Kent Life editor Sarah Sturt’s journey in Practical Horticulture

PUBLISHED: 12:53 18 July 2017

Nick, Daisy and Sarah at work in the wildlife garden their group of five created and maintin

Nick, Daisy and Sarah at work in the wildlife garden their group of five created and maintin

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After a year studying part-time for the RHS Level 2 certificate in Practical Horticulture, Kent Life’s editor reveals how she became a better gardener and why she now loves Mondays

Taking plant cuttings, propagation and potting on are vital and rewarding skills to learnTaking plant cuttings, propagation and potting on are vital and rewarding skills to learn

A year ago I dragged a mate along to an RHS information evening at Hadlow College. After lots of networking, great hospitality and inspiring speakers, we both found ourselves signing up for a part-time course.

This month I will be one of those speakers talking about my experience as a Level 2 Practical Horticulture student and encouraging others to follow in my steel toe-capped footsteps.

To say I entered into my year a tad unprepared for the commitment would be an understatement – however, once September arrived and 15 strangers met up on campus to be registered, it started to become real, very quickly addictive. And fun.

I have always loved gardening since having my own first small back garden and the passion has grown over the years – but not the knowledge.

Daisy Martin, Hazel Wright, Terry Burton and Nick Norton at work on their group veg and flower plotDaisy Martin, Hazel Wright, Terry Burton and Nick Norton at work on their group veg and flower plot

This became glaringly obvious in outings with my expert fellow judges in our annual Garden of the Year competition; I would point out the ‘pretty pink shrub’ I liked and one of them would reel off the full Latin name.

Something clearly had to be done and, after all, if BBC Radio Kent’s very busy producer Andy Garland, one of my judges and a Kent Life columnist too, could fit in studies and exams, surely I could cope with a course that was based on continuous assessment?

Well, it turns out that I not only could but that I absolutely loved every minute of it. As I write there are only a few classes to go and I will miss my Monday mornings terribly – and the friends I’ve made.

I’ve learnt how to identify pests and diseases, to propagate and prune, take cuttings, sow seeds, learn all those pesky Latin names and how to dig properly – yup, it is a skill.

The Happy Mondays with course tutor Gareth Batts (far right) and Technical Instructor Rob Jackson (far left)The Happy Mondays with course tutor Gareth Batts (far right) and Technical Instructor Rob Jackson (far left)

In fact, I tell people I’m off to ‘digging school,’ because that’s what it’s all been about – the practical, hands-on sheer joy of cultivating a plot, creating a wildlife garden, planting both up with seedlings we’ve nurtured and proudly watched grow.

Add in a fantastic tutor in Gareth Batts, whose encouragement, humour, patience and endless knowledge made every class sheer joy – and what are you waiting for?

Meet the students

Gareth Batts, horticultural lecturer at Hadlow CollegeGareth Batts, horticultural lecturer at Hadlow College

Nick Norton

Nick lives in Ashford and is married to Kevin. A part-time drama teacher at Folkestone School for Girls, he spends a day a week volunteering in the formal gardens at Port Lympe zoo.

Nick loved gardening and plants as a child, but like so many of us, never really did any gardening once he left home for university.

“Throughout the 1990s my back garden consisted of an uninspired lawn and a rather cemeterial-looking flower bed,” he says. “In 2001 inspiration seized me; the lawn was killed off, a huge deck was built and new raised beds were added with a whole array of plants.”

The glasshouse facilities are well used by every student groupThe glasshouse facilities are well used by every student group

Nick then moved to Canada to work and on returning to the house after 10 years of tenants, found the deck had rotted and the plants turned wild. It’s now been reborn, with raised vegetable beds, a wildlife area and some of the original trees and shrubs retained.

Although Canterbury is closer, the vast and varied grounds at Hadlow swayed Nick’s decision to study there. “I wanted to develop my plant knowledge and get training in practical techniques, with a view to moving into gardening as a full-time career. This seemed a good place to start.

“What could be better than coming to college, planning, planting, digging, sowing and potting – all while learning new skills? None of those Sunday ‘back to work blues’ feelings! We designed and created a wildlife garden and planned and planted a vegetable/flower plot – both leading to a great sense of achievement.

“Learning the Latin names for a huge range of plants added a feeling of being a ‘proper gardener’ and we have had a great group of people and a great tutor – lots of laughs to compliment the learning.”

Individual work takes place in the glasshousesIndividual work takes place in the glasshouses

Nick has also taken the Level 2 Certificate in Garden Planning, Establishment and Maintenance as an evening course this year and plans to take the third module from September: Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Plant Growth, Propagation & Development, in order to complete the RHS Level 2 Diploma in the Principles and Practices of Horticulture. He will take Level 3 Practical Gardening next year.

The plan is then to move full time into horticulture, possibly creating a business with his partner (watch out for ‘The Gardening Frog’) or securing a position as a gardener in a large garden to further develop his Hadlow skills and experiences.

Daisy Martin

Daisy used to work as a PA in London but wasn’t happy and left to go travelling, trying out a few different jobs in the creative sector on her return. The turning point was when she worked with her fiancé on his start-up gardening business and fell in love. With the job – not him; that had already happened.

