Working in a botanic garden can be particularly interesting, challenging and provide wonderful opportunities to advance your expertise and career opportunities. Daily roles include general garden maintenance, pruning and care of plants. More specialised roles include propagation of plants, administering garden tours, and promoting the gardens in the media.
Scope of Work
The type of work undertaken in most other public gardens is also undertaken in a botanic garden. Where a botanic garden may be different is that work usually involves dealing with a very diverse variety of plants. Some also house unique collections of plants or can boast the largest collections of specific groups of plants. Many have been established for a very long time and have mature specimens which cannot be found anywhere else nearby. Botanic gardens may also serve educational, tourism and conservation purposes that might be beyond those offered by some other gardens.
Working in a botanic garden can be particularly interesting, challenging and provide wonderful opportunities to advance your expertise and career opportunities. Daily roles include general garden maintenance, pruning and care of plants. More specialised roles include propagation of plants, administering garden tours, and promoting the gardens in the media. Those working in botanic gardens may also be called upon to deal with enquiries from the general public, such as identification of plants or plant pests and diseases.
What You Need to Learn
Plant knowledge - Taxonomy, identification & cultural characteristics of many different varieties
Plant science - Botany; biology, physiology, anatomy, ecology, nutrition
Plant cultural techniques - Planting, watering, pruning, weed control
Potting media and soils - Structure, chemistry, management techniques (e.g. improving media, aeration)
Propagation - Leaf, root, hardwood & softwood cuttings; division, layering, budding, grafting, tissue culture
Environmental control - Ventilation, irrigation & misting, heating & cooling, lighting, carbon dioxide injection
Health management - Identifying and controlling pests & diseases, environmental disorders
Tools and equipment - Selection of the right tool for the job, correct operation & use, maintenance & repair of tools, machinery use
Garden history - Significance of famous gardens and gardeners, botanists & plant discoveries
Event management - Knowledge of how to arrange tours & garden events, liaising with event contractors
Instructional skills - Ability to supervise, train employees, offer tutoring to small groups
Starting a Career
Ways of getting started may include:
Volunteering at a botanic garden
Becoming active with specialist garden clubs or conservation groups
Growing plants as a hobby; then building up to a small nursery, selling at markets
Working in a plant nursery or other horticultural situation
Studying plant science at the same time as gaining experience working in any aspect of horticulture available to you
Most botanic gardens accommodate volunteers through “friends groups”. A good way to learn more and improve your opportunity to work in a botanic garden; or even gardening generally; is to volunteer with a friends group. These generally meet up one or two mornings a week and undertake basic gardening tasks. From here it may be possible to network and find paid positions as and when they arise.
Another option is to get general gardening experience in other public spaces like parks or trust gardens. Once you have gained enough experience you may be able to approach botanic gardens to take an entry level job. If you can demonstrate enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, many employers will be willing to give you a start providing they have vacancies.
Others may take qualifications in horticulture and propagation before embarking on a career in this field. What is important is that any study undertaken is relevant and of a high standard. It should be provided by reputable course providers who have qualified staff who are able to give up-to-date feedback. Employers are keen to take on those that can demonstrate a solid foundation in horticulture and propagation and eagerness to continue to learn more through experience and further study, whether formal or informal.
Progressing a Career
With experience it is possible to become increasingly technically competent. Every problem or challenge you confront can be a new learning experience. Those who have had little formal study may find gaps in their knowledge that need to be filled. These people may do well to seek out study courses which address those needs. In particular, they should focus on addressing the areas listed under ‘what you need to learn’ above.
Work in botanic gardens protective structures can be very fulfilling. You often get to work with rare and unusual plants. Large botanic gardens will offer better career progression (and potentially more money). This may include things like offering masterclasses to the public where they can learn propagation or other skills, being offered talk time on radio gardening shows, being interviewed by local papers, or doing school visits. There is often opportunity to work in different botanic gardens in cities which house more than one.
Sometimes people with this specialist knowledge take a path that moves into broader management or allied trades, or perhaps teaching, consulting or research. Some of these opportunities may require significant additional learning – formal or informal. Other career paths may depend more on experience, attitude and perhaps communication skills than on higher technical expertise.
Those who have worked in botanic gardens are highly regarded within the horticulture industry and can easily transition to other areas of horticulture if they so wish.