Gardening involves planning and implementing the cultivation of plants in gardens, parks and allotments, for eating or aesthetic enjoyment.
Gardeners are employed to do a range of tasks, including:
- Planting and growing seeds and cuttings.
- Using a range of gardening equipment such as lawn mowers, hedge trimmers, strimmers and chainsaws.
- Preparing gardens for plants by digging or clearing ground.
- Maintaining existing gardens by tidying, pruning and removing weeds.
- Protecting gardens from pests such as slugs.
Gardeners follow the seasons and can therefore expect to do different work in different parts of the year, and there is usually less work in the winter months than in the summer.
Gardeners often work on an hourly basis, the rate of which varies according to expertise, services offered and the scale of a given project. This can therefore vary from as little as the minimum wage for unskilled jobs such as raking leaves, to over £25 for more skilled work such as pruning or landscaping. Contracted gardeners can earn from £10,000 to over £20,000 depending on experience and ability, and top landscape gardeners a good deal more.
The gap between being able to complete basic gardening tasks such as burning leaves and being able to landscape and plant large gardens is a big one, and responsibilities vary accordingly.
Many gardeners spend time planning a garden and then continue to maintain that garden over time, helping the owner with anything they require.
Planting is an important part of the job as gardeners are often asked to produce attractive plants or flowers and food. Care for plants is also necessary and this can mean spotting diseases and pests, as well as limiting or encouraging growth where desired.
Meeting the needs of an employer or client is always the priority and this can mean working to restricted schedule or budget or meeting specific demands.
No formal qualifications are required to be a gardener but a passion for plants and working outdoors is essential (the ability to make plants grow well is something that usually comes with a passion for plants but is certainly no less important).
Some people do choose to complete formal qualifications. The most common, at basic or introductory level, are:
- The BTEC First Certificate in Horticulture or National Certificate in Horticulture
- The National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC) Certificate in Gardening.
- The NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) in horticulture.
- The correspondence learning course with the Horticultural Correspondence College
Higher-level qualifications include:
- The BTEC HND, foundation degree or degree in horticulture
- A diploma with Kew or Edinburgh botanical gardens
- The RHS Advanced National Certificate or Diploma in Horticulture
Further academic qualifications are available, such as university degrees in dendrology, botany or horticultural science, but these tend to focus more on theoretical, scientific study than practical gardening.
Gardening demands a range of practical skills including:
- Knowing how to treat different species of plants in order to get the best from them
- Organising and anticipating the planting and development of gardens far in advance
- Being able to operate a range of gardening equipment
- Having the business and organisational skills to coordinate and maximise different sources of income (if self-employed)
Gardeners are required to travel to and around different gardens, often with their own equipment, and this means that a driving licence is often essential, even if working for a local authority. Some gardening tasks such as chainsaw operation may require certificates of competence from the National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC) and Lantra (the Sector Skills Council for the environmental and land-based sector).
With regards to more sophisticated gardening work, as building is to architecture, so the process of designing gardens is often seen as an art form, requiring a keen sense of vision, creativity and aesthetic judgement.
These are not conventional skills that can be taught, however, so a good way get an idea of this part of the trade is to work with somebody with experience and study the design and layout of existing gardens in books, magazines and on the internet.
Gardening is physical work which involves lots of digging and carrying and therefore a reasonable level of fitness. Conditions are not usually dangerous, although the use of some heavy-duty equipment does require protection such as goggles, gloves, boots or hard hats.
Most gardening work is done outdoors and conditions may therefore be cold and wet as well as hot and sunny. Also, the amount of practical work that can be done in winter and autumn is limited by the weather, the amount of daylight and the limited tasks available.
Gardening is a flexible job and as many gardeners are self-employed they can balance the supply of own availability with the demand for work they can find. Gardeners employed for gardening businesses or for local government authorities such as city councils can expect to work up to 40 hours a week as with a normal job.
