Apprentice Laura Quinlan at the Oxford Botanic Garden

Philanthropy Report 2020/21

Training the next generation of heritage horticulturalists


As the Oxford Botanic Garden celebrates its 400th anniversary this year, a new generation of plant lovers is learning the art of caring for its precious botanical collections.

Apprentices have long played an important role at the Oxford Botanic Garden – the oldest in the UK and the birthplace of botanical sciences at Oxford. In recent years, this tradition has led to the creation of a hugely successful training programme for future heritage horticulturalists and arborists.

Established at the Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum (OBGA) in 2016, the Horticulturalist and Arborist Training Programme equips participants with specialist knowledge of historic and botanic gardens. The two-year apprenticeships offered through the programme play a crucial role in enabling young people to take their first steps into a career in either horticulture or arboriculture, while also contributing to the future preservation of heritage landscapes, gardens and collections.

Laura Quinlan decided to apply to the programme after realising that she was not well suited to sitting at a desk all day. ‘I really wanted to get outside and do something more physical,’ she reflects. ‘I love plants and have experience in environmental science and plant identification, so when the opportunity came up, I couldn’t say no; I had to go for it.’

Laura joined the OBGA as a horticultural apprentice in September 2019, and spent the following two years developing a comprehensive range of specialist horticultural skills and knowledge. She worked on rotation between the glasshouses and outside in the garden, as well as undertaking training at the arboretum: a 130-acre site containing a world-class collection of trees and wildflower meadows.

‘It’s been a pleasure to learn from people who are so experienced in the world of horticulture – the knowledge here is phenomenal’

Laura Quinlan

‘The all-round experience has been impressive,’ says Laura, who relished the opportunity to undertake a variety of horticultural tasks in a range of different environments. ‘I’ve helped to cut back the Merton Borders in the Lower Garden, dig up and replant the Autumn Border, and weave willow path edges. I’ve also gained experience in tying epiphytes to trees in the Water Lily House, and, at the beginning of this year, I helped with the pond clean, which was certainly quite a different job to do!’

In addition to developing skills through hands-on work, the garden’s horticultural apprentices are taught about plant ecology and conservation, including how to identify over 500 plants and their families. ‘We have a lot of different plants being used for scientific research that we need to make sure are kept healthy,’ says Laura. ‘Learning how to care for them has been really eye opening… and it’s certainly helped me keep my house plants alive a lot longer than before!’

Both the horticultural and arborist apprenticeships are part of the wider University of Oxford Apprenticeship Programme, meaning that the trainees also work towards completing industry-standard qualifications while in post. This aspect of the programme plays a crucial role in addressing the skills gap faced by the horticultural sector, currently manifested in an ageing workforce, difficulties in filling skilled vacancies and a general shortage of labour.

Apprentice Laura Quinlan at Oxford’s Botanic Garden
 Laura Quinlan believes that it is important that knowledgeable horticulturalists pass on what they have learned to the younger generation. Photos by John Cairns

‘I think people have gone away from horticulture because of the perception that it is for unskilled labourers, but that’s not the case at all,’ says Laura, who now holds a Level 2 Horticulture Operative Apprenticeship. ‘The horticulturalists I’ve met here are vastly knowledgeable, which is why it’s so important to keep training like this going; as soon as that top level of staff start to retire, you begin to lose the skill set that they have built up over many years. And, really, you want those people to pass on their knowledge to the younger generation.’

Five trainees and three apprentices have successfully completed the Horticulturalist and Arborist Training Programme since 2016 – an outcome that simply would not have been possible without the generosity of many donors, including the Mila Charitable Organisation and the Peter Sowerby Foundation.

To ensure that future generations can continue to take advantage of the opportunities the programme provides, the OBGA is now seeking to raise an endowment fund for it. This will secure not only the apprenticeships, but also enable the creation of several early-career horticulturalist and arborist posts, thereby providing critical support to newly qualified apprentices.

For Laura, the past two years have been exceptionally rewarding, but also challenging. The COVID-19 pandemic hit just six months after she began her training, forcing the garden to briefly close and her college classes to be temporarily halted. It was her colleagues, she says, who got her through it: ‘Even though we’ve had this troubling time, they have been really supportive and have helped me to grow in the position and gain more confidence.’

By supporting the garden’s upkeep, Laura also feels that she has been able to play a positive role throughout the pandemic. ‘When we were going through the second lockdown, we had quite a few visitors stop to say how beautiful the garden was,’ she says. ‘It has been really nice to be able to chat to people at a time when many have felt quite lonely, and to see how people have enjoyed the space.’

With her two years as a horticultural trainee now at a close, Laura is feeling positive about her future. ‘I do feel well set up to move forward and hopefully get a good job,’ she says. ‘Personally, the training has really built my confidence about what I can physically do, and also what I can manage mentally, such as learning all of the different plants and understanding how they grow. It’s been a great experience that has been made by my colleagues; them being so knowledgeable has helped to give me the best start in horticulture I could’ve wished for.’


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