Pastures New – Independence Day

Last summer I wrote on my ‘About’ page, ‘I cannot say exactly where this horticulture course will lead me just yet, but I am certain at the very least I am heading in the right direction. Though it might not be a clear path to a precise vocation, I do have ideas and plans I wish to explore. I will forage around and see what I discover. I hope to have reached my horticultural destination by the end of my ramble’.

Merrist Wood College – view from the main house taken during my second week on the horticulture course

I would never have fathomed a year ago I would be writing a blog post in a little village in south Oxfordshire.

In September 2011 I put my best steel toe-cap boot forward in the general direction of horticulture having given up my job to study the BTEC National Diploma in Horticulture

How deep did you say you wanted these bulbs planted?

full-time at Merrist Wood College. The academic year flew past and I found myself exiting the college gates for the last time on 4th July. My student days were over and it was time to enter the big wide gardeners’ world. It was my independence day.

Some time has passed since I last blogged. Regrettably, this task slipped down the priority list during early summer as I snatched every last opportunity to study or gain further work experience . The workload in those last months at college was relentless and was coupled with the knowledge I needed to start earning in my new profession. This meant application forms, covering letters, CV updating and job interviews. Each weekend and every college holiday was dedicated to processing knowledge, drafting coursework and building up my practical gardening know-how. Each week brought with it a mounting pile of deadlines across all subject areas: plant machinery, turf management, propagation, garden design, garden structures, science, management and establishment of plants. Each time we completed one assessment; two more took its place.

Before you pull out your tiny violins, I realise I probably should have expected this. Except that I didn’t. Fortunately, there were others on the course who had committed themselves to a new start at the expense of another career. It was rare for us to all lose the plot all at the same time so there was usually somebody on the end of the phone, text, email when you realised that the articles you were researching on the use of genetic manipulation in plant breeding were more than a little perplexing. Then before we knew it, the course was over.

My new job

What better way to celebrate going straight from work to studying at college and sacrificing weekends and holidays, than a lovely long holiday? My thoughts exactly. It turns out though, when somebody offers you a job in a gardens you’ve seen on the telly that made you think ‘wouldn’t it be great to work there’, you finish college, pack the car and move to Oxfordshire in the same week. Well, they do say a change is as good as a holiday. I now find myself seven weeks into the three month gardens intern role at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. I never thought I would hear myself say that at the beginning of my garden ramble.

This is no garden variety job – the beginnings of a budding career?

With only weeks left until the end of my horticulture course, my attention has been intermittently turning towards what’s next?

Strangely, I have been feeling fairly calm about the jobless vacuum lying before me. Possibly the building mound of assignments mixed in with my volunteer work experience has adequately occupied the ‘worrying’ part of my brain, crowding out the concerns of finding work. It has, however, been preying on my mind sufficiently enough to motivate me to do something about it, without causing me to meltdown with my head in my hands repeating ‘What have I done? What am I going to do? What has it all been for?’, which is reminiscent of the ending of my last career. Reflecting back on those bad, sad feelings and seeing how they have diminished to be replaced with the excitement and anticipation of beginning a career in something I love doing, makes me very happy.

I received my first knock-back from a gardener bursary scheme not so long ago. It was my very first application for a role requiring far more knowledge and experience than I had yet to gain. It was disappointing, but not unexpected. The process was very useful in making me focus on the type of things that were important to me and what to include in my job applications. It forced me to think about what I really wanted.

Daffodils enjoying the rain at Hampton Court

At one point, there was a fleeting opportunity of a seasonal job at Hampton Court, but I have college until the beginning of July and the seasonal staff had to start in May.

Just before the Easter holidays, a tutor brought a job to my attention. It was for a gardens internship in Oxfordshire. It sounded like an amazing opportunity and I genuinely thought I had no chance of success. Initially I dismissed the idea of applying. I live in Surrey for a start. But it sparked enough interest for me to fantasise ‘What if?’. The work involved would be in a renowned kitchen garden. Maybe I would apply afterall? Over the Easter holiday, I trawled the internet looking for the job advertisement. I could not find it anywhere. I concluded I was too late.

Then, by chance, sitting at my laptop on a rainy Sunday doing some coursework, whilst looking for a copy of a science assessment coversheet, I accidentally discovered the gardens internship advert PDF file tucked away on the college intranet. The application deadline was the next day. Without hesitation, I pulled up my CV and began work on a covering letter. After triple checking spelling and grammar, I pinged off the documents in an email. Moments later an automated email arrived warning me that they had been inundated with applications and if I heard nothing back, I had been unsuccessful. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t going to hear anything. I had an updated CV and a covering letter with which I was really pleased, so applying had not been a complete waste of time. I settled back down to my plant physiology homework.

