School for green fingers – gardening courses
Not sure how to prune properly? Want a beginner’s guide to vegetable growing? Fancy a new career as a garden designer?
Whatever your horticultural bent, there is a course out there for you, from one-day taster courses to degrees and recognised horticultural qualifications. But where do you start?
If you are looking for a change of career, you may opt for an officially recognised RHS course which can give you a significant qualification after two or three years.
Alternatively, you may opt for a day here, a day there working on a particular skill which you want to master in your own garden, such as propagating, pruning, wildlife gardening or planting with perennials. And you may learn as much from their fellow students as you do from the lecturers.
Andy McIndoe, garden design consultant, winner of 25 consecutive gold medals at Chelsea Flower Show and tutor at MyGardenSchool (www.learningwithexperts.com), the world’s first online garden school, explains: “People have to think about the time commitment.
“With online courses, people need to be really committed to it and they have to put the effort in and have to relate it very much to what they want to get out of it.
“Sometimes people think they are just going to watch the video or turn up to a weekly lecture, thinking it’s going to give them all they want. But it’s a huge subject and the chances realistically of it covering what you’ve got in mind are quite remote.”
Studying on a computer has its place, but there’s no substitute for digging in and getting your hands dirty, says McIndoe, who gives his students practical assignments after each lecture.
“I encourage them to take pictures of a particular situation and tell me how they are going to deal with it, identify plant material or other aspects of horticulture. If it’s a trees course, I tell them to pick a situation, pick a tree for it, tell me what they are going to plant with it and we build on the practicalities of that and the design element as to how they are going to use that as part of a planting scheme.”
Those thinking about a career in horticulture should choose their courses carefully and their choice may depend on whether they are going to be employed or self-employed, he says.
“Doing an RHS course is fantastic and if you can get a job as a trainee on a private estate or specialist nursery that’s great, but it’s all about application. You have to work for relatively little for a while to get the experience.
“Plant knowledge is key, whether you are doing productive or ornamental horticulture.”
“There’s no substitute for practical experience,” he continues. “I think that’s vital. The idea that somebody’s going to read a book or watch a lecture and think that’s going to teach them how to do something is unrealistic.
“You need someone to take you out there and do practical stuff. That is so important, whether you’re planting or embarking on garden design. What it comes down to is being able to cope with the practicalities of the real situation.”
He laments that there are not enough horticultural apprenticeships, although the organisation Grow provides advice on apprenticeships and careers in horticulture.
There are 93 approved study centres running RHS courses that lead to qualifications, many of which offer practical teaching.
Potential students wanting further information and a full list of all the centres offering RHS courses can be found at: www.rhs.org.uk.
McIndoe says that if you are after a degree in horticulture, Pershore College – the national centre for horticulture – is still an industry leader.
A variety of shorter workshops are also run by the National Trust, while the Workers’ Educational Association offers a number of courses on a wide range of aspects of gardening at centres throughout the country.
Best of the bunch – Bergenia
Also known as elephant’s ears because of its broad, leathery, rounded leaves, this late winter perennial provides both architecture and colour to the winter scene. Growing up to 60cm tall, some form in clumps, others have a more open habit, and the flowers come in shades ranging from pale pink to ruby red and deep purple. The leaves, too, provide interest as the cooler weather sets in, turning shades of crimson, bronze and maroon. Bergenias grow happily in sun or shade in moist soil and make good partners for bulbs including snowdrops, crocuses and wood anemones.
Good enough to eat – Sowing peas
You can make a head start now if your soil is cold and wet by sowing early peas in some guttering in the greenhouse. Just buy a strip of standard house rain guttering, cut it into manageable lengths and place it on your greenhouse staging. Half fill the guttering with potting compost. Sow peas about 3-5cm apart, covering them with more compost, water with a watering can fitted with a rose and place on the greenhouse staging. One the seedlings have grown to around 10cm, they will be ready to plant outside in a sunny spot in soil with plenty of added organic matter. Use a spare piece of guttering to dig a trench the same shape and depth and then slide the seedlings, compost and all, out of their guttering and into the space created. You may then need to firm the ground around them and water them in. Protect them from pigeons by covering them with netting supported by stakes.
What to do this week
Top dress pot plants which are not to be repotted with fresh compost.
Soil on the vegetable plot which has been enriched in autumn can now be treated by applying lime.
Buy celery seed for sowing under glass in March or early April.
Plan your summer bedding scheme so that seed orders can be made as soon as possible.
Clear up debris which might be hiding slugs and snails.
Continue to firm in plants that have been lifted by frost or windrock.
If heavy frosts or cold winds are predicted, provide added protection to half hardy and slightly tender perennials using cloches, netting, horticultural fleece, dead bracken, straw and even old woollens. You can remove them once the danger of frost has passed.
Start to harden off autumn-sown cauliflower as conditions allow to be ready for planting out in March.
Plant plump, healthy lily bulbs outside or in pots to provide flowers this summer
Clean and sharpen blades of pruners and garden tools.