LOUISE MIDGLEY discovers it’s never too late to cultivate a career in gardening, especially with the Women’s Farm and Garden Association

The WFGA may not be a charitable organisation on many peoples radar but mention the Land Army movement of which it is a forerunner and it’s altogether more familiar.

The prime concern of the modern day association hasn’t changed since its inception in 1899 and focuses on the training, employment and advancement of those working on the land.

Gardening gurus of the past such as Gertrude Jekyll, Louisa Wilkins and Eve Balfour have all been members of the association since it was established.

The WFGA has enjoyed royal patronage, during its 116-year history,  awarded for its industrious work and creative projects. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll was its first president and in 1959 Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, visited Courtauld House, the organisation’s former headquarters, in London in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee.

Today Prince Charles is one of the garden owners on the association’s Work and Retrain as a Gardener Scheme, which is open to men and women of all ages.


Career changers learn professional horticultural skills

Many of those who sign up for the course are looking for a complete career change. The fact that it’s part-time, usually two days a week over the course of a year, gives trainees the flexibility to earn a separate income or fit in with family commitments.

Training is given in carefully selected public and private gardens, with the garden owner or head gardener providing supervised tuition and imparting masses of valuable knowledge.

Trainees are not paid but are given a basic training allowance, which adequately covers their clothing costs and transport to and from work.

Hands-on training is always the best way to develop practical skills when learning the rudiments of gardening. Experiencing the garden change through the seasons and being shown how to do something first hand leaves trainees with a high level of competence and excellent employment prospects.


New recruits take a leap of faith

There are no age boundaries for trainees on the course but they must be fit and have good levels of stamina. A retired consultant anaesthetist, in his mid fifties recently trained on the course and ended up working for a National Trust garden in the West Country. He enjoyed the career change so much that his wife gave up working as a GP and is just coming to the end of her WRAGS training too.

Claire Howard never imagined she could leave her Senior Management position in Social Services to become a full time gardener.

“To contemplate such a massive career change was very frightening,” says Claire. “But working as a volunteer I discovered that the possibility of becoming a professional gardener could become a reality. The WRAGS scheme enabled me to stay employed part time while gaining practical and technical experience in gardening.”

Claire opted for a one-day-a-week training scheme over a two-year period at Combermere Abbey in Shropshire. After completing the course she was offered a full-time gardening position at Combermere and resigned from her job in social services.

She is now responsible for cut flower, fruit and vegetable production, with duties including pruning, maintaining and harvesting the fruit of 139 apple and pear trees, which can involve wielding a chainsaw when necessary.

Sarah Callander Beckett owner and manager of Combermere explains, “We have supported the WRAGS scheme for a number of years with five trainees being placed with us over that period. It is extremely satisfying to see enthusiastic individuals taking the chance to change their lives for, hopefully, the better and to see them grow from nervous starters to confident gardeners.”


Opportunities available

Going back to college to study horticulture can be a considerable undertaking for retirees or career changers. However, this route into gardening offers a flexible training scheme that’s almost impossible to find elsewhere.

The WFGA currently has 70 trainees in place but there are further vacancies around the country and not enough people to fill them.

Should you be interested in taking that first bold step into what many consider the most satisfying career for mind and body, take a look at their website and contact them for more information.

www.wfga.org.uk / 01285 658339