Where’s a Gardener When you Need One?

As a high school student I had no idea what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’. When I did a careers quiz as a 16-year-old and it suggested I become florist, I was offended. If it were suggested I become a gardener, I would have been equally as offended. A combination of ignorance and ego and a culture intent on de-valuing work that actually matters, meant I thought I could do better.

Even in my early days of being a landscape designer (I came to plants as a mature age student, after dumping my ideas of what constituted a sensible/smart career) I never called myself a gardener, and would get quietly offended when people introduced me as one. I am ashamed of this now. ‘Gardener’ is a title I both own and aspire to in equal measures.

My experience, as embarrassingly outlined above, illustrates an issue more profound than personal. It describes a crisis of perception with increasingly vast social and environmental impacts. Gardening, and it’s slightly more serious sounding sister, horticulture, is rarely seen as a valued, intelligent or financially rewarding career pathway. Gardening is a hobby, not a vocation. Gardening is un-thinking, un-skilled manual labour.

When viewed in this way, what 18-year-old in their right mind would choose to become a gardener, to study horticulture? What career adviser or parent would suggest taking on a career that won’t earn much money, offers little social status, and involves bloody hard work?

On the flip side (which is, of course, where I sit), what other career is there that’s more important than caring for and sustaining the land we live upon and the lives that exist in relation to it? When our existence as a species is drilled down to hard truths, there’s few things more important than growing and caring – the twin roles of the gardener.

Yet truths don’t seem to fly these days. As our climate gets hotter, wetter, drier, wilder; as our dialogue with each other and the natural world becomes confused and disjointed; knowing the world, the actual real world, is strangely devalued. Horticulture, the science of growing and caring for plants, is rarely found in Australian universities anymore. In a paper titled The Workforce Challenge in Horticulture, Professor Jim Pratley states that in 2010 there were fewer than 80 graduates in horticulture from Australian universities. This has halved since the 1980s.

80 university horticulture graduates out of 20 million Australians. Think about that for a second and tell me we’re on the right track.

The experience of Daniel Ewings, national Operations manager at Andreasens Green Wholesale Nurseries, Sydney echoes the decline in formal horticulture study. He’s found it increasingly difficult to recruit apprentices over the last 10 years. “School leavers these days seem to want to go into a less hands on field than horticulture.” And if they do want hands-on, there’s other issues: “Trades like carpentry offer much higher rates of pay. So if you want to work with your hands, outdoors, there’s better paying options than plants.”

For Daniel, working in a plant nursery is a starting point for a wide range of careers in horticulture like further study in landscape architecture or design, managing garden maintenance teams for councils, owning a nursery business, and more. And the money, well, it comes too. “Horticulture starts off with low pay. But if you’re really good at it, and if you love it, you’ll end up making money”, Daniel says.

The horticulture industry is facing a skills shortage, according to Daniel. “We really need to try and lift our game on recruitment. We need to try and find ways to attract young people to the industry”.

On one hand, there’s less people choosing horticulture as a career, and on the other, the importance of the job has never been greater. City planners and councils are realising the importance of ‘green infrastructure’, as they call it, and are creating policies around it. Our future cities need to be integrated ecologies. They need trees, gardens, green roofs, wetlands, urban forests, parks and farms. “But how do we tend to this proposed nature in our cities?” asks Thomas Gooch, a Melbourne based landscape architect and one of the trustees of the newly launched Global Gardening Trust. “Typical maintenance regimes won’t cut it. Positioning gardening as infrastructure to tend these proposed natural systems in our cities is a really important investment.”

Highlighting the value of gardening as infrastructure in a changing climate is one of the premises of the Global Gardening Trust. Founded by a group of young, passionate professionals connected to the gardening world, the trust is currently offering a three-month internship at De Wiersse – a historic 38-acre garden in the Netherlands. “This program begins to support and learn from established gardens like De Wiersse”, Thomas says. “Things like succession planting, gardening with the rhythms of plants and seasonality.” The heaving, growing and transformative nature our cities need, and are thankfully moving towards, needs to be gardened not maintained. There’s a difference.

