Teagasc - the agriculture and food development authority in Ireland


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Ballyhaise College - Career Opportunities in the Land Based Sector


Paul Dowling, Horticulturist

Paul is the manager of an Amenity Horticultural business and is based in Dublin. Having completed a Horticultural course in the National Botanic Gardens he went on to start up his own business. Now employing several gardeners, he has a thriving business doing what he loves most.

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first question!

What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?

Before I studied horticulture at the Botanic Gardens, I had always liked the idea of growing things. I used to grow fruit, veg and other plants in the garden at home as we had a small glasshouse. I got some advice from the local horticulture adviser, and he encouraged me to study horticulture.

Before my Leaving Cert year I worked for a summer in Irish Nurseries, which was the biggest pot plant operation in Ireland at the time. I was seventeen at the time and it was great experience. I liked the work, so I decided to apply for a course in Commercial Horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens. A lot of the people on the course had backgrounds in horticulture and some came from farming backgrounds. I didn't have land, as I was from a suburban background, so I took the Amenity option - that's more to do with landscaping etc. I was delighted to have got that because it was a growth area as well, if you pardon the pun!.

As it turned out, the Commercial end of it was very competitive, whereas there's much more scope in the landscaping and amenity side. Even then, back when things were tough (80's), most of the people who graduated were able to get jobs.

After graduation, I worked in a Herbaceous Nursery in Holland before working in sales for a Horticultural Machinery distribution company for about six months. I also worked for a couple of Landscape Contractors as General Operative for about a year before going out on my own.

About this time, I succeeded in getting a place on an AnCO "Start Your Own Business" course, which gave me an insight into what is involved in running one's own business. Luckily, I got a very good contract with the Eastern Health Board to maintain the grounds of about thirteen Health Centres in County Wicklow, from Enniskerry right down to the Wexford border, when I started off. This gave me valuable experience in grounds maintenance and enabled me to take on my first employee.

When I joined ALCI,(The Association of Landscape Contractors of Ireland) I received another boost, in that it gave me access to information on many aspects of the Landscaping business, including how to price jobs properly as well as a network of like-minded people. It gave me a wider overview of the industry in general. The "Start Your Own Business" Course was an invaluable tool as it helped me to foresee likely pit falls and the importance of keeping proper records and accounts.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

When I was a teenager, we had a good-size back garden and a small glass house at home. From an early age, I developed an interest in plants and started growing fruit and vegetables for our kitchen. When I ran into problems with my raspberries and strawberries, I sought advice from the County Committee of Agriculture, which was the forerunner of Teagasc at that time. The Horticultural Advisor visited our house to advise me about my crops. He gave me a lot of encouragement and suggested I should make a career in horticulure since I was so interested in gardening. My parents also encouraged me to follow this career and to be honest, I never really considered anything else.

How did you go about getting your current job?

When I came out of the Botanic Gardens, I went to work in Holland for the summer and when I came back, I joined a Landscaping firm. This was in the early 1979/80 when the economy was not as buoyant as it is now. We were working on dusty sites, doing landscaping and lawns.

When the weather got bad, you were let go and got a pound an hour "wet time". I remember standing in out of very heavy rain one day in an industrial unit, reading the paper. I saw a job for a Sales Rep to sell horticultural machinery, chainsaws, lawnmowers, golf course equipment etc. I applied for and got the job as an indoors Sales Rep.

It was a great learning curve, I got training in sales, and I was selling equipment related to the industry I was in. That was one of the reasons I got the job as a result of my background in horticulture. That was great training, and I really enjoyed it. I was getting on very well with that job, but when the weather was good (around March/April) I really missed being out in the fresh air.

Within a short period of time it turned out that the company ran into bad financial difficulties, and they let about eight people go and as I was one of the last in, I was also let go. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave me the impetus to set up on my own.

I went out and started working for myself then. It was a big decision for me. I was lucky to get onto a Start your Own Business course, run by the Irish Productivity Centre and FAS. The course was excellent, it ran over sixteen weeks - eight weeks of lectures and practicals, and the second eight was about getting it off the ground.

It was great doing that, and I had a job I used to do on a Saturday. I managed to get another contract for a couple of days a week shortly afterwards, and I just built it up from there. That's really how my own Landscaping Business got off the ground.

Describe a typical day?

