This year’s theme asks everyone to ‘choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality’. Verna explains below how her career path has meant she's always looking to give something back.
Above: Verna Taylor-Barker, Sales Person at Porters Foliage Ltd
Q. What does International Women’s Day Mean to you?
A: It is simply about celebrating women and appreciating every woman’s contribution to society. This day is about creating a feeling of camaraderie among all women, and showing our support for each other.
Q. Can you tell us a little about your career path?
A: I started my working life not too far from the market at the Latchmere Theatre in Battersea (now Theatre 503). Initially starting out on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS) as a trainee stage manager, I quickly moved up to the position of Resident Production Manager once my YTS completed and I remained there for about five years. I then went on to freelance for other theatre companies, including several stints working on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as a Production Manager. During my time in the theatre I worked on many children’s productions and pantomimes, this led me off in the direction of youth work.
I spent around ten years working as a project coordinator for a children’s charity based on the Rockingham Estate, just off the New Kent Road in Southwark. Here I project managed the building of a new adventure playground and activity centre for local children and the community. I did go back to the arts for a few years after this, working for a Dance Agency managing their dance spaces in the old Town Hall in Greenwich.
When I was 31, I got married and moved to Whitstable in Kent with my husband. It was here for the first time in my life I had a garden. It was a revelation to me and I absolutely loved it! After a career of pressurised jobs I felt it was a place where I could relax and to enjoy some peace and quiet just pottering about in the garden. I knew absolutely nothing about gardening but often thought to myself… ‘I would love to do this for a living’. I took myself off to a few local nurseries to see if anyone would be willing to take me on. Luckily someone did, and I initially worked for a commercial conifer specialist nursery based just outside Canterbury. After I felt I had learned enough to move on I went on to work for a much larger nursery, where they grew a much wider range of plants. It was while I was there, and with the support of a wonderful boss and mentor, I decided to undertake a BSc in Commercial Horticulture. After four years of study I graduated with a 2:1 Honours Degree.
After finishing university my husband and I moved back to London. Here I got a job working for a garden designer in Wandsworth. I quickly realised I could quite easily do what she was doing and decided to start up my own landscaping company, Vernalis Gardens in 2005. I successfully ran the company until 2017. That year I turned 50 and felt physically I couldn’t give anymore. I was a very hands-on business owner and felt if I could no longer ‘muck in’ I didn’t want to do it anymore. After a short stint working as a manager for a landscape architect, I decided to take a complete break and took a year off work. I spent my time being creative, making plant pots, designing greetings cards and, of course, pottering about in my garden. I also indulged my passion for fashion and worked as a freelance fashion stylist during this time.
My job at New Covent Garden came about through posting my hand-painted plant pots on my Instagram. A florist contacted me to buy my pots for her shop in Fulham. I mentioned to her I was looking for a part-time job to ease myself back into work. A few weeks later she contacted me saying there was a job going at Porters Foliage that could be perfect for me. I applied, did a trial day and got the job. Working at the market allows me to share my horticultural expertise and years of experience with so many wonderfully creative people. I want to encourage and inspire people to take up work in the horticultural industries, be that in gardening, floristry or even coming to work at the market. In the future I would love the opportunity to pass on my knowledge and experience through teaching, perhaps at the market, who knows!
Above: A Flower Cloud Workshop held at Porters Foliage. Verna is on the far right.
Q. What’s it like working at New Covent Garden Market, in what’s perceived to be a very male dominated workplace?
A: It is a very male-dominated place to work, there is no getting away from that. It was probably easier for me though as I had worked in landscaping, also a very male-dominated industry, so I was used to working mainly with men. I have found over the years to give as good as I get. All we can do is challenge behaviour when we encounter it and hope a little of what we say goes in to gradually improve attitudes. It would be amazing to see female traders at the market and not just sales staff.
Q. Who is your female role model?
A: I have a lot of admiration and respect for Judith Blacklock [founder of the Judith Blacklock Flower School in Knightsbridge]. She has achieved so much both personally and professionally with her teaching, writing and support of the floral industry. She is a fearless business woman, independent and strong, says it how it is and I love that about her.
Q. How will you support International Women’s Day ‘Choose to Challenge’ theme this year?
A: I will continue as I always have, doing everything I can to inspire, support and encourage other women to be who they want to be. All you need is guts, determination and a good work ethic, then the possibilities are endless.
You can find out more about flower market wholesaler Porters Foliage Ltd here.