Horticulture career focus: Maura Clarke, Horticulturist, Glanbia

Science
Pictured at work in Glanbia, Bunclody Co Wexford is Maura Clarke

Pictured at work in Glanbia, Bunclody Co Wexford is Maura Clarke

Graduate Maura found her happy place working on herbaceous borders, lifting, dividing and replanting a wide range of plants, weeding and mulching

What course(s) did you study?

I successfully completed the 3-year BSc in Horticulture and then did the 1-year Add-on course BSc (Hons) in Land Management in Horticulture.

What is your current job?

Assistant Horticulturist at Glanbia’s Garden Centre in Bunclody, Co. Wexford. 

What do you like about your job?

Doing something I love, working with plants, and then being able to talk about them all day to customers and colleagues - it doesn’t get much better than that! Luckily, I have a great bunch of work colleagues where team work just happens, and we help one another out all the time which makes going to work a pleasure.

What does a typical week look like for you? 

I’m working part-time at the moment, so my week isn’t a typical week like others who are working full-time, but it is still full enough! Once a week, the Head Horticulturist and myself meet to discuss the previous week’s work and business, go through what needs to be done for the coming week, and then once a month we discuss plant stock, products, and garden centre layout.

The hands-on garden centre work includes watering, dead heading plants, cleaning plants, top dressing when needed, checking for plant pests and diseases and treatment of same if necessary, removing any damaged stems, leaves, branches etc… basically keep the plants looking well.  We also have to keeping the garden centre clean, so sweeping, removing any plant litter, ensuring pathways/walkways are free of clutter and there are no trip hazards is done on a daily basis.

Providing excellent customer service is a large part of my job, so advising customers on plant choice, care and maintenance, plants for specific areas, fruit and vegetable planting, and planting for wildlife, are just some of the many queries I deal with. Operating the checkout, and facilitating payments is all part of the job too.

Why did you study the BSc. in Horticulture course in WIT?

For me it was the quest for knowledge that led me to do the BSc. in Horticulture course. I needed to know more like why certain things happened, or why a plant didn’t grow the way I expected. I loved the learning, which led to the understanding, which in turn gave me my passion. Lecturers were really helpful, and some were so passionate about their chosen subject that it became infectious and of course a great group of class mates was the icing on the cake!

Where did you do your work placement?

My passion was plant propagation which means growing new plants from a variety of means like seeds, cuttings, grafting, bulbs, and other plant parts. I did part of my placement in a plant nursery where I learned that whole process, from seed to finished product. I learned how to pot by hand into 9cm liners, to prick out seedlings into P66s and P60s, divide a range of plants and grasses, pot plug plants by machine, sow seeds, batch label and pricing for large orders, and lots more.

I quickly learned that there was more to nursery work than just propagating plants because speed and cost efficiency are also really important.

I continued with my placement in Altamont which is a wonderful estate garden in Carlow that is open to the public and I loved it. Being out in nature with all types of wild life, ladybirds, bees, butterflies and such a diversity of birds - it was mind blowing! Working on herbaceous borders, lifting, dividing and replanting a wide range of plants, weeding and mulching. I had found my happy place, and my bosses (who had confidence in me which gave me confidence in myself) encouraged me to use my own initiative but also gave guidance when I needed it.

After Altamont, I worked in the gardens of Monart Hotel which was very different to Altamont. Traditional herbaceous borders were replaced with lots of pristine lawns and some beautiful ornamental grasses, which was also a very peaceful and beautiful place to work. To be honest, I was a little apprehensive going to this placement as I wasn’t very comfortable mowing, strimming or using a hedge trimmer but it was really good for me because I was pushed way outside my comfort zone and I discovered that sometimes that’s a good thing to do as it taught me that I was much more capable that I realised. I really enjoyed my experience there and while I knew the AVIVA stadium wouldn’t be giving me a call anytime soon, I knew that if they were really stuck, I wouldn’t be afraid to give it a go!

What things did you learn on the course which are invaluable in your job today?

Plant maintenance and all that entails, how to create the ideal growing conditions for plants and learning about pest and diseases and their cause and what to look out for to control them really gives you an edge over untrained gardeners. I also studied garden design, so what plants go together and how to incorporate contrast in gardens whether it be leaves or colour has also been really useful. Learning about wildlife and how important it is to plants and how to encourage wildlife in the garden and the science behind how plants grow means I have a better understanding when giving advice to customers. Of course, the garden centre management module and the business modules have also been invaluable.

