I Want Your Job: Horticulturist

'Seeing a plant bloom in the wild is a thrill'
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The Independent Online

Andrew Luke, 25, is a collections horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

What does your job involve?

I work solely in the Temperate House, making sure the plants survive - which means everything from watering, feeding and pruning, to treating pests and diseases. A typical day lasts from 8am until about 4.15pm. Watering is done through a hose, because most of the plants that we deal with are so tricky to grow that we can't have an entirely automated watering system. We plant from March through the summer and replant one section each year. There are about 1,800 different species to look after and during the course of the day we'll see every plant in the glasshouse.

And, of course, while we're working, we'll also field questions from thousands of visitors.

What do you really love about your job?

There's nowhere else where you can work with such a diversity of plants and such amazing botanists. The atmosphere of the Temperate House is quiet and chilled out. It's the nicest place in Kew. There's a natural feel to it - it's got lots of water features, wild birds and the giant bird of paradise plant, which touches the roof. A lot of the plants we have at Kew are endangered, so I feel it's our responsibility to keep them going.

What's not so great about it?

The low pay is a big downside, but there are a lot of perks - it's not about money, it's about satisfaction.

You get excellent training, and travel is an essential part of the job, because you need to see plants growing in their natural habitat to get an idea of what kind of soils, altitude and climate they like. I've been to Australia to look at orchids, and to South Africa to see proteas and bulbs. Seeing a plant blooming in the wild is a real thrill.

What skills does a truly great horticulturalist need to have?

The key point of the job is observation. You've either got it, or you haven't. When you walk through the glasshouse, if you immediately notice that something's not quite right with a plant, then you can do something about it quickly. You have to know the plants really well - where they come from and what they look like in their natural habitat. You need to be fit, too, because it's a very physical job - there's lots of digging and climbing ladders, too.

What advice would you give to someone with their eye on your job?

If you haven't got a flair for plants, it's a difficult industry to get into - you need to be really enthusiastic and passionate. It's worth having some kind of practical experience at a nursery, garden centre or botanic gardens, as well as a qualification.

It's not going to be glamorous - it's hard, physical work. You also have to learn people skills, since we spend a lot of time training new horticulturalists and dealing with the public. You have to be calm and customer-friendly - even if people are trampling on something that's rare.

What's the salary and career path like?

At the lowest grade of staff, you might start out on as little as £12,500. You can do a horticulture diploma at Kew, where you'll be taught at degree level. After that, you could pretty much work anywhere in horticulture - in landscape design or as a head gardener on a private estate. If you work at Kew, you might move up from being a trainee to eventually being in charge of one of the display houses.

For more information on higher education and training at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, go to www.rbgkew.org.uk/education. For more information on careers and training in horticulture, go to Lantra, the Sector Skills Council for the Environmental and Land-based Sector, at www.lantra.co.uk; the Royal Horticultural Society, at www.rhs.org.uk; and the Institute of Horticulture, at www.horticulture.org.uk

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