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17 Septiembre 2005

Wilting of the green

CAROLINE STEWART

The Scotsman (Reino Unido) [Crónica]

Imagine a country with no parks to visit, flowers to admire or salad vegetables for sale. It's not something that could arise from global warming - not yet, anyway. The threat is simpler than that - we are seriously at risk of running out of professional gardeners.

Within a generation a decline in practical skills and a change in job culture has seriously eroded the numbers of young people training in horticulture, and unless something is done there will not be enough people to look after the country's public spaces, parks and historic gardens, or with the expertise to sow and grow.

How to recruit and train the next generation of gardeners is a pressing worry among horticultural bodies, and one of several themes of a major international conference next week, to be hosted by the National Trust for Scotland. Organised with Edinburgh City Council, it is one of more than 250 events celebrating the trust's 60 years of garden ownership.

One of the speakers will be David Mitchell, the curator of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, whose own highly practical career path was nothing unusual among others of his generation, but the route he took is far less common today.

He started out at the potting sheds of Maxwelton House in Dumfriesshire before going to Threave to spend two years honing his skills on one of the few courses where getting your hands dirty is central to learning about plants. "I couldn't get that kind of practical training now if I wanted to, it's just not there," says Mitchell, who went on to Inverewe as a plant propagator, managed the Suntrap Garden at Oatridge College, and then became a glasshouse supervisor at the Botanics.

"Opportunities have not been taken away, they have just faded away - it's no-one's fault. But if we don't address the shortage of people coming into the profession, who will pass on skills once people of my generation retire? There is not the same passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next."

The cost of practical training is one of the reasons for its decline. But the emphasis on getting young people into higher education and bound for desk jobs is another major cause.

Mitchell says the way society perceives gardening is a key to reversing the decline. The way careers services sell the job to young people is one of the keys to saving its future, and at present the profession is being sold short.

"There's been a feeling that anyone can be a gardener. If you are sitting there with six Standard grades with the opportunity to work in IT or bend your back, which would you rather do? It's ironic that we are in this situation, when gardening is plastered all over TV, but makeover gardening is not what we're about. It is difficult for young people to get practical experience, if society sees them as no more than grass-cutters."

Despite the rise of the celebrity gardener, Mitchell believes horticulturists tend to hide their light under a bushel. It can be one of the more exotic forms of employment, taking them to far-flung corners of the world on conservation and botanic missions and even into broadcasting for garden programmes. And all of this is before you consider the lucrative worlds of gardening retail and landscape design.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, amateur gardeners last year spent £5 billion on gardening. To continue as a part of this economy, the industry needs to make sure those behind the tills at garden centres continue to know their onions. Maybe cash from the government or the booming garden-centre industry could finance training and recruitment.

The consequences of a decline in the numbers coming into professional gardening will be wide-reaching if they are not addressed: "There may be a reduction in the number of plants, then visitors, then a failure to be able to preserve our heritage," warns Mitchell. "Imagine a world without plants: no flowers for Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, no parks. This conference is about getting dialogue going to take control of our destiny," he adds.

"We can start to educate society about the importance of gardening - from the mint in toothpaste to the bags of lettuce in the supermarket and the grass in public parks, plants touch lives in so many ways."

Scotland's horticultural legacy is between 300 and 400 years old, Mitchell says, with nurserymen, seedsmen, plantsmen and plant collectors all at the forefront of gardening. "But the legacy is wilting. Training at a classic Victorian kitchen garden, I learned more from gardeners in their fifties and sixties than from anyone else.

"It is now almost impossible to get good apprenticeships on an estate; they are not taking people on as they used to. But the skills are still needed."

Scotland's horticultural legacy is found in all gardens, from public parks to family seats and artistic landscapes. As part of the conference, delegates will have the chance to visit some inspirational places. A trip to the Edinburgh Botanics will enable them to see a practical training environment. Other visits, to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation near Dumfries and to Little Sparta in Lanarkshire, will show just how big the vision of what is loosely known as gardening can be.

Thanks to the gardeners of the past, Scotland has a formidable body of work, which could not exist without the gardeners of today.

"We need to take control of our destiny," Mitchell adds. "We need people who want to grow plants which attract visitors. We need to be training the head gardeners of the future."

 

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