Women in Horticulture: Karen Sutherland

Interview with Karen Sutherland

We chat with, Karen Sutherland, about how she was destined to be a horticulturist, what she loves most about the industry and her favourite plant.

What drew you to horticulture originally?

It was pre-destined – horticulture is in my genes – my mother dug the garden over, the day I was born, and I come from a family of farmers and gardeners, at least on my mother’s side. My grandfather was a vegetable farmer and orchardist and a keen home gardener as well.

What pathway did you take to get there?

My path to study and work in horticulture was accidental. I dropped out of an Engineering degree as I realised it wasn’t right for me and went along with my boyfriend to a pre-apprenticeship gardening course at a barely-opened CERES Community Environment Park in Lee Street, Brunswick. On the second day, I had an epiphany that this was what I was meant to do with my life. It was quite profound. This led me to seek out a gardening apprenticeship, which I managed to get at Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens. From there I went to Burnley Horticultural College (now Melbourne Uni), began working for myself, and have continued to do so to this day.

What obstacles did you encounter along the way?

Ha! At my first couple of interviews for gardening positions I was turned down when I got there as I was a woman! This was before affirmative action was a thing. Luckily for me, this came into legislation at that time, and my apprenticeship at the Zoo was funded through an affirmative action program. Over the years I had many clients ask to speak to my husband when they called to arrange a quote. I used to love telling them that he could sell them some carpets but not help with their garden! They were very confused…After a good 15-20 years of this, things changed and I rarely if ever have a sexist reaction from people now.

Who were your mentors?

My teachers at CERES were wonderful, teaching us permaculture principles and sustainable gardening practices at a time when these were not well known. Many of the gardeners at the Zoo like John Arnott (now manages Cranbourne) were wonderfully supportive of me and taught me things I still remember and teach others, such as always using tools on both sides of your body to stay balanced. Other mentors have been my neighbours and community gardeners over the years in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, who have taught me so much about how to grow and use a range of herbs, vegetables and fruits. I also count all the authors I have read over the years. In recent years, Penny Woodward has been my writing mentor, without whom I never would have co-written ‘Tomato – Know, Sow, Grow, Feast’ and she still helps me in my writing for Organic Gardener magazine.

What is your favourite plant?

So hard! Lemon myrtle, Backhousia citriodora, about 20 other plants are close second, including native Australian food plants and some rare ones from Crete.

What is your favourite material to work with?

My favourite material to work with is plants – I’m a plants woman at heart.

Karen hanging out in the garden with tomatoes

What are you working on at the moment?

As usual some interesting consulting projects, but I’m excited to be developing my range of ID signs for bushfood plants. It’s something I’ve been wanting in my projects for years, so it’s gratifying to have them for sale on my web shop and have more available. I’m hoping to have non-native plant signs available this year too. I’m also developing an eBook on native food plants, to help people grow and use these plants confidently, particularly in urban situations. It’s going to be available soon, as a plant-by-plant download, and over the next year, will hopefully be available as a complete eBook and perhaps printed format.

What are 3 of your most worthwhile tips?

Top tips? 1. Be prepared to do the hard yards. For instance, maintenance gardening is not seen as sexy, but in the 20 or so years I did that I learnt so much about plants, through lived experience rather than through a book. 2. Get a good bookkeeper and accountant, as they will do a better job than you and it frees you up to do other things.  3. Be aware and realistic about the fact that horticulture is not well paid!

What do you most love about the industry you work in?

The amazing thing about horticulture is the variety of employment it offers – in my career I’ve worked in maintenance gardening, landscaping, design & consulting, edible plant installations for festivals, hosting open gardens, doing some radio and TV, teaching, writing and now online sales! Importantly, I have loved helping people to connect with nature, and in the last dozen years, to learn how to nurture themselves through growing their own food.

Karen holding a basket of tomatoes
Karen holding tomatoes

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