A severe shortage of skilled gardeners has led the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to stage a fascinating exhibition to highlight the positive benefits of a horticultural career.

The exhibition which celebrates 100 years of the RHS School of Horticulture, opens at the Glasshouse Gallery, RHS Garden Wisley runs between 1st -17th July 2008.

At a recent seminar in London, the RHS and several other major horticultural bodies including English Heritage, Lantra and The Royal Parks, identified a crisis in the recruitment of people considering horticulture as a career. A report commissioned by the group found that the biggest obstacle to attracting young people into horticulture was the confusion over its definition. 62% of young people consulted thought horticulture was another word for farming, while most viewed it as a career for ‘old or retired people’.

The exhibition, which includes 11 images taken by renowned photographer Fiona Secrett, depicts the RHS graduates in their new, natural habits. Among the group is Dan Pearson, garden designer and Observer columnist; Bob Corbin, the oldest living graduate aged 93 and Amy Rayner who is in the first year of her studies.

The RHS’ School of Horticulture was founded in 1907 to teach and instruct in the practical techniques of horticulture along with the underpinning sciences, and in turn train the gardeners of the future. Originally situated only at RHS Garden Wisley, the School has now expanded to take students at RHS Garden Rosemoor, Hyde Hall and Harlow Carr.

Over the last hundred years the school has played home to many students, including some from as far a field as Bhutan, Zimbabwe, Australia and Japan. The first intake was made up of around 25 students, all male and required to wear shirt and tie even when digging and turning soil. During the First and Second World Wars the school was turned over to the growing of vegetables to fuel the war effort.

Dan Pearson, whose parents were artists and enthusiastic gardeners, joined the School in 1981. Having learned to garden aged five, he was completely hooked by his early teens. “When I was eight we moved to a very wonderful property that had been forgotten for over fifty years. My parents and I set about gradually resorting it and the garden – it became my passion. I nearly went down the A-Levels academic route, but my parents encouraged me to follow my passion and study horticulture. I left my A-level studies and was lucky enough to get in to the RHS School at Wisley where I learnt the rules of gardening and then learnt how to break them.”

Dan graduated in 1983. Since then he has undertaken five gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and regularly writes for the Observer.

Bob Corbin, joined the school in 1940 but his studies were interrupted by the war and a call from the Navy. He recalls, “You had to be between 21 and 25 and not married. You started at eight in the morning and carried on until seven at night, with an hour for lunch. The last activity of the day was a lecture and I often fell asleep. However, when it came to plant geography I always perked up – it was my subject. When I was in the Navy I travelled the world and got to see the plants in their native habitats. In many ways horticulture took me round the world.”

The youngest student to be included in the exhibition is first year diploma student Amy Rayner. She applied to the School of Horticulture after completing her general qualification and she realised the RHS paid students to study to a higher level. Aged 26 she explains further: “The best bit of my training is that I get to meet people who are interested in the same things. It’s lovely being able to talk about Latin names of plants and boffiny science without them thinking you’re completely bonkers. The students get paid to do the work as well as studying. Everything all at once, what more could I ask for.”

Tim Hughes, RHS Principal Horticultural Training Officer said “Horticulture is a fantastic career. It can encompass a vast array of job opportunities including science and advice; design and build; journalism; teaching and retailing. Our students put their sound scientific knowledge into practical use. I really enjoy working with people who love plants and for me learning by doing is fundamental”.

The School of Horticulture runs one and two year courses which begin in September;
students need to apply by January 31st the previous year.

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