Thursday, 11 April 2013

Do youngsters have what it takes to be Gardeners?

There was a very interesting response to my last post, in which I suggested that there was not much point encouraging youngsters to look for a career in horticulture when there are so few jobs, and at such low wages.

London Gardener (sorry,  you didn't give a name) made the extremely valid point that some spheres of life - classical music and gardening being mentioned - were interests that we develop as we mature.

Oh, I so agree!

Any "young people" out there will no doubt be throwing their mobile phones at the screen (tut! showing my age here, they will of course be reading this on their mobile phones - no doubt while studying, updating their FaceBleurk status, tweeting, and/or pretending to be at work at the same time. Talking of which, *warning! digression!* I was watching the local bin men, emptying wheelie bins on a high street earlier this week, and one of them was talking on his mobile phone throughout the entire operation. Quite apart from the fact that he was running along a main road, in amongst the traffic, with the phone glued to his ear, doing his share - more or less - of hauling the wheelie bins around, but using just one hand - and this includes operating the buttons on the back of the truck: quite apart from the many Health and Safety implications, am I the only one that considers this to be stealing from your employer? He was paid to be at work, working, not yapping on a personal call. I know it was a personal call because I was working in a front garden, and he was shouting very loudly into the phone. I realise I am out of touch with modern life, but in my opinion, this is STEALING from your employer and you should not do it. Yes, I likewise feel (very strongly) that txting, tweeting and updating your social network during work hours is STEALING from your employer. Personally, I normally don't answer my phone when I am working, I let it go to voicemail, and check them in my own time.  Pernickety of me? Maybe, but someone is paying me by the minute, as it were, to work: so if I stop to take a phone call, I am not working, and therefore they are paying me for nothing. In my opinion, this is STEALING and I won't do it.  All my current clients know this, and if they have cause to phone me during the day, (the only calls I am likely to answer) they generally start with "can you talk?" and they are always brief, even if I reassure them that I am not actually working at that moment. End of parenthesis.)

Where was I?

Oh yes, youngsters will be pouting and whining "you don't understand the youth of today, we can all do three things at once" and I will be standing firm (feeling as though I have a target painted on me) and saying that I strongly feel that most "young people" do not have the right work ethic to go into horticulture.


There are four types of horticultural work generally available:

1) Scientific: things like Plant pathologist (as per last post, the Forestry Commission, government funded, have "a small number" of them and you can bet they don't resign until they drop), GM analyst, breeding specialist: these sorts of jobs require degrees, are generally based indoors, and are few and far between.

2) Garden Designer: a few really good ones, who get thousands of pounds per job. Counterbalanced by hundreds and hundreds of middle-aged housewives who have taken a short course, probably on the internet or at evening classes, and who now think that they are Garden Designers. Doomed to fail once they run out of friends and family willing to pay them to "design" for them.

Then we get to the dirty-finger-nails nitty gritty:

3) Gardener on an estate or a Big House: what most people think of when they hear "professional gardener". Extremely low paid, can take decades to work your way up from Under-gardener to Head Gardener: any one Head Gardener will have a dozen or more underlings, and will not retire until forced to by ill health, thus reducing the chances of progression. Tends to wear out underlings.

4) (fanfare of trumpets) the joyous self-employed, like me. Working in a small number of private gardens, on a rather more domestic scale - most of my gardens are between a third of an acre and four acres. Although I should say that the four-acre one is slightly more than half water, ie very low maintenance.

Oh, and one or two oddments such as the Leisure industry: park rangers,  sports grounds maintenance, golf course groundsmen: that sort of thing. Specialising.

So, assuming our Young Person does not have a Speciality in mind, they will be attempting to start options 3 or 4.

Option 3, working in an estate: being completely inexperienced, they will be working as an under-under-gardener,  being strictly directed as to what to do, and most young people (terrible generalisation, I know) take a while to learn that they have to knuckle down, take orders, turn up on time, be reliable, do uninteresting tasks when they first start work, etc. As an Older Person - oh god, no! no! I'm still young! but in the eyes of the world, I am very probably nearly middle-aged, aaaarrgh! sorry, end of panic attack - I would also add that youngsters need to learn how very little they actually know. A hard lesson to learn.

Option 4,  should they take my route and be self-employed - well, it takes a lot of self-discipline to do it, and frankly I found my solid business background, and my added years of life experience, to be invaluable. 

Why, exactly?

Almost anyone, with minimal tuition, can weed and prune to an acceptable standard:  it is fair to say that it takes quite some time to learn all the names of plants, their pruning regimes, to learn all the weeds and their habits, to understand and recognise micro-climates and soil types, to learn to spot the various bugs, mildews, diseases etc etc, but any job has jargon and work methods that have to be learnt. No, the aspects of being self-employed which I think are important start with the aforementioned self-discipline: it's very easy to say "aww, don't feel like it today" but if I don't work, I don't get paid. More, if I don't work, my clients will eventually get fed up with me and find a more reliable gardener.

Then there is the paperwork: maintaining work records,  invoicing, tax returns and so on. Also there are aspects of business management: assessing my performance, analysing profitable avenues,  allocating an advertising budget, analysing results of advertising: not to mention having to deal tactfully with a variety of clients and situations. 

The more I think about it, the more I think that gardening/horticulture - the dirty-finger-nails variety - should almost be seen as a vocation, rather than a career.  Truly was it said to me, when I first started gardening professionally, "you won't get rich as a gardener."  It is certainly true that I would not have been able to consider this career before I was financially stable.  It is also true that I am enjoying this life more than I can say.  And as you can see, I am fairly free at saying things!

Of course, pigeonholing  "young people" as ethically or emotionally too immature to be gardeners is unfair: I did say "most" young people, not all, but I stand by the statement.

Thankfully, there will always be the "good kids" out there, the ones we never see, the ones who are safely indoors doing their homework, or doing something creative, or belonging to Scouts/Guides/Air Cadets etc: there will always be the rare one or two who are emotionally mature enough not to want to be a gardener "because they reeely reeely love plants", and who can recognise that although it's a - er, can I say spiritually rewarding without sounding like a hippy? Maybe not, let's go with just rewarding: although it's a rewarding career, and will make you a nicer, better, happier, calmer person, it won't make you rich. And if you are going to have to support yourself or a family, then you are going to have to recognise that you need to achieve financial stability before you go into gardening.

I must stress that all this is to do with working as a gardener, not being a gardener. I would love to see all children doing a little gardening as they grow up: I find it heartbreaking to think that there are children who have to have a school lesson on how to plant a sunflower seed, whose parents have never shared that with them. What's happened to the grandparents? *cries out and holds arms aloft to the heavens* Why aren't they showing their grandchildren how to grow cress on damp kitchen paper? Why aren't children helping Grandad in the potting shed, tying up the tomatoes? Don't parents even talk to their children these days? ("Apparently not" comes the answer.)

As London Gardener said, we all go through a stage of our early adult lives when all we want to do is party and meet people: not the best time to be working in solitary splendour. There is a lot to be said for gaining your experience and maturity, then bringing those things into gardening. Both the garden and the person will benefit more.

And at least gardening is one of the few occupations where age is actively in our favour: if you take up gardening as an adult, no-one would blink an eye at employing you (unless you confess that last week you were shelf-stacking, of course), but would you entrust your much-loved garden to a school leaver? I think not.

So on balance, my opinion is that I don’t think anyone should try to be a self-employed gardener until they have enough poise to deal with clients, enough business acumen to set their hourly rates accurately, enough strength of character to turn up on time and do the job honestly, diligently, reliably, and without one hand permanently txting.

Not really for school-leavers, then.

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