Growing new gardening skills for hospitality employees

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Running a working farm, wildlife park and major visitor attraction is no easy business. Success depends on everyone in the team having the skills and confidence they need to create a great customer experience. That includes those who work to ensure the grounds and buildings are safe for use and looking good.

At Jimmy’s Farm & Wildlife Park in Suffolk, that responsibility falls to the six strong Estates team led by Gemma Marriage. “We care for all the grounds,” she says, “including the herb gardens, orchard, woodlands and pathways. The work also involves landscaping around the farm and in the animal enclosures, as well as managing and maintaining the buildings and other facilities.”

Katie Bowes joined Gemma’s team in 2021 on a part time contract but showed real promise and now works on the estate full time. Katie knew about looking after livestock, having grown up on a beef farm and then spent three years as a shepherd near Brightlingsea, but she had no gardening or landscaping experience. “That wasn’t a problem initially because she was keen and quick to learn on the job,” says Gemma.

Building confidence and developing potential

Having seen Katie’s potential, Gemma and her senior gardener, Kieran Locke, took her under their wing, teaching her what they knew as they went along. However, neither of them had time to give Katie the training she needed to really progress in her career. “We simply don’t have the resources for full time training in-house,” says Gemma, “but we knew she would need formal training to build her confidence, take on more responsibilities and even move into a leadership role in the future.”

From starting as a small pig farm in 2002, Jimmy’s Farm has grown into a thriving hospitality venue for family fun days out and special occasions, including weddings and festivals. It is also now home to more than 100 different animal species and breeds, from farmyard favourites to exotic wildlife such as zebras, wolves and even a polar bear. With seasonal workers boosting employee numbers from around 50 full time to 150+ in busy periods, there are many career opportunities for experienced team members to lead others.

Funded Skills Bootcamps support employees and businesses

When Suffolk New College emailed details of their funded Skills Bootcamps, Gemma saw a great opportunity for Katie to gain essential horticulture skills in a different environment, away from work. “We have a good relationship with the Suffolk Rural campus, as some of their students visit the estate to gain hedge planting experience. Our Park Director is also a former student and current ambassador for the college and our business supports various college programmes.”

Katie was delighted at the opportunity, although a little nervous about the thought of going back to college. “But once I started, I was reluctant to stop. The topics were really interesting and it was fun learning new skills. Even if I might not get to use them right away, I know they will be valuable in future.

“The college tutors were lovely and supportive, which is great for your confidence when using a mini-digger for the first time. The other people on the course were also really nice and from a range of backgrounds, including people who had never done any work like this before but were looking for new opportunities. I would definitely recommend these Skills Bootcamps to anyone considering this line of work.”

The course ran every Friday for 10 weeks at the Suffolk Rural campus near Otley. At the end of it, Katie had achieved a Level 2 Award in Practical Horticulture Skills. As well as the two-day mini-digger training, she learnt how to prepare different sites for planting, how to lay hard surfaces for landscaping and how to use pesticides safely (PA1 and PA6 training) where permitted. Her end project focused on creating a sustainable garden plan, designed to attract wildlife.

“The garden design and maintenance aspects of the course were fascinating,” says Katie, “and I would like to go on RHS plant identifier and plant care courses next. Overall, the course was massively helpful as I can now do so much more here. I’d encourage employers to put their teams on this course – and then let them show you what they have learnt.”

Gemma agrees: “It’s great to see how Katie has grown in knowledge and confidence and is now willing and able to take things on herself without needing supervision. She is looking at things differently around the park and now feels qualified to share her opinions based on what she has learnt, which is hugely helpful as we get a fresh perspective. I am confident this experience will open up many more opportunities for her within the Estates team.

“Although we had to lose her for one day a week during the 10-week course, what we have gained has far outweighed that. The course was also generously subsidised, thanks to Department for Education funding, so both Katie and our team have benefitted from affordable training. We are stronger as a result – which is why I would definitely recommend these Skills Bootcamps to other businesses with ambitions to grow.”

Find out more about the range of Skills Bootcamps on offer to businesses in Suffolk and Norfolk here or contact our Skills Broker, Bev Wallman, by email at [email protected].

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