Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Don't Put Your Daughter On The Stage

The subject of horticulture as a career - or whether such a thing as a horticultural career industry even exists - has yet again been given coverage in the news and gardening media recently. The RHS has had an on-going campaign, trying to promote horticulture as a career option for the young to enter into; so too have organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage. I don't know if it's in conjunction with the RHS but even our Alan (Titchmarsh) has been waxing-lyrical about the benefits of today's youth entering the industry: rallying, cajoling, nudging the young to consider it as a career option.

I read in this month's Gardener's World magazine an interesting debate between James Alexander-Sinclair and Helem Yemm entitled "Would you want your kids to work in gardening?" On the back pages of the magazine this question is also taken up by Titchmarsh as he reflects on 50 years working within the sector. It's funny you know, but after years of reading the views and opinions of such high-hortics as Robin Lane Fox, Rosemary Verey, Gertie Jekyll and Christo, my admiration for Alan Titchmarsh grows with each new article of his I read.

Having taught horticulture to many young people, and having been witness to their subsequent career paths, I guess i'm in a good position to share in the debate somewhat. So, what is the basic problem with young people entering the gardening/horticulture sector? Well, firstly, there's simply not many of them doing so, and - for some - this is a concern in an industry as big as horticulture. You see, in my humble opinion, ever since the industrial revolution, any job that involves - quite literally - getting your hands dirty has been looked down upon, and considered to be the domain of those incapable of doing little else. Let's be honest, since then, who really get's their hands dirty anymore? Even farmers who 'work the land' do so largely from the relative warmth and comfort of their air-conditioned cabs.

Stop any teenager in the street and ask them if they would ever like to be a gardener, and most responses would be an emphatic 'no'! And why would they? Where's the X-Factor in that? Even most mature gardening students I have met over the years don't want to be actual gardeners. Garden historians,... maybe? Garden designers, yes! Botanists, horticultural writers, lecturers, plant breeders.... YES, YES, YES! Anything but a gardener! Of course, much of that is down to the vision and perception of contemporary society. Again, as a society, we like to think of our successful selves as clean and intelligent individuals, and gardening is portrayed as neither.

A lovely combination spotted at Sissinghurst last year.
For example, in praise of gardening - as opposed to say the modern-day construct of garden design - Alan T states that "[actual] gardening is often overlooked, taking second place to garden design. I despair at that. Garden design, you see, has rather more kudos than gardening. For a start, it is better paid and, thanks to the implied artistry, it is more highly regarded."  Again, this is probably a reflection of society's concern for status. Who wouldn't rather say that they're a garden designer, or a garden historian etc... rather than a mere gardener?! Even this mere gardener here, if truth be told, would probably prefer to elevate his status somewhat if ever asked that horrid question 'and what is it that you do?'

Of course, comments such as David Cameron's recent one, where in the same sentence he managed to group together the noble art of gardening with that of litter picking: suggesting that both activities are the sort of tasks that could be done by the unemployed. Yes, he actually said that!

On the subject of attracting the young into gardening, Helen Yemm had this to say: "it strikes me that you need to have an all-consuming passion for plants and gardens in order to put up with some of the less enthralling aspects of gardening. These involve low wages, repetitive boredom and discomfort - hours of pricking out seedlings in a chilly greenhouse, or the drudgery of maintenance gardening in all weathers".  Doesn't sound very appealing does it?

So, how do we attract the young into gardening? Well, in my opinion, we can't! And why would we want to? Being young puts you firmly at the start of your life's journey: it's an accelerated period of self discovery and acquisition, and the often-solitary pursuit of gardening simply doesn't give the young person what they need at their time of life. Two of these needs being the development of a strong identity together with a robust ego: much-need elements to aid the transition from child to adulthood. That's why an interest in gardening tends to creep up around mid-life. Go to any garden show, or garden centre and observe the average demographic carrying their purchases to the boot of their cars. You won't see many teenagers thrilled with their end-of-season bargains.

So why is it then that gardening tends to be an older person's activity? Well, there are of course many reasons for this.... too many to discuss here! However, one of the main reasons has to be that after having spent the first half of one's life 'journeying & discovering', and after acquiring all the things a person thought they needed, they then begin to slow down a little, take stock, ask questions and reflect. And let's be honest, where do you find the perfect environment for this new mature way of being?  It has to be the garden doesn't it? Where else can you slow down to meet the natural pace of life.... re-align yourself with the cycles of life.... sow seeds and create your own little Eden?

Later life lends itself comfortably to horticulture, and wanting to put a wise head on young shoulders would simply deny them their own journey...a journey that may - or may not - eventually lead them to appreciate the joys and benefits of working in a garden.

I once saw a young chap wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan "Permission to shoot if ever seen in a garden centre".  'Nuff said!


le Jardinier

* Mrs O deserves a mention for taking all the photos I use on this month's post.... she's nifty with a Nikon!


  1. Good article Marc. I must say my interest in gardening has been slow but steady as I advance in years. What once even a few years ago seemed a bit of a chore is now very enjoyable and as you say a perfect place to reflect and contemplate the bigger issues in life. Martin

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