What life skills did your time in WIT give you?

Going back to study as a mature student wasn’t easy, but I have to say it is truly the best thing I have ever done. It gave me such a boost in confidence on so many levels but especially confidence in my own ability both on an academic level and on a personal level. Being pushed outside my comfort zone, while daunting, means I am now not afraid to try new things. I now have the confidence to do presentations, demonstrations and give talks to groups, because I now have confidence in my own knowledge.

While in college I did an interview for a radio podcast that went a lot better than I thought it would; and since leaving college I wrote an article for LHP Skillnet magazine on ‘Horticulture Therapy in Dementia Care’. Going back to study in WIT gave me the confidence and the ability to do both.

I was so lucky to have had a great group of classmates and made friends for life, and by going on the many field trips and work placement I made a lot of contacts within the horticulture industry.

What advice would you give to a potential student of horticulture?

At some stage during my four years of study I came to the realisation that everything is connected on some level - we are dependent on plants for so much - food, oxygen, recreation etc., and it doesn’t matter whether we have 100 acres or just 1m2 we have to look after Mother Earth, her nature and her wildlife. I’m privileged to be a horticulturist. Yes, there is a lot to learn, but with learning comes knowledge and with knowledge comes passion, and it’s that passion that can bring you anywhere.

I love nature, I love everything about it - the plants and the wildlife; I still get excited when I sow seeds, they germinate, I nurture them until they’re ready to transplant into the garden, and then watch them grow and mature. Sitting quietly in the garden watching the bees and butterflies go from flower to flower getting food, and unbeknown to them they’re pollinating my flowers, and I’m quietly saying, ‘good job’, because I’m secretly waiting for the seeds to develop and ripen so I can collect them and start the process all over again; how amazing it that….

The seasons play a central role in the nature all around us, and how lucky am I as a horticulturist to be able to work outdoors to see and appreciate it all:

Spring –  Is beginnings, anticipation, excitement, new growth, bulbs coming up, leaf buds beginning to swell and break, everything starts wakening up, evenings getting longer and temperatures beginning to rise.

Summer –  Growth, work to be done, the flower buds and blooms, insects busy getting food and pollinating flowers, long warm (we hope) evenings, everything looks great with lots of colour.

Autumn –  Slowing down, taking it easy, making sure there are food reserves, bud and flower formation slows, leaves start to fall, plants start to die back, their job done. Evenings getting shorter and weather turning colder.

Winter –  Taking a rest, hibernation, work is done for the year. Time for a little snooze, evenings get very short and weather turns cold.

These are some of the reasons that I love being a horticulturist and I hope I’ll always feel like that.

One last bit of advice, lecturers are there to help you -  if you don’t understand something, ask again. If you put in the effort you will get the reward. Be excited and proud of the journey you are about to embark on. Then on graduation day, in your robe, hearing your name called out in front of family, friends, class mates, and then walking up to receive your degree, you’ll feel proud, so very proud, and believe me there is no better feeling in the world.

What advice would you give to a parent of a horticulture student?

If you ask someone what a horticulturist is, they are very likely to say landscape design or a landscaper who cuts hedges for a living, but nothing could be further from the truth. Horticulture is one of the most diverse industries and a career path can take the horticulturist down many roads. 

Starting with nursery stock production – seeds, cuttings, division and grafting, getting plants ready for the retail market. Micropropagation which is similar to nursery except done under sterile conditions in a laboratory facility adds an even more scientific flavour to horticulture. Then there’s garden centre work, selling plants and keeping them looking good.

Turfgrass establishment maintenance and care gives us golf courses, football, soccer, cricket and rugby pitches. Some horticulturists go into teaching thus transferring knowledge to enthusiastic students. Horticulture and plant research is always ongoing to improve products, win the race against pests and diseases, and ultimately preserve our food security. Horticultural therapy uses a holistic, person-centered approach by providing many Social and Therapeutic Horticulture programmes designed specifically to meet the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of clients.

Everything I’ve mentioned above have other avenues within them, but I hope they provide a flavour of where a career in horticulture can go. There are so many opportunities abroad too because horticulture is universal and can take you anywhere you want to go. Encourage your daughter/son to follow their passion because the world needs a lot more horticulturists.


“The glory of gardening: Hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is not just to feed the body but the soul” - Alfred Austin.

Related Courses

Bachelor of Science in  Horticulture (Kildalton College)
Bachelor of Science (Honours) in  Land Management in Horticulture

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