Camille McKewin’s love of horticulture grew out of fond memories of gardening with her grandfather. She’s now using her skills to build a gardening business that gives her the freedom to spend plenty of time with her young daughter – who in turn is developing a keen interest in plants.

Hearing Camille McKewin talk animatedly about gardening, you’d think she was born with a passion for it.

So it’s not surprising that Camille’s whanau suspect her love of plants is in the genes. After all, her grandfather had a green thumb and tended to the many plants on the family’s property in Green Bay, Auckland.

“We had so many fruit trees – feijoas, guava, grapes, heaps of things,” says Camille, who is Australian Māori. “I really love the memories of that and all it took for my grandfather to maintain it.”

Her grandfather passed away when Camille was nine years old, but her memories of him are still strong.

“I remember being seven and eight years old, following him around the garden, learning heaps and chewing on sugar cane.”

Searching for more

Camille, now 30, tried out a few jobs – such as training to be a chef and working at a childcare centre – before she found her dream career. But when she began studying horticulture and landscaping at Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT), she knew she’d found her calling.

“I was always searching for more, something more stimulating. Taking up horticulture, I see the world in a whole different way. I look at plants differently, I look at food differently – I look at a lot of things differently that before I would have taken for granted.”

Once she began her training, Camille discovered the horticulture industry is much wider than she’d initially thought – from landscaping and growing plants to Māori medicine and pest control.

“I realised horticulture isn’t just about learning how to grow some potatoes. It actually opens up so many other doors.”

Philip Sutherland, one of Camille’s tutors at MIT, says she showed horticultural flair from the start.

“Camille was always engaged, interested and ready to get involved and get stuck in. She was a bit like a sponge – she just couldn’t get enough knowledge quick enough,” says Philip.

“She was confident in her ability and knowledge and prepared to back herself. That showed strength of character. She has a real can-do, go get ‘em attitude.”

Getting qualified

Camille completed an introduction to horticulture and landscaping (level 2), followed by a level 3 course on the subject. As it happened, those courses were both free.

Although she wanted to go on to complete level 4, Camille couldn’t afford the course fees.

“I’m a solo mum, so at the time I was like, ‘I really don’t want to have a student loan’.”

But then she discovered her fees would be covered by an MPTT scholarship.

“It made a huge difference. I wouldn’t have been able to take level 4 if I hadn’t gotten the scholarship. It helps a lot; it takes a lot of pressure off.”

Hands-on experience

To clock up some experience and get started in the industry, Camille began working while she was studying.

This included tending the gardens at MIT over the holidays and working in neighbourhood gardens with another horticulture student.

“We were both really keen on getting out there and making money, so I was doing garden work with her for low income earners.”

Now that she’s qualified, Camille splits her time between working on these shared projects and growing her own business.

So far, she’s found plenty of work through word-of-mouth and via local website neighbourly.co.nz.

“There are so many people looking for someone to tend to their gardens. Elderly people or those who are unable to get out there really want help in their gardens – especially when you take care in the job you’re doing.”

Family tree

One benefit of working for herself is that Camille can choose to work during school hours, allowing her to spend more time with five-year-old daughter Madelin.

“That’s the good thing about having your own business. Working for yourself, you don’t have to work nine to five. It’s all on your terms.”

Camille McKewan
Like her mum, Madelin is soaking up information about plants and how they grow.

“She’s telling her teachers about it and she thinks she knows everything now about how you plant something and why you plant it,” says Camille.

“She’s obtained some of the knowledge I have, which is great because I think it’s something this next generation really needs to take into consideration. Not many people know much about food and where it comes from. People take it for granted.”

Camille encourages other people with a curiosity about the industry to give it a go.

“We need it more than ever now that the world is changing and to feed the growing population. It’s about the knowledge and know-how of providing for ourselves, our whānau and our future. We need more people in the horticulture industry who are passionate about it.”