Challenges and Opportunities in Horticulture

By Jonathan Garner FAIH RH

What a privilege we have to work in an industry that is engaged to design, build and care for private and public sanctuaries and spaces. How rewarding does it feel to be involved with transforming an area that is often void of life, into a living and breathing ecology? How satisfying is it to steward a garden or landscape from its infancy towards maturity?

Although we’re very fortunate to work in such an industry, the challenges and difficulties with establishing a living ecology within the built environment can be numerous for the contractors who are responsible for building and planting the designer’s vision. These challenges tend to compound for the contractors who are then engaged to continually care for the vision so the landscape asset can eventually achieve the designed intent.

The current business psyche of free market economics has created both winners & losers in all industries. In today’s built environment, there is the need for being cost competitive whilst maximising profit margins & achieving deadlines. Naturally, something has to give or be compromised. Throughout most of the building industry, consumers & service providers have a level of protection provided for the quality of the finished product in the guise of standards & building codes.

To date, and according to the Office of Fair Trading, nowhere in the near future will there be any enforceable codes or standards applied to the scope of works associated with soft landscaping. Currently, local & state authorities rely on the specifications provided by landscape architects, landscape designers, horticulturists & arboriculturists. With the advent of a highly competitive market resulting in leaner design & consultancy fees, a culture of applying generic specifications for the horticultural elements within the project has become understandably, common practice.

The deregulation of building certifying has effectively bypassed local council’s authority to inspect completed projects. Most projects now engage a private certifier that generally has insufficient horticultural knowledge to determine whether the correct plants, soil preparation and other practices were put in place.

To minimise project costs, the client often deems the designer’s role is finished once the plans are handed over and the garden is built. How can design intent be assured when the client hasn’t been educated in the importance of follow up visits years down the track? How does the horticulturist receive the designers brief if they are no longer involved in the landscape asset?

The current generation of TAFE landscape graduates are appropriately skilled within the structural elements but lack sufficient understanding or possibly possess little interest in the scientific elements of Certificate 3 Horticulture (Landscape). The significant dilution of the plant based subjects in the TAFE curriculum for landscaping has created a generation of structural landscapers who, without continuing professional development or mentorship, have insufficient horticultural knowledge to determine & remedy site specific growing hinderances.

The importance of meeting the tight budget & deadline during the project can foster a culture of corner cutting that often doesn’t become evident until well after the 13-week maintenance period has ended. Many plants will survive past the 12month replacement period but may be in a state of gradual decline and are quite possibly, never likely to grow to the expected size or shape.

The design intent is further jeopardised with the arrival of the maintenance contractor nearing the end of the project. Communication is often poor between the exiting landscaper and arriving gardener. Infrastructure & irrigation locations are often a mystery as is the establishment watering schedule.

Getting trees to grow to maturity in the built environment is more challenging than most consumers think. Plants need sufficient quantities of well drained, aerated and fertile soil to mature, while a structure requires solid foundations with compacted layers to ensure integrity. Ours is the only profession that requires both of these conditions for our craft to prosper. If we fail to provide suitable growing conditions, our plants will fail. Conversely, if we fail to build on suitably stable soil, our structure will fail.

To further compound our challenges, more often than not,

  • Our fellow trades onsite have little care for, or understanding about the science of growing plants.
  • The project is well underway before we get onsite.
  • The planting areas are compacted, polluted and treated like dumping grounds.
  • The landscape budget gradually diminishes as the construction costs increase.

Often is the case that builders and civil contractors lack the understanding about how important it is to provide suitable growing conditions for our plants to fully prosper and compliment the structural asset. It is unfortunate that many trades within the building industry still see horticulture and garden construction as the work of navvies and a service that anyone can provide.

Nothing ire’s me more than seeing builders that are uneducated or ignorant to our science take on the project’s garden construction works. Although I am often engaged to advise builders with appropriate horticultural practices, I still know of very few that fully understand the importance of well-drained soil conditions and how water moves or worse still, doesn’t move through the soil.

As mentioned earlier, it concerns me even more that our TAFE courses are spending less and less time on teaching our next generation of landscape professionals, the valuable and important sciences of botany, soil chemistry and other vital subjects that are necessary for the understanding of growing plants in challenging situations such as the built environment.

As there is no evidence that our tertiary institutions will increase the learning syllabus to include the valuable and important sciences, it is left up to industry to fill the knowledge gaps. Now more than ever, is it important that industry professionals read publications and become active members within their relevant industry guilds or associations. We cannot completely rely on our learning institutions to graduate tradespersons that fully understand the complex science of horticulture in the built environment.

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