With very little gardening experience, full-time gardening opened Daisy’s eyes to the implications of successful garden design and how beautiful it can be. She has recently created a rock garden in place of an old overgrown pond for a client. 4

Daisy decided to do the RHS Level 2 certificate in Practical Horticulture to ‘catch up’ with her fiancé, who’d been working as a gardener for many years and gain more plant knowledge, names of plants and practical guidance on how to look after them.

“Another reason was to enhance our legitimacy; he has experience on his side and I would have a qualification to back me up.”

The biggest draw to the course at Hadlow was that it is practical and that most of the learning would be done outside of the classroom. “Getting my head around the Latin names of the plants has been the hardest thing,” she admits. “But it has forced me to engage with the more academic side of horticulture that would have taken me a long time to feel confident with if I had done it on the job.”

Daisy is contemplating whether to do RHS Level 3 or a Masters in Garden Design – or possibly both. “I don’t think I would be thinking about either of those two options without having done this course,” she says.

Terry Burton

Theresa (Terry) lives in Tonbridge and is a retired IT and Businesses Studies teacher. She has a big family and is very involved in the lives of her children and grandchildren.

With “hardly any” gardening experience but a big back garden to maintain and plan, when she was given details of the RHS courses, she immediately felt drawn to the Level 2 in Practical Horticulture. “I wanted to do a course totally outside my knowledge and experience which also represented a challenge,” she says. “Hadlow College has a reputation for offering well-run, informative courses. It is also my local college.”

While finding the weekly testing of plants in their Latin form “quite stressful,” Terry says her confidence has been completely transformed: “I now look at plants and gardens quite differently.”

Hazel Wright

Hazel lives in Ashford and is married with three sons aged 13, 11 and nine. Having mostly worked in retail or admin, in May 2016 she started up her own business as a gardener after becoming dissatisfied with juggling the needs of children around a part-time retail job.

Admitting it was “completely out of character,” she bought a van with money they’d saved for a new bathroom, advertised on social media and locally – and to her surprise quickly gathered a regular customer base.

“It can be physically very demanding but it’s so much more rewarding and I look forward to each day in a way I didn’t when I was working in retail,” she beams.

“I mow lawns, maintain borders, prune and tidy as needed. This year has seen two customers wanting me to create new borders and plan planting schemes for them.”

Wanting a more solid knowledge base, Hazel found the course ideal for her. “Just four hours a week fits in between school runs, doesn’t take too much time out of my working week and has given me the confidence boost I needed and I’ve loved meeting like-minded people in a wonderfully unpressurised environment. Everyone has slightly different reasons for doing the course and we all come together each week to learn, but it feels more like having fun. It’s lovely to spend time with people ‘who get you’ and who you get back.”

Hazel is amazed by how much she has learnt. “Most has been from the course curriculum itself, but other bits from chatting to fellow students and also having a very sweet, understanding tutor.”

Like Nick, she has also signed up to take the Level 3 Practical Gardening course.

Meet the tutor

Gareth Batts is a Horticultural Lecturer at Hadlow College, currently a course manager for the Extended Diploma in Horticulture Year 2 and he also teaches RHS Level 2 and 3 practical classes at the Hadlow Campus.

He studied at Hadlow a decade ago and graduated with a National Diploma in Horticulture, which he followed with a degree in Landscape Management.

A Kent boy, Gareth grew up in the Medway Towns and now lives in Strood, where his two border collies enjoy digging up the garden.

His interest in horticulture first began when he was child, helping out in his Nan’s garden with odd jobs which progressed to lawn mowing, weeding and maintaining the borders.

“When Nan passed away 15 years ago she left me all her gardening books and tools. I wanted to make her proud and carry on gardening in her memory. With help from my Dad I got an allotment, joined lots of gardening societies and helped out in neighbours’ gardens. Finishing school I found out Hadlow offered Level 3 Horticulture Qualifications as an alternative to sixth-form and my journey carried on from there.”

In his previous job before Hadlow Gareth worked in a large private school and used to maintain the grounds and the gardens. “One day a teacher stopped me and asked would I be interested in teaching a lunchtime gardening club. For two years I taught the children how to grow vegetables, create a cut-flower garden and how to look after plants.

“I saw a job advertised at Hadlow for a Technical Instructor to help with both teaching Horticulture but also maintaining the facilities, I decided to apply for it. It was the best decision I made and I haven’t looked back!” he beams.

“When teaching adult learners I am able to draw on their life experiences in horticulture and have class discussions around these - uch as having a veg patch at home, sowing seeds in a greenhouse or mowing lawns. Most younger students (not in all cases) leaving school are new to horticulture and have little experience in this field.”

Gareth, whose favourite plant is the Heuchera for its all year-round colour, would love to become a team leader in Horticulture at Hadlow and hopefully study for a Masters Degree in Garden History.

Ultimately, however, this big fan of Gardener’s World would love to present it one day. Monty, you have been warned!

Find out more

Sarah studied RHS Certificate in Practical Horticulture (Level 2). Part time over 30 weeks, the course is assessed by practicals as well as short written tests and leads to a formal, nationally recognised qualification.

2017 courses start 25, 26 and 27 September.

Hadlow College, Hadlow, nr Tonbridge TN11 0AL

01732 850551 or

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