Plant the seed: How to grow a career in gardening

You need barrow-loads of intelligence and creativity, a strong back and green fingers

Niamh O’Donohoe, the young National Botanic Gardens-trained horticulturist

Niamh O’Donohoe, the young National Botanic Gardens-trained horticulturist

 

What does it take to make a career as a professional horticulturist? A strong back? Green fingers? A love of nature and of working alone outdoors? A willingness to get your hands dirty? All this aside, what are the best horticultural courses/ most useful educational routes? The career prospects? The average rate of pay? These are just some of the questions to which I would have dearly loved answers when I first contemplated retraining as a gardener so many moons ago.

Things have changed a lot for budding horticulturists in the intervening years, not only in terms of the variety of educational routes available to them, but also in terms of the increasingly diverse range of horticultural careers. One of the third-level colleges leading the field in this regard is Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). Graduates of its three-year (Level 7) Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and its follow-on one-year (Level 8/ Honours) in Land Management Bachelor of Science in Horticulture, which it runs in partnership with Teagasc and Kildalton College in Piltown, Co Kilkenny, have gone on to work not only as craft gardeners in public and private gardens and parks, but also as horticultural therapists, nursery and garden centre managers, landscapers, garden designers, florists, interior landscapers, greenkeepers, market gardeners, lab technicians and flower farmers. In fact, according to Dr Cara Daly, the plant scientist, WIT horticulture lecturer and programme leader, the world is their oyster as long as they’re determined, adaptable, enthusiastic and prepared to work hard in a career that they’ve chosen because they love it.

“There’s still that out-of-date idea of a gardener as someone who just mows lawns and cuts hedges, whereas we have graduates working all over the world in a wide variety of fulfilling, rewarding careers, many in managerial roles. That’s the key message we want to get out, especially to parents and career guidance teachers,” says Daly.

Passionate about plants

Amongst WIT’s recent graduates is the young Carlow-born horticulturist Paul Smyth, who now works as chief propagator for Crug Farm Nursery, the internationally-respected nursery in north Wales established by planthunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones. Smyth is passionate about plants, and his job at Crug Smyth has taken him on plant-hunting expeditions to North Vietnam and seen him create award-winning nursery displays for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

I’d much prefer to be paid less to do a job that I love than to be paid more to do a job I hate

He was offered the job via Twitter (you’ll find him there and on Instagram under the handle @paultsmyth) after losing his previous post when his former employer, Tom Mitchell, the banker, galanthophile and founder of the innovative UK nursery Evolution Plants, closed the business. Smyth was headhunted by Mitchell while still at college in Waterford, after the latter discovered his talents during a visit to the Offaly garden of the landscape architect Angela Jupe, where Smyth was on student work placement. Smyth’s advice to other horticulturists-in-the-making is “to take whatever opportunities come your way, work really hard, get as much experience as you can, and read as much as you can. Social media is also a great way to meet likeminded people and make contacts.”

But Smyth admits that job security is just one of several challenges that many professional horticulturists can face. “Yes, getting a secure, well-paid job in horticulture is difficult. I have old schoolfriends working in the banking sector who are now earning a lot more than me . . . but I’d much prefer to be paid less to do a job that I love than to be paid more to do a job I hate.”

 For Niamh O’Donohoe, the young National Botanic Gardens-trained horticulturist recently placed in charge of its organically-certified walled kitchen garden, her decision to study horticulture has also brought great career fulfillment but has not been without its challenges. Like Smyth, O’Donohoe holds a degree in horticulture, following completion of the three-year course at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin run in conjunction with Teagasc. But, as is true of many young Irish horticulturists who graduated during the recession, she fell victim to the government embargo on recruitment that left many public gardens – including the OPW-managed “Bots” – unable to hire skilled gardeners.

Tour guide

Many of O’Donohoe’s fellow graduates emigrated to take up horticultural jobs abroad, but she sat the recession out by working at the Bots as a tour guide for six years until the embargo was lifted, when she finally got a much wished-for job as one of its craft gardeners.

“Not only is it wonderful to be finally working as a professional gardener in the job of my dreams, but it’s also great to be in secure and permanent employment.”

Like Smyth, she agrees that “the money isn’t fantastic” – the pay scale per week for an OPW-employed craft gardener is approximately €620-€725 before deductions – “but I’m doing a job that I truly love. That’s important to me.”

Last year 240 CAO points were required for entry to the Botanic Gardens Level 7 BSc in Horticulture, while the CAO points for the WIT BSc in Horticulture was 200. But as the WIT lecturer and self-confessed “plant enthusiast” Dr Cara Daly astutely points out, the relatively low points requirement isn’t so much an indication of what’s required of potential students in terms of academic ability as it is a measure of demand as well as of the unfairly low value that our society typically places on the wonderful world of horticulture.

Ireland isn’t the only country where public perceptions are so sadly askew. A recent survey of 1,000 people in the UK, where the industry is suffering from a chronic shortage of qualified, experienced horticulturists, revealed that 70 per cent of 18-year-olds believed that horticultural careers should only be considered by people who have “failed academically”. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Along with the aforementioned strong back, green fingers, passion for plants, great work ethic, stamina, resilience and willingness to work outdoors in all weathers, a successful career in horticulture requires barrow-loads of intelligence, creativity and intellectual curiosity. And, of course, a love of what you do. But I think I speak for most Irish horticulturists when I say that it deserves to be better paid.

