University challenge: a degree in landscaping

Education broadens the mind and it can also kickstart your business. Even so, how many landscape gardeners feel their study days are well and truly behind them? Rachel Gordon discovers how taking up a degree in landscaping as a mature student can further prospects.

A university degree may not have been on your radar when at school, but there is always time to put some well- earned letters after your name. More importantly, there is only so much you can teach yourself. Learning about
soil science, landscaping with the latest materials and techniques and computer-aided design are just some of the topics that come to life when taught by professionals.

Access all areas

Achieving a degree level education is not easy, but you do not necessarily need A levels. Foundation degrees typically provide an alternative route, often lasting two years with theconversion to a BA or BSc taking a further year.

Some colleges will alternatively offer Higher National Certificates and Diploma courses prior to moving onto the degree course – these too are a year apiece. Other colleges focus on NVQ courses – once you achieve Level 3, this is the equivalent to A level and should you wish to continue studying it will be recognised by other colleges.

So, what’s stopping you? Clearly the cost can be off-putting, although loans are often available, but sometimes it is through a lack of confidence – some may also feel they have left it too late – the thought of studying alongside ‘kids’ fills them with dread.

The reality though is very different. Landscape gardening students are often older and they will have a range of life experiences. This can add to the enjoyment of studying and in learning from people of all ages. Some will be school leavers while others will be already in landscaping or on wanting to change careers.

A lack of qualifications is not a barrier

Not having obtained the grades at school need not be a barrier to higher education. Some degrees are highly academic – an example might be landscape architecture, such as can be taken at the University of Sheffield. But, is your aim to work closely with planners and on major developments? This is probably not where most landscapers working on residential and smaller commercial projects want to specialise.

Many garden design courses, particularly at lower levels, are easy to get onto if you have practical experience and can show commitment – and once you start, you are on the learning ladder.

There is a lot of flexibility – colleges may offer supplementary English and maths tuition, others may offer entry based on relatively low attainment at GCSE, such as two D grades, and take into account relevant work experience. Depending on the college, there can be an accommodating approach, which can be helpful for those hoping to return to study or perhaps who have moved to the UK from overseas.

Local or further afield?

Clearly, a local college may prove the most convenient, particularly if you want to keep costs down or if there are family commitments. But, successfully completing the right course can be transformational in terms of the benefits it could bring – look both close and at wider options. If your nearest college wants to attract hobby gardeners rather than professionals, then it won’t be suitable. However, it could also make sense to try a short course, if there is one available on a topic of interest, to get a feel for a particular college.

Some of the colleges to check out include Merrist Wood in Surrey, Myerscough in Cheshire, Writtle in Essex, Sparsholt in Hampshire and Plumpton in East Sussex and the following are just three options to whet your appetite…

Eden Project Learning

Learning at the Eden Project, Cornwall

On the western tip of the UK is the futuristic Eden Project – but despite its unusual appearance, replete with bioomes, it is a horticultural centre of expertise, which is part of Cornwall College.

Matt James, programme manager for garden and landscape design, says many there are many mature applicants who gain places. He advises on coming to an open day – meeting with a tutor can help potential students decide what route is most suitable.

He says for those wanting to achieve a degree, a typical route would be the one year Higher National Certificate in garden and landscape design, followed by a Higher National Diploma for a second year. A third year can then secure a full BSc (Hons) Horticulture (Garden & Landscape Design) degree. This is far from being all about written examinations, but is still demanding – much depends on the student’s portfolio of work built up over the course.

“For mature students or those wanting a ‘second career’ we typically recommend the HND, which is the more intensive garden and landscape design option,” says Matt.

“While all our design students, regardless of their particular programme, study core design topics together, it is students from this course that have gone on to win awards including the Society of Garden Designers Student Award in 2014 and 2016.”

Matt adds: “Essentially the BSc option is a horticulture degree with a garden and landscape design specialism. Meanwhile, the HNC is an introductory year to the field, ideal for those who want to change career but also for those interested in garden and landscape design for more holistic reasons.

“The HND is a course aimed specifically at those who want to enter the garden and landscape design industry as quickly as possible.”

Tutors work on a part-time basis as they are all professionals, working in the landscaping sector, and students have come from as far afield as Hull and London to study, finding accommodation with the help of the student housing officer.

Craven College College

Based in Skipton, north Yorkshire, this college is set within the picturesque dales and offers a foundation degree that can be converted to a BA Garden Design (Hons). Marketing manager Jennifer McDowell says that using technology is one of the most appealing options for students.

“They develop high levels of professionalism in CAD using programmes such as VectorWorks, SketchUP Pro and Adobe Photoshop”, notes Jennifer adding that this is combined with a focus on creativity.

Tutor Richard Easton, for example, is a Gold award winner at the Harrogate Flower Show, belongs to the Approved Society of Gardeners and also teaches on the fine art degree. Another tutor, who lectures on garden design and horticulture is Mary Swan, who writes about gardens and design and is a speaker on the topic around the UK.

Degree in Landscaping with tutor Richard Easton
Richard Easton, garden design tutor, and a previous Gold award winner at the Harrogate Flower Show

Former student Ness Green who studied on the degree course won the winning balcony garden prize recently at Landscape, the industry trade show, and says: “Craven College provided me with exceptional training and being run over three years, allowed me the opportunity to delve deeper into subject areas surrounding garden design.”

Capel Manor

Set over five campuses in greater London, it may surprise some students that horticulture can be studied to an advanced level in the capital. The college says its emphasis is on teaching practical teaching within working environments.

Foundation degrees are delivered in partnership with the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester – although most of the coursework takes place in London.

Sophie Guinness, lecturer in plants and planting design at London’s Capel Manor College, comments: “We teach all sorts of students and we want to make sure they have the skills they need to have successful careers.” But, she points out that having the skills and talent needs to be backed up by some business nous if they want to run their own firm.

“Garden design firms often aren’t large employers, so if you have some entrepreneurial ability then this can be a good move. Certainly, in London, I would say there is work around – there are plenty of cash rich, time poor people that want someone to design gardens and then help look after it. People need trained gardeners – if a recession strikes, then maintenance work may take over from the design – you need to be flexible.”

She adds that students come from many different backgrounds. “There are plenty of career changers, who can be people in stressful jobs but who are serious about doing something they enjoy and students support each other as they progress.”

A return to education can bring many benefits, so if you’re feeling your business has hit a wall and it’s time for some fresh inspiration, then study and practical training could move it up a gear – the world of learning is within your reach…

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