An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.
Cal Stewart is a Horticultural Education Officer at RHS Garden Harlow Carr as well as being the Northern Regional Organiser for the Chartered Institute of Horticulture’s Young Horticulturist of the Year competition and advisor for the Wildlife Gardening Forum.
Can you tell us about your current role?
I’m employed by the RHS at Harlow Carr in the education department. I work as one of the Horticultural Education Officers which is quite a new role for me – I started in September 2021. Around the same time, I was also offered the position of Northern Regional Organiser for the Young Horticulturist of the Year competition, so two good things came at once! I started working with the Wildlife Gardening Forum a couple of years ago during the first COVID lockdown when I got involved in their Facebook group and do bits of work for them, providing guidance and information. So a lot going on!
The main focus of my position with the RHS is to lead schools on visits to the gardens. I take them out and get them involved, showing them what horticulture is all about. I look after the primary education side of things. We do have a secondary education offer as well which is being worked on by my colleague, which will mean we cover lots of different areas but always linking to the National Curriculum and linking to the RHS objectives of health and wellbeing and sustainability. I’m really enjoying it. It’s definitely different compared to what I used to do: I used to be an operational gardener with the National Trust where I spent five years.
Why did you feel that a move to education was for you?
It was a result of lots of things. It was hard leaving my position as a gardener because where I worked was an incredibly fun, fantastic place to work – a dream job. I was just ready for that next challenge and I had learned so much working with the senior gardener at the National Trust site that it had really ignited my passion and enthusiasm for organic management and wildlife gardening. I want to share this more and the first place to start is by enthusing the younger generation who will then join the industry and make an impact as well as encouraging them to become greener citizens. I thought now’s the time!
You are obviously passionate about what you do. How did that passion for horticulture start?
I’ve always been an outdoors person. My parents were always very good at encouraging me to go outdoors and were very positive about a career in the outdoors. My dad’s from a forestry background largely but also very conservation-based while my mother was a farmer for a long time and worked in land-based industries. As I got older, I got more into performing arts and actually have a degree in music. So initially, my path was very different to horticulture. It wasn’t until after I’d completed a music degree, that I realised my heart just wasn’t in it. I reflected on everything that interested me and came up with horticulture so thought I’d give it a proper go. I started looking at apprenticeships or traineeships but didn’t really get anywhere for a little while. I decided on enrolling onto a college course, a foundation degree in horticulture, and that was my formal training for horticulture. Alongside that I also worked in the hospitality and catering industries. When I started bar-tending in York, I started to learn a lot about gin botanicals, mixology and the science behind how booze is made. That really grabbed me and I got interested in the plants used to create these unique tastes. I wanted to learn more about gin and mixology, where plants fitted into all that and that’s what I focused on for a long time: I came up with a crazy idea to start a company around growing your own gin or cocktails! I didn’t really progress with this idea and instead went to work in a large commercial plant nursery, which was a good experience. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t quite satisfying my desire to know more about plants. That’s when a job with the National Trust came up: it sounded great as it was in an organic, wildlife garden in North Yorkshire so wasn’t too far from me. I was still studying and very much under-qualified for the job, but I applied and got an interview. I went along but thought “this is never going to happen”. When I went back to work the next day, got back on the potting machines, I got the call with the job offer. I just thought ‘well that’s incredible’. I was there five years before moving recently to the RHS.
Do you think you might revisit the whole gin botanicals area again in the future?
I think I revisit gin botanicals most weekends! Would I revisit it from a business perspective? I think I would because there’s a real interest in locally grown foods and making your own products, hedgerow foraging and classes on ‘how to make’. Maybe as a side project. I’d love to have a gin still but it would take a bit of effort to get it going…
Although you are still early in your career, is there anything you would have done differently if you could go back?
I absolutely would! If I could go back to my 16 year-old self and have a chat, I would say ”Stop – you need to listen. You’re going down the wrong path. You need to go into horticulture now”. If I started earlier, I would be in a different place with much more experience. I wish I’d started earlier.
What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in horticulture?