“There is a clear distinction between gardening and maintenance. Maintenance is about doing as little as you need to keep it green – creating a bullet proof minimum viable product. Gardening is about investing time and materials into planting, managing plant and soil health, pruning over time, giving plants space to flower. That difference is where we’re positioning the trust”, Thomas says.

“If you invest in humans as gardeners to care for landscapes, you’re going to get richer plant diversity, more pollen stocks and stronger insect health. We’ll have landscapes that are more adaptable to changes in climate because we’ll understand the rhythms and patterns of nature.”

The Global Gardening Trust puts great value on the role of the gardener to create and sustain beauty and create and sustain life. “The Trust is not about falling into a romantic narrative, it’s about valuing the rhythms of nature and giving that a profession. It means hard work, discipline, turning up and doing it beautifully,” says Thomas. Romance is a good thing and certainly a driver for many in the garden, but it’s only the beginning. “Putting a value on gardening can put a value on where we’re heading. A society that values plants and systems, and that is integrated with nature is a clever society – one that supports all life, not destroys it.”

For me, gardening is a career pathway to a civilisation that is more connected.”

Audrey Quealy is also a trustee of the Global Gardening Trust. She’s studying botany and geoscience at Monash University and is a passionate gardener – having spent time working at both Great Dixter in England and De Wiersse in the Netherlands. She came to plants via a short stint studying law at university. The turning point for her was a visit to the Burnley campus of the University of Melbourne. Burnley is one of Australia’s most established horticulture schools (which, in 2017, dropped its undergraduate degree in urban horticulture). “I had never really thought of gardening as anything more than a hobby,” she says. “I certainly thought it less than a viable career. I didn’t really know any gardeners. At the Burnley open day, I met so many passionate people talking about the different things you can specialise in. It opened up a world for me. I just wanted to be a part of it.”

I ask Audrey how she’d sell gardening and horticulture as a career. “I’ve had a few friends who are really into plants and ask me about horticulture. I just get really enthusiastic. I tell them how it’s such an amazing, inclusive and rewarding space to work in. There’s so many different aspects of it too. You can go into nurseries, propagation, design, maintenance. It’s a great world to be part of.”

This is the thing. Every single person I’ve ever spoken to who works with plants – whether as a gardener, a nurseryperson, a landscape architect, arborist, artist – loves what they do. They do it not for money or for kudos (though as Daniel pointed out earlier, these things often come from pursuing your passion) but for the nourishment and stimulation that working with nature offers. And in a present and future where forging more respectful and understanding relationships with the natural world is essential for the survival of our species, we need gardeners. We need skilled, passionate and visionary gardeners to help cultivate and sustain a future for all life.

How will we make this grand vision of gardeners as valued and important contributors to society happen? We’ll garden it. We’ll imagine a future and work darn hard to make it happen. That’s what gardeners do. As Thomas says, “We’re young, and we’re setting the tone for years to come – in terms of what we want to see and how we want things to be positioned in cities and gardening itself. We’re not at the end of our lives, looking back and trying to fix things, we’re trying to set things up now. We’re taking action.”

Applications for The Global Gardening Trust scholarship close on March the 3rd, 2019. Head over to their website for more information about applying.

If you are interested in studying horticulture, here’s some advice: Go for it! As mentioned above, the degree options are limited in Australia, but there are a number of TAFE courses on offer. I did a diploma of horticulture (landscape design) at Ryde TAFE in Sydney and loved it. Also, if you live in Victoria you might be eligible to study for free – TAFE Victoria are offering a Certificate 3 in horticulture, fee free.

Images used in this post are of Simon Rickard‘s garden in Trentham. Simon is a passionate, intelligent and very fine gardener and is featured in The Planthunter book.