How to change your life with a gardening career
Even if you love your garden, you may not have thought of a gardening career.
You may think gardening is a profession mainly for young men who can climb trees with chain saws. Or perhaps you think it’s ‘too late’ or that a gardening career isn’t for people ‘like you’.
But the annual Garden Day is organised by the Candide gardening app. ‘It’s a day to take a pause – sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labours,’ says Arit Anderson, garden designer and presenter on Garden Rescue and the BBC Gardeners World Chelsea Flower Show team.
Arit is an ‘ambassador’ for Garden Day. The idea is that you should deliberately make a point of enjoying your garden. You might want to invite friends round. Or perhaps you can just promise yourself to take half an hour just to sit down and enjoy your garden.
And think about what it means to you. Is gardening ‘just a hobby’ for you? Or could you turn it into your life?
If you have ‘that Sunday feeling’ – that sick feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach about returning to work on Monday, then perhaps it’s time to reassess.
Could loving your garden turn into a career?
Arit switched from a career in retail fashion to a gardening career at the age of 44.
So I asked her what she would advise anyone who’s not happy in their current job but who loves their garden.
‘First, bolster your finances,’ she says. ‘It takes time to train and then to build a clientele. Start part-time and let it grow.’
When she first bought a house with a small garden, she thought that she’d titivate it occasionally and let other people advise. But she was soon hooked, and when she was made redundant from her job in fashion, she did some short courses to see if gardening would be for her.
Arit then did a three year one-day-a-week garden design course at Capel Manor College, where you can do full-time, part-time and evening courses. While she was there, she (with Sarah Jarman and Anna Murphy) won a Fresh Talent competition at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
‘Find a college that suits your finances,’ she says. ‘You can do one or two days a week, or you can re-train more quickly by doing a course full-time, but it’s expensive.’
Build your gardening career slowly
Studying part-time gives you the chance either to keep earning money at your old job by going part-time. And you can also start to build your clientele as you study.
As well as studying, Arit continued to do fashion consultancy in order to pay for the training. She also started to work in gardens – ‘I started off with a small gardening round, doing gardening for or with clients.’ As her gardening career grew, she did less fashion consultancy, but she still does some fashion.
I also asked the All Horts professional gardeners Facebook Group about changing your career to gardening. Members work in a wide range of gardening and horticultural careers, and many switched to a gardening career in their thirties, forties and even fifties. And many are women.
For example, self-employed freelance gardener Wendy Curtis changed career with long distance learning. ‘I started ten years ago, and am still doing it. And I help out at flower shows.’
Former police office Paul Lawlor started by combining his studies with freelance gardening. Then he spotted an advertisement for a head gardener and got it. ‘And part of the agreement is supporting me through my RHS Level 3 studies. It’s a balancing act between work, college and my two children, but I love it.’
Emma Thomas‘s business is called Blooms & Greens. She used to be a communications manager. Her ‘top tips are to get an RHS Level 2 qualification and Paul Power’s book Start and Run a Gardening Business.
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A gardening career isn’t just gardening…
You can work in horticulture as a garden designer or professional gardener. And you could work in a retail plant nursery or garden centre, manage or work in a historic garden or a big garden, such as one of the RHS gardens. You could be a landscaper (that’s shifting earth, building walls, laying paths etc). And there’s plant science, forestry, floristry, bee-keeping and working in parks and more.
For example, Clare Meadowcroft spent 25 years working as a Senior Biomedical Office in the NHS and is now a Garden Supervisor for English Heritage. She says ‘get a good recognised qualification and volunteer to get experience. Go for it!’
Head gardener David Hamer worked his way up by working at a plant nursery and doing part-time courses in order to learn more about plants.
Volunteering is key
Many people who are thinking of changing to a career in gardening start by volunteering at major gardens. You learn a lot from the professional gardeners there, and you’ll also get a good idea of whether this is the life for you. Ask whether there are opportunities for volunteers at any professionally run garden close to you.
Garden designer Daisy Hayden says that ‘volunteering at Audley End was great for building confidence.’ She formerly worked in infection control for the NHS. ‘I studied in the evening for two years, then went part-time in garden design and then full time.’
Jason Gozzett worked in an office until he was 36, and then took a two year full-time course at Writtle College. He now works at the Beth Chatto Garden where he also mentors students and volunteers. The Beth Chatto gardens have RHS level 2 and 3 courses available, and they also have opportunities for student and volunteer gardeners.
Lori Day left the corporate world aged 51 and volunteered at Thrive (the charity for people gardening with disabilities). She then worked for them with a freelance contract, did a City & Guilds qualification and an RHS Level 2 and then went onto work at a plant nursery.
And gardener Annie Morgan changed to gardening by doing RHS courses at Merrist Wood, volunteering at RHS Wisley and helping a professional landscaper. She started getting her jobs through Age Concern and her practice has built through word of mouth.
Link your new career to your old one
Many people use their former careers in some way in gardening. Kirsty Holden, for example, was an Occupational Therapist with the NHS. Now she works as a ‘social and therapeutic gardener, mainly working with older people.’ She gardens for and with people, helping them to carry on gardening. Her company is Gardening With Me.
And what about the problems?
Everyone I spoke to said that they loved their new lives and didn’t regret stepping off the corporate treadmill. Many had been lawyers, doctors, accountants, journalists and more: ‘I was a credit controller and got sick of the windowless offices and corporate bullshit’ said Jamie German, who now runs his own company, Magnolia Garden Maintenance.
But gardeners are often underpaid and seen as manual labour rather than professionals. It can be difficult to get clients who will treat you and pay properly. There’s more about this in my post on How to Find a Gardener Who’s Perfect for Your Garden.
Multi-award winning garden designer Katharine Crouch warns that it can be difficult to make a living purely as a garden designer ‘if you’re solo and outside London.’ Certainly garden designers I know here in Kent, such as Posy Gentles, combine garden design and renovation with consultancy and maintenance.
And if you’re worried that you don’t know enough about gardening to start a career in it, then maybe read Australian gardener Richard Harrison’s book,the Export Gardener, on how he started a gardening business in the UK while not knowing a weed from a wisteria. It’s all too easy to delay making a change until you feel you have the skills – sometimes it’s better just to jump in and learn as you go along.
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Although horticulture contributes around £6bn a year to the UK economy, a career in horticulture is barely mentioned by most careers teams in schools. There is, as a result, a skills shortage in Britain. So when you are building your horticultural career, price yourself carefully. Make sure you can make a living. Don’t under-price to get the work.
Many people who work in horticulture found themselves there by accident, like most of the gardening professionals in this post. It’s time for this to change and for careers such as catering and horticulture to be recognised as valuable contributions to the UK economy.
More about changing to a gardening career:
The RHS have lots of information about their courses, which take place around the country.
And there’s more about horticulture, agriculture and conservation careers here.
Many horticulture professionals also trained under the WRAGS scheme. This is Work and Retrain as a Gardener. (thank you, ‘All Horts’ Carron Nightingale and Helen Williams.)
Start and Run a Gardening Business by Paul Power has been recommended by gardening professionals.
See Arit Anderson on BBC Gardeners World as one of the team presenting the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show and in the latest series of Garden Rescue . Or find her on Twitter at @diamondhill2012 or Instagram.
Horticulture teacher Lara Hurley says ‘almost everyone I teach at Myerscough College has changed career and they often achieve better results because of their life experiences.’
And, as Arit Anderson says: ‘Go for it. Gardening is an extension of what you love.’ The All Horts professionals agree.