Eco careers - organic gardening
Andi Strachan is Head Gardener for Garden Organic – the national charity for organic gardening. We spoke to him as part our series on eco-careers.
Do you like what you do?
It’s a very satisfying job.
How did you get into organic gardening?
In about 1981, during the last recession, a chap at the Job Centre said, ”You like gardening, don’t you? I’ve got an organic horticultural course for a year, with a qualification.” I think I was among the first people in the country to get a certificate in organic gardening.
What was your first gardening job?
I worked on a farm in Somerset and then as a jobbing gardener in Birmingham. Then I went to the Wildlife Trust in their EcoPark in Birmingham, demonstrating sustainable land use – permaculture, and community composting.
Eight or nine years ago I joined Garden Organic as Senior Horticultural Organic Adviser.
What skills and experience do you need for this job?
You’ve got to have a reasonable knowledge and interest in horticulture. On top of that, you need an interest in the natural world – how the creatures that come to your garden interact with each other. And how nature can help and sometimes work against you.
You also need to move to where the work is.
Do you have to have an organic gardening qualification?
Not always, but you do need a horticultural qualification. Also, you need to be aware of two key areas of organic horticulture: first, a much deeper understanding of pest and disease management. That’s key. Second, soil fertility. We treat it in a very different way.
Describe a typical day
Lots of gardening and weeding, sowing plants, talking to visitors and supporting my team of gardeners. I spread the word, by talking to the media, like Radio 2. I also give talks regularly during the winter to gardening clubs across the Midlands.
What’s your proudest achievement?
For 30 years I’ve been right at the forefront of the organic campaign, promoting it. I’ve also been able to pass these skills on to others, to help them find new, more sustainable ways to grow.
What’s the difference between organic and conventional gardening?
It’s about the soil. We don’t use chemicals. We rely heavily on garden compost for soil fertility.
And we use green manure in winter. These are sacrificial crops like clover, Hungarian grazing rye and mustard, which protect the soil from the weather. You also dig these crops into the soil to improve soil fertility.
Otherwise, winter rains and frost would damage soil structure and cause capping of the soil surface. This is a thin crust of soil, which prevents water permeating deeper, and also prevents seeds in the soil from germinating through. Rains would wash a lot of nutrients from the soil, especially nitrogen.
What are the challenges for your industry?
The recession – organic produce is more expensive, so sales are down. However, Garden Organic is about growing your own, rather than buying it, so there’s been a great uptake here. A packet of seeds is much cheaper than a bunch of potatoes.
What’s the future for this area?
It’s looking good. There’s been a real uptake in growing your own vegetables in times like these. Garden Organic’s charitable aims are also expanding – supporting individuals with organic gardening, and also running research programmes to help UK and overseas farmers to adapt organic methods.
What’s the job situation like with organic gardening?
It’s quite easy to get work in organic gardening. There’s seasonal work on farms. More and more organic gardens are opening to the public – so there are work opportunities there.
Also, a lot of people who have private gardens, particularly on larger estates, are adopting organic gardening. They’re keen to have garden produce for the house.
You can volunteer at Ryton Garden, the home of Garden Organic, either as gardener or guide.
Interview by Kate Plowman, Publishing & New Media team