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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

A day in the life of a WRAGS trainee...

Matt Croucher, a Work and Retrain as a Gardener Scheme (WRAGS) trainee, talks to Helen Roberts about working at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, what first got him interested in botany and his aspirations within the horticultural profession.

I met up with Matt mid morning in the potting up area of the Garden. He was delicately placing seed into pots to supplement what is already planted in the ballast seed garden, an area for which he has sole responsibility. As he carried on with the task at hand, I asked him what first drew him to study horticulture, having previously come from a background in website design.

“My girlfriend and I had moved house and decided to get an allotment. Plants became important to me when I first started working on our own allotment and my interest in horticulture just emerged from that. However, even as a child I always had a small piece of the garden to grow something; I think an interest was probably always there.”

Matt started volunteering at the beautiful 10 acre gardens at Goldney Hall in Clifton, owned by the University of Bristol, and from there secured a WRAGS traineeship at the Botanic Garden. WRAGS provides hands-on practical training in horticulture, with the trainee working under the guidance of staff at a host location. WRAGS trainees do not receive funding from the scheme itself; rather, the scheme acts as an organizer and coordinator, helping to find trainees suitable host placements. Matt is funded by Perennial, a charity organisation that helps to support people in horticulture. He has also gained experience at a number of larger estates, including the National Trust property of Tyntesfield.

Matt started his traineeship with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden in August 2014, and will work two days a week there for a year. When he's not at the Botanic Garden, he is working for a local landscape firm and studying for the RHS Level II course at the Garden.

As we take a walk through the gardens I ask Matt about a typical day’s work and what it involves.

“A typical day at the Botanic Garden is never really the same. One of the first things I do when I arrive is water the tropical houses. After that, I could be working on a range of different tasks. For instance, last week I was helping to re-pot the water lilies in the main pond and apply a solution containing nematode worms to control vine weevils to different plants. No one day is the same and that makes the work really interesting.”

He also had the chance to go further afield with work when he took a trip down to Chelsea Physic Garden with fellow trainee, Zoe Parfitt, and curator Nick Wray to collect eight specimens of Welwitschia mirablis, a rare ancient cone-bearing plant from the Namib coastal desert.

Matt holding the Welwitschia mirablis.
Matt showed me the Welwitschia mirablis potted up very neatly and snugly sitting in a specially constructed heated planter. They are indeed very weird looking plants and although I thought they looked small and were therefore probably not that old, they are already 25 years old. Matt was obviously really pleased to be involved in the collecting and potting up of these plants, which are a valuable addition to the plant collection.

“It was amazing to go to the Chelsea Physic garden and have the chance to help out with the Welwitschia. Nick Wray said to me that I would probably only get the opportunity once in a lifetime to pot up something that is so unique.”

Matt's deep-rooted (excuse the pun) fascination with horticulture was evident as we talked about the plants whilst strolling through the different areas of the gardens. He relishes the time he spends on his own allotment and is now successfully growing and selling plants from his plot to friends and clients. He is also an avid collector of interesting plants, taking cuttings whenever and wherever he can; his home is crammed full of greenery. Towards the end of the tour, Matt sums up his training at the Botanic Garden and tells me of his plans for his horticultural career.

“The experience I have gained at the Botanic Garden has been invaluable and has enabled me to secure work at large estates, such as Tyntesfield. Ultimately, I would love to secure a full time position at a botanic garden.”

WRAGS was launched in 1993 and was originally intended for women returning to work after starting a family. Though the scheme is still administered through the Women's Farm & Garden Association, it is no longer just for women. Matt is among an increasing number of men applying for the scheme - many of which are career changers. To learn more about the scheme, visit wfga.org.uk.