Imagine if this were your classroom! I’d never miss a lesson.
Every time I visit Writtle University College to sit my RHS exams I’m filled with such a sense of peace from this beautiful place of learning, plus regret for the past and longing for the future. I always wonder how life could have been different had I found myself here sooner.
It was a discussion over dinner once with our friend Alice (of Noughticulture fame) that sticks with me. Alice asked everyone, was there one point, had you taken a different path, that your life would be completely different? For me the point had to be taking the wrong A levels. I was excited by art, design and English and showed some talent in those subjects. Yet I panicked and about turned my choices at the last hour to take what I thought would be more lucrative career subjects. I’d seen what happened to the creative arts in the recession of the 90s.
I was right to some degree, it was a good career – a first career built with no thanks really to education at all. I was so bored at school I barely attended. Instead I started my own online content and design agency in my spare time aged seventeen (devoting my life to writing and design anyway) alongside sixth form and uni which kickstarted a career that took me all the way to a meeting with David Cameron and his team weeks before the EU referendum.
Yet I do now credit education in part with my career switch to garden design. Studying RHS courses filled my head with knowledge and ideas and the science of our natural world I’d never fully appreciated. I had the passion and experiences already but these courses were fuel to my fire.
To that question set by Alice, which I didn’t answer at the time but keep thinking about, I actually feel I would have ended up in the same place regardless of that key decision point. I may be fifteen years late to the party, but if I’m lucky I still have another thirty years or more working in the area I now know I was meant to work in. And the skills and confidence from my previous career are not wasted, I use them daily. I find my lifelong gardening and art hobbies were the best preparation that just needed a framework.
If I try to draw a point from all of this, or a piece of advice, I would say that in learning and choosing your own path in life, follow your heart, not your head as I did. It’s hard to decide what to do at college, school and uni – indeed at any point in life in the workplace – and the UK is broken in terms of valuing degrees over vocational qualifications. What I can now tell people, with a couple of decades of work under my belt – including seven years overseeing the workings of educational institutions across the UK at a big education company – is that when you are excited and interested in a topic or area of work, you are better at it. If you are better at it, you become really good at it. If you are really good at something and you are nice to people, you can always earn enough money to have a comfortable and enjoyable life.
Learning however never stops and you don’t actually need to take set courses to learn. In gardening there are multiple routes to increasing knowledge. Reading books, talking to people and actually going hands on. Whatever your route, it all has the same destinations on your journey. The important thing is to keep learning because in gardening there is never an end.
Surround yourself with smart positive people who believe in you, particularly in the field you’re interested in. If anyone says “it’s not possible”, “you’ll never be as good at”, or “you’re not ready yet.” Avoid them like the plague. The worst thing is to listen to those who hold you back, the right people will be saying “try it” “you can do it” “why not”.
If you’ve read this far and you’re thinking of exploring a career in horticulture, gardening, botany, landscaping – or indeed anything different to what you’re doing now – my advice to you is to try it. Whatever stage in your life you’re at, and whatever route you take. Why not? Horticulture is a fantastic and highly skilled sector with a multitude of interesting jobs. If muggins over here can have a go at it, I know you can do it. Good gardening services are a significantly underrated skillset and I believe views are changing to appreciate that – I will keep banging the drum to help that change.
Writtle University College – where all these photos were taken – is a long established educational institution in the Essex countryside offering courses that link directly to employment and careers. Including agriculture, sport, horticulture, landscaping and animal care. It’s not an open campus and you’re not supposed to nose around the growing areas but I can’t help having a peak as a guest on campus, especially after taking a 100 minute long exam.