New entrants to horticulture face a changing industry that is under more pressure than ever before. If you’re planning a new career in horticulture or working towards career progression in the industry, it’s essential to understand these five key challenges. Here we look in-depth at the challenges and also see why they can offer new opportunities too, if we’re prepared for them.
The horticulture industry in the UK faces an uncertain future as growers try to juggle the impact of increasingly diverse weather conditions, growing pressure from cheap imported food, and changing customer demand. “As a result, some well-loved British produce, including cucumbers, tomatoes, salad onions and mushrooms have been labelled as endangered, due to a fall in home production at a time when consumer demand is increasing. Growers aren’t seeing the returns they need to give them the financial confidence to invest.” (Caterer and Hotelkeeper.
Challenge 1: Horticulture has never been more competitive
There are currently 1,126,000 people (approximately 4% of the UK workforce) working in horticulture and the number continues to grow. Horticulture is the most popular choice of second career among 35 – 55 year olds. In addition, there are an estimated 500,000 volunteers working in the sector on a regular basis. Whilst horticulture offers a good range of jobs, there are now many people applying for each position, so job applicants need to be as well-prepared as possible. We’ll show you how later in this article.
As well as garden maintenance, planning and design, horticulture also covers fruit and vegetable production, nursery growing and cut flower production, making it a key element of the Britain’s agriculture industry, providing many jobs in rural areas.
Challenge 2: As an industry, horticulture has never been under more pressure
Challenges include growing pressure from customers to keep prices low whilst maintaining quality, cheap imported food and flowers, and environmental concerns. These pressures have seen many producers go out of business, whilst others have had to scale back or radically restructure.
In a recent interview with Startup Donut, Guy Watson of Riverford Organic, which delivers 40,000 organic boxes weekly across the UK, as well as organic meat, eggs, bread, milk and other dairy products, noted that business has been extremely tough in recent years. In order to survive, he had to radically overhaul the business and cut out waste. He explained: “Now we’re enjoying modest growth again and we’re a well-run and profitable business ― which is no small achievement these days.” (See Start-up Donut for the full interview.)
For those, like Watson, willing to rise to the challenge, the pressures now facing horticulture also offer exciting new opportunities. The public are increasingly concerned about the quality and origins of their food, and as a result there is growing demand for locally produced, fresh produce. In addition, many chefs and caterers are also actively seeking out high quality local produce, and with a budget of £10b to spend on food each year, they present a huge opportunity for growers. This new customer demand has lead to the emergence of many small local, organic producers, box schemes, and other innovative new businesses.
Worton Farm Shop and Organic Garden, launched seven years ago, is a thriving example of how new small businesses are adapting to meet customer demands. Located five miles north-west of Oxford, the eight-acre smallholding has a cafe and farm shop at it’s heart. The site is divided into a highly productive four acres of field crops – including potatoes and kale – with two and a half acres of intensive crops, a 650 sq m unheated greenhouse and five polytunnels.
Worton is run by David and Anneke Blake, who seek to create a smallholding that is both beautiful and highly productive. In a recent Telegraph article on Worton Sarah Raven noted: “That’s one of Anneke’s things – she likes the place to look as well as taste good. She is a book designer and cares deeply about things being beautiful. The café is full of colour – cream cotton tablecloths with brilliant blocks of purple, orange, crimson and yellow and candlesticks with multicoloured candles to match. She says they have a number of colleagues who are organic growers who do not prioritise beauty and their work just feels like a slog. If it’s beautiful, you get total pleasure from it every day. That’s good for them and good for the customers.”
For gardeners and landscapers, a knowledge of sustainable gardening practice has never been more important. Studies by the RHS reveal a growing interest in sustainable gardening and environmentally-friendly garden design among the general public. Gardeners and designers who specialise in this area are in especially high demand. However, we all need an up-to-date working knowledge that we can bring to our day-to-day work in horticulture.
Challenge 3:Climate change means that the future of horticulture is uncertain
Scientists disagree on exactly how climate change will influence the UK weather, but whatever the future brings, it seems likely to have far-reaching effects on production horticulture, as well as our domestic gardens; historic gardens, and many of our native plants. We are already seeing a significant increase in extreme weather events such as floods, heatwaves and droughts, which all create new challenges for growers and gardeners.
