On the value(s) of gardeners

Having been involved over the last 10 days in a green industry and City of Cape Town consultation on “Alternatives for watering of gardens and landscapes” as a response to the water crisis in Cape Town over the last three years; a nationally convened crisis meeting with Institute of Landscape Architects of South Africa (ILASA) and the representatives of the green industry to discuss responses to the decision by the University of Pretoria to close the BSc Landscape Architecture undergraduate degree that has been running successfully for more than 30 years, due to poor uptake of students for this degree; a two day Co-Create Design Festival in Cape Towns V&A waterfront focusing on urban regeneration and resilience and last night I attended an APES presentation and a discussion by Stephen Granger who is the Manager of Major Projects and Landscape Architect Ancunel Steyn both of the City of Cape Town on “Focus On Preserving & Managing Environmental Resources Plus Important Public Open Spaces Under Increasing Development Pressure”  

Both these presenters, who are experienced and highly qualified professionals, highlighted the value of urban natural environments and the problems of establishing, managing and preserving these fragile but valuable spaces.

All of these functions that I attended seemed to me to have a clear thread that highlighted for me, in many ways, the lack of a clear understanding, on the part of most professional participants, and even more so the “public,” of the value of the urban living environment for the sustenance, resilience and survival of its inhabitants. This goes hand in hand with the low value our society seems to place on the individuals and professions that are engaged in establishing, protecting and managing these vital components of the urban fabric. This is so, despite all the green hype of business, sustainability buzzwords in the media, ecological services valuation studies, and climate change attention given by politicians and environmental activists; The people on the ground who have the knowledge skills, experience and passion to provide these services are not afforded the status or remuneration by our society – this similar to the poor pay and conditions of service of other industries providing basic and vital services to society such as nurses and police.

This post on The Plant Hunter by Georgina Reid has a similar story to tell of the problem in Australia and the rest of the world

Where’s a Gardener When you Need One?

As a high school student I had no idea what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’. When I did a careers quiz as a 16-year-old and it suggested I become florist, I was offended. If it were suggested I become a gardener, I would have been equally as offended. A combination of ignorance and ego and a culture intent on de-valuing work that actually matters, meant I thought I could do better.

Even in my early days of being a landscape designer (I came to plants as a mature age student, after dumping my ideas of what constituted a sensible/smart career) I never called myself a gardener, and would get quietly offended when people introduced me as one. I am ashamed of this now. ‘Gardener’ is a title I both own and aspire to in equal measures.

My experience, as embarrassingly outlined above, illustrates an issue more profound than personal. It describes a crisis of perception with increasingly vast social and environmental impacts. Gardening, and it’s slightly more serious sounding sister, horticulture, is rarely seen as a valued, intelligent or financially rewarding career pathway. Gardening is a hobby, not a vocation. Gardening is un-thinking, un-skilled manual labour.

When viewed in this way, what 18-year-old in their right mind would choose to become a gardener, to study horticulture? What career adviser or parent would suggest taking on a career that won’t earn much money, offers little social status, and involves bloody hard work?

On the flip side (which is, of course, where I sit), what other career is there that’s more important than caring for and sustaining the land we live upon and the lives that exist in relation to it? When our existence as a species is drilled down to hard truths, there’s few things more important than growing and caring – the twin roles of the gardener.

Yet truths don’t seem to fly these days. As our climate gets hotter, wetter, drier, wilder; as our dialogue with each other and the natural world becomes confused and disjointed; knowing the world, the actual real world, is strangely devalued. Horticulture, the science of growing and caring for plants, is rarely found in Australian universities anymore. In a paper titled The Workforce Challenge in Horticulture, Professor Jim Pratley states that in 2010 there were fewer than 80 graduates in horticulture from Australian universities. This has halved since the 1980s.

The experience of Daniel Ewings, national Operations manager at Andreasens Green Wholesale Nurseries, Sydney echoes the decline in formal horticulture study. He’s found it increasingly difficult to recruit apprentices over the last 10 years. “School leavers these days seem to want to go into a less hands on field than horticulture.” And if they do want hands-on, there’s other issues: “Trades like carpentry offer much higher rates of pay. So if you want to work with your hands, outdoors, there’s better paying options than plants.”

For Daniel, working in a plant nursery is a starting point for a wide range of careers in horticulture like further study in landscape architecture or design, managing garden maintenance teams for councils, owning a nursery business, and more. And the money, well, it comes too. “Horticulture starts off with low pay. But if you’re really good at it, and if you love it, you’ll end up making money”, Daniel says.

The horticulture industry is facing a skills shortage, according to Daniel. “We really need to try and lift our game on recruitment. We need to try and find ways to attract young people to the industry”.

On one hand, there’s less people choosing horticulture as a career, and on the other, the importance of the job has never been greater. City planners and councils are realising the importance of ‘green infrastructure’, as they call it, and are creating policies around it. Our future cities need to be integrated ecologies. They need trees, gardens, green roofs, wetlands, urban forests, parks and farms. “But how do we tend to this proposed nature in our cities?” asks Thomas Gooch, a Melbourne based landscape architect and one of the trustees of the newly launched Global Gardening Trust. “Typical maintenance regimes won’t cut it. Positioning gardening as infrastructure to tend these proposed natural systems in our cities is a really important investment.”

https://za.pinterest.com/BioAg/

Highlighting the value of gardening as infrastructure in a changing climate is one of the premises of the Global Gardening Trust. Founded by a group of young, passionate professionals connected to the gardening world, the trust is currently offering a three-month internship at De Wiersse – a historic 38-acre garden in the Netherlands. “This program begins to support and learn from established gardens like De Wiersse”, Thomas says. “Things like succession planting, gardening with the rhythms of plants and seasonality.” The heaving, growing and transformative nature our cities need, and are thankfully moving towards, needs to be gardened not maintained. There’s a difference.

“There is a clear distinction between gardening and maintenance. Maintenance is about doing as little as you need to keep it green – creating a bullet proof minimum viable product. Gardening is about investing time and materials into planting, managing plant and soil health, pruning over time, giving plants space to flower. That difference is where we’re positioning the trust”, Thomas says.

“If you invest in humans as gardeners to care for landscapes, you’re going to get richer plant diversity, more pollen stocks and stronger insect health. We’ll have landscapes that are more adaptable to changes in climate because we’ll understand the rhythms and patterns of nature.”

The Global Gardening Trust puts great value on the role of the gardener to create and sustain beauty and create and sustain life. “The Trust is not about falling into a romantic narrative, it’s about valuing the rhythms of nature and giving that a profession. It means hard work, discipline, turning up and doing it beautifully,” says Thomas. Romance is a good thing and certainly a driver for many in the garden, but it’s only the beginning. “Putting a value on gardening can put a value on where we’re heading. A society that values plants and systems, and that is integrated with nature is a clever society – one that supports all life, not destroys it.”

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