At 5.10pm the next day I received a telephone call from a private number. I assumed it was somebody calling to tell me I may have had an accident that wasn’t my fault or that I deserved compensation for mis-sold payment protection insurance. Unusually for me, I suspiciously answered the phone. It was an impromptu telephone interview for the job! I came off the phone with my heart thumping. My mum asked if I was alright as I entered the kitchen looking very flushed. ‘You’re not going to believe who just called me’, I said.

I was told my CV would be passed to the head gardener for her consideration and would hear soon if I had been selected for an interview. I anxiously waited for the call and two days later I had to duck out of a propagation class to take it. It was good news.

I travelled up to Oxfordshire for an interview with the inspiring head gardener and was made to feel very welcome. My nerves were overcome by my bursting enthusiasm for why I wanted to work in horticulture and why I wanted to work there. I was treated to a tour of the gardens and learnt more about the internship role, what was expected of the successful applicant and what they could expect to experience.

Working at Kew Palace before the rain arrived

After what felt like the longest May bank holiday weekend ever, I received a voicemail message. I was working at the time. Hampton Court had kindly allowed me to help out for a day with the finishing touches at Kew Palace kitchen garden. I saw a missed call on my phone from a private number. Having wiped my muddy hands on my jeans from where soil had found its way through the stitching of my sodden gloves and finding shelter in the van, I eagerly tapped into the message that had been left. I had to listen to it twice just to make sure I had heard it correctly over the noise of the driving rain hitting the van roof. The voice told me I was going to be sent a formal offer letter. I had got the job!

I am delighted and astonished to write that I will be starting my gardens internship in July. It is no garden variety job. I will be working all summer at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. My budding career begins.

Frankenstein moment: What have I created?

Mary Shelley reached into the dark depths of her imagination to form the character Frankenstein, a scientist who, let’s face it, was getting a bit ahead of himself when he decided to create a man from a selection of body parts. Horrifying stuff. It would never happen in real life, would it?

On a dark early January morning I found myself alone and isolated. All I could hear was the crunch of the frosted grass beneath my feet as I made my way through the low lying mist. I pulled the collar of my coat up around my neck as I felt a chill gathering around me. I heard a twig crack behind me and snapped my head round, but could see nothing. I could see no one. I found a large rickety gate. Could this be it? Despite the cold, my hands were clammy. I scrambled trying to unlock the gate. I dropped my gloves to the ground, but still the catch wouldn’t release. My fingers were numb from the freezing cold and wouldn’t follow the instructions from my racing mind. I could feel sweat prickling my skin. I heard something behind me… distant footsteps quickening in pace, getting closer. I jammed my boot under the gate and flexed my foot, pushing the steel toecap hard up against the metal bar in an effort to lift it a few millimetres. The gate catch released, emitting a loud creak as I pushed it open. Snatching up my gloves, I lurched forward slamming the gate behind me. I reached into my pocket for my sharpened knife and braced myself. I was ready.


Yes, I had been finishing some work in the classroom and was racing down to the nursery stock ground to meet up with my classmates to collect scions. Turns out I wasn’t the last to join my group and I apologised for closing the gate on my friend. I was just making sure no sneaky rabbits could make their way in. It turns out I only needed secateurs for this exercise. We were collecting scions. A sharp knife was for the next phase.


For years I have been eating apples in blind ignorance of how they are propagated. It was only a few years ago when I came across a BBC documentary ‘Apples: British to the Core’ and Alys Fowler’s show ‘The Edible Garden’ that I discovered grafting was necessary to propagate a specific fruit variety e.g. the Bramley apple. Rudimentarily, it involves sticking a twig of one type of fruit tree to a compatible root stock. The rootstock determines the size and vigour of the plant. The possibilities are endless. In the October 2009 issue of RHS ‘The Garden’ magazine, there is a picture of Paul Barnett’s apple tree on to which he has grafted 250 cultivars of apple.

Is this really going to work?

I had been preparing for this moment for some time. In previous weeks, I had honed my knife sharpening skills on a Victorinox grafting knife until I was confident I would not make a mess of my shiny new TINA grafting knife – a beautifully crafted tool with one

It's not just a stick. It's a special stick.

bevelled side perfect for the job in hand. After practising my cuts on bits of twig, I made my incisions into the scion taken from a Malus tschonoskii and into the rootstock, slicing away to reveal the cambium layer. Carefully, I matched up the exposed wounds of the scion and rootstock so the cambiums were sitting flush against one another and bound them together to create a union. After painting over with wax, I placed it in the glasshouse by resting the union on a warm pipe. I then tucked it in with a roll of material and covered the roots with compost. Then waited and hoped.

