The Gardener's Apprentice

Perennial Gardeners

Some day I am going to open a school to train professional gardeners.  I have ample proof that such a school is much needed.  After spending years tending my gardens and those of others, not to mention fraternizing with landscape designers and garden lovers, I have discovered a universal truth.  Lots of horticulturally-inclined people want to design gardens for others, but almost no one wants to tend those gardens once they are up and growing.  Those who do are often under-prepared and lack the focus and discipline that the field requires.

Why is there such a shortage?  The reasons are many and somewhat complicated, but money is probably the simplest.  Perennial gardening, except in areas with year-round gardening climates, is a seasonal activity, so professional gardeners must earn twelve months worth of income during eight or nine months of temperate weather.  In order to do that, they must charge what many garden owners might consider a prohibitive hourly wage.  The alternative is to find something else to do—teaching, lecturing, writing, etc.—during the cold months.  Lecturing and writing require specific skill sets and even talented practitioners have a hard time getting enough work and income.

Becoming a skilled gardener generally requires a combination of “book learning” and hands-on experience.  The hands-on experience is cheap—unless you count the cost of garden gloves—but it takes time.  Academic coursework costs money and the expenditure may not be commensurate with the income potential.  When I studied at the New York Botanical Garden, we learned just about everything except how to identify and cultivate money trees.  That was clearly a significant omission.

And then, of course, there is the physical part.  Gardening is a labor of love for me and anyone else who puts in significant time with plants, but even the most besotted of us admit to aching backs, knees, hips and elbows.  Not everyone can smile through the muscle spasms and continue with the pruning.  Gardening income alone is not usually sufficient to support the health insurance needed to pay for medical treatment when those maladies no longer respond to the cheap and easy Tylenol-and-heating pad remedy.

All of those factors add up to one conclusion: professional gardeners must either be willing to endure years of a low-wage lifestyle or have a dependable second income—usually in the form of a spouse or partner who is not in the horticultural industry.

My school for professional gardeners would include coursework during the winter months, thereby providing much-needed employment to experienced gardeners able to lecture on subjects like plant identification, maintenance and propagation.  My novice gardeners would also be required to study the basics of money management, in anticipation of their limited future income prospects.

During the growing season my students would be in gardens, learning their craft under the supervision of more experienced gardeners.  Clients would pay a reduced rate to have their beds, borders and containers maintained by supervised students.  In exchange the clients would get professionally tended gardens and occasional appeals to help support the school’s endowment.  At the end of their academic and practical training, the students would be disciplined gardeners, able to tell a plant from a weed and get to a job on time.

Of course, gardening schools already exist.  Many are in England, but botanical institutions across the United States also offer horticulture courses, either on a stand-alone basis, or leading to various certifications.  Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, offers a comprehensive training program, with practical work done in a horticultural paradise.

My school would be less ambitious, the coursework shorter and the results more immediate.  It would, with any luck, produce skilled gardeners who could take on the challenges of large and small landscapes filled with annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees.  The area’s gardens would be better tended overall, thanks to the gardeners-in-training.

Of course, my gardening school is only a figment of my imagination right now, but the need is real.  Property owners are spending thousands of dollars on wonderful landscapes, only to see their investment threatened by the weeds that take up residence almost immediately.  If you are good at gardening and under-employed, take up the challenge.  The weeds are waiting for you.

Beatrix Havergall (second from right) ran a successful women's gardening school in England

Beatrix Havergall (second from right) ran a successful women’s gardening school in England