‘Doing the Knowledge’

 I was impressed a week or so ago to read that horticultural journalist Matthew Appleby – Telegraph and Horticulture Week – is doing his RHS Exams. Good luck to him!

I was impressed for two reasons.

One, that he was very much putting his neck on the line – it is one thing to say you have passed and quite another to say that you are going for it…..and may fail! And two, that he was intent on getting a thorough grounding at all, in a subject where people are often tempted to wing it.

Embarking on a course of structured learning both shows respect for your subject, which is always wise, and reveals to you such a huge range of potential experience. Being trained opens you to being taught by professionals in the industry, college facilities, practical demonstrations and tests, libraries completely dedicated to gardening and the experiences of fellow students to name but a few.

From 1987 to 1990 I studied Amenity Horticulture at Cannington College in Somerset. This college was then renowned for its plantsmanship, but we covered a diverse range of subjects from plant physiology through to garden history. We did ‘duties’ in various college departments, mounted displays for the public, forced bulbs, laid turf, climbed trees to do arboricultural work etc etc. You name it and it was there in the syllabus to give us the breadth of experience to study effectively and to decide what we wanted to do and to do it in the most effective way.

The centre year was an industrial year with a practical placement where I was both supervised from the college and learnt within a professional establishment. At the end of this course I had built up a body of knowledge that enabled me to run, albeit rather nervously at first (!!) a sizeable public garden. As importantly I had amassed a range of contacts which I could draw on if the need arose for the rest of my professional life.

As an amateur you may justly think all this would be overkill for you! But the RHS courses and others still provide a good accessible grounding for enquiring hobby gardeners as well as a head start for learning within the industry. What is certain is that once your garden gets to any appreciable size and is open to the public you are attempting something with both your hands tied behind your back if you have not covered first base.

Of course there was the usual range of reactions to Matthew’s piece from those who said he should have done it before, through professionals who naturally see the need for led study, to the rank outsiders who thought that the enthusiasm of a ‘have a go’ mentality would win the day!

It is fine to dip into a few books and ask around some garden centres. But we all know that books can propagate mistakes, since one is frequently cribbed from another! And how many times in shops do people not know their stock or their trade? Self led study can lead to a detailed grasp of many very blind alley ways! Really, why try to do something the hard way when these resources are there for the asking and for comparatively little money?

What interested me was the comment Matthew made: ‘I’ve learnt a lot – mainly that I know less than I thought.’ The latter bit of that sentence is nub of the matter for me!

Being aware of the limitations of your knowledge can avoid costly and time consuming mistakes. But also once you have learnt the limitations of your knowledge you have also mostly learnt where to make them good!


PS Next on this agenda will be the need for formal training in garden design!