My average day starts at about 7.30am, as does that of my employees. Our workforce is organised in three crews of two or, sometimes, three men. On a Monday, we would normally go on a run of maintenance contracts, maybe seven or eight sites and I would work with one of the crews during that run. On Tuesdays, we tend to concentrate on new landscaping jobs. I would organise the materials for the job and any deliveries of materials. I'd then set out the planting and allocate various tasks to my helpers, make sure that everything is going smoothly and that the job is finished well. Our work days finish at four in the afternoon. On Wednesdays, after allocating the various tasks to the staff and ensuring that everyone is on site, I spend the rest of the day in the office. This is a vitally important part of my work, although the least enjoyable. Accounts and credit control have to examined , bills paid, lodgement of cheques received and wages for the week prepared. There is usually correspondence to be dealt with as well as quotations and tenders for future work prepared. A lot of time is spent on business calls not only on Wednesdays but throughout the week. The other days are taken up in much the same way as Mondays and Tuesdays. Contact has to maintained with the clients on a regular basis to ensure that they are satisfied with the service we are providing. Also regular contact with suppliers, such as Nuserymen, is very important to make sure that we know which plants or other materials can be sourced at any one time.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

We're doing a lot of maintenance contracting. The range of contracts could be anything from a private garden to an industrial site, or an apartment block or whatever. Many of our maintenace contracts follow on from landscaping jobs which we completed satisfactorily. When the client is pleased with the work, we are likely to be invited to give them a price to maintain the garden or the grounds for a year. We have to be reliable, so we stick to a schedule which is laid down in the specifications of the contract. For instance, on Mondays, at a certain time, we arrive at a specific job and move on from there. It's routine and our clients know when to expect us. It can be challenging sometimes, sticking to that. In order that it does not become too much of a bore for our staff, we change the crews around from time to time. It's nice to have the newer jobs coming on, particularly landscaping projects, so you can be a bit more creative. About 70% of our time would be on maintenance contracts now; we have accumulated so many over the years. We do most of the landscaping and planting from November to March. Then in the summer it's mostly maintenance, although we still do landscaping in the summer but mostly grass cutting, hedge trimming, weeding, and pruning.

What are the main challenges?

They vary, and it changes over the years. About five years ago there seemed to a shortage of skilled people in the landscaping sector, as the economy was booming and there was a big demand for skilled people in the landscape and construction sector. That seems to have sorted itself out over time, but that was a challenge, getting good, reliable, experienced people. Among the more challenging aspects of a Landscape Contractor's job would be 1. Identifying and making contact with possible new clients. 2. Organizing and co-ordinating new projects. 3. Time management. Managing my own time and ensuring that all members of my staff are gainfully employed throughout each working day. 4. Vigilance to ensure that our work is kept to a high standard.

What's cool?

I'm self employed, so to an extent I'm my own boss. You feel you are in control. You get to do projects from the start, and bring them to completion, you get to see something for the work you've done. You're outside, in the fresh air, in the summer, and thats an added bonus. The fact of seeing a job through to completion can be very satisfying.

What's not so cool?

The downside would be when you get bad, wet days, and you have still got to get on with the job. You have to keep it moving, you've got to get out there in all weathers. Also, when suppliers let you down with late deliveries, and you have staff hanging around, waiting for deliveries with consequent loss of productivity. It doesn't happen that often, there is normally plenty to do on the sites before deliveries get there but it can hold you up. When you're running a business, you have to do the bookwork as well as the things you enjoy doing, you have to do the nitty gritty things. Tax returns, VAT, PRSI, PAYE, etc. It's not all the glamour stuff like planting or designing new gardens! You have got to be a Multi Tasker.

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

Having studied Horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens I have a knowledge of plants and experience in design and planting. I have also done a small number of business courses, which have given me the basics of running a business. As in any business, ongoing skills updating is necessary to keep up to date with trends and changes in the industry. Inter-personal skills are also an important thing to have and I think that I have a facility to get on well with people and understand their needs.

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

Biology and Chemistry were my favorites. Another which I found useful was Woodwork. Unfortunately, I gave up Woodwork, which is a good practical subject too early. The subjects I really enjoyed the most were Biology and Chemistry. Other practical subjects like Metalwork or Orienteering have been helpful. Biology is most important for anyone going into Horticulture as it covers propagation and helps with the identification of plant names, species and families through the universal use of Latin. Chemistry is also helpful as the use of various chemicals is a constant in horticulture. The chemical content and dangers of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides in use in Amenity Horticulture needs to be understood anyone going into this business.

What is your education to date?

I took the Leaving Cert with Hons Biology and Chemistry. I then did the Amenity Horticulture course in the National Botanic gardens (a two year course then - now 3 with a practical year). Before starting in business, I took a "Start Your Own Business" course with the Irish Productivity Centre.