Some growers are turning climate change to their advantage by growing crops such as wine grapes and olives which would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, found that while by 2050 the amount of land suitable for vineyards in traditional wine-growing regions such as Chile, South Africa and Australia, will decrease dramatically, large areas of of northern Europe, including the UK, will be ideal for viticulture.
For more on the likely impact of climate change see the National Trust Report: Gardening in the Global Greenhouse.
Challenge 4: Customer needs are changing rapidly
A recent survey by Lloyds TSB showed that people have less time for gardening than ever before, partly because they are working longer hours and have more demands on their free time. As a result many of them are filling their gardens with hot tubs, summer houses and other luxury items rather than more traditional planting beds and lawns. In the long term, this may mean a reducing demand for plants and traditional gardening services.
However, the study also showed that people are now more willing to invest in their outdoor space – with a lacklustre housing market and mortgages hard to come by, many people are staying put and improving their current home rather than moving. With a warming climate added to the mix, gardens are increasingly seen as valuable extra living space. The Lloyds TSB study estimated that over £14bn was spent on gardens in 2012 and that the average garden is now worth £1,928. As the garden becomes more and important, time-poor customers are increasingly willing to employ gardeners, designers and landscapers to create their dream outdoor space.
Challenge 5: Qualifications are crucial… but experience and people skills count for a lot too
At one time, very few professional gardeners had formal qualifications, their knowledge was hewn through years of hard practical experience, apprenticed under expert gardeners and growers. Whilst experience remains important, 60% of those working in horticulture now have formal qualifications too. One recent study of job advertisements for entry level positions showed that 78% asked for a qualification of Level 2 or above.
Relevant qualifications are especially useful for those hoping for higher paid job roles such as managerial, technical and specialist positions.
Entry level salaries average at just £12,000 a year, although some roles are more well-paid. Example starting salaries include:
Horticulture Managers £29,861
Horticultural Trades £14,318
Gardeners and Grounds people – £16,764
Low starting salaries can be a hurdle for those considering horticulture as a second career. If this applies to you, think about whether you can use some of your current skills to move ‘sideways’ as your first step into horticulture; for instance, if you work in sales, perhaps you can move sideways into a sales-oriented role within horticulture, and from there move towards the job role you really want. Another option is to launch your own business or become self-employed. 42% of people working in horticulture are self-employed.
Many people are attracted to horticulture because it will allow them to spend a lot of time outdoors, working with their hands and the soil, but remember that people skills are important too, whether working with customers, clients or colleagues, you will still need to deal with people effectively on a daily basis. Other skills that you might also need, depending on the role, include planning and organisation, business skills, marketing and IT.
There are more ways than ever to earn qualifications, meaning that whatever your situation there will be a a training route to suit you. Options range from full-time apprenticeships, college and degree courses, to part-time study and distance learning.
For those seeking a second career, part-time study and distance learning often offer the most realistic alternatives, allowing you to continue working and juggling family demands whilst studying. They are also a good option for those already working in horticulture and planning for their next career move.
At Edinburgh Garden School, for example, we offer courses leading to the RHS Level 2 Certificate in Principles of Horticulture, and the RHS Level 3 Certificates in Principles of Garden Planning, Construction and Planting, and Principles of Plant Growth, Health and Applied Propagation.
The Level 2 is a well-regarded entry level qualification, recognised by both employers and the general public. It provides a good foundation level of knowledge.
The Level 3 qualifications are suited to those who wish to take their next step in a horticulture career, or to enter the industry in a higher-paid post.
Combining one of these certificates with some practical experience will give you the best possible chance of success. Again, practical experience can be gain full-time (for instance, through an intensive summer project or working holiday) or through part-time volunteering. Many National Trust, RHS and Botanical gardens have well-established volunteer programmes where you give a couple of hours per month. Such programmes are also excellent for building contacts and knowledge of the industry. However, the more popular programmes have a waiting list, so apply early.
Soil Association – http://www.soilassociation.org
RHS – http://www.rhs.org.uk
National Trust – http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk
HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) – http://www.the-hta.org.uk