I never really had a clue what I was going to do with my life when it was time to leave school and grow up. I can still remember the conversation with my guidance teacher when the penny dropped that one day I would have to find something else to do other than just turning up at school.
To help guide me on my way I took a week’s work experience at the local botanic garden which at that age and clearly the time spent here didn’t put me off. Getting a wee shot of a ride-on lawnmower certainly helped, despite me nearly putting it through the potting shed wall!
There were some similarities between school and the workplace. I went from talking nonsense with my schoolmates during playtime to talking nonsense with my workmates during piece-time, but it did give me a taste of what the life of a gardener is – glasshouse work feeding plants and potting them on, cutting grass, dead-heading perennials to encourage more flowers and of course, some weeding.
One moment stuck in my brain is the end of a sunny day outdoors. While admiring all the trees and colourful plantings around the pond, the gardener who was looking after me said: “We don’t get paid much for what we do but being a gardener is a wonderful way of life.”
The first part of that comment wouldn’t mean anything to me until later on in life. It certainly has been and still is disappointing that the benefits of gardening and the work of skilled and trained gardeners who tend them is not being fully valued in monetary terms or for the trade it is.
As for the latter he couldn’t have been more spot on. Every day outdoors in the fresh air, whether it’s rain, sun, wind or snow, working with nature to create beautiful outdoor spaces using propagation and cultivation is a skill that’s been honed for hundreds of years.
So far I’ve worked in public parks where it’s all about displays to be enjoyed by folk looking for a break from everyday life, botanical gardens where the focus is on plant conservation and now I’m lucky to be managing and preserving one of our country’s historic gardens. There are jobs that focus specifically on individual aspects of horticulture such as glasshouse work, plant propagation, rock gardens, individual groups of plants or tree care, and it’s always been my dream to have my own nursery growing and selling the plants I love and hopefully giving out some useful gardening advice.
I’ve been a gardener since I left school nearly 30 years ago and I couldn’t have picked a better career.
My career in gardening has also presented me with opportunities I never would have dreamed of when I first started out, taking me around the world.
During the period of my career when I was working in rock and alpine gardens I was awarded a place botanising in the areas around Saas Fee and Zermatt in the Swiss Alps. My place on this Alpine Garden Society trip led by knowledgeable experts was fully funded thanks to them and the Merlin Trust. This was set up by the wonderful Valerie Finnis in memory of her son-in-law Merlin to give young gardeners between the ages of 18 and 34 the opportunity to travel and discover a passion for plants.
I don’t think I can ever underestimate just how valuable this two week experience was, helping me understand how to grow alpine plants after seeing them growing in their natural habitat and how much it inspired me, making me a better gardener and person all round.
Like the Merlin Trust many other horticultural groups are willing to aid gardeners, having similar grant schemes to help fund not only life-changing trips but also training courses to improve career opportunities.
Thanks to gardening I’ve also had the privilege of spending time in Bhutan, landlocked between Tibet and India. In 2003 I helped their staff set up the then new Botanical Garden in Serbithang on the outskirts of the capital Thimphu. Wow, what an opportunity that was – getting to work and meet people from a different culture.
I’m pretty certain if it wasn’t for an interest in plants and gardening I wouldn’t have visited either of those countries in my life. One day I hope to return and visit the gardens of many more countries along the way.
Through Brightwater Holidays I enjoyed a return visit to Switzerland where I was in awe of the plants and scenery around the alpine village of Wengen. I also led an autumn tour of the gardens and sites of Perthshire. And of course next year I’ll be joining the guests onboard Emerald Cruises for a tour of the blooms of Holland and Belgium.
It’s great there are so many new gardeners out there and for any looking to take this interest further than a hobby I can thoroughly recommend it.
Brian Cunningham is head gardener at Scone Palace and a presenter on the BBC’s Beechgrove Garden.