Shaping a future in gardening

Pete Saunders has gardening in his blood. Despite being the fifth generation in his family to pick up the garden tools it wasn’t a career that he had originally considered.

“I was looking for a job in the aero nautical industry and, while I looked, dad (head gardener at Fittleworth House in Sussex) offered me a job to tide me over,” says Pete. “I’d done my work experience with dad but hadn’t ever really considered following in his footsteps.”

What started as ‘just a job’ and a physically demanding one at that, soon became something more. “The first year was tough but I began to enjoy it and find it really interesting. I’d never really understood the complexities involved in gardening or the satisfaction that could be gained from seeing your work grow, and from being outside.”

Pete began to feel connected to the land and the life cycle of the seasons and his dreams of another career were soon forgotten.

“Once I’d seen a full year in the garden I began to really appreciate and enjoy the job. Every season, every week, every day is different,” he says. “There are plenty of seasonal challenges; hot days are the hardest, when the physical labour can be exhausting, and winter is the busiest when there’s lots of cutting back, clearing and tidying. It’s also the time when dad and the garden owner sit down to plan the year ahead, creating new areas, changing others, breathing constant new life and interest into the garden.”

Whiskey, Pete's dog and garden companion

Whiskey, Pete’s dog and garden companion

Of course, all those changes and the ongoing maintenance – it takes a week to weed the garden from top to bottom – mean you need to be physically fit and, to an extent, follow a set routine. But for Pete, it’s easy getting up for work every day. He steps out of the front door of his tied cottage and into the garden. With no arduous commute and the accompaniment of birdsong there’s little he doesn’t love about his unexpected career – apart from digging up the bind weed.

“There are so many different aspects to gardening and I soon discovered that it was the lawns and the topiary that I loved best,” says Pete. The satisfaction gained from a straight line should not be underestimated and Pete is keen to learn more about the art of topiary as his career develops.

Like his dad, Pete understands the importance of a practical education when it comes to gardening, there’s not much you don’t learn from being apprenticed to a head gardener who has learnt his trade in a number of great gardens and from his own plantsman father in turn. Having said that, Pete has completed his RHS level 2 course and would encourage others to explore the wide variety of job types that a career in gardening can offer.

“From design and landscaping to maintenance and plantsmanship, there are lots of areas to discover. Learning the Latin names for everything is a real skill but it’s not compulsory for a life in gardening,” says Pete. “My top tip for anyone keen to get into gardening is to volunteer in a place with experienced gardeners. You’ll learn more from them than from any book. And remember that the ‘rules’ won’t always apply to your garden, so sticking rigidly to them isn’t vital.”

So will this 26-year old be challenging his dad for the top job at Fittleworth anytime soon? “This is dad’s garden, it was a mess when he came 20 years ago and he’s transformed it. I’ve got a lot more to learn before I can even think of looking for a head gardener position. Besides, I would really like a garden of my own that I can transform and nurture.”

Pete and his Dad, Mark, In the garden at Fittleworth House

Pete and his Dad, Mark, In the garden at Fittleworth House

In the meantime, Pete is working alongside his dad to prepare the gardens at Fittleworth House for their July and August National Garden Scheme openings, taking pride in his Tuesday mowing duties (no ride-on mowers here) and getting that topiary spot on.

Along with his loyal assistant, Whiskey the Jack Russell, it does seem that Pete has found a pretty perfect life. “The mental and physical benefits of gardening, of being outside, of keeping fit, of seeing transformations and new life and working with nature, combine to create a great quality of life,” he says. So much so, that he would definitely recommend gardening as a career to a sixth generation of Saunders.

For more about Fittleworth House Garden openings in July and August click here.

And for more gardens open in the area click here

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