Young guns of gardening

Sam Ovens in his garden The Sky's The Limit. Photo: PA Photo/RHS/Lee Beel
Sam Ovens in his garden The Sky's The Limit. Photo: PA Photo/RHS/Lee Beel

Anyone who thinks gardening is strictly for people of a certain age, think again. A growing stream of young talent is now making its way into major shows and hitting the headlines in horticultural competitions.

Ones to watch at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show include Sam Ovens, 27, who is designing his first Chelsea show garden for Cloudy Bay; and Hugo Bugg, 29, already a Chelsea Gold Medal winner, designing his second Chelsea show garden for the Royal Bank of Canada.

Both studied garden design at Falmouth University and both are previous winners of the RHS’ prestigious Young Garden Designer of the Year competition, which continues to provide a platform for young horticultural talent at the RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park in Cheshire, which this year runs from July 20-24.

Ovens grew up on a working farm in Cornwall, which spawned his interest in nature, while Bugg - the youngest ever winner of gold for a large show garden at Chelsea (in 2014) - grew up helping his father in the big family garden in Devon.

“In the summer holidays I worked for a local landscape firm, so I was out there doing both hard landscaping and planting every holiday. I learned loads. I worked really hard and learned a lot from contractors and I really learned my plants as well.”

But you don’t have to be at a prestigious garden show to find amazing young talent. Take 29-year-old Matthew Pottage, the youngest ever RHS curator who, since December, has been in charge of the society’s flagship garden at Wisley, Surrey. He landed the job less than 12 years after arriving at Wisley as a trainee and now oversees 75 gardening staff.

So, what advice would they give young people looking for a career in horticulture?

“The RHS garden competitions and shows are a great way to start out and to gain initial publicity,” says Ovens. “My advice to young gardeners would be to set themselves apart, find a niche and focus on what really makes them different.”

Bugg adds: “Just keep as many doors open as possible. When I graduated, a lot of people felt you could just go straight out and be a self-employed garden designer, but that’s very difficult because you haven’t got a portfolio of live projects.

“I was open to everything. I was doing graphic design, worked for different people and some of those projects not related to gardens turned into garden design projects the following year. Work hard, but don’t close any doors.”

Bugg says he’d recommend university to anyone wanting a career in garden design.

“Personally, I feel it’s important to study garden design at a professional level because you can take on bigger jobs and can understand the process better.”

Pottage says: “The Grow Careers website is a really good place to start (www.growcareers.info). I started off working in a garden centre alongside my college training and it was definitely a good way to start.

“One of our most important missions at the RHS is to change the image of horticulture as a low-paid, unskilled career choice - it’s really one of the most inspirational, life-enriching and rewarding careers you can choose. We want to attract more great people into the profession, through our campaign for school gardening, by appointing young gardeners and with the help of well-known ambassadors like Alan Titchmarsh. There are also so many gardening careers you can choose - you could be a botanist, an arboriculturist, a landscape designer or a garden manager - the options are endless.”