GARDENING / Leaving the concrete jungle behind: Working as a country gardener is many a city-dweller's dream. Helen Chappell weighs up the career prospects

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The Independent Culture
IT IS one of those days when city-dwelling loses its charms. Woken by the coughing of a single sparrow, you turn on the radio for the best of Donny Osmond on Capital Gold. Struggling up the street to the station, you dodge the clammy sleeping-bags of the homeless and the swinging pick-axe handles of disturbed old men entrusted to community care. The crush on the train unites your face with the polyester armpit of a nervous young executive in the shadow of redundancy. Gasping for breath, you are expelled at your stop, stumble through the office door only 40 minutes late and into the cold embrace of your electronic work station. The cursor on the VDU winks at you: 'You are my slave', and you feel like Voltaire's Candide in his quest to return to the simple life. Metropolitan existence is OK for a while, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.

While giving up an urban career to work as a simple country gardener remains a fantasy for most of us, there are some more adventurous types who are really prepared to give it a try. Clive Shilton was the darling of the fashion magazines in the Seventies for his exquisite hand-made shoes and handbags. His moment of glory was the commission to create the Princess of Wales's wedding shoes. Ten years ago, however, his successful design career began to pall. 'I was 40, I'd gone to Buckingham Palace, I'd been here, done that and was getting a bit disenchanted,' he recalls. 'I was at the age when people start to wonder: 'Do I want another 20 years of this? What else is there?' '

When he pottered about in the garden of his Kentish Town home in north London, Clive felt something was missing from his life. Then he was presented with a magnificent specimen of Fatsia japonica with its vast exotic leaves, and suddenly knew what he really wanted to do. 'I fell in love with this exciting plant,' he says. 'Its design was really different and tropical. I followed it up with some bamboo and sweet-potato plants and started to create my own South Sea island in the back yard.'

Out came all his conventional herbaceous garden plants, to be replaced by bold, dramatic jungle-style vegetation. He was well and truly hooked on propagating these beauties by this time, and the lure of more growing space in the countryside was too strong to resist. So he sold up and, with his partner Julie (pregnant with their son Theo), moved down to Cornwall.

Today, the family owns and runs Hardy Exotics in Penzance - a specialist nursery crammed with tropical greenery which is quite capable of surviving a British winter. 'We've broken all the rules,' says Clive Shilton, 'growing things that everyone assumed would be too tender for the English climate or were too big for the average garden. Who says a Gunnera is too big? Why not have something that makes people say, 'Wow]' '

His enthusiasm was well-timed. The avantgarde gardener is getting bored with polite, pastel-shaded Edwardian borders a la Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West. 'People spend a fortune each year on ornamentals which are a flash in the pan,' says Clive Shilton. 'Our plants look good all year and never need dead-heading.'

So far, his new obsession with gardening has stood the test of time. He has no plans to return to the Big Smoke and the celebrity cocktail party circuit. 'Gardening is the most fun I've had without laughing,' he says. 'At an age when many men get restless and start having love affairs, I knew what I wanted. This is my new passion.'

Before townies start resigning their jobs en masse to thrust their hands into sackfuls of farmyard manure, however, a note of caution is in order. Not everyone who changes to a life of green-fingered manual labour is quite as free of doubt as Clive Shilton.

Pam Brown, now employed by a nursery near Petersfield in Hampshire, is under no illusions about the realities faced by urban commuters going back to the land. 'It's very hard to know whether to keep these ideas as a pleasant dream or to change your life and risk being disillusioned,' she says. 'It isn't easy adjusting to a new way of life. A lot of people told me that I was crazy to do it.'

Three years ago, Pam was working as chief sub-editor on the Observer magazine. It was a job she had been doing for 14 years. 'I was at a point when if I didn't change jobs, then I would never do it, just carry on for the rest of my life. I was feeling very claustrophobic in London.' Unlike the self-taught Clive Shilton, Pam decided to send herself back to college for a couple of years to learn the basics. When she graduated, she got her present job, working for the owners of a small plant centre. The training course, she feels, gave her the necessary knowledge and self-confidence to trade in her VDU for secateurs and face the brave new world of professional horticulture.

'I don't have any regrets,' she says, 'because I still really like plants and that's the motivating thing. It's what keeps you going when your fingers freeze in the winter and you get backache from all the bending and lifting.' But plants demand constant care at all hours and in all weather, the pay is hardly generous (from about pounds 7,000 to pounds 10,000) and there is no career structure or pension plan. Pam is single and has the responsibility of a mortgage on her new house. It doesn't leave her much cash for luxuries or emergencies.

Ideally, she would love to open her own nursery or move into the study of botany. 'You do have to think about the future,' she admits, 'and in some ways I think I was a bit naive when I started this. Many women in gardening are married and only work at it as a sideline. A career like this is certainly not an easy option for city drop-outs. I would never tell anyