An interview with Mollie Higginson


An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.

Could you tell us about your role?

I am the northern sales representative for New Leaf Plants. We are one of the only specialist growers of clematis and climbing plants in the UK. I joined the business about three years ago, initially running the dispatch area, and then I’ve just slowly moved up through the business. I’m now the northern sales rep and also run the mail order section of the business. I’ve covered nearly every job in the business which is a great way of understanding everyone’s role in the nursery. It is a great leveller with everyone who works there as it means I know what their job involves.

Was that a conscious decision to help you get to know the business or has it just evolved that way?

It wasn’t a conscious decision. It started out as a summer job, working for my dad. He would put me wherever he needed an extra pair of hands. I spent six weeks on the potting machine one summer while another summer involved a long period in the cutting shed, traying up plants. I then moved into the dispatch area full-time. That’s when I made the effort to experience all of the business and understand how it functions.

Why horticulture?

It wasn’t on my list of jobs when I was younger! My family get upset when I say this as my parents, grandparents and great grandparents have all worked in horticulture but I didn’t know you could have a career in horticulture. I wasn’t very academic at school but I pushed really hard to make sure I got my GCSEs and then my A-levels. I was determined to do something in the arts, particularly theatre, and decided that hair and make-up would be my area. I was convinced that I would be the wig mistress at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford! I went to university to study hair and make-up for the performance industries but after a year, realised that university wasn’t for me. I then went travelling for a while and when I came back, I stepped into the family business because I was skint. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It was just a temporary role but three years on, I wouldn’t move. I just wish I had discovered horticulture sooner. Despite going to Pershore High School just down the road from Pershore College, no one every spoke about horticulture, or agriculture, as a career option or even suggested apprenticeships in these sectors or business.  I don’t think a single person from my year went to Pershore College which is appalling given the amount of horticulture and agriculture in the area. I think this has changed and now horticulture is promoted more at the school.

Is lack of career advice one of the reasons you co-founded the Young People in Horticulture Association (YPHA)?

I think it was a factor but the real reason was noting the lack of young people in the industry combined with the excellent connections that the ‘old hands’ had built up over the years through various networking opportunities. I realised that we needed to connect the younger people in horticulture to provide mutual support as our careers develop – and continue that support for all new entrants to the sector. Thankfully, I’ve got very supportive parents and a supportive business which sees the benefit of my work with the YPHA, and the value to the next generation of horticulturists who will be taking over the various horticultural businesses. The YPHA is completely free and we offer education, networking and socialising for horticulturists under the age of 35 years. Within the YPHA, you meet people with different horticultural roles, learn from each other and in ten years time, you will have your own network of horticultural contacts.  

The YPHA is a relatively new organisation so how have the past few months been?

We’re about 18 months old now, and it’s been hard. We decided to form the association in January 2020 but by March, despite a great start,  we realised we’d have to rethink our events programming. Thanks to Zoom, we were able to host weekly talks and now organise monthly talks with the all-important chat at the end of each session. If you’ve had a stressful week or just need to talk to some friends in the industry who understand the sector, it’s a great opportunity to talk and was particularly supportive during COVID when we were one of the only industries to be operating flat-out. We’ve now organised our first in-person event for February 2022 – it’s been a long time coming!

Do you welcome all horticulturists to the YPHA? PlantNetwork members tend to work in public gardens and across other designed landscapes.

We welcome anyone who works in horticulture and have a large landscaping and gardening section of the group. We might form sub-groups to allow in-depth conversations in different horticultural areas. Even if you work in the accountancy department of a horticultural business, you are very welcome to join as you will meet others working in similar departments.

You’re at the start of your career but what are your career aspirations?

Eventually I’d love to be running New Leaf Plants. I don’t want to leave my family business because I love it so much. In 10 years time, I’d still like to be involved with the YPHA but I will have to leave when I turn 36 as that is our rule to ensure that the group stays young and supports the next generation of horticulturists as they develop their networks. I’m sure that I’ll still be involved in a support capacity and to ensure there is a smooth hand-over.

What is it about horticulture that you like?

I think it’s the variety. I can go into work each day and be doing something different: sat in the office replying to emails, in the nursery weeding plants, in our dispatch area helping get orders ready or out on the road visiting customers. It will never be a 9-5 office job and even as a sales rep, I can be outside in the fresh air 90% of my day if I want to be. I also think it is the friendliness of the industry. There are a lot of industries that are very competitive – businesses in competition do not speak to one another. That’s not the case in horticulture: even if you are growing extremely similar plants to a nursery down the road, you’re going to support each other and help each other out. They say a business is like a family but in the case of horticulture, the whole sector is like a family and you can turn to many different people for help and support. That’s why the YPHA is doing well as we’ve got an older generation wanting to support the next generation and a younger generation wanting to share what they know with their peers. That’s what so great – everyone being so willing to share their knowledge with everyone else. 