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

An interest in Biology, my favorite subject, and Chemistry - they were a great help. Then also doing the Horticulture course in the Botanic gardens. Plant Identification was very important. There's a huge range of plants there from all over the world, so it's a great place to learn plants, to get to know them. It gives you a huge advantage, because you know the scientific, the Latin and the common names. It makes things a lot easier.

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

There have been quite a few. Being able to start my own business after doing the Start Your Own Business Course. The satisfaction one gets from a job well done, particularly when the customer is happy and tells you so is one of the main things. For instance, on one particular occasion we did a job for a newly married couple on a garden which was in an awful state. It was a small garden, so we turned it around in one day. They came back that evening, she in particular was absolutely delighted, she couldn't believe how well it looked. There was a great sense of satisfaction there. There is also great satisfaction in completing major projects and seeing the fruit of your work 12 months on and as it develops into the future.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

Iím reasonably good at getting on with people, also Iím quite methodical - I like to work to a schedule. Thatís really how we built up the business, being reliable and flexible. I also work hard and like to think that I treat the people who work for me with fairness and consideration.

What is your dream job?

I have it! I suppose there is no particular job that I would like. I like doing what I am doing. It gives satisfaction to see a job well done and the business developing.

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

The job allows me to work regular hours. I rarely work unsocialable hours, which means that I can spend time with my family and friends. I'm out working in the fresh air on most days, which makes for a healthy lifestyle although the work can be physically demanding at times but it helps to keep you reasonably fit as well. Being my own boss, I can take holidays at times that suit me and my family. This occupation has given me security and a reasonably good living. I would say that it's relatively good compared to most jobs. It has given me the opportunity to persue a kind of lifestyle which suits my temperament and outlook. I enjoy owning my own business and setting my own goals in life.

What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Ideally, try and get a job in the industry for a summer, or get a bit of experience before you go into it. You have to be happy with working outside, and doing physical work. If you are not prepared to work hard or are looking for a soft job, don't go into Landscaping. Design is very sexy at the moment, everyone wants to be a designer, a Landscape Designer. It's different on the ground, you have to be out there on sites in all weather and you have to make sure projects are managed well and you're able to muck in with everyone else. Biology is most important for anyone going into Horticulture or Landscaping as it covers propagation and helps with the identification of plant names, species and families through the universal use of Latin. Chemistry is also helpful as the use of various chemicals is a constant in horticulture. The chemical content and dangers of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides in use in Amenity Horticulture needs to be understood anyone going into this business. Geography would be a relevant subject as well. Also, the simple things like having a full, clean driving licence, which can make you a lot more employable if you are trying for a job with a Landscape Conractor. This indicates that you are more mobile and can also drive a company van if needed. Be sure you're happy with the outdoor life. Having taken a Horticulture course will give you an advantage. However, it's possible to take a job first and study later, e.g. in IT Blanchardstown it is possible to study at night. I think you cannot beat doing the Diploma Course in the National Botanic Gardens because it is a good practical course which also covers all the theory and is invaluable for gaining plant knowledge.

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

1. DISCIPLINE You need to be disciplined. 2. INTERPERSONAL SKILLS You need to have reasonable interpersonal skills and an ability to get along with all kinds of people. 3. DETERMINATION You need to be determined and ambitious with a good attitude. At the end of the day, attitude is the whole thing, a can-do attitude.

What is your favourite music?

Various types of music, from U2 to classical.

What is your favourite film?

these are few of my favourite films: Gandhi, Gladiator, Trading Places,

What is your pet hate at work?

I suppose I have a few things, smoking is one of them. Getting wet, getting drenched when youíre working. People being late for work and holding us up, weíre normally in a team, or a crew, and if one person is late it can hold everybody else up. Traffic.

What is your star sign?


Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

I'm doing ongoing courses in safety, though probably at this stage in my career I'll be doing more at the business end of things, doing courses on communications and management and things like that. I have attended some small courses on spraying and chainsaws, things like that at various times over the years. Some of these are run by Teagasc,FETAC, ALCI and others. I attend business seminars, as well as other relevant seminars, on a regular basis in order to keep up to date with industry trends.

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

A wish to work in the outdoors at a physical job is the first thing. For those still at school, any job working at a nursery or with a Landscape Contractor or Designer as a summer job would be ideal experience. The biggest thing, no matter what you're doing is a bit of enthusiastic interest. If you are enthusiastic, show a willingness to learn on the job and a wish to get on with it, you won't have a problem.

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