Alena Schulz, Assistant Farm Hand at Bundoora Park Farm
I was a latecomer to horticulture. Despite both my parents being keen gardeners, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties & had bought my own house that I started growing herbs & taking an interest in gardening.
Initially I had worked as a teacher, first teaching high school English, Spanish & English as a Second Language (ESL) for three years & then teaching ESL to adult migrants & refugees with an organisation called AMES. It was a rewarding career, but finally, after 28 years of working for AMES, both as a teacher & later as a manager of AMES Education Centres, I was feeling frustrated. I was also experiencing a sense of anguish about climate change & was inspired by reading Tim Flannery’s book “The Weather Makers” to take action, but I wasn’t sure what.
At that stage I had an office in William Street in the city. It had windows that were level with the canopy of the Plane trees that grew along the footpaths. In stressful times I used to stand in the windows (literally – they had protrusions that you could stand on that overlooked the footpath) & watch the trees change with the seasons & I knew that whatever I did in the future, I wanted to work outside in the fresh air. Two of my colleagues had studied horticulture at Burnley & although they hadn’t pursued it as a career, they both said it was the best thing they had ever done, so I began to consider horticulture as a future possibility.
The time finally came in mid-2009. My younger son had finished school so I had reduced financial pressures & I was eligible to take early retirement at the age of 54 & 11 months. I researched a range of horticulture courses & found one that met my need for a relatively short but intensive course: the year-long full-time Certificate 3 in Horticulture at the Greensborough campus of NMIT (as it then was).
The course was a revelation to me. I met some terrific teachers (as a former teacher myself it was impossible not to judge the quality of teaching that I received) & made some great friends. I had so much fun & learned so much! Although I loved the whole year of study, the highlight was probably designing a display garden bed for the Avenue of Achievable Gardens at the 2010 Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show. I had no background at all in design apart from the subject that I took to prepare for this, but I won the Lysaght Gardener of the Year Award.
After I completed the course I thought I would probably look for a job at a nursery, but first I went overseas with a choir of Australian women to sing in the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains & then to continue travelling with friends for a few weeks. This has now become an annual or biennial event.
On my return, one of my former colleagues from AMES asked me to do some maintenance work in her garden & shortly after that my former manager from AMES asked me to do a design for her back garden. Almost before I knew it, my garden maintenance & design business had begun & thoughts of working in a nursery receded. As nearly all my gardening work has resulted from personal recommendations, I have only ever advertised my business once in early 2011 when I put an ad in the Leader Press. Word of mouth has been my entire source of work since then & ten years later I still maintain the gardens of many of the people (nearly all women) who responded to that original advertisement. Most of them had deliberately chosen a female gardener.
I’m now 66 years of age & am trying to reduce my work commitments so that I can work 4 days a week & gradually wind down before retiring at 70, but I’m having mixed success with that. I find it hard to say “No” to working in a new garden. My main focus over the years has been very much on the maintenance side of the business & I have loved working in so many different gardens & getting to know their owners, many of whom have become friends. I still love the physical work & the optimism involved in doing something that will provide a future benefit.
The skills that I developed as a teacher & education manager have been invaluable, as in my experience, having a gardening business is almost as much about one’s relationship with the garden owners & general problem solving as it is about soils, planting, pruning, pests & weeding. I hope that I have been able to earn the trust & goodwill of those owners & to have encouraged their interest & engagement in the gardens that I have helped create & nurture.