Gardening is a noble profession. It probably won’t make you rich unless you get one of the handful of ‘top jobs’ that pay very well; ironically these are jobs where you’re paid to not actually do any gardening.
Even if you go into ‘horticultural media’ you won’t earn the big bucks compared to others doing similar work. Gardening is cheap. It always has been and probably always will be.
Those who manage gardens are thankful for a near-infinite source of free labour: volunteers.
I get why people would want to volunteer in a garden. I really do.
There’s the beautiful outdoor spaces, the joy of communing with nature, the social aspect of being able to spend time with like-minded people.
Best of all you can come and go as you please; there’s rarely any particular obligation. One day, two days, a morning or afternoon… you give your time as you wish.
The willingness some people have to give their time to organisations means that more can be achieved without the need for paid staff. Some organisations are absolutely reliant on volunteers, such as community garden projects, so there isn’t an issue as there are no ‘staff’.
Yet other organisations will happily recruit armies of free labour to maintain their green spaces cheaply, just so they can cut the number of paid gardeners they need. Why pay people to do a job when others will come and do it for you without you having to spend a penny?
The problem isn’t the fact that people are willing to give their time, it’s the fact that organisations that should be paying skilled gardeners to do the work are using volunteers as a way to cut jobs.
Let me give you an example: a hotel I know of charges £450 ($572) per night for a double room, and main menu items start at £45 ($57) per item. That’s not exactly a cheap motel…
There are chefs to employ, plus other staff and business costs. Why is the garden staffed by volunteers?
I get why people might want to volunteer there; there’s the ambience and the garden and possibly some scraps from the kitchen door and offcuts of cake if they’re lucky.
How does a fairly high-end business have the nerve, the audacity, to use free labour?
Are the chefs and the other staff all volunteers too? I doubt it somehow.
It’s not just one hotel, this culture is everywhere. The Royal Horticultural Society, that great bastion of how horticulture ‘should be’ in the UK and across the world, relies heavily on volunteers despite having a pretty healthy bank account.
There’s a similar situation with the National Trust, an organisation that looks after big old houses, gardens, estates and countryside areas here in the UK.
These organisations are officially recognised charities, yet when it comes to volunteering it’s mainly the gardening that gets done for free. Why not look for volunteers to act as shop staff, event coordinators, admin staff etc?
An Interesting Situation
When the Covid-19 pandemic came to the UK we had ‘lockdown’. Gardens were reduced to minimal staffing, usually with a skeleton crew of gardeners looking after whole gardens on their own. Volunteering ground to a halt as volunteers were told to stay home, yet the gardens survived quite happily with reduced inputs. It wasn’t ideal; a few places got a little rough around the edges but once the staff returned to full levels it wasn’t a big job to get back on track. Having the most skilled people available, the people paid to be the best gardeners, meant there was little long-term harm.
Volunteers also returned after Covid, although I gather often in smaller numbers than before. It seemed that lockdown got people out of the habit of going to work for set times at set intervals (especially the ones not getting paid!).
Organisations, large and small, that have wound down investment in professional gardeners are in for a hard time. The thing about gardeners, and employed people in general, is they have to work if they want to get paid. The economic imperative is very powerful if you want something done, especially in bad weather or under difficult circumstances, and you want people to keep regular hours.
We’ve already seen a slump in the numbers of volunteers working in some gardens here in the UK, and I gather there is a similar situation in the US. Gardens that have grown on the back of free labour are now seeing that labour decline, and that’s causing concern.
Economic challenges haven’t helped with volunteer retention and recruitment; if you’re relied upon to be somewhere for a fixed time to do a job you might as well get a part time job and actually earn money.
A little less obvious from the outside is the issue that as professional gardeners have been marginalised by volunteers, or marginalised by those who prioritise the use of volunteers, they’ve become few in number in some gardens. I could name several places I know where gardeners are given all the unpleasant work so the volunteers get the nice stuff.
It’s a culture that breeds resentment, and resentment leads to people looking for work elsewhere. Gardeners can put up with a lot of hardship as part of the job, but just the less pleasant work without the fun stuff doesn’t exactly lead to great team morale.
I predict that within the next five years or so the numbers of people willing to give their labour to businesses and wealthier charities will drop. I offer the following as possible reasons:
1. Socioeconomic issues will either push people back to work or take their focus for other things. A drop in income, or a perceived drop in home income, will make volunteers look at whether they have enough ‘free time’ to volunteer. In order to be able to give your time you must be sufficiently well-off and able to spare that time.
2. Dissent among those who volunteer because they want to contribute to society will increase. If a garden/business/organisation is making lots of money there will be the inevitable question of whether that organisation actually deserves the free help. Volunteering is an act of kindness that people choose to share, but if it becomes clear that volunteers are doing lots of free work while others in the organisation get paid a fortune then some people might well decide to donate their time to more deserving causes.
3. Many garden volunteers like the idea of working alongside professional gardeners who will give them new opportunities to expand their knowledge and interest; if the current trend of reducing the number of skilled gardeners continues then I think a lot of volunteers will ask themselves what they get from the experience.
This article is not having a go at those people who give their time. This is more a comment that things aren’t quite as balanced as they should be.
There is a culture among the accountants and managers of gardens that volunteers are an infinite source of free labour that is there to be tapped. The reliance on volunteers to make cuts to horticulture is very damaging to what should be a proud career, but moreover is an absolutely massive insult to those who choose to be generous with their time.
Note: These images are for illustration purposes only; I’m not implying that there is any specific issue at any specific garden featured. Apart from the hotel of course.