Last week, in the driving rain I made my way over to the glasshouse. Flashes of lightning reached across the dark grey sky. A deep rumble of thunder rolled through the nursery as I held the grafted scion aloft – IT WAS ALIVE! The static and moisture in the air as well as the high winds helped to really frizz up my hair, adding to the deranged scientist look. You’ll have to take my word for it because I won’t be posting that photograph here. Far from creating a monster, I had successfully fused one type of tree with another using a method that has been around for centuries.

With my new found knowledge I intend to find an apple tree with a minimum of two cultivars for my own small garden space, which I can grow in a container. I’ll be looking for a spur-bearing apple, as opposed to a tip bearing one, on a M26 rootstock to keep it small. All I need to do now is work out which cultivars I find most tasty. I think an October visit to Brogdale Farm’s apple festival might be in order.

My creation

Horticulture course – the calm before the storm

Time is flying by on the approach to completing my National Diploma in Horticulture course. As I enter the summer term, there are only eight weeks left of teaching. The two week Easter break is coming to a close and I am left reflecting on the fortnight haze of chocolate, plants, meeting friends old and new (and some coursework, but let’s not dwell on that for the time being – it’s still the holidays and we all know the cold sweats brought on by outstanding coursework don’t come until the music of the Antiques Roadshow starts). Continue reading

Pesky virus

It’s been a bit of an odd week at college. Mainly because I have not been there much. I also missed both my work experience days at Nymans and Hampton Court this week and it’s made me feel out of sorts.

Hopefully helping and not hindering the progress of the new South African garden at Nymans. Behind me is all change in the Sunken Garden as part of the Garden Rediscovery project.

With the Easter break just around the corner (though a classmate reliably informs me that we have roughly eight assignments to do during the holidays, so perhaps the word ‘break’ should be redefined), I finally succumbed to the lurgy. I had lurgy in October, but battled through and didn’t miss any college. This was helped by only having light physical tasks to do that week. Continue reading

Shovelling in the experience

Between September and Christmas last year I was working at Merrist Wood College horticultural and nursery unit. It has been a great place to cut my teeth on horticultural skills and ask stupid questions and probably make a few mistakes without worrying too much about it. I was there to learn as much as possible from those who really know their stuff. It was with a heavy heart that I decided to look for work experience closer to home. As much as I am fuelled by an eagerness to learn all things plant related, my car is not. My budget is fine for the three days I need to be at college for lessons. On the plus side, I still see the team on those days too.

I could not believe my luck when a volunteer position became available just down the road from me. For the past month I’ve been working at Hampton Court Palace Gardens one day a week. It has been great and now I am half way through my National Diploma in Horticulture, I feel much more confident in a gardens environment. I have been made to feel very welcome and I am well on my way to completing the 300 hours work experience necessary for the course. I still have a spare day in the week plus weekends to complete coursework. I felt I was all set. Then I received an invitation. Continue reading

Hubble, bubble, toil and soil

Now, looking into the science of soil may not have mass appeal, but I have been eager to learn more about this area of horticulture for some time. Not least because I have a fantasy of being in the ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ audience, asking an incredibly pertinent, intelligent question about a plant problem (it is mandatory to describe the soil type), yet having the panel chortling at the wittiness of it – like I said, it is a fantasy.

This burning desire to understand the difference between a loamy sand and a sandy loam revealed itself in a semi-disastrous bread-making episode before Christmas. I’m not really familiar with the vocabulary of baking, but I am furnished with the words ‘crumb’ and ‘compaction’. The bread seemed to have the properties more likely associated with a combination of Bagshot sand and clay on which it had been raining for four days with a tractor parked on it(probably a Massey Ferguson MF 8480). The structure was disappointing, with few air spaces making it very dense. Fortunately it was the festive period, so after plying the family with a few sherries and disguising the sunflower loaded slices of wholemeal slates with layers of cheese and chutney, they dutifully ate it. Continue reading

Seek and destroy

My interest in horticulture began when I discovered I could grow huge whole plants from tiny seeds, keep them alive and then eat the fruits. Although I am almost half way through my horticulture course and armed with a lot more plant know-how, I still regard this whole plant growing lark nothing short of miraculous. I am totally in awe of it.

Then I discovered another side to horticulture and a darker side of myself. Continue reading

This season I’ll be mostly driving tractors

The moment has finally arrived. Since discovering this activity was on the horticulture syllabus, you could not have held me back from signing up. When friends and family asked me why I was giving up secure employment to pursue something completely different, I did my best to give a reasoned argument. However, in my mind I was shouting, ‘I get to drive a tractor!’. Continue reading