Grasping the nettle

What a whirlwind the last few weeks have been. I am now just over two weeks into the first semester at Merrist Wood College (College) studying horticulture and it is exactly how I imagined and more.

My new office

I would say the law and the Financial Ombudsman Service are distant memories were it not for them cropping up on a regular basis in one form or another. Health and safety is understandably massively important at College. Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER), Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSSH) and various bits of legislation are often mentioned.

What to wear?

A quick risk assessment of my wardrobe showed the majority of my clothing was woefully inadequate. My main concern at the start of the course was having a suitable coat to keep me warm and dry. Everything I own seems to have a hood, draw cords, pocket flaps or something else that could apparently be a potential death trap. I find myself scouring Countryfile and Gardeners’ World to see if what they are wearing is suitable for the job in hand. Adam Henson appears to be a good example in what to wear. Though, as an unnecessary aside, I have grave concerns about the breadth of Matt Baker’s shoulders. Probably okay for entering through a barn door, but what about a BBC studio? Now returning to the matter in hand. Fortunately the turnaround in the weather from rubbish to amazing (I’m currently glowing from a field trip yesterday to RHS Wisley on one of the warmest September days in a long time) has bought me some time to find more appropriate clothing.

Adjustment to the classroom

I find when somebody asks me what I used to do before becoming a student and I mention payment protection insurance, it’s like I am back in the office again. I slip back into adjudicator mode, but slightly less neutral and find myself stressing the point that bringing a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service is free to consumers. For the sake of a five minute phone call to the Service, you won’t have to potentially pay a case management company a large portion of redress that might be awarded. Oops, you see how easily I get going on this issue. I will stop now.



We are a mixed bunch of students, both in background and age. If we take a look at the full-time group of about 13 students, I represent the median age. There are a fair few 17-21 year olds and a couple of lovely ladies – maybe mid-fifties, difficult to tell because they look so fit and healthy. When the 10 or so part-timers join us on a Wednesday, there is a shift to a more even balance of older and younger students.

In addition to the 2 ½ days teaching time, we must also complete 300 hours industrial experience. When I discovered the College horticultural unit, headed by a horticulturalist who had worked and trained at Kew Botanical Gardens and RHS Wisley, was looking for a volunteer to help it out, I jumped at the chance. What an opportunity to work alongside all that knowledge and experience with her and her two lovely colleagues who are former students of the College.

I have since been re-contacted by the National Trust for a volunteer role working in the kitchen garden at Morden Hall Park for which I applied some time ago. However, I am now working two days a week at College and am learning so much on the job in a variety of areas with a building level of responsibility that I am reluctant to go elsewhere.

What have I learnt so far?

Probably too much to put in this blog post. Clearly I am going to have to post more regularly and narrow down the topics. It’s not just what we are being taught which is interesting and helpful, but also the vast number of information nuggets that are mentioned by the tutors and other experienced students as an aside to the main objective of the exercise we are carrying out.

I find I carry myself differently. There’s something about taking apart a four stroke engine and reassembling it that gives you a sense of empowerment. As does servicing and maintaining a two stroke engine strimmer and hedgecutter. Also understanding which secateurs or horticultural knife to use and why. Then being able to clean and sharpen them correctly. One student in particular learnt there was a better way to test sharpness of knife than with his finger.

Compost mixer

I have cleared an overgrown garden site of brambles and nettles (and other weeds which I cannot yet name). It seems that grasping the nettle does stop the stinging. However, grasping it at the base and allowing the top part of the nettle to lightly brush your inner forearm does not (lesson learnt – wear long sleeves in future). I have been taught how to mix autumn compost by hand and how to do it by machine. I have forked over the soil in a large coldframe and understood the importance of preparation of the earth for cuttings.

Flowers - under the microscope

In the classroom I have been taught about the sex life of a plant and the germination of a seed, but still went outdoors to collect flowers and was given seeds before dissecting them to look at under a microscope. I’ve walked round the 400 acre Merrist Wood site and identified ten different turf areas, in order to determine their characteristics and think about how they need to be managed.

The College has an abundance of plants in the nursery and all over the huge site. I have a digital camera with me at all times to help with my botany and garden design. It also serves as a record of what I am learning daily.

Plumeria Rubra

The staff have a huge amount of both academic and commercial experience. They are a mine of information and I fully intend to take advantage of it.

I have probably increased my vitamin D exposure by at least 95% compared to working in front of a PC screen several hours a day. I am becoming stronger and fitter. My lungs feel clearer and I’m developing a glow from being outdoors so much. I am getting so much more out of horticulture than simply learning about and maintaining plants and I definitely have no regrets about my change in direction.

4 thoughts on “Grasping the nettle

  1. I love reading these – just spent some of my lunch time catching up. Quite jealous actually. Maybe I could bunk off and do the kitchen garden you were offered!

    • And that coming from an English teacher too. You would love it, especially when you’ve got that lovely big garden with which to experiment. Don’t forget to send me a picture of your unidentified apple and a cross-section. Plus did you see that RHS do special days where you can come along to have your apple identified?

    • Thanks Kate. I’ve been very lucky with the weather the past couple of weeks. I may change my tune a little when winter kicks in. I think we are having an indoors session on Friday – a botany test on common trees. I’d better carry on revising.

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