Does your sustainability include people?
Last weekend, gardener and Radicle contributor, Colin Stewart, shared a series of frank and heartfelt posts on Instagram. There is much to sympathise with and there are several issues raised in them that warrant conversation/exploration. I’ve been thinking about them a lot and though I’m not going to go into all of the issues now, I would like to spotlight the issue of gardeners’ pay, which I feel is so important and a theme of the posts.
When I talk to, particularly younger, fellow professional gardeners about their work, more often than not the subject of pay (or lack thereof) will crop up. It is also an issue that has been raised and discussed before via @decolonisethegarden (here and here).
Studying, training and gaining the experience to become a seasoned, competent, capable gardener doesn’t happen in an instant and it doesn’t come cheap. It takes time and effort and comes at a cost. Sadly, this too often goes unrecognised and unreflected in the pay offered within this industry. It is commonplace to see pay being advertised that is not at all commensurate with the level of knowledge, responsibilities and duties being demanded of gardeners.
A salary of £17-18k for a skilled and experienced propagator in the example Colin provides in his post is no joke. And the industry wonders why the skilled candidates aren’t there for them to hire. Roles with such low pay and high demands is hardly an attractive proposition to skill up for for many. Who can afford to do such a job? Meanwhile, a Kew role for a Botanical Horticulturist that Colin mentions for £19-20k doesn’t even cover a London living wage. And that from one of the most prestigious gardens in the land.
Who can afford to be a gardener?
I am reminded of a BBC Radio 4 episode I listened to last year of On Your Farm, titled Bridging the Skills Gap. On the programme they visited a well-known (within the industry) and highly regarded fruit, vegetable and flower farmer in Herefordshire that mainly supplies high-end customers in London.
Although the focus there is on commercial growing, I think it provides a good example/illustration of the issues facing gardeners in the horticultural industry. Much of it will be all too familiar with horticultural folk.
I am not naming the place or the people here (although I have linked the episode above) because I think the focus should be on the situation and the conditions. This example is not unique but it does serve to throw light on a general problem within the horticultural and growing professions. And it’s useful in providing a point of discussion.
About half way through the episode the conversation eventually turns to pay.
The presenter asks one of the growers working there what the pay is like. The response brushes aside the question with a: “…no amount of money would even come into what it means to be in a job and doing something that you actually love doing…”
There are people willing to do these jobs for not very much. For many, working in connection with the earth - in gardening or growing - is a calling. As we know, such a relationship and job can be healing and fulfilling. There are many benefits that go beyond the financial. But if the situation in the industry is that you have to work for next to nothing, then who actually has the privilege of being in this work? And if you’re scrabbling around to pay bills and living costs, how much can love for the job sustain you for really?
Two of the growers interviewed in the programme were career-changers who came from better paid professions, which in my experience is often the case with many gardeners too.
It comes as no surprise that farming, environment and gardening professions are among the least ethnically diverse occupations in the UK. There are many barriers preventing BPOC from considering or entering these professions and no doubt poor pay and prospects are amongst them, not to mention access to capital (financial, social, cultural…).
Later in the episode, the business owner admits that they have always relied on volunteers to be able to get all the work done - volunteers who work for no pay but instead receive food and board. She talks about how horticultural colleges are not providing people with the skills needed and that nobody knows anything about commercial/market growing on a larger scale.
“There are some colleges offering commercial horticulture courses. Where do you think the gap is? What’s missing?” asks the interviewer.
“I don’t know where those graduates are. They don’t answer anybody’s ads. Everybody’s struggling getting anyone with any experience and I’ve never had any application from anybody who’s been trained in growing,” comes the reply.
I refer back to my earlier point here. What is the incentive to spend time and money to skill up in this area when the pay is a pittance? The gap, the thing that’s missing, is pay and prospects. I also think that gardeners and growers are also, too often, treated pretty poorly in other ways too - often with little respect and acknowledgement for the work they do and the skill, wisdom and knowledge they possess, seen as bottom of the rung in the hierarchical organisational structures that we find ourselves stuck in.
The interviewer points to the growers there who have given up jobs in other professions to work there. She asks the business owner if it’s possible to make a living. The answer comes: “Yes. If you had to support a family, pay a mortgage and all other things that one has to do then probably not, it would be a bit tight. But the accommodation is free and I pay over minimum wage. And people who have been part of that and left, they’ve saved money.”
Towards the end of the episode, one of the employees who started as a volunteer and was now working full time and living on site in a cabin with one of the other growers comments: “It’s an option that a lot of people aren’t given when they are young. It’s something that actually is a very viable career path for lots of people.”
Really? Given all of the above, can we really say this is true?
I think what this situation really tells us is that you have to be able to afford to become a skilled/experienced gardener or grower.
Very often as well as financial capital, you also need the social capital to find and take the work (in prestigious places/roles, social capital is often further increased, which just compounds the inequity within the industry).
In all these respects, the industry is exclusionary. If you are not so privileged, it’s hard to make this profession work - unless of course you don’t need to earn enough to support a family, pay a mortgage and all those other things that one has to do…
As Colin points out in his posts, he’s “become keenly aware that having left the cosseted life of a horticultural trainee, your options, if you want to have a relationship with one garden, are basically to be a servant to the aristocracy/oligarchs, or work for an institution paying a rate that assumes you’re a career-changing lawyer, have a partner who’ll support you, or are a trustafarian.”
You can work for not-very-much in a prestigious/desirable garden or organisation - of which there are only a limited number and the pay is often dire, or, if you want to make decent money and a comfortable living, you serve the rich (whether that’s in garden design, landscaping or maintenance gardening).
