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Seeds of change

Sometimes the grass really is greener…

Saturday Telegraph, Jan 2020

When I turned 40, I decided to retrain as a gardener. Until this point, I had worked in book publishing and arts marketing for nearly 20 years. This sudden about turn was, I was convinced, the result of a singular set of circumstances – work stress, freelance fatigue, and deskbound ailments that ranged from back pain to RSI. All contributing to a sense of ennui, which seemed to lift, rather miraculously, whenever I visited my allotment, my new-found sanctuary.

As I enrolled on the RHS Level 2 Diploma in Horticulture at my local college, I presumed that I was unique in this respect, that I would be an odd, rather old fish, in a class full of school leavers. Not so: my first encounter on my first day was with fellow student, Henry, former head of PR for the RSPCA. Similar age, similar story. And that was just the start. There were retail workers, teachers, a librarian, a probation officer, a counsellor, all reframing and retraining.

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Later, I would discover that this was a trend, not a coincidence. Catherine Nicoll, National Specialist for Garden Training at the National Trust (herself a former producer for BBC Radio 4), told me that roughly 80% of her apprenticeships were taken up by career changers.

These days I’m a senior gardener at Parham House in West Sussex and I’m still encountering career changers on a regular basis. As students visiting Parham. As volunteers in search of experience. As colleagues at other historic gardens, who like me, had followed a well-trodden path: volunteer to test the water; study to gain qualifications; enrol on an apprenticeship as a final stepping-stone to employment.

I am fully aware of the imperatives that compelled me along this road. And I know that it was the single best move I ever made, career-wise. I am fitter, stronger, happier, healthier. But what about my peers? Were they equally happy, and how challenging had their transitions been? I thought I should find out. Here’s just a taste of what I discovered: 

Barry Clarke (age 49)
Botanist and Plant Records Officer, Sir Harold Hillier Garden, Hampshire
(former professional dancer)
 

During his first career as a dancer, Barry toured the world, performing with professional groups and troupes. Following the rather maverick move of setting up his own nursery and self-training, he joined the Sir Harold Hillier Garden in 2001, first as general gardener, then as propagator, and now as Botanist and Plant Records Officer.

‘I was really involved in the stage world from a very early age. I could have gone on; I had no injuries or anything. I just got a bit fed up with the life really. So, there I was working in S.E. Asia, aged about 28, and I thought what else can I do, what do I like? Well I like plants; I don’t know anything about them, but I like them. So, I did something absolutely barmy: I came back to the UK and I bought a nursery and I decided to train myself.

The best part of my life has been since I got into horticulture. At the time, I loved dancing, but for me it’s got its place now in my life, in my history. I went gradually into horticulture and then it grabbed me, and I just wanted to learn more and more. That’s the thing about it, you keep on learning. The world of the stage is so backbiting, it’s just not a nice place sometimes, but horticulture is so open and friendly and helpful.’

Helena Dove (age 35)
Kitchen Gardener, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
(former music technology teacher)

Helena taught in a sixth form college before retraining. While studying for her RHS Level 2 Diploma in Horticulture, she took a part-time job in a plant nursery. A year later, she began her two-year paid HBGBS apprenticeship (now HBGTP) at Myddelton House, Enfield, eventually becoming their senior kitchen gardener. She is now at prestigious Kew Gardens.

 

‘A lot of people fall into teaching. I don’t think anyone at 18 really knows what they want to do. I didn’t know what colour my hair was going to be, let alone what job I wanted. I started making my career change about 27 or 28. I adored teaching, I still quite like teaching, but I didn’t like being stuck in the classroom all the time and all the extras that came with it. I found myself looking out of the window, thinking I want to be back on my allotment.

 

I think a lot of things are luck, just being able to grasp things and go for things and don’t apologise for pushing yourself forward, you know, you kind of have to. It’s very competitive, because who wouldn’t want to do what we do? Financially it was hard when I was changing but I have absolutely no regrets; it’s been a massive change in my life, but it’s the best thing I’ve done and I’m super, super happy.’

