As a food technologist, Mere Brewer quickly realised she wasn’t cut out for a career indoors.
“I found that I didn’t actually enjoy working in a food lab where I was stuck inside all day. I grew up in Fiji surrounded by waterfalls, trees and views to the ocean. Medicine for things like cuts and stomach sickness was what we could find around us in our back yard so horticulture has always interested me and had been in the back of my mind.”
Deciding to change tack, she applied for a job in a nursery but was knocked back because of her lack of qualifications – a problem she set out to quickly rectify.
She gained a certificate in horticulture and underwent on-the-job training during her apprenticeship at Auckland’s Botanic Gardens. Fifteen years on, she’s now a Senior Gardener overseeing seven Collection Curators at the popular Gardens in Manurewa.
She loves her new career and describes ‘amenity horticulture’ as discovering what plants grow well in different urban landscapes that add ornamental and recreational value. “Think about those colourful annuals you see in your local town centre; the gardens in a cemetery; trees growing in your local streets; trees and gardens in your local parks and plants that you purchase for your home garden,” Mere explains. “Amenity horticulture is important in addressing environmental issues too. For example, planting a rain garden to remove nutrients from stormwater before it enters the waterways.”
Mere says research is a big part of what the Botanic Gardens staff do each day. “For us it’s mainly about finding plants that are suitable to grow in Auckland’s fickle weather. The public look to us for inspiration for their home gardens so if we’ve trialled something and established it grows well here, then they know they’re not wasting their money when buying a particular plant.”
Mere says no two days working in amenity horticulture are ever the same, and there’s a lot of technical skills required to look after thousands of different species of plants.
“Our role is to ensure we don’t lose them because some of those plants are quite valuable and are becoming threatened. Some of them you can’t even source anymore so preserving them is a big responsibility and is a very satisfying part of our job.”
While she still has an indoor office, Mere relishes the chance to get outside and see what’s new in her workplace. “There’s always something to admire. At the moment things are coming alive in spring and you see all these little gems flowering. It’s very seasonal.”
Mere believes industry training is vital and several of her apprentices have studied through Primary ITO in recent years.
“You can’t beat the hands-on experience that on-the-job training provides. I remember when I was training being told to go down to the hire shop and get a pump to learn how to empty out a water feature. I just loved having the freedom to do that sort of thing and try things out. Workplace training gives you responsibility and lets you thrive so you then have more confidence in your day-to-day job.”
Apprentices at the Gardens are taught how to use a wide range of tools and machinery like line trimmers and hedge trimmers, and how to drive different vehicles such as tractors. “It’s never boring,” she says. “There’s a lot more to horticulture than just weeding. I would definitely recommend people undergo workplace training because horticulture is a very practical, hands-on career.
“The support from Primary ITO’s training advisors is pretty great. They recognise that people learn in different ways and they put appropriate support in place. One of my apprentices was a very visual learner and had difficulty writing reports. But we supported him to put the basics of the report down and then quizzed him verbally to make sure he understood a topic. His training programme was able to accommodate that.
“We’ve also had people from Primary ITO come and speak with us about the best way to give certain employees instructions because they too were visual learners. It was very helpful.”
Mere says anyone who is interested in amenity horticulture can be reassured there are rewarding career paths to follow.
“Most of the time when people finish their apprenticeships here at the Botanic Gardens they go into team leader positions in the private sector of amenity horticulture because they’ve had such solid training which is great.”