Tuesday 28 October 2014

My experience of the RHS

Today new staff from all the gardens (Wisley, Hyde Hall, Rosemoor and Harlow Carr) was brought together for induction day.

I have been through a good few induction days in my career, and that corporate self-congratulatory feel about a lot of them has made me less than excited to attend such events. But I did enjoy today: the atmosphere was genuinely friendly and pleasant, and, despite this being an exciting time for the Society, as £100 m of investment over the next 10 years has been approved by the board and the projects linked to it (more details of which are spelled out in the Annual Report) are underway already, I liked the way the Director General was rather down-to-earth about it.

I must say that to me as new entrant in horticulture, who's finding it hard to be self-sufficient on the average salary, the RHS attempt to improve the conditions of horticulturists is particularly appealing. It's rather appalling that we do not pay a living wage to people that produce our food, but the priviledge to make ends meet should extend to the competent gardeners that offer us the pleasure of beautiful gardens too! It is a complex and political issue to address, I know.

It is also very important for me that the RHS (of which I am a member as well as a trainee!) is investing in research and education, as we know still so relatively little about plants, and we definitely need to bring horticulture into an era where being kind to the environment we live in and that keeps us healthy is a priority, while pressures are strong in all sorts of contrary directions.
My hope is the Society will move towards establishing themselves as the world leaders of the new gardening that they started promoting back in 2007 with Matthew Wilson's book, which I recently started reading. I have spotted signs of development: possibly a less complex, although certainly as highly political, issue to address...

There is a lot in the RHS mission statement and guiding principles that I share and feel strongly about, and I was really impressed by the genuine effort to give visitors a pleasant experience in the gardens, and to bring gardening to an increasingly wider audience, beyond the traditional Flower Shows'.

I myself first became familiar with the society at Hampton Court Flower Show years ago, when I visited as a tourist from Italy. Once my interest in horticulture developed, I decided to take advantage of the RHS qualifications, and finally applied for this traineeship, so my horticultural experience is tightly interwoven with the Society!  Curiously, though, I only visited the Wisley Garden for the first time in February 2013, on a spare afternoon after my RHS qualifications' exams - that probably makes me an unusual member. That visit was however soon followed by one to Hyde Hall: I was hooked - I grew a thing for labelled gardens!

But there is so much more to the Society, for example the plentiful information available online on plants and their cultivation (which I always find myself consulting as a first point of reference, even though I might then disagree with it and not follow it). And a fantastic member service which I somehow never realised was available: the opportunity to contact the Society to identify plants, pests and diseases and ask for advice!

RHS numbers are of course impressive, and we were given some at our induction (but, as the RHS is a charity, all the information is public, and there's a lot about numbers in the Annual Review). RHS Garden Wisley on its own is a total of 600 acres in size, which gather together 27k taxa of cultivated plants and 40 champion trees. 41k kids visit the Garden on formal school visits every year, while the total visitors of RHS Gardens across the country (which between them host 14 National Collections) add up to 1.7 m.

Now, now look who's sounding that tad self-congratulatory... :)

But there is indeed a lot to improve in the horticulture industry, in my opinion, not only in how manpower is valued (or not so much) but also in terms of :
  • resources and waste (in a job I had over the summer I was shocked to experience how much goes into raising bedding plants)
  • cultivation practices and, in particular, use and misuse of chemicals.
It will be fascinating for me to observe how - as it expands, acquiring new and urban gardens, widening its membership and the education opportunities it offers, grounded in its own scientific research - the Society is going to apply its influence for positive change ... which, I am assuming, will offer me and other new entrants better prospects of making a decent living, with a light conscience and a lighter doctor's bill, in a chemically wiser and environmentally sounder industry...

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