture, amenity horticulture, sports turf or greenkeeping and arboriculture. Organisations such as the RHS also offer their own apprenticeships.

Those students and apprentices who would like to further their education after gaining their initial qualification also have many options available to them. For instance, they could apply for a place on one of the many prestigious training schemes offered by the likes of the RHS, the PGG and famous gardens such as London's Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG), Kew.

Arnold explains that the PGG's traineeship continues to be very popular. "We have about 100 applicants a year and about 17 or 18 trainees at any one time. Most of our trainees would have done most of the academic training (level 2 or 3) by that point so what we tend to offer is three years of fairly intense hands-on practical training such as working in vegetable gardens and on bedding schemes at places such as Chatsworth House, Waddeston Manor, the Savill Garden and Buckingham Palace."

Meanwhile, the RHS School of Horticulture revised its programmes last year and had them accredited into recognised level 3 and level 4 diplomas in horticultural practice. Moss says: "The programmes were revised in 2015 to reflect the need of the modern horticulturist and the increasing diversity of skills required. It also means that the time and effort students invest in their work and study can now be used as entrance requirements for university or other courses.

"The core horticultural skills remain, alongside learning the communication and management skills often requested at varying levels of a career in horticulture. The level 3 programme covers interpretation, writing for journalism, presentation and collections management among other skills, and the level 4 programme builds these into management skills, including running a garden as a visitor attraction, biosecurity, budgeting and resourcing, and management of contemporary planting styles."

Young horticulturists can also go on to complete a foundation degree or a degree in horticulture. Douglas Coltart, programme team leader for horticulture and landscape at Scotland's SRUC, says it runs a higher national diploma and a degree in horticulture with plantsmanship in conjunction with RBG Edinburgh. Students learn the practical element of their course at the botanic garden. "They work in the gardens alongside gardeners and staff, as well as attending classes. It's a fantastic resource," he says.

Coltart points out that those who work and manage gardens and other kinds of green spaces require many different skills. "In horticulture you need so many skills to be successful and to make a living. You have to be more than just a one-trick pony. You have to be a well-rounded person and have great confidence, be it to develop skills or get information across to people. It's so important."

People skills required

Charlie Bancroft, a 32-year-old apprentice at Kew, adds that "people skills" are "probably the most required skill because you are rarely working on your own. As well as working alongside others you also have to problem solve and think, and know what your strengths and weaknesses are - and how they are best used in a team. You also have to be able to identify other people's strengths and weaknesses and have a willingness to learn."

Sarah Seery, head of horticulture for London's Capel Manor College, adds that a growth in need for people who can engage with local communities and encourage them to use their green spaces is one of the reasons why a new urban green-space management foundation degree is being launched later this year. "On top of the horticulture base, which will also focus on modern horticulture features such as green roofs and living walls, there will be a lot of teaching around community engagement - on how we can help communities utilise their green spaces, such as growing edible plants. It's exciting."

- For more information on careers and courses available in the green-space management and maintenance sector, visit www.growcareers.info. To search for apprenticeship schemes in your area, visit www.findapprenticeship.service.gov.uk.

Case Study - Apprenticeship scheme, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Trained dancer Charlie Bancroft (32) developed an interest in gardening while she was working in an office at RHS Harlow Carr in Yorkshire. "It was there that I got interested in gardening, so I asked to do a bit of volunteering and started doing my RHS level 2 theory qualifications. That's when I realised I wanted to do it for a living."

Bancroft is currently in the third year of her apprenticeship, although the Kew apprenticeships now run for just two years. The apprentices gain work experience in each of Kew's horticultural sections - namely the arboretum, gardens, horticultural services, glasshouses, nurseries and display horticulture.

"You get to work in different sections so I feel that I have had the chance to work the whole of the garden with all of the different horticulture teams, which has been amazing," says Bancroft.

Each apprentice is granted day release at a local horticultural college, where they study an RHS level 2 diploma in the principles and practices of horticulture.

Bancroft continues: "Doing an apprenticeship at Kew is a good way of continuing your development. I would like to gain experience at a different, smaller garden. But my ultimate goal is to return to Kew as a permanent member of staff."

Case study - Myerscough College apprentices

Amy Baxter

Myerscough College student Amy Baxter (21) from Liverpool is one of only a handful of female arboriculture apprentices in the UK. She began her apprenticeship in the autumn of 2014 and works for Amey as part of a team covering the maintenance of trees across the Liverpool area.

Baxter is working towards an apprenticeship in arboriculture (trees and timber) and is receiving training in the workplace as well as on technical days at Myerscough. "It's funny seeing the reaction of the public who really don't expect to see a young female high up in a tree with a chainsaw," she says.

"I love my job and am looking forward to a long career within the industry. I would recommend apprenticeships to other young people as a fantastic way to start a new career. You earn a wage and continue with your studies. For me it's a perfect combination."

Katie Croft

Katie Croft (19) from Irlam in Manchester has become one of the first women in the country to join the ground staff at a Premier League football club, defying the odds in such a male-dominated industry to secure her dream role with Manchester City FC.

Croft is on a 20-month intermediate apprenticeship in horticulture (sports turf) with Myerscough College in Preston, Lancashire, after being chosen from nearly 200 applicants for the coveted position. She is busily maintaining the playing surfaces across the club's facilities including the new City Football Academy complex.

"I had spent the last few years working in customer service at a local airport," says Croft. "For some time I had wanted a change and when I came across this opportunity I decided to apply.

"I enjoy being outdoors and doing jobs where I can see the result of my efforts. So far things are going really well and I am learning new skills almost every day. The new facilities are amazing and it's great to think that my work can play a small part in the development and success of the club."

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