You said you weren’t aware of horticulture as a career when you were at school, are  you and/or the YPHA trying to change this?

From the New Leaf Plants side, we are pushing it massively with schools around Evesham, Pershore and Worcester. We do a lot of talks and attend GCSE and career days to push apprenticeships in horticulture. There are a lot of kids in school that aren’t academic but aren’t a lost cause and apprenticeships are probably an ideal route for them into work. I wish someone had told me about apprenticeships as I might be further along in my career now. The YPHA is also pushing to do more work with schools. When we started, we had a school liaison team but COVID put a stop to that. The plan is to re-establish the school liaison team with a YPHA ambassador in almost every county who is prepared to go into schools and talk about horticulture as a career. It isn’t simply a career as a grower but any career that involves plants from a photographer who is taking picture of plants to TV presenters talking about plants – that is all ‘working in horticulture’ as far I‘m concerned. Showing people the vast array of jobs in the sector is important as is telling them more about the commercial side of horticulture – it isn’t someone growing the odd perennial at the bottom of their garden to sell at the end of their drive. COVID showed how important our industry is and has helped people understand the value of a plant. We’ve shown we are a very resilient industry too.

What would be your advice to a school leaver now?

To go and explore the sector. Try working in a nursery, a garden centre, a garden and with a landscaper; visit gardens and see if you can visit a micro-prop centre. I think that’s something that we don’t value enough in any sector – work experience and trying out whether you like a job or not. We should push kids to do more work experience and trying things out. You’ve got to be passionate about your job, although I’m not a big fan of the saying, ”If you love your job, you never work a day in your life” as I think that if you love your job, your work even harder as you know that you’re doing something that’s valuable. So we need to encourage anyone coming into the industry to find the niche that they love.

What’s been your experience of Brexit?

It is terrifying for our industry, but we are very lucky as we are nearly completely in-house as a grower and propagate about 85% of everything we grow. We are set up with Defra to inspect anything we do buy in but luckily clematis and climbers have few problematic pests and diseases. I sit on a lot of boards and I see the pain that [Brexit] is causing others in the industry. I see how much more money it’s costing, how much they’re going to struggle next year and I don’t think that the public realise what is happening. For example, costs for outdoor furniture are going up as garden centres might have previously paid £1,500 for a container but might now be paying £15,000 so these need to be passed onto the consumer. These prices are just going to keep increasing unless we can show government that it’s not sustainable for our industry.

One of the most frustrating things for my side of the industry is not being able to ship to Ireland. I’ve had garden centres ring me to beg for plants. Unless the policy changes we’ve cut off Northern Ireland from the rest of the world. If their garden centres can’t get stock, they will end up closing. There is also the peat debate. I worry that commercial horticulture is perceived as reluctant to move away from peat but that is not the case. We understand why things need to change but can’t see how importing another product from the other side of the world is helping matters. It’s about finding a product that is sustainable, maybe a byproduct of another industry that works just as well as peat, but is it locally sourced.

Can you tell us about your favourite horticultural tool, book and plant?

I think my favourite tool might be a slightly random one. It is something I hold very dear to my heart and is one of the first things I bought to use on a nursery. It’s my snips sharpener. Everybody on the nursery has a pair of snips as we use them to prepare the plants for dispatch, deadheading and cutting down when needed. They get used five days a week for eight hours a day from March until November so are in need of a sharpen at the end of the season. One of my favourite projects over winter is getting my sharpener out and sharpening all of the blades, and I use the time to reflect on the year, remembering the seasonal workers and how they left their snips!

I will take two favourite plants – an indoor and outdoor plant. Though I work in a nursery, I will happily admit I’m not great at keeping plants alive. Two years ago, I moved into my first house and I planted a Ceanothus ‘Concha’ in my garden. It has survived and it has taken over so is in desperate need of a cut. Those electric blue flowers and the fact that it is still alive after two years have made it my favourite outdoor plant. I was able to get a variegated Monstera at a decent price and he is now my pride and joy, towering above the lounge. They thrive on neglect too!

I wish I had an horticultural book to reference but I don’t read as I’m extremely dyslexic. I do listen to a lot of podcasts including the horticultural ones that have started recently. When I started to work in the dispatch area, it would be eight hours stood in front of a table tidying plants all day and although working with others, it can be lonely. So I started to listen to podcasts and my favourite was ‘No Such Thing as a Fish’. Eventually four of us were listening to it in the dispatch shed: we would listen to the same episodes and then discuss the facts in the lunch break – especially the horticultural ones. Podcast are great as you can pick them up and put them down when you want, they are never long and you can listen wherever such as driving home from work. I listen to the PlantNetwork ones to learn about people in the industry.

Listen to the end of the podcast for some bonus material! Interview was recorded after the Perennial Festival Dinner.