My Career: Using plants, gardens and outdoor natural spaces to help the  physical and mental health of workers

Ciara Parsons tells us about her role as a Horticultural Therapist in our My Career feature
My Career: Using plants, gardens and outdoor natural spaces to help the  physical and mental health of workers

My Career Ciara Parsons Pic Darragh Kane

In our weekly WoW! feature My Career we catch up with Horticultural Therapist at TELUS International Ireland, Ciara Parsons.

Name: Ciara Parsons

Age: 29

Lives: Wellington Road, Cork City

Job title: Horticultural Therapist at TELUS International Ireland. Therapeutic horticulture is the process of using plants, gardens and outdoor natural spaces to improve and support both physical and mental health. My job is to basically facilitate time spent in nature, and to help highlight all of the benefits this can have. In my current role I am focusing on how to combat stress in the workplace and supporting employee well-being.

Salary bracket: Competitive salary

Education background: I hold a FETAC level 5 and 6 qualification in Horticulture and Permaculture, and a postgraduate qualification in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture from Coventry University. I also did an Art Portfolio course in GTI in Galway and studied production design at IADT in Dun Laoghaire.

Hobbies: Spending time outdoors - foraging, camping, hiking, exploring and just being a nature nerd in general! I also really enjoy cycling, yoga, meditation and of course cooking with my home-grown veg.

Describe your job in five words: Rewarding, challenging, collaborative, fun, innovative.

Describe yourself in five words: Motivated, caring, creative, hard-working, enthusiastic.

Personality needed for this kind of work? For the therapeutic side of things, an open-minded, empathetic and caring nature is so important. 

You need the ability to relate positively and respectfully to all kinds of people from all walks of life. 

An approachable and friendly personality is also key, so that your clients feel comfortable with you.

For the horticultural side, it’s necessary to be motivated and have high energy levels, as well as being passionate about the work. You definitely need to be adaptable and flexible, and take a light hearted approach when things don’t work out as planned!

How long are you doing this job? One and a half years.

How did you get this job? My first introduction to this kind of horticultural therapy was on Kinsale College work placement with St Mary’s in Gurranabraher, where adults with mental ill health were able to interact with nature. I was blown away by the therapeutic effects spending time in nature had for them and for myself. The merging of caring for people while also caring for the earth made so much sense.

After pursuing more training in Coventry, I came back to Ireland to seek work.

Therapeutic horticulture hadn’t caught on as much over here as it had in the UK, so I spent some time volunteering and doing part-time work to build up my experience. I worked with mental health service Shine in Cork city centre for three months, helping with their gardens, and then spent six months with the Cope Foundation.

The job I’m in now with TELUS International Ireland was originally advertised as a ‘Horticulturist’ position. In the interview, my current boss explained how the role would be mostly centred around employee engagement and how there was so much more to the role than solely gardening. I explained why I thought I would be perfect for the role given my experience of working with people, everything I had learnt through my horticultural therapy training, and my horticultural skills.  I think the combination of these various elements is what made me stand out against others who applied!

Do you need particular qualifications or experience? Experience is key with a job like this and qualifications definitely do help. I know a few people who have been successful in this type of job with mostly experience but some training is always necessary, especially if you’re working with vulnerable people in a care setting.

Describe a day at work: The best thing about my job is that every day is different. This keeps me motivated, focused and excited about coming into work! My day-to-day involves maintaining our garden using organic permaculture and sustainable horticulture methods, growing organic fruit and vegetables in the geodome and outdoor raised beds, overseeing the employee allotments, looking after our 200+ indoors office plants, and working on employee engagement.

I started at TELUS at a slightly unfortunate time, as our team members were being sent home due to the pandemic. That meant having to adapt to by moving activities online. 

I’m part of our Wellness Team, our Giving back Committee, and started our Dream Green Team to promote sustainability. 

I write articles and make videos explaining the benefits of connecting with nature, practicing horticulture at home and eating healthier so they can better mind their health and mental wellbeing. I also encourage our team to contact me with any gardening questions so I can give them advice.

On the Corporate Sustainable Responsibility (CSR) side, I’ve been donating the produce from our onsite gardens to local charities, doing deliveries by bike. 

Last year, I was delivering into the city to Cork Penny Dinners, and this year I’ve been staying closer to our Mahon campus and delivering to the Cottage Community Café, run by the autism spectrum disorder support charity The Rainbow Club.

On the Dream Green Team, our mission is to increase our sustainability efforts and make our campuses as environmentally friendly as possible, both indoors and outdoors. That team keeps growing, and we are working hard on eco-friendly projects and developing our sustainability strategy.

How many hours do you work a week? 40.

What do you wear to work? It’s different every day, I like to keep it colourful and don’t see the need to wear typical gardening clothes! Two essentials are sturdy waterproof gardening boots and I always have a raincoat to hand.

Is your industry male or female dominated? Horticulture is generally dominated by males, but there’s been a bit of a change in recent years thankfully, and we’re seeing more and more women turn their green fingered abilities into a career.

That said, the horticultural therapy side of things is often dominated by women.

Does this affect you in any particular way? Yes, definitely. As a woman in a male- dominated field, I do often feel like I have to work extra hard to show my worth. It is highly frustrating to face inequality, but it motivates me to work hard and prove that women are just as capable as men.

Is your job stressful? How? Rate it on a scale of 1-10: Some days are more challenging than others and it’s at 10, but most days it’s at the lower end of the scale and it balances out nicely overall.

Do you work with others or on your own? Both. I work on my own a lot of the time with the physical work I do when gardening etc, but all of the committee work is team orientated and I’m lucky enough to get to work with a wide range of passionate and talented colleagues. 

I am also part of the facilities team who are brilliant and always help me out when I need.

When do you plan to retire or give up working? I haven’t really thought that far ahead to be honest! When I get to a certain age, I’m sure I’ll become more limited in what I can physically achieve in the garden and might turn more towards garden design before eventually retiring. I love my job and this line of work so much, I’m hoping that I’ll get to continue with it for as long as possible.

Best bits: Seeing how your work can have such a positive effect on people and the planet.

Worst bits: When the aphids attack your poor tomato plants!

Advice to those who want your job? Go for it! It’s a relatively new career path and as the mainstream medical profession acknowledges the science based evidence of how effective this alternative therapy can be, it’s gradually becoming more and more popular.

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