Karl Noldan - Young Horticulturist

September 2016

Karl is curator of the main gardens at Wellington Botanic Garden

Karl Noldan enjoyed horticulture subjects at high school but was encouraged to pursue more academic subjects like accounting and languages – horticulture was seen as a lightweight option for less able students. At university he completed a BA but afterwards studied for a Level 4 Certificate in Horticulture at a polytech. This consolidated his knowledge in the subject and gave him the credentials that he needed to get the sort of work he really wanted.

He took a job with the Wellington City Council weed control team for 5 months before transferring to the Botanic Garden as a gardener at the Cable Car depot helping out with tree work and other arranged tasks. Karl says he also signed up with the Primary ITO and completed a Level 3 Certificate in Horticulture majoring in arboriculture.

“After two years I was appointed to a role in the main gardens as the curator of shrubs, which I did for three years. At that time there were also curators for themes and perennials but recently we have had a restructuring where the three positions got merged into one, and that is the position I now hold as curator of the main gardens,” he says.

“It involves being accountable for keeping all 18 of the living plant collections up to standard, so I am out there working with gardeners and training apprentices. We propagate and order plants, decide and design where those plants are to go, plant them, and see to any re-developments in the gardens. I work closely with the manager of plant collections and between the two of us we decide what is going to happen in those collections, and then it’s up to me to make it happen.”

“With 18 plant collections that are based around different genuses or different areas of the world or different themes, a huge amount of research has to go into figuring out what goes where and ordering what we need. We can have anything from a fragrant garden to a themed collection around say Asian plants, so there is a huge amount of variation that requires a huge amount of information and knowledge.”

Karl also helps with school holiday programmes and manages volunteers that help out daily. Talks are given to gardening and other interest groups, and presentations are given to visitors on open days and at the spring festival and other events, and considerable help is also given to the educational services team with school and university students.

Although he doesn’t have a particular specialty there are some things Karl enjoys more than others.

“I enjoy pruning the most – just the fact that you can take something that may not have been touched for years or decades and is quite out of shape and has no particular appeal and transform it into something that has potential, possibly not the finished product but over a couple of years you can shape it into something that is amazing,” he says.

“Then there’s the challenge of helping staff and volunteers grow and change. They may come in with little understanding about a particular subject such as pruning but over time they go from being under-confident or timid to taking the lead or having confidence to tackle big jobs. I enjoy that transformation in people and seeing what they can achieve.”

Karl is also involved with the Primary ITO in the official side of training as an assessor for apprentices and some of the gardeners who are still doing units.

Helping people of all ages to appreciate the botanical world that is their heritage is a vital part of Karl’s philosophy. He likens the Garden’s approach to that used by Jamie Oliver who is a chef but educates people about nutrition and the food they are eating.

“We are trying to teach people about the world around them and raise their awareness using plants as a medium, and we do it from the point of view of ‘love’ rather than ‘loss’. We don’t say deforestation is terrible and global warming is really bad, we take a step back and say ‘look at all these wonderful things’,” says Karl.

“Instead of telling people what to do, we try to help them find things that they want to influence, and make them give a damn so they actually want to do something. So we talk about how amazing plants are, what things grow well in Wellington and what you can do in your own garden and how easy it is to propagate plants or grow them from seed or cuttings, and how valuable plant collections are.”

“We are under way with a Children’s Garden that pushes the idea of our dependence on plants for food, fibre, construction and medicine. Those four elements cover most of the ways we use plants – major crops like rice and wheat, what grains do they come from, what is their heritage, what do they look like when they are in the wild. So we try to get people interested enough in the world around them using plants as the medium and really celebrating some of those stories. We show how cool the plants that we are using are and also talk about how we are discovering new uses for many other plants.”

Initially the Children’s Garden will be aimed at primary school children but Karl says they are also looking at what can be taught at secondary school level. Currently biology students from the university go on walks with volunteer guides who are trained botanists.

The educational function of the Botanic Garden goes back almost 150 years when James Hector took over the gardens back in the late 1800’s. What is now the main garden was then a teaching garden that demonstrated to migrants what they could grow in Wellington to sustain themselves. Today the emphasis is on children who have often grown up in an urban concrete and tarseal environment and have limited understanding of their connection with the plants around them.

Conservation is also an important function of the Garden. When it was first established in 1868 conifers including Pinus radiata were planted as part of a programme to import plant species and assess their potential economic benefit to New Zealand. Some of those trees remain today and are an important source of genetic material from that time, given that in Monterey where they originate, the species has all but disappeared. The Garden is also home to other rare and endangered species.

The Botanic Garden also serves as a recreation area for walkers and runners and as a space of peace and green for busy people from the CBD.

Karl believes that the amenity horticulture sector in general and the Botanical Garden in particular have an important role to play in raising public awareness of the value of the horticulture to the country.

“I was quite lucky that I grew up around farms and farming and so had a pretty good background understanding of where food comes from and how the industry works. Even though I was dissuaded from studying horticulture initially, getting a BA gave me valuable skills in research and report writing etc. These are helping me with my job now as are the knowledge and skills more specific to horticulture that I picked up from later courses,” he says.

“We need to make people more connected to horticulture by celebrating our successes so that people understand how essential this industry is. Through the education activities at the Botanic Garden we can show people how it can be an awesome career to get into whether it be working in gardens or as a landscape designer or in the forestry, viticulture or orcharding industries,” he says.

“A lot of people seem to think that if you study horticulture you end up pulling weeds or picking tomatoes with a bunch of greenies. They don’t realise that within the industry there are layers of supervisors, middle management and senior management. There is no limit to where you can take that qualification if you start in that area. Recently I have had quite a few successful apprentices who had moved from IT or marketing and come to horticulture with valuable knowledge that they can bring to the industry, and they have a bright future in it.”

Last year Karl was among the winners in the Young Horticulturist of the Year Awards. He believes his experience shows that study of horticulture at tertiary level can lead to many great career options.