7 February 2024

A day in the life of a Kew apprentice

From climbing trees to installing our orchid festival, take a peek at what our apprentices get up to behind the scenes.

By Ellie Wilson

Two men in Wakehurst branded polos and baseball caps standing in a lush meadow of waist-high flowers

Our Kew apprentices do everything from climbing the 12,000 trees at Kew Gardens to donning waders to install our annual Orchid festival. It’s a unique experience and a valuable route into careers in horticulture.

Take a gander into their day to day jobs as we celebrate their hard work for National Apprentice Week (5-11 February 2024).

Against an open blue sky and sweeping grass lawn, a man in a fleece feeds a flock of black Hebridean sheep. One sheep is reaching up to eat directly from the bag
Wakehurst apprentice Alex Richardson with Hebridean sheep

Alex Richardson

Wakehurst’s first Countryside Worker apprentice

'My background is in mechanical engineering with a PhD in tribology. After a life-changing accident several years ago, being outdoors helped me recover, and I wanted a new career where I could give back to nature in the way that it has supported me.

No two days are the same at Wakehurst. One day I might be helping with general infrastructure tasks around the gardens, the next I could be down in the Loder Valley Nature Reserve with the Arboretum team, assisting in felling trees that have suffered from ash dieback

Just the other day I lifted logs from a felled western red cedar using a crane as part of our forestry work. The logs are being milled up to make boards to build a screen in the reserve for viewing kingfishers.

There are so many things that I enjoy about being an apprentice with Kew, it's impossible to choose just one. After just a few months I already feel I have bonded with the Wakehurst team and I feel lucky that I get to spend time in such a beautiful environment.

The most unusual part of my job is how nature can continue to keep you on your toes and teach you new things! I have also loved getting to know the Hebridean sheep that graze around Wakehurst - they are real characters.'

Wide shot of a greenhouse interior full of bromeliads
Tropical nursery © RBG Kew

Aidan Pike

Kew apprentice

'My current placement is based in the Tropical Nursery, where I’m working with the orchids team. My day usually begins with watering, and once a week we fertilize with a season-specific feed. 

In the winter this isn't too time consuming, giving me time to check over the plants, remove dead leaves, inspect plants for pests and diseases, and make a note of anything that's coming into bloom.

As we're now coming out of winter dormancy for a lot of orchids, the whole team has been doing a lot of re-potting and mounting before the new growth kicks off. Recently we've been working through the collection of Bulbophyllum orchids mounted onto bark of which there are literally hundreds in Kew's collection!

The last bit of the day is used for tidying up, making sure our potting benches are clean and sanitized so everything is ready to go the next morning.'

Young woman in a green helmet and climbing harness standing next to a large tree trunk and smiling
Cecily Withall, Arborist at Kew Gardens © Curve Media

Cecily Withall

Climbing arborist

Kew’s first female arborist since the 1980s and Young Arborist of the Year 2023, Cecily is passionate about encouraging others to take up careers in horticulture, particularly women. These career options are often overlooked in education.

Cecily is an integral part of Kew’s famous Tree Gang - a team of 7 arborists (including a current apprentice) who manage the world-famous collection of over 12,000 trees at Kew Gardens. 

 Cecily says: ‘We get to climb most days as we’re constantly looking to remove any dead trees or hanging branches, and as the tree collection at Kew is made up of trees from around the globe, it feels as though I travel the world each day even if I don’t actually leave south west London! I don’t think it will ever stop being exciting, and it is definitely one of the perks of the job.’ 

Two men in Wakehurst branded polos and baseball caps standing in a lush meadow of waist-high flowers
Jack Thunder and Joe Couper, Wakehurst apprentices

Jack Thunder

Wakehurst horticultural apprentice

'So far, I have worked with the arborist and landscape teams and in the nursery, Southern Hemisphere Garden, Asian Heath garden, the water gardens (the Iris Dell, Bog Garden, the Slips and Black Pond) and the American Prairie. We usually work in blocks of 2 weeks to a month to immerse us into the team and allow us to experience the real day to day of gardening. All jobs in all weathers. We learn so much! 

I am an older apprentice at the ripe age of 48, after a diagnosis of little-known Ménière's disease forced a career change, which really knocked my confidence. Whilst waiting for appointments and spending weeks in bed I read about nature – the outdoors gave me the beauty and escape I so needed. 

I aimed big and applied to be a volunteer at Wakehurst, and after becoming more confident and stronger, I applied for the apprenticeship. I never thought apprenticeships were for older people but I am evidence they are for all – pick the dream and go for it!

The staff at Kew all seem to find time in their own busy schedules to answer questions and pass on knowledge, and this is where I find the real learning happens. Add to this one of the best landscapes and plant collections in the UK and really, I am in heaven.'

Joe Couper

Wakehurst horticultural apprentice

'My day typically begins with the kettle and a brief catch up between coworkers to plan the day ahead. 

This winter, I’ve been stationed with the Water Garden team, which mostly involved leaf collecting but also saw a sprinkling of jobs like setting up tree guards on some young acers, bark chipping the paths in the woodland garden and preparing and derigging areas of the Glow Wild trail. I enjoy rotating between teams: it allows me to learn from different perspectives and soak up knowledge like a sponge.

It had always been a dream of mine to work and learn here, and working in a world-renowned garden is a golden stepping stone for my career progression. What’s more, one of the best things about an apprenticeship at Wakehurst is the mass amount of knowledge everyone has to share. 

Getting paid to garden day in, day out, in such a gorgeous, diverse landscape will never fail to amaze me.

Young woman with long ponytail in Kew branded black t shirt, smiling in a plant nursery
Jenny Crabb - Botanical Horticulturist in Arboretum Nursery 01 © RBG Kew

Jenny Crabb

Botanical horticulturist and former apprentice

Jenny works in the Arboretum Nursery, propagating Kew’s ‘trees of the future’. This important role is helping to future-proof Kew against the climate crisis. 

Many of Kew’s existing trees won’t survive in a warming climate. When our scientists travel to places where the climate matches the weather conditions Kew might face in the future, they collect local seeds for Kew’s Arboretum. Jenny’s team grows them into saplings so that when the current trees in our Gardens begin to fail, they will be replaced with trees that can cope with the rapidly changing climate.

Jenny began the Apprenticeship in Kew Glasshouses in 2019, and two years later secured a job in the Arboretum Nursery. 

‘Every day is different at Kew, as our tasks depend on the seasons. As it’s winter, my days currently involve seed sowing, grafting, hardwood cuttings, cleaning and sterilising (hygiene is very important in a nursery), and a lot of stock checking following a hectic summer! My favourite task is definitely seed sowing, and we are currently sowing a lot of new species for the collection from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank

One day during my second year as an apprentice we were breaking the dormancy of seeds from the Proteaceae family using fire. That was the moment I knew I wanted to work in propagation at Kew. With such an incredible collection of plants at our fingertips, even though I’m now a full time botanical horticulturist, I feel like I never stop learning at Kew.'

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