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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

RHS Courses: Getting practical in the garden

It’s Saturday morning at 9:30 and as I walk into the classroom there are fifteen small plates filled with different types of seeds lined up around a table. Along one of the walls, flowering plants are lined up as well. I recognise a few of the flowering plants but even then I wouldn't know the Latin names and I recognise even fewer of the seeds. I’m incredibly glad that I’m not taking the test.

I've come to sit in on the RHS Level 3 course ‘Certificate in Practical Horticulture’ that is currently running at the Botanic Garden. The course has been running every Saturday from 10am until 4:30pm since the 18th of May and it will continue until the end of August.

The course is taught by a number of tutors who teach for a block of seven weeks or so and it covers core units that include collecting and testing soil samples, collecting, preparing and propagating from seed, and identifying a range of common garden plants, diseases and disorders. The course is a balance of theory and practical and so students get to practice all the skills they learn in the classroom. Today, the students will be doing some seed and plant identification and then will be going outside to do some pruning.

Life experience brings added value to RHS courses

The teacher today is Chrissy Ching, a freelance horticulturalist who has been teaching RHS courses for over six years. When Chrissy isn’t teaching and running her business, she’s also being a student herself. She’s an MSc student at the University of Bath in Conservation of Historic Gardens and Cultural Landscapes, so she’s sympathetic to the demands on adult students.

No pictures of the RHS course, but I made a quick visit to
the glasshouse to see the lotus in bloom...beautiful!
Chrissy’s first involvement with RHS courses was as a student. She was an accountant when she first started taking RHS courses. “I thought I was doing it for interest originally,” said Chrissy. However, it eventually led to a complete career change.  Many of the students taking the RHS courses are also career changers and so this added dimension of life experience that Chrissy brings to the course is added value for many of the students.

But, it’s not only Chrissy that brings life experience to the course. The students themselves come from diverse backgrounds, whether in horticulture or not, and add to the learning experience also.

“I think the students learn as much from each other as they do from me,” said Chrissy.

Teaching RHS courses at the Botanic Garden

This is Chrissy’s first time teaching an RHS course here at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden though she has taught classes a the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and numerous college and city gardens. She sees this as a wonderful opportunity for the students.

“This is a living, breathing garden with a rich diversity of plants,” said Chrissy. “This gives the students a great way to study plants and especially taxonomy.”

Of course, she also points out that because the Garden is open to the public, it also has to look attractive. Therefore, it isn’t always ideal to have unskilled students practicing horticultural skills such as pruning. Luckily, Chrissy is there to help guide the process.


Motivated by tests and inspired by previous generations

As I’m there early, I take the opportunity to speak to some of the students before the class starts. Emma is the first student to arrive. She’s a young woman with a background in graphic design. She decided to take the course for interest as she secured an allotment about six months ago and wanted to learn more about gardening. She also thought it might provide some accreditation should she wish to shift careers, ideally combining her background in graphic design with a love of gardening to eventually get into garden design. 

This is the first RHS course Emma has taken. She was allowed to enter level 3 due to her academic background, however she admits that it’s been quite demanding at times.

“I wanted to take the course as I knew the challenge of tests would motivate me and stimulate my mind,” said Emma, “and it has. There’s been more theory to the course than I thought there would be and learning all the Latin names has definitely been tricky.”

Emma was inspired to take the RHS courses by her granddad who also did RHS courses and made a career in horticulture.

Enriching an existing career 

I slide over to talk to Darren as I’ve asked Nick, the curator of the Botanic Garden, to point out someone who’s here that works in the industry.  Darren is originally from Perth, Australia and has been in the UK for around nine years. For the past nine months he’s been working for a landscape gardening company and prior to that he worked for a gardening centre.

This is Darren’s 3rd RHS course and he started taking them because he was getting lots of questions from customers at work and he wanted to have the right answers. He’s here to enrich and further his existing career. That being said, so far, Darren has footed the bill for the courses himself, not to mention the significant time commitment that’s required.

However, for Darren, the courses are well worth it. He’s been impressed by the enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge from the tutors as well as the other participants in the class.

“It’s good to have a group of people who are like-minded,” he said, “to talk about the things that you’re interested in.”

Mimosa is also in bloom in the glasshouse
right now - they're like a little fireworks display!

Well-worth the commitment

Unfortunately I’m forced to leave the course less than an hour in. I have my five year old with me as it’s school holidays and his patience for horticulture is fairly minimal. However, what strikes me most as we jump on our bikes to spend the rest of this beautiful Saturday seeking out Gromit statues around the city, is the commitment these students have.

Most of these people have jobs, yet for nearly four months they have committed one day of their weekend to this course. Whether motivated by improved career options or by an interest in gardening, for them, this course is worth the commitment. For me as an outside observer, this speaks volumes.


If you are interested in learning more about the RHS courses taught at the Botanic Garden, please visit the website for more information.

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