During busy times in spring and summer many gardeners work at weekends or do overtime to meet the increased demand.
People without experience or qualifications might consider an apprenticeship as a good way to build their knowledge and skills, although this will depend on local availability. See the government’s Apprenticeships website for more information:
Local authorities are probably the largest employer and these can be found all around the country through local council websites.
As most gardening work is done on a local, private basis, applicants should look around their area to find a major employer, such as an estate or garden centre, or start to build their own network of business through local advertisements or a private website.
Career ProgressionStarting out, many gardeners look for private work in their local area or with established gardening services. With experience it is possible to apply to more advanced gardening operations, including:
- Botanical gardens
- National parks
- Local authorities
- Private residences or stately homes
- Garden centres or nurseries
Many self-employed gardeners open private businesses and try to develop these, but more conventional progression would involve completing qualifications and becoming a supervisor or manager and then perhaps the head of a team, as head gardener for example.
With experience and qualifications gardeners can move into more specialised areas of the industry such as landscaping, green or groundskeeping (maintaining golf courses or sports areas), arboriculture and tree surgery (the care of trees and shrubs), and nursery work (selling plants for gardeners).
Roger Little aged 52 is a landscape gardener working in Oxford.How long have you been working as a gardener?
Around eight years. Before this I was self-employed as a builder and I started doing some “hard” landscaping jobs as part of this. Hard landscaping involves building features such as walls, patios, pergolas and so on – the things that form the structure of a garden.
As I did more work in gardens I started to become interested in soft landscaping, getting an idea about plants and how colours work in a garden. Eventually I decided to move into gardening exclusively and started promoting gardening services, slowly building a business.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
This depends heavily on the time of year. From December to February the cold usually prevents much work on the soft features of gardens, and these can be difficult months if you don’t have projects on the go.
The basic structure of my work is to juggle two or three different small-to-medium sized projects at once so this begins with meeting a clients and discussing their requirements, suggesting options and then getting back to them with a full breakdown of cost and time for the whole project.
Most people budget up to £5000 for a project, although some do spend more, and it is important to factor in your costs adequately at this stage – people will always try to get more out of you by asking for guarantees, maintenance and so on, but you have to bear in mind that you are operating a business.
Once a project is agreed it is up to me to finish it so a typical day involves working on projects – it is a good idea to have projects at different stages, one at the hard stage, the other at the soft, planting stage to maximize the amount you can do in a day.
What do you like and dislike about the job?
In short, I love working outdoors and I love plants. Watching the seasons change around you and being an active part of that process is wonderful.
Anticipating growth and translating a vision from your mind to paper and then planting and watching the results appear is very rewarding for me, even if it isn’t my garden! I take great pride in seeing things move from the planning stage to fruition.
In addition, working with private clients allows much greater artistic freedom, and that is something you miss out on with more commercial contracting.
On the downside, although the job also offers a certain amount of freedom in that being self-employed means I can choose the hours I work, it does tend to mean the opposite - I think about work all the time.
Supporting a family this way is particularly stressful and you feel you can’t take a break or a holiday as this might mean the business would suffer.
Starting off can also be difficult, especially when you have to do everything yourself. Sometimes you have to take any work just to keep earning, and this can mean hard physical labour without much reward – gardeners will often employ you to do the jobs they don’t like.
Any other advice?
Building a reputation and portfolio is very important. This can be achieved by doing good work – people love to show off their gardens and will often recommend you to their friends. Once people who are keen gardeners start using you regularly then you know you have become established.
You have to think about other ways to increase earnings and one way to do this is to start working with related tradespeople such as blacksmiths and carpenters and to send the business for a commission (to build a shed for example).
If you want to take on larger projects you need to start building your resources and buying serious equipment, such as diggers or rollers; although this is costly it can bring greater earnings.
Finally, your plants are your legacy to a garden and it is important to source good plants. While it is important to have a good local nursery it is also a good idea to get to know specialist suppliers for different kinds of plants.