Claire Vokins questions the horticulture industry and its opportunities for diversity. The garden designer spoke with Marcellus Baz – who was named the BBC Get Inspired Unsung Hero at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in 2016 for his work in supporting young people – about his experiences of the industry and its inclusivity
UK horticulture – does it have a diversity problem? Is it time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable?
For me, the short answer is ‘yes’ on both counts.
Pro Landscaper contacted me to write about my thoughts on diversity within UK horticulture, specifically within the ornamental horticulture sector. That includes designers, landscapers, professional gardeners, suppliers, industry charities and associations.
Well, let us start here. I accepted, but on the condition that the piece is written jointly with someone from our industry who is not white. Here is the first hurdle. Pro Landscaper noted they had approached BAME professionals in horticulture previously and the person(s) approached had turned it down for various reasons. To write this piece, I felt it may be more insightful to speak to someone outside the industry, yet who had contact with it and enjoys gardening. I was introduced to Marcellus Baz BEM. ‘Baz’ is a BBC Sports Personality of the Year Unsung Hero award winner. He is also founder and CEO of Switch UP and Nottingham School Boxing.
We have all witnessed the #BlackLivesMatter movement across the globe rising and bringing to the fore the fact that racism continues to exist across the globe.
Social media platforms have since gone into meltdown. For a week I watched this play out. I watched elements of our industry try to show support, yet not necessarily grasp the idea of #BlackOutTuesday. I watched as people tried to show support but were shouted down for using the wrong hashtags. I watched as some said nothing at all. We found ourselves in a situation where we just didn’t know what to do or say, likely through fear of getting it wrong, or fear of backlash.
On Sunday 7 June, I wrote a thread on Twitter. It came from a place of anger and confusion. I found during the week that I had been waiting for various elements of our industry to step up and do something; to show support for BAME members of our industry, for BAME communities that we work with. But it was a deafening silence.
I will say it out loud again: The UK ornamental horticulture industry is predominantly white. Our clients predominantly fall into the categories of ‘rich, white and old(er)’. Our businesses rely on this demographic, the charities (one in particular) rely on the support of this demographic. What came first – the demographic or us? Regardless of the answer, we need to address this.
As an industry, we regularly decry the ever-emerging skills gap and we have set up schemes to attract young people into the industry.
BALI’s GoLandscape is working with schools and collegesacross the UK and I am an ambassador for them. On the one event I have attended to date, I asked if we collect demographic data. I was told “no”. If we don’t collect data, how can we ensure we are reaching out effectively?
The Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) tag line is ‘Inspiring everyone to grow’, which sounds nice and inclusive, yet many people reading this have been involved in an RHS show at some point and can attest to the fact the both during build and show time, the majority of staff and visitors are white. The prices of tickets are high enough to exclude a large amount of people, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic background. The gardens operated by the RHS are all in areas where you would need to drive to attend them. The smaller shows that happened in London have been moved away. These actions exclude people from all backgrounds. This is not just BAME exclusion, it could be seen as elitism.
Yes, the RHS has outreach programmes; but honestly, for me, they feel like check box exercises. Does the RHS collect and collate data regarding projects and initiatives they run? How do we know how many children are now considering a career in horticulture after interacting with an RHS initiative? I see no outcomes being published, so we just have to assume that the work is inspiring people.
On the 8 June, the RHS released a statement via Instagram stating: “Our vision remains to enrich everyone’s life through plants and make the UK a greener and beautiful place for everyone, no matter the colour of their skin, their ethnicity or their culture. Horticulture does not recognise these boundaries and nor do we.”
And therein lies the problem. This approach is similar to the “colour-blind world” rhetoric. We should recognise that our discriminations are based on our differences.
The charity also noted that it would be recruiting an Diversity and Inclusion officer, to start in August 2020. For a business/charity of this size to not be operating with a D&I officer in 2019 is beyond comprehension. For me, it shows that the RHS has been happy to bimble along blinkeredly, pandering to its primary demographic.
It is time for change. It is time for the whole industry to wake up and look within itself.
Where do we start?
For me it is not about imposing the ‘British way of gardening’ onto others. It is about speaking with communities and learning from them, knowledge sharing and on a human level, asking the hard questions.
I spoke to Baz to see what he thinks:
Baz, we both know how beneficial gardening is; the benefits it brings to you personally and to communities. Could you tell me a bit about your experience with gardening? How you got into it and what inspired you?
