Gardening: A degree of creative skill: Michael Leapman joins budding students on Britain's first full-time university course in garden design

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The Independent Culture
AS we chatted on the path between a cluster of demonstration gardens, Hilary Thomas kept glancing across my shoulder. She was not being impolite, but as the lecturer responsible for 21 unpredictable, wilful students on a brand new degree course in garden design, she was anxious to keep an eye on them. Finally the schoolmistress in her got the upper hand: 'I'm just going to see if that group is all right. They've never done anything like this before.'

They were not, it turned out, quite all right. In the cool autumn sunshine at Capel Manor Horticultural and Environmental Centre in north London, the students were trying to take a diagonal measurement of a flower-bed that was rimmed by a low stone wall. They had anchored the tape to the top of the corner piers, so that it sagged slightly in the middle and gave a less than accurate reading.

'It's no good,' said Hilary sternly. 'You have to get down and do it from the bottom. I never like to see tapes flapping around.' Lesson one: if you are going to be a garden designer you must not mind getting your knees dirty.

Until this year no British university offered a degree course in garden design. Now there are two, both in the London area - one at Greenwich, the other at Middlesex University in Bounds Green. The 21 students going through their paces at Capel Manor are the first to take the course at Middlesex, where David Stevens, one of our leading designers, is the course director and visiting professor.

There are numerous non-graduate design courses on offer, many at private and fairly expensive schools, some of whose 'diplomas' are of questionable value. They are usually part-time and much less comprehensive than this three-year full-time degree course.

Three years gives scope for discussing more than simply where you should put your hostas in relation to your hydrangeas. Geoffrey Spyer, an architect who heads the university's School of Product and Architectural Design, describes the academic content of the course:

'They spend half their time in their first year doing a module with other design students on visual and study skills. This introduces them to drawing techniques and computer-based design. Alongside that they do a general contextual studies course on design and architectural history. Then they get on to the history of garden design in particular. The programme sits alongside the interior design programme. Gardens have a relationship to buildings and exteriors to interiors. That's what we hope is a unique quality we can offer.'

It certainly seems to have fulfilled a need. There were more than 40 applicants for 21 places, and selection was based not primarily on gardening experience but on aptitude for visual expression. 'Up to now most of the design courses have taken in horticulturists,' says Hilary Thomas. 'We want to give a different slant. The horticulture they will pick up anyway.'

The course also has something of a crusading quality about it, based on David Stevens's oft-quoted view that 'garden design in this country is 50 years out of date'. (That is clearly an arbitrary figure: as I recall, we had other things than designing gardens on our mind in 1943.)

Thomas agrees: 'Everyone is looking back too much - back to knot gardens and Gertrude Jekyll and all that. Nobody is coming up with fresh, new, imaginative ideas to fit in with the next century. For instance, it's hard to persuade people to get rid of lawns. They won't be told that some little tiny patch of lawn that always looks grim and bare would be nicer if you put down some gravel and put plants in to make it a bit different. David thinks we should have a more architectural approach, instead of an approach based on planting.'

Already, after only a few weeks, the students have drunk deep of Stevens's and Thomas's philosophy. Richard Foote, who gave up what he calls a 'dead-end office job' to join the course, says: 'Britain is renowned for gardens but we tend to be stuck in a time-warp of trying to create Victorian gardens and cottage gardens. We want to change that and bring in new ideas and approaches. A garden is a vital part of most people's homes and we never use them as much as we should. I'm getting such a buzz about this course already.'

So is Annie Guilfoyle, who runs her own garden maintenance business in central London and wants to broaden her range: 'I'm desperately excited about this course being innovative and forward-thinking. I know that you have to learn about the history of garden design, but I'm concerned about people who want to keep it rooted in the past. In urban gardens you can afford to experiment and be avant-garde. I'm keen on exploring that.' Foote and Guilfoyle are both in their early thirties, which puts them in the middle age-bracket for the course. The oldest student is 52 and the youngest 18. They have the highest average age of any full-time course at Middlesex and they believe this is a valuable asset. 'We're very vocal as a group,' says Foote. 'We've come from so many different backgrounds and we learn from each other as well as from the course itself.'

The youngest student, Stacey Turner, agrees: 'It's good to have a wide age-range and people from horticulture as well as the arts side. I've done a diploma in 3-D design and I've also done gardening as a job. So when I saw this course advertised I thought it would be a really good idea to combine the two.'

Nearly all of them want to become professional garden designers after they graduate. Valerie Glasman, at 52, is the maturest of the mature students. She plans to move to France with her French husband and set up as a garden designer there. 'Frank Lloyd Wright did his best work after he was 60 and Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe is in his eighties,' she points out. (Actually, Sir Geoffrey is 93 and had two books published when he was 89.)

Some of the students are less interested in designing private gardens than in using the skills they acquire to create public spaces that will improve everyone's lives. Nicole Gordon, 32, explains why:

'I live in Clerkenwell in central London, where we have no parks and a lot of children hang around the streets. In London there's a lot of space that's mismanaged. Who wants to be in a windswept plaza surrounded by a lot of major roads? We should be discussing the social influence of design and what impact the designer has on the environment. This course seems to have a nice broad outlook and puts it in its social context.'

Rachel Bassett, 22, has a similar view. She is from Nottingham, where she has worked as a landscape gardener since she left school at 16. 'With all this hustle and bustle there isn't enough interest for people in city parks,' she believes. 'Many of them are out of date. Where you've now just got a bit of grass you could do with something like a pond and some structures - maybe big sculptures that add some humour to it.'

She went back to her measuring and checking, writing it all down meticulously and drawing lines on plans. In 1996, she and the other 20 pioneers will be let loose to put their ideas into practice. If they manage to sustain their enthusiasm, they could surprise and dazzle us all.-

For details about the degree course featured here, write to:

Admissions Enquiries, Middlesex University, White Hart Lane, London N17 8HR, tel: 081-362 5000

(Photograph omitted)