Change the status quo
When the issue of low pay comes up, people might argue: “well then, find another job.” Or, “that’s just what the job/industry pays. It’s the going rate. What do you expect? That’s just how it is.”
I don’t believe these are useful or satisfactory responses.
Do we want green spaces and gardens and market gardens? Do we want them to be looked after and for them and the people who care for them to be healthy and thriving? Do we want an industry that is inclusive and diverse? If we value gardens and green spaces, then shouldn’t we value those who have a hand in creating and doing the hard work of taking care of them too? Do we want to behave and work in sustainable ways?
Horticultural training and knowledge takes time and money and skill to accumulate. Why should professional gardeners and growers not be recognised and remunerated properly and accordingly? It comes down to what we value and what we choose. How much, or little, people are paid is often a choice. What do we choose to measure as markers of success? Paying people fairly and a wage that is liveable is a choice. Looking to maximise profit for the few and to screw the workers is a choice.
There are ways for people running businesses to be intentional in being distributive of the value it creates (*&**).
For a start, voluntary codes and standards can be put in place to actively support a change in culture away from exploitation.
Does your sustainability include your gardeners’ pay?
At one point in the Radio 4 programme the business owner says: “This is very much a business and I’m a very business-like person. It needs to be viable. It’s a proper job. And even the volunteers, they do the same hours as the paid.”
I can’t help but wonder: if a business or organisation is unable to support paying a fair and liveable wage to its workers - if instead it requires the exploitation of people to create the value the business relies on - then how sustainable or viable a business is it really?
Isn’t it only fair for a proper job to pay a proper wage?
I want to be clear that this piece is not intended to shame anyone who finds themselves in any of these situations. But what I am interested in is interrogating the systems we perpetuate, questioning what it is we value and prioritise, and challenging the choices we make in how our businesses and organisations operate and in how we treat people.
Where and how can those of us who hold power and influence choose to do things differently?
How can we speak up to push for things to be done differently in the places we find ourselves?
* Kate Raworth has an interesting bit on this in her book, Doughnut Economics in a section that discusses “Who owns your labour?” (If anyone has any other resources they would like to point to, please let me know)
Doughtnut Economics by Kate Raworth
** ORFC 2021 session: Why Ownership Matters with Guy Singh-Watson, Gabriela Delgado and Josiah Meldrum
BBC R4’s On Your Farm: Bridging the Skills Gap episode (from 24 July 2022)
Colin Stewart’s Instagram posts: post 1/3, post 2/3, post 3/3
[Edit: including a link here to the Land Workers’ Alliance who do much needed and brilliant work. Please support them if you can. I am not aware of a horticultural equivalent, but if you know of one, please let me know.]
Radicle is a reader-supported publication. To support this work, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Wonderful post, Sui - loved feeling the fire in your words as I was reading!
The TL;DR of my long opinionated response is that Radicle should be an inspiration and catalyst for gardeners to make themselves visible - on the internet, not just social media - and speak frankly about how deep their knowledge and creativity is. There are more people on the internet than there are on Instagram, and social media can be a (safe and comfortable) echo chamber.
This could be the influence of my primary work, but there’s a lot of overlap with the creator economy; particularly regarding the way businesses are set up. There, yarn companies’ and publications’ reliance on novelty (a constant feed of new designers and/or designs) reminds me of gardening’s reliance on people who already have a substantial financial cushion. Both business models are weak because nobody has attempted to be creative: “We’ve found one way that works, so let’s assume that’ll always be the case.” Creative problem solving is a weak spot for this type of business, which is why they exploit it in individuals.
The trouble is - and I apologise for being vague, because I’m referring to confidential info - that these systems are weakening rapidly in creative industries. Instead of the above mentioned businesses adapting and changing to survive, there’s bartering at best, and at worst trying to reanimate a corpse. And at the same time, designers are taking greater ownership and control over their ideas, skills, and experience. This also means doing your own marketing and having a direct connection to people who support your work.
I’m not a professional gardener, and I know that the physical assets of land and property add complexity, but I wonder if this is part of the solution to the problem. (I also apologise if this ignorance about land/property makes some of my points irritating and redundant). It’s the beginning of a new road or untrodden path, but speaking from my own experience of making people aware of what it’s like to be a knitwear designer, talking openly and having an online presence as an individual has begun to make a difference. Speaking for myself, my blog posts get consistent traffic, even those posted nearly 3 years ago when I first started speaking up. There’s been massive support from peers, gratitude from hobby knitters who were shocked to learn about the working conditions, and very minor pushback from 4 people who thought they could tell me how to use my platform…or hated my “sermons”. Most importantly the blog posts have been shared widely.
I’m convinced this is because more of the public/non-industry folk simply had no idea, and now they have a reliable source of information that can be disseminated openly. If I’d kept this in my newsletter or on Instagram, things wouldn’t have begun to shift. Mine is a small and feminine niche, but there are similar patterns based on what you’ve written. Unlike money and other tangible assets, you can definitely take intellectual property and creative power with you when you go. The more that creative people (gardeners included) realise how much the infrastructure depends on their individual gifts, the more confident I hope they’ll feel about speaking up collectively and individually. They are the heart, soul and lifeblood. There’d be no gardens without gardeners; land, yes, but no gardens to enjoy.
I’ll stop here. You’re doing an amazing job leading the way, Sui. More gardeners need to take courage and come along with you. Thank you 🙏🏾💕🌿