I do get asked for advice. One of the main things that I came across when I was studying, and it used to really bug me, was the negative opinion of gardening. I would get responses like “does that mean you cut grass?” There is an art and science to cutting grass but horticulture and gardening is so much more. It is about the science of growing plants. So my advice to anyone starting out in horticulture is: don’t be put off by comments like that. You’re not going to be just cutting grass, unless you want to cut grass, or sticking pansies in hanging baskets. This industry has so much more to offer and there’s a job for everyone. You can work in administration, garden design, biology, even gin botanicals. If you can’t find something of interest – come and tell me! We’re going to need horticultural skills more and more the way things are going….
There’s a card game used by the RHS to teach about horticultural careers and show the wealth of careers and opportunities available. If anyone knows how to get a copy of these cards, let us know!
What do you think the future holds for you now?
I don’t really know to be honest. There’s lots of things going on this year. I’m really, really excited about my new role in RHS Education. It has been so difficult for schools over the last couple of years so I’m really looking forward to working with schools and getting them back in the garden. I’m also looking forward to the Young Horticulturist of the Year competition: hopefully, we can get a winner from the north! Although I do think about the future, I want to concentrate on the here and now. I just want to keep moving forward and bring people along with me, sharing this great industry.
Have you ever considered a career in horticultural media and/or communications to spread the word?
I’d love to do more! I was involved in the BBC Radio 2 Big Bee Challenge last year: one of the highlights was being interviewed on the Sunday morning show about a border I’d designed for pollinators. I loved that experience and it was a great way to educate people, hearing from people working at the heart of conservation. So, Gardener’s World, if you’re listening, I’d gladly take a spot!!
Can you tell us a little more about the garden you work in and maybe even some great gardens to visit in the north of England?
There are so many great gardens in the north. Harlow Carr is looking fantastic, with the Winter Walk definitely worth a visit for the bulbs, Daphne and Mahonia. My old garden, Nunnington Hall, is an organically managed National Trust garden in North Yorkshire and well worth a visit. The senior gardener there has been a significant mentor to me. Within the same portfolio is the wonderful Ormsby Hall in Cleveland. Down the road from Ormsby is Helmsley Walled Garden which is another absolute gem in the area. There are so many more…
Can you share your favourite plant, tool and gardening book?
I think this is probably the hardest question you can ask anybody. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Primula auricula. There is something special about auricula theatres and although I’ve never really grown them, I will one day have my own little theatre. However, I think my favourite plant is the humble dandelion. It has had a bad rep over the years and it’s been vilified but we are seeing a change in people’s attitude towards dandelions, which is great because it is such an integral plant for wildlife. Nectar and pollen for insects, birds feed on the flower heads and every bit of the plant is edible. It makes a good coffee substitute, can be used to decorate cakes and is used as a gin botanical. A lot of people don’t realise that there are over 200 subspecies of dandelions in the UK alone and you might just have a rare subspecies in your garden.
Currently, my tools are pens, paper and computer but when working in the garden, my go-to tool is the patio knife or speedweeder as you can do anything with it from weeding in gravel or between paving slabs to making drills for seed sowing and even dividing perennials. A good steel-headed garden rake is a multi-tool in itself from levelling to tidying borders. And finally, a recent addition which was a gift from my ex-senior gardener, is a hori hori – almost better than a speedweeder but not as compact or discreet!
My absolute favourite reference book is Charles Dowding’s “Organic Gardening: The Natural, No Dig Way” – it has supported me through my career and is so good, brilliant! It is detailed but very accessible and demonstrates the importance of soil. No dig can be used all over the garden – not just vegetable growing! Thank you Charles – great book.
Thank you for speaking with me today, Cal.
It’s my pleasure. I hope that what I’ve said might have helped anyone thinking about getting into horticulture. If anybody wants to chat about careers etc., find me on Instagram at @Horticail – I’m always happy to talk to people about whatever it might be!
Find out more about the 2022 Young Horticulturist of the Year competition at: https://yhoy.horticulture.org.uk/. The Northern Regional Final of YHOY 2022 takes place on Saturday 12 March 2022 at RHS Garden Harlow Carr. Congratulations – and good luck – to all eight finalists: Molly Turgoose, Joe Lofthouse, Katerina Vallianatou, Bertie Swainston, Lucy Whitehead, Andrew Mather, Nele Noormets and Kathryn Flinn.