From desktops to dahlias: how we ditched the grind for the garden
In search of more fulfilling lives in the fresh air, more people than ever are retraining as gardeners, as Alice Vincent discovers ‘Gardening was always very much in me’
Rebecca Fincham from St Albans – publisher-turned-garden designer @rebeccafincham_
On paper, Rebecca Fincham’s career looked pretty enviable – a publicity and events manager for publishers such as Faber, she organised literary festivals and managed book tours for authors including Carol Ann Duffy and Adam Kay. “I loved it and I did find it fulfilling,” the 43-year-old says. But, in 2018, after 17 years in the role, she was feeling the need for a change.
Then two things happened in the course of the same week to crystallise her decision to leave the industry: “I became a mum and got listed as a Bookseller Rising Star,” recalls Rebecca. “It was a real moment of being pulled in two different directions. I was starting to question what I wanted from my life and how I wanted it to look next.”
Becoming a parent, Rebecca says, “returned me to my own childhood, which was in the countryside”. She grew up on a hop farm, surrounded by sheep and hops, and comes from a long line of hobbyist vegetable growers. As a child, she says: “I was always in the garden helping to pick strawberries, deadhead sweet peas and water the tomatoes in the holidays.” Suddenly, her home in a city with a tiny courtyard garden didn’t feel right.
It took two further milestones for Rebecca to finally accept a place on the RHS Level 2 gardening course, which was spread out over 18 months and cost £1,500. “I turned 40 and life was getting intense in the way it does at that time – grief was hammering down the door after the loss of friends and relatives. I started to realise that life is short and you have to take what you want to do and get on with it – you don’t always get a second chance.
“I think gardening was always very much in me,” she says. “But
I’ve learnt that what I get now is visibility. I do a morning’s hard work and I can stand back and see what I’ve done.”
Rebecca’s currently finishing her Level 3 Plants & Planting for Garden Design while maintaining and designing local gardens, looking after her own allotment and volunteering her publicity skills to run the
National Garden Scheme’s Hertfordshire Instagram account. “The change of career and working outside has sustained me through some of life’s most difficult challenges these past few years,” she says. “No doubt: the coldest, wettest day on Hertfordshire clay rivals the best that publishing could offer.”
Is your garden your happy place? Have you ever dreamt of swapping your uninspiring 9-5 for a more fulfilling career tending the land as a horticulturist? You are not alone because the industry is enjoying a boom in interest and enthusiasm – people simply can’t get enough of retraining as gardeners, it seems.
Last summer the RHS reported a 25 per cent increase in applications for its diploma in Horticultural Practice, a sixfold oversubscription of applicants to places. The diploma is a two-year course (known as “Level 3” and “Level 4” to those within the industry), that’s the equivalent of an A level, plus the first
‘I started to realise that life is short and you have to take what you want to do and get on with it’
‘The money and prestige were all there and waiting, but it didn’t spell happiness’ ‘It’s the ideal profession for those who long to spend more time outside’
year of a degree and, crucially, it’s a ticket into the horticultural industry.
At Kew Gardens, where Tim Hughes heads up the School of Horticulture, whose alumni include Alan Titchmarsh and Alys Fowler, application numbers for the apprenticeship scheme are fiercely competitive. “I mean, we’re talking about 720 applicants for six places,” he says.
New students may come from all walks of life, but similar reasons for a move into a more outdoorsy career come up time and again among those who’ve made the leap. The impact of the pandemic can’t be overstated. Not only has it encouraged many to scrutinise their career satisfaction, work-life balance, happiness and wellbeing, but for those who were furloughed or lost their jobs due to Covid, a new line of work had become a necessity.
Rob Coate, who is 28, gave up a career in film and television after suffering from a burnout exaggerated by lockdown. “You look around at the people at the top and those who’ve been around a long time and you see that it doesn’t really get any better or easier,” he says. “The money and prestige was all there and waiting but it didn’t spell happiness really.”
Rob took advantage of a Lambeth council scheme to offer those under 30 and on universal credit the opportunity to retrain as a gardener for free. “I haven’t looked back since,” he says.
A job in horticulture is increasingly appealing because indoor jobs take us away from the nature that so many people have come to rely upon for their wellbeing. And the range of al-fresco jobs under the horticulture umbrella is naturally quite wide: from maintenance gardeners to those running nurseries, floristry to landscape design. It’s quite simply the ideal profession for those who long to spend more time outside.
“There’s a huge range of careers that can be had,” says Tim Hughes. “It’s not all about doing a laborious job digging outside in the cold. Horticulture is an applied science and teaching people how to grow plants, propagate plants and create and maintain landscapes helps them to develop a career with a really positive action to it.”
While the spiritual rewards might be great, horticultural roles are not known for being lucrative – many career-changers end up taking a pay cut, with the average salary coming in at £21,000 and rarely rising above £30,000.
Paying for the training can be financially challenging, too. There are dozens of charitable horticultural training endeavours that can help, but few pay enough to manage bills on top.
But where there’s a will there’s a way, as the old saying goes, and Katherine Richardson, 41, is a great example of making sacrifices to chase her dream. She’s about to embark on the RHS Level 2 diploma while doing a part-time desk job to pay the bills, after spending two years relocating to Devon to cut her overheads.
“It was a complete life change,” she says, “but gardening for me has been truly life-changing. The community I’ve found are the kindest, most supportive bunch of folk I could ever have wished for. It feels like I’ve come home.”