Young Irish horticulturists to watch out for

Colm O’Driscoll, head gardener of Airfield Gardens in Dundrum, airfield.ie

Rory Newell, planthunter and head propagator at Blarney Castle Gardens in Co Cork (@forest_moon_rory )

Conor Gallinagh, @conorgallinagh horticultural consultant, self-confessed plant geek and @youngHort representative

Bruno Nicolai (@brunocork ) Senior craft gardener and plants records manager at Blarney Castle Gardens in Co Cork and one of the founders of @aspiringyounghorts , a peer-support group for aspiring horticulturists in Ireland

Horticultural courses
UCD
offers a four-year, Level 8 degree in Horticulture, Landscape, and Sportsturf Management course, or BAgrSc (Hons NFQ Level 8, with a CAO points range in 2018 of 298) and the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown offers Bachelor of Science courses in Horticulture (see itb.ie for full course details).

Kinsale College (kinsalecollege.ie) offers Level 5 and Level 6 courses in Sustainable Horticulture/Permaculture) while An tIonad Glas/ The Organic College in Limerick (organiccollege.com) offers Level 5 and 6 Certificate courses in Horticulture . Many of these colleges also offer part-time courses.

This Week in the Garden . . .

Take advantage of this quiet time of the gardening year to get your compost heap shipshape in time for spring. For best results, a compost heap needs an even balance of chopped-up “green” or nitrogen-rich material (examples include freshly mown grass, fruit and vegetable peelings and animal manure) and brown, carbon-rich material (examples include torn-up cardboard, straw, shredded waste paper, chopped-up woody plant material, old/fallen leaves) plus a good supply of fresh air to allow the aerobic microbes to quickly and efficiently break down the material. If your heap is soggy and/or smelly, then it almost certainly needs more brown, carbon-rich added to it; turning it with a garden fork will also help to aerate it.

Continue to plant bare-root trees and shrubs as long as soil conditions aren’t waterlogged or frozen. Bare root plants are available to order from most good garden centres and nurseries at this time of year including branches of Howbert & Mays in Dublin (Dundrum and Monkstown) and Dunboyne, Co Meath (howbertandmays.ie), Caragh Nurseries, Naas, Co Kildare (caraghnurseries.ie); Altamont Plant Sales, Altamont Gardens, Ballon, Co Carlow (altamontplants.com); Future Forests, Bantry, Co Cork (futureforests.ie); Rare Plants Ireland, Clondalkin, Co Dublin (rareplantsireland.ie), Cappagh Nurseries, Aughrim, Co Wicklow (vanderwel.ie), Mount Venus Nursery, Mutton Lane, Dublin 16 (mountvenusnursery.com)

January is an excellent time of year to sort through your stash of seed packets and discard any that are well out of date, as these will usually give poor germination rates. It’s also the best time of year to buy/order seed before stocks of hard-to-get or fashionable varieties sell out. Recommended online specialist Irish seed suppliers include brownenvelopeseeds.com, greenvegetableseeds.com, irishseedsavers.ie, theorganiccentre.ie and mrmiddleton.com while fruithillfarm.com stocks many different kinds of useful propagation equipment including electrical propagators and heating mats.  

Dates For your Diary . . .

From January 22nd to February 10th, garden designer Angela Jupe is opening her large country garden, Bellefield Garden in Shinrone, Birr, Co Offaly, to the public to enjoy its spectacular display of late winter-flowering shrubs and bulbs including daphne, aconites, witchhazel, cyclamen, iris and almost 300 different varieties of snowdrop, which are in bloom unusually early this year. Admission €5, see angelajupe.ie

Commencing Tuesday January 29th and Thursday January 31st, Dalkey Garden School, Mornington Garden, Saval Park Road, Dalkey, a six-week mini-course in gardening with Annmarie Bowring. Contact dalkeygardenschool.com or Annmarie on 087-2256365.

Friday February 1st, 7.30pm, Mount Wolseley Hotel, Tullow, Co Carlow, “A Celebration of Corona North” will be held to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of the late plantsperson and former owner of Altamont Gardens, with an evening of talks by Altamont’s head gardener Paul Cutler and Irish gardener and plantsperson Assumpta Broomfield. There is free entry to the event for Snowdrop Gala Ticket holders (see below); otherwise admission is €10. Booking essential, contact sales@altamontplants.com 087-982 2135

Saturday February 2nd (9.30am-5pm), Mount Wolseley Hotel, Tullow, Co Carlow, “Snowdrop Gala & Other Spring Treasures” with guest speakers including nurseryman and galanthophile Ian Christie of Christie’s Nursery in Kirriemuir, Scotland, and the Scottish garden blogger, plantsman and photographer Ian Young. Tickets cost €70 and include lunch at Mount Wolseley plus a tour of Altamont Gardens by head gardener Paul Cutler and specialist plant sales from Avon Bulbs, Christie’s Specialist Nursery, Ashwood, Harvingtons and Coosheen Plants via Altamont Plant Sales. Pre-booking essential, through Hester Forde 086-8654972, hesterforde@gmail.com or Robert Miller sales@altamontplants.com 087-9822135

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