Career as a gardener

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James Dunne is head gardener at a National Trust estate in Cumbria. He manages and maintains the large, historical garden for the enjoyment of the public, helping to keep a part of the country's heritage alive.

What are your main tasks?

I work with and manage a team of horticulturists, overseeing their work and making sure that the National Trust's high standards are met. This includes everything from day-to-day maintenance to large projects, for example restoration work on creating new areas of garden. An important part of my job is to raise the profile of the garden and property, for example via the media or by giving lectures.

What does a typical project involve?

A typical project might be the creation of a new area of the garden. I first have to decide what the area should become. This may be directly linked to historical records or maybe the needs of the public. I also consider whether the idea for the project is affordable and practical. I then draw up a design before the project begins in consultation with other people such as garden advisers and curators.

What equipment do you use?

I use a range of machinery including tractors for transporting materials, mowers and strimmers for lawn or grass maintenance, lawn aerators for creating air holes, lawn scarifiers for removing moss, chainsaws for removing dead or diseased trees, leaf blowers for clearing up leaves, and chippers and shredders for making wood chips for garden use. In the office, I use technical drawing equipment for garden design.

What qualities and skills do you need for a career as a gardener?

You need a broad knowledge of horticulture and nature, as well as how to work with nature. It's important to be open-minded and willing to learn and take on new ideas. You also need management, leadership, customer care and administration skills.

What qualifications have you gained at work?

I've done an Apprenticeship with the National Trust. This included practical training in a National Trust garden and learning the theory on block release at college. As part of the Apprenticeship, I gained NVQs at levels 2 and 3.

What do you enjoy most?

I spend about 75 per cent of my time outdoors, which I love, being surrounded by nature and being in tune with the changing seasons. I have a large degree of freedom to put what I've learned into practice. I like the fact that I can be creative and artistic on a grand scale. Horticulture provides so many different types of job opportunities and there is so much learning potential. It's an industry that's changing all the time so I'll never get bored.

What are the main challenges?

Day-to-day challenges include people management and juggling work around the weather. I think it's important to have challenges, as they keep you alert. It's also satisfying when you meet your challenges and achieve your goals.

How would you like to progress?

It's important for me to never stop learning and push myself forward all the time. I'd eventually like to take a degree in horticulture and reach the top of my profession by expanding my knowledge. I'm keen to pass my experience and knowledge on to those who are willing to learn.

James's route to his career as a gardener

  • GCSEs
  • BTEC First Diploma in Amenity Horticulture
  • While doing BTEC, did work experience at a National Trust garden, which led to job as a seasonal gardener.
  • Apprenticeship at another National Trust garden.
  • Employed in gardening posts, moving up to deputy head gardener and finally to current position as head gardener.

James's tips

  • Do some voluntary work in horticulture to pick up knowledge and contacts.
  • If you're not sure, do a short horticulture course to help you make up your mind.
  • Be willing to start at the bottom, work hard and study hard.
  • If you show enthusiasm and willingness to learn, doors will open for you.

Gardening related jobs

Salary of a gardener

  • New entrants earn around £13,000 to £15,000 a year.
  • With experience, gardeners earn up to about £18,000 a year.
  • Senior gardeners earn around £25,000 or more.
  • Self-employed gardeners normally negotiate an hourly rate.

How to be a gardener

  • It is possible to enter gardening at many different levels. Some entrants have no qualifications, although most employers expect a relevant qualification in horticulture. There is a wide range of full-time and part-time qualifications available at all levels.
  • All gardeners need an interest in working with plants and some form of work experience is useful. Self-employed gardeners usually need a driving licence.
  • Training often involves working towards qualifications such as NVQs/SVQs. Apprenticeships are also available.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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