Jamie Harris (age 46)
Head Gardener, Polesden Lacey, Surrey
(former TV post-production)

Jamie spent 13 years working in the TV industry, initially in a post-production house in Soho, but mostly at Sky Sports. After volunteering at Osterley Park, he enrolled on the former three-year National Trust Careership scheme at Chartwell in Kent. From there, he was seconded to Nymans as Assistant Head Gardener before taking up his current role as Head Gardener at Polesden Lacey.

‘I made the change about ten years ago. I was getting a bit disillusioned working in the TV world – weekend shifts and over night shifts and being shouted at by directors.  I'd recently taken on an allotment and absolutely loved it. So, I decided to try and turn my hobby into a new career.

The NT Careership was a fantastic opportunity, which I grabbed with both hands.  I was probably the oldest person on the course, and I was very focussed on making the most of it because I felt I was playing “catch up” to a certain extent. Financially I took nearly a seventy per cent pay cut but at least I was getting paid to retrain and, luckily, I have a very supportive wife.  When I made the big switch, I could just about tell the difference between a daisy and an oak tree! I still find I learn something new most days, and that is one of the beauties of it. I don’t have a single regret.’  

Liz Maynard (age 48)
Gardener, Sissingurst, Kent
(former mental health worker and counsellor)

 

For 20 years Liz worked for mental health charities and housing associations, providing support for vulnerable adults. She studied for her RHS Level 2 Diploma in Horticulture, while volunteering at Bateman’s in Sussex. She completed her two-year HBGBS apprenticeship at Sissinghurst, where she is now a full-time gardener.

‘I was 40 when I made the change, and I was kind of thinking, It’s now or never really. I’d ended up in a slightly managerial role, so I wasn’t doing much client work, and that was sort of the nail in the coffin. I’d become very static and sedentary, and I just wanted to do something else.

My mum always loved gardening, and I always remember her being in the garden when I was a kid, so when I got my own garden it sort of reignited a little love that had been there all along, I think. Then when we got an allotment, that’s when it really took off.

‘Financially it was tough going down to basically minimum wage to study, but I’m not really motivated by earning loads of money, it really doesn’t bother me, as long as I’ve got enough. The only regret I have is that I wish I’d done it a bit sooner. I just couldn’t go back to working in an office, I don’t think. I love being out doing something physical.’  

What next?


If you are considering horticulture as a career change, here’s some grass roots advice:

  • Volunteer – to find out whether this is something you really want to do (in all weathers!) there’s no better way of trying it out first-hand. The National Trust and RHS have great volunteer schemes and most public gardens will welcome you with open arms.

  • Study – once you’ve made your mind up, get qualified – the part-time RHS Level 2 certificates in The Principles of and Practical Horticulture are industry standard. The City & Guilds Level 2 and 3 courses offer equivalent study and practical experience.

  • Apprenticeships – there are numerous paid apprenticeships available, either with or without experience. These offer a gateway to working in a professional public garden.  

Apprenticeships

National Trust
The Trust runs two-year, paid, entry-level apprenticeships (practical and theory-based) at some of its best-known gardens. Each placement leads to a Level 2 professional qualification. See nationaltrustjobs.org.uk/find-your-place/apprenticeships.

WRAG Scheme
The WRAG (Work and Retrain as a Gardener) scheme provides year-long, paid, part-time horticultural training in selected gardens throughout the UK. See wfga.org.uk/wrags.

HBGTP Scheme
The HBGTP scheme (Historic and Botanic Garden Trainee Programme) – formerly HBGBS – offers full-time, paid placements as a trainee gardener in UK historic or botanic gardens. See HBGTP.org.uk.

The Professional Gardener’s Guild Traineeship
This three-year scheme places successful applicants in three world-class historic or botanic gardens. Candidates require some previous horticultural experience. See pgg.org.uk.

RHS Apprenticeships
The RHS also hosts a range of paid apprenticeships and diplomas at its flagship gardens. See rhs.org.uk/education.