Getting into gardening has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life! It gives me a sense of freedom, a sense of tranquillity and peace. Stepping into my garden opens the door to a completely new world It takes me away from the concrete jungle I live in and dissolves all my troubles, strains and stresses of society. I was absolutely delighted and humbled to have Alan Titchmarsh and the Love Your Garden team do my garden. It reignited my love and passion for gardening that I had buried for many years.
My first experience of gardening came through my mother. As child of six years old, we grew sunflowers together; that is an experience I will carry with to my last days. My mother was a keen gardener even though our garden was only a few foot long but she made it feel like it was miles. Gardening with my mum helped me develop patience and a caring nature as well as all the other benefits I mentioned above. She grew so much and cared for each plant like it was her child. My mother suffered with severe mental health issues and gardening was a way that really helped her mental wellbeing and gave her clarity and a safe place that freed her from the demons she was fighting in her mind. I loved seeing her face light up when she used to walk into her garden holding my hand talking to me about her plants, remedies and garden secrets.
That’s such a moving story and I expect it resonates on some level with many people. So, if gardening has had such a positive impact on you, why do you think young people and especially young black people don’t come into the industry?
I have been working with young people and especially young BAME people within deprived communities for over 15 years and many have shown a real passion for gardening. But I have also seen that passion wither away because it hadn’t been nurtured or encouraged due to lack of opportunities, awareness of potential opportunities and funding for young BAME people to get into gardening The gardening world seems so far to reach with many hurdles to overcome. As a community leader working at grass roots level, I haven’t come across many opportunities or funding to be able to encourage and nurture the passion these young people have shown towards gardening and horticulture.
Have you had any experience at all with accessing schemes? Positive or negative?
After Love Your Garden gave my garden a makeover I kept in contact with a few of the people that helped do my garden. One of them put me on to a horticulture organisation called BALI (GoLandscape) to help encourage young people from diverse backgrounds to get into horticulture and give them pathways into traineeships, apprenticeships and potential employment within this industry. I arranged a meeting with a representative from BALI to look at different pathways for young people to get into horticulture. I felt that this representative didn’t really have a great understanding of diverse communities and some of the challenges that they face; however, I was still optimistic that we could work together. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to progress. It didn’t feel like it was taken seriously and it didn’t go anywhere, the opportunity was lost.
If we are to make a real change and if we are really serious about making horticulture more diverse then everyone needs to take it seriously and really want it to happen.
Well, that sits awkwardly with me! I appreciate you holding up the mirror there. I have worked with a group on a communal garden in Camberwell. The group was aged 16 – 21, mixed white and BAME. I asked why they did not see horticulture as a career option; comments included low salary and early starts. One young person stated that for him and his parents, gardening was a reminder of the “black man working the land for the white man” slavery. Is this a common theme?
This hasn’t been a common theme in my experience. In comparison, I have had young BAME individuals make comments about having family-owned farms in countries where their parents came from and had a lot of experience passed down to them but didn’t have the opportunities to use them in this country. Other comments have been about the cold weather which a deterrent for some and you can only get into gardening if “your (sic)white, bright and polite”.
“White, bright and polite” – that is a damning phrase. What can the UK horticulture industry do to help?
We can address this by making opportunities available at grassroots level to help nurture and encourage the passion young people show towards horticulture. We need to provide pathways for young people to gain volunteering opportunities including traineeships, apprenticeships and employment within horticulture. We need high profile and community BAME role models promoting gardening and giving young people the belief anybody can get into gardening We need to promote community gardens as much as high profile garden shows, and we need to look at why awards shows don’t seem to show diversity and equality. They need to encourage government and schools to incorporate horticulture within their curriculum.
I sometimes feel we (the industry) impose the British way of gardening onto everyone, yet clearly gardening is a common activity all over the world with different cultures and different approaches. Should we embrace a different way of gardening? How do we learn about this without coming across as patronising? How much of media is not hitting the mark?
I think so much more can be done to encourage different cultures to share their gardening approaches but first they must knock down stigma and stereotypes for these cultures to be comfortable to do that. Having gardening competitions within schools and community groups will encourage people from all cultures to get involved. The media should be used more effectively to help people from all cultures feel more comfortable, and this will help erase stigma and stereotypes and promote confidence for all to share their approach and nurture their passion to take gardening to the next level.
I really appreciated Baz coming forward and talking to me, and I hope it’s the start of many similar conversations across the industry and gardening communities. I found the idea of “white, bright and polite” and historical context interesting; both different but both equally discouraging BAME participation in our industry. Already, I can see how various associations can help. Maybe some different award categories? Community gardens? I’m throwing down the gauntlet, I know.
Let’s not become complacent and think a couple of articles like this are enough. They’re not.