Develop your career through volunteering

Caroline weeding

Caroline Stephens, formerly an HR Consultant, changed careers in 2016 to explore her passion: horticulture. Melford Hall has been instrumental in her gardening journey. Sienna James caught up with her to find out more about what she has achieved and where she’s going

Why did you want to become a gardener?

For me, there are so many rewards you receive from gardening which just aren’t there in an office job. There is the immediate reward of working on a bed, whether it’s with a group on a big bed or by yourself on a smaller one, and when you stand back and realise how much better it looks. Also, after a hard day you feel physically tired which gives a good night’s sleep.
I also find the planning stage rewarding. Both the planting and maintenance but also seeing the bulbs come up; if you’ve planted something last season and you’re starting to see it come through, it’s a great feeling!
Gardening is a very sensory job. Touching the soil, smelling the perfume, listening to the countryside and observing how pretty the flowers are. I grow my own veg so I get taste that way!

What prompted your career change?

I worked for an international charity in HR. It was at the beginning of last year that I decided I wanted to become a gardener. The idea had always hovered in the back of my mind but I’d never really thought it possible. I began taking distance learning and online courses and then in July saved enough money to quit my job.
The advert asking for gardeners at Melford Hall caught my eye. I’ve been doing one to two days a week: sometimes I’m weeding beds and others I’m designing boarders. It’s been a great variety.

Are there opportunities to combine horticulture with art?

Art comes into horticulture constantly for me. When I’m choosing plants for an area I look at form, height and textures. The large leaves really stand out so you have a few of those against a backdrop of smaller, medium or finer leaves so it’s not overpowering but creates interest.
The idea is, it should still look good even if you’re looking at it in black and white. You want some plants with different leaf sizes and a variety of heights and shapes, and work your way down to the colour of flowers. I definitely believe it’s an art form.

Do you have any influences who you look to for inspiration?

For the design of Lord Somerset’s residence, I took inspiration from gardens in East Anglia which have areas of dry shade: Peckover House, Beth Chatto, and the dry garden at Hyde Hall. I am really looking for the right plants in the right places so they’ll work well over time. Beth Chatto is a real inspiration for me in this respect.
What's your favourite Melford storyline?
Beatrix Potter, as the stories (and porcelain bowls) were part of my childhood.

How has the National Trust helped your future?

The National Trust has helped me with my career change in a number of ways. I have been gaining a variety of gardening experience at Melford Hall (maintenance and development work), as well as exposure to the management of historic properties and gardens. The design work, practical experience and supervisory sessions with Rob have helped me with my distance learning for RHS Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Horticulture.
I was successful in my application for an RHS bursary to help extend my volunteering to Ickworth House where I am gaining different experience due to the nature of the property e.g. walled garden, polytunnels, working with a team of gardeners.
In addition to this, I have recently been appointed as a Horticultural Student at RHS Hyde Hall. I start the full-time one-year placement in September 2017. I will be studying RHS Level 3 Diploma and this can lead to many career opportunities in horticulture.
My volunteering with the National Trust enabled me to have the experience to apply and be successful.