Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Getting youngsters into gardening: why bother?

The gardening world is currently buzzing with a couple of hot topics: one is the perennial (ha ha, see what I did there?) one of despicably low wages (agreed), and the other is the lack of government interest in teaching children about gardening, leading to a lack of youngsters in our trade.

It's a given that wages are low in "gardening" - despite the fact that to be a good gardener requires experience, skill, passion, attention to detail, patience, a good eye for colour, the ability to spot problems early and sort them out, the ability to deal with clients tactfully, the fortitude to work in all weathers, .. I could go on for some time, but despite all this, it's seen as an unqualified job, which is particularly annoying for those gardeners like me, who have qualifications, insurance, excellent references and so on.

The main reason for low wages is, of course, that of supply and demand:  for every estate or "big garden" job there are many more applicants than positions - not to mention those Enemy Within, the unpaid, unskilled, often inexperienced Volunteers, who devalue us all by working for nothing.

A quick glance at current vacancies is somewhat shocking: Hampton Court Palace want some seasonal gardeners, six months, £1250 a month, sounds good: but that's in London, so you'd need to get there: and it works out at just £15k, if it were full-time, which it isn't.  Norfolk, £7 an hour. Cleaners get more than that. North Yorkshire, old folks' home, duties include gardening and driving the minibus, £7.17 an hour. Luton, 6-months, £14pa pro rata.

So why, I have to ask, with wages so low, and not that many jobs around, why are we getting hot and bothered about the lack of youngsters coming into gardening?

Now, we are talking about Further Education at this point:  this is not the same as getting small children out into the garden.  Yes, school children should all be encouraged to garden: it’s healthy outdoor exercise, it’s a way of reconnecting to the natural world, it’s "good for them" in every way, and I fully support it.  Personally, I think that the parents should be the ones showing the children how to garden and connect with nature, but apparently many parents these days don't know a) how to garden or b) how to talk to their children, so they are now relying on the schools to do it.

So, leaving aside the issue of gardening for pleasure, there is a push within the gardening world to get more children interested in a career in horticulture.  This is partly fuelled by the recent outbreak of Ash Dieback disease - Chalara fraxinea - as reported in the Guardian last December, with the headline

"Ash dieback: lack of plant scientists blamed for slow response."

Roger Coppock of the Forestry Commission, said: "We did start work on a pest risk analysis [for Chalara], but we were already dealing with other diseases and pests and the number of plant pathologists is very small."

Then Prof Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at DEFRA, said: "We need more university courses to produce more people trained in plant pathology."

 In November, Prof James Brown, president of the British Society of Plant Pathology, told the Guardian the job losses in plant science were "severe". He said: "Britain is not producing graduates with the expertise needed to identify and control plant diseases in our farms and woodlands."

Now on the surface, this appears to be a simple, if worrying, statement: we don't have enough graduates in this subject, we need more. But how many more? One? Two? We seem to have managed without any extra ones right up until this crisis, and to my mind, that implies that any "extra" plant pathologists would have been sitting at home on the dole, unemployed, right up to that point. It's all well and good for the government to say that we need more of them, but what do they expect them do between crises? And who is going to pay them to keep their skills and expertise up to date until such time as they are needed?

Anyone who goes on to study for a Degree feels that they deserve a higher wage than those who did not: and how many actual "careers" - as opposed to "jobs" - are there for qualified Botanists? Or Horticulturalists? Or Plant Pathologists? Very few, and regionally situated, so what is the point in churning out hundreds of applicants for half a dozen jobs?

On the subject of "how many career (ie reasonably well paid) jobs are there in horticulture",  I had a quick look at the Forestry Commission website - it's a government organisation, so it's rather better paid that any other branch of Horticulture.  Despite being the ones with insufficient Plant Pathologists, they are not advertising for any more - they have only 6 vacancies at the moment, and that's for the entire country, which gives you an idea of the scarcity of well-paid jobs.

Even then, the salaries are not as good as they look: £26-£32k plus benefits for a Recreation Manager made me very nearly apply for it there and then, until I read on - for a start it's part time pro-rata, it's by definition a leisure industry job, so your 20 hours would be focused around weekends and bank holidays. Great. The experience and qualifications required are a great deal more than I would have thought necessary, but on reading between the lines, it's not an easy job.

Here are some of the bits I found amusing:

Develop plans that monitor and review milestones, taking action to deal with significant changes to cost, time or quality

Right, the goalposts keep moving, do they?

Show drive; not become easily distracted or put off by minor problems or setbacks

Ah, previous employees have sunk under the weight of trivial problems, have they?

Take responsibility for own work, admitting to and learning from experience and mistakes

Oh, I think we can all see where that one is coming from.

React positively to change and support others to do the same

Your colleagues are hidebound and unco-operative.

And so it goes. And these jobs are examples of the few properly-structured government jobs, whereas most "gardening" jobs are private, where you are at the mercy of an individual.

So I ask, is there any point hammering on about careers in horticulture, when there are so few that pay a living wage?  Is there really any point in telling secondary school children to choose to study horticulture, when they will end up having to move around the country chasing the few jobs, for low wages?

Frankly, I think not.   As Nick Boyes said: "In a week when people working in horticulture come top of the happiest jobs list and the media was full of quotes from people who had left 'stressful' careers in offices to join us in gardening, none of those spoken to had selected horticulture as their first choice of career. My cynical assumption is that they needed to build up a good financial base first, before joining us on the other end of the pay scale."  (Professional Gardeners'  Guild Journal, No 139)


  1. Love your blog, Rachael, and as someone who has only recently become interested in gardening as a career (in my late 40s) I was glad to see someone with skepticism for the standard "we must get youth involved or there's no future for the industry/knowledge area" position. I have come to gardening specifically and an interest in the landscape generally, slowly, but inexorably over the years, and can't help feeling that this is a natural, structural consequence of getting on a bit. And why should that be so very bad?

    Obviously, there are bright young people who can see the importance of growing things from early on in their life, but in my experience, they tend to be unusual. My hazy memories are of being much more concerned with the urban, the social, the "new" and the crowd. And parties....

    A nephew of mine in his twenties studied for an RHS horticultural qualification, became a gardener in London and changed careers within a few years, mostly because of his loneliness....working all day mainly on one's own is not really a positive thing for many youngsters.

    I'm not sure there need be a problem if most gardeners are over a certain age, so long as enough people (of what-ever age) are coming in to the profession to maintain standards and facilitate the transfer of experience. Which must be happening, Rachael, or you would find your wages increasing due to laws of supply and demand....

    It all makes me think of the similar hand-wringing about the increasing age of audiences in the classical music world. It ignores the fact that the majority of people (unless performers) tend to become more interested in classical music as they age. (My older brother, in the 1970's an ardent punk, now in his 50s obsesses about 19th Century opera and frequents the fanciest opera houses...)
    To poppify classical music in order to attract a younger audience seems as counter productive as creating an army of young trainee gardeners with no jobs. Why is age/experience always seen as a disability in our culture?

  2. Hi, London Gardener! *waves*

    Thank you for your kind comments - I was very interested to read your view on the classical music scene: as you perceptively point out, it is one of those things that we "grow into". And I think you are absolutely right, gardening shares a similar need for maturity.

    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... and I think I might have to write a bit further on that subject!


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