Pro Landscaper speaks to Sally Petitt, head of horticulture at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, to discuss her route into the industry, favourite aspect of the industry and some of the projects she is currently working on.
Holding a collection of over 8,000 plants from all over the world, Cambridge University Botanic Garden spans 40 acres and sees over 300,000 visitors come through the gates a year.
The current site was founded in 1896 by John Stevens Henslow, the site was originally used to grow plants used for teaching medical students at university. Today, this garden provides horticulture expertise, facilities for researchers and areas for the public to explore and learn about the various species.
What was your route into the industry?
I was planning to study architecture, but during my A Levels I realised that, actually, I loved gardening. I really enjoyed being outside with plants, gardening. It was a eureka moment and thought I could go into horticulture. I wrote to a few local nurseries and gardens asking for pointers about how to get into horticulture.
Cambridge Botanic Garden came back and informed me that they ran schemes, and asked if I wanted to come for an interview. They didn’t have a vacancy at the time, so I got a job at a rose nursery. Just before I started there, I got a phone call from Cambridge saying something had come up – it was complete luck really!
I started here as a trainee horticultural technician, I stayed for three years of training and, 31 years later, I’m still here!
I’ve progressed through different areas since being a trainee, I’ve worked in the herbaceous section, the woodland section and the alpine section. Currently, there are 8 teams.
I oversee all the horticultural teams – there are 24 horticultural staff looking after the 40-acre site.
What does a ‘normal day’ look like for you?
I catch up with the horticultural team at least every morning, just to see who is about, report to them and check if there are any problems. My day could involve spending time in the garden with section supervisors, or I could be writing articles and reports.
I’m an advisor for Borde Hill Garden and I’m also involved with an education committee for the RHS looking at their public education programme.
I also update our plant picks on the website weekly, looking at our plants and informing visitors. It’s very varied, I don’t think there is a standard day!
What are you working on at the moment?
We are trying to bring together the last elements of the horticultural aspect of our systematics project. Last year we opened an interpretation hub for the systematic beds, which is called the rising path. It’s an amazing structure – a raised path overlooking the systematic beds.
The idea is that you can oversee the systematic beds, they have a unique layout. We’ve done a good part of it, but there’s still a lot more work to do. That’s one of our main focuses at the moment.
What is your favourite part of working in the industry?
Ultimately, it’s the setting. It’s vibrant and dynamic. The trees particularly are amazing, and there’s just something very humbling and comforting about working in an environment like this.
You’re always learning. My team are so enthusiastic and knowledgeable, which is wonderful. It’s amazing to work somewhere where you are inspiring people.
What does Cambridge University Botanic Garden offer to researchers and aspiring horticulturists?
We have a research facility here where we offer space for researchers. Plant researchers can come here to grow plants or study bee behaviour on particular flowers, amongst other things. We also run a trainee programme.
It’s a yearly, year-long course and trainees study practical horticulture and plantsmanship. We usually get about 100 applicants per year, and we take seven on.
Trainees get to work in each of the eight sections of the garden on rotation they get to see all the different elements.
They work with glass, alpine and woodland, systematics, trees and shrubs, experimental, demonstration and display, horticultural learning and landscaping machinery. They get to experience the work that we do in horticulture.