The reflective pace of tending to plants has been a soothing influence during such a difficult time. (Sue Stuart-Smith’s recent book, The Well-?Gardened Mind, confirmed what most gardeners have always suspected, that gardening actually keeps you sane).
Those with gardens have had a lucky lockdown. So lucky, that it is hardly surprising that I keep hearing of people who want to step off the treadmill in order to find a way to work with plants. The weather has probably helped.
Outdoor life is not always as glorious as it was this spring, but if only a few of the career-changers stick with their decision, the future of parks and meadows, as well as?of public and private gardens, looks?promising.
Suzanne Moss, the head of education and learning at the RHS, confirms that interest in its online courses has soared over the past few months. When I asked about training to ?become a gardener, she provided an overview of the state of horticultural education.
The Pye Tait horticultural skills report, published in 2019, highlighted significant gaps in professional and technical skills. This may be, I learnt, because routes into horticulture have changed significantly over recent years.
Most of the professional gardeners I spoke to confirmed this, expressing varying levels of dismay at how the college courses they had once attended were now much diluted and diminished.
Steve Angell, a young gardener with a geography degree, began gardening with a local authority college apprenticeship, but told me that he only developed his passion for plants, and his real skills, when he started work under a top head gardener three years ago.
Basic amenity horticulture is strong on turf management and machinery, which are perhaps not the most inspiring aspects of working outdoors. But 2023 will see the introduction of a new “T-level” in horticulture. This is a work-oriented post-GCSE qualification, which the RHS is helping to plan, and it is to be hoped that growing plants and biodiversity will be included in those courses.
Changes in the perception of what it means to work as a gardener seem to me even more vital than any methods of education. Celebrity chefs have been around for decades; why, when we love gardens so much, aren’t gardeners, who serve up feasts of flowers, equally famous?
Given the new mood after lockdown, perhaps the contempt for being a hands-on (what the Americans call a “dirt”) gardener, may shift to glorifying those who choose what can be a wonderful career.
Designers currently receive a much greater share of the limelight than gardeners, which could be why a shipbroker I spoke to was uncertain about whether to turn himself into a gardener or a designer.
I think – in fact I know – that working as a garden designer is often as stressful as any high-powered office job. It’s the hands-on, day-in day-out connection with the land that soothes the savage beast.
And anyway, you can’t be a good designer if you don’t know how to garden, how to organise and manage the scheme you create. The best designers – Dan Pearson, Tom Stuart-Smith, Pip Morrison, Julian and Isabel Bannerman, to name a few – are all brilliant gardeners.
The shipbroker was prepared to give it a year learning to be a designer, combined with one day a week volunteering at a good local garden. This may not be enough. Those at the top of the horticultural tree share an obsessive dedication to the needs of plants and reckon to go on learning from others all their lives.
I asked Andrew Wilson, the head of the London College of Garden Design, if he agreed with me that designers should be able to garden, before embarking on a design course. Like the RHS, he has had plenty of inquiries from career changers, mostly from those nearing their 40s.
“I’m looking for a passion for the garden,” Wilson said. “Or at least a sense of enthusiasm for it, and for the design process which marks a gardener from a garden designer. Curiously and somewhat fascinatingly, it is the students with garden or horticultural backgrounds who often struggle with the design and creative aspects of the course.”
He also told me that, on average, people spend 20 minutes a week on their gardens. This implies that easy schemes, not intricate, diverse, delightful and demanding ones, are what design students are taught to provide.
But if lockdown has proved anything, isn’t it that tinkering with plants all day long – not for 20 minutes a week – has kept us sane? That is certainly my experience and that of gardening friends.
Simon Bagnall, head gardener at Worcester College, Oxford, reported that: “Due to a reduced workforce, I have found myself working more ‘on the tools’ than I have in many years. But I have loved it. It has been wonderful to have that full connection with the earth again. My wife commented that my mood, despite the shadow of Covid-19, was much happier than normal. I can only put this down to the physicality and full immersion with the?garden.”
All the unsung garden celebrities whom I consulted, confirmed that full immersion in a garden, combined with online study, or part-time college ?attendance, would be the best route to intensive training.
Fergus Garrett, who runs Great Dixter, told me: “Education works well at Dixter, because we are old-fashioned. The students sow seeds, take cuttings, prick out, pot on and then plant out the plants they’ve grown themselves. They look after greenhouses which are not automated and so they have to have a ‘feel’ for the house coupled with a ‘feel’ for the range of plants they are growing.”
Troy Scott Smith, who was the head gardener at Sissinghurst, and is now running Iford Manor, said that “you need time to do something, and then to observe the effect.” He recommended doing RHS levels to at least 1 and 2 ?online, while volunteering at a good garden, where all practical aspects will be covered.
The RHS trains 30 apprentices, 20 students and 14 people on specialist horticultural placements at any one time. These numbers will soon increase when more places become ?available at the developing RHS Bridge?water. Apprenticeships exist at Lowther Castle, Worcester College and Chatsworth, and there is scope for ?volunteering at many National Trust gardens.
The Historic and Botanic Garden Training Programme, as its name suggests, offers trainee positions in large gardens all over the country. But the crème de la crème of horticultural learning would be a year at Great Dixter, with the marvellous Garrett. There are five paid places a year at this most intricate and exciting garden.
As Dan Pearson, the top designer and horticultural thinker, says: “If I was reliving my education again today, I would be sure to have applied to Dixter. I think what Fergus is doing there is remarkable. He’s shaping a very specific person, but they are all leaving with a broad appreciation of the interface of garden and biodiversity.”
This is the goal to aim for, whether you aspire to be a celebrated gardener, or a designer. Or just want to stay sane.
女大学生的沙龙:What will you learn
Volunteers need to ask if they will be learning more than how to deadhead a rose, or sweep up leaves.
On the Iford Manor programme, volunteers can expect to learn everything they need to know about training and growing roses from Troy Scott Smith, who is an acknowledged rose expert.
They are also taught care of trees and shrubs, including wall-trained figs. Compost, lawns, plant propagation, meadows, hedges, self-sowers, the Chelsea Chop, soil testing, cut flowers, pests and diseases all feature on the programme.
There are weekly tests on plant identification, and there is a library of books to consult.
The Wrags scheme is another place to get a good grounding for minimal wages, with extra courses available in addition to the two days a week of practical experience in a local garden. Visiting gardens is always educational.
Many of the gardeners mentioned above have Instagram accounts under their own names, which are well worth following. Nurseries worth following are @suecrugfarmplants, @marchants_hardy_plants and Derry Watkins (@derrywatkins), who runs?Special Plants.
女大学生的沙龙:… And earn
Volunteers are not paid; trainee posts and apprenticeships can expect to receive the minimum wage.
At some placements, accommodation is provided. Suzanne Moss of the RHS says: “As part of Horticulture Matters, we reviewed horticultural pay at the RHS in 2014-15, benchmarked against other organisations, and raised salaries to ensure we were paying at all grades above the average. From subsequent surveys, this does appear to have raised general salary levels in our sector.” The starting salary for a competent gardener should be around ?16,000, and a top-flight gardener can earn up to ?60,000.
Grants and bursaries for travel and research projects can be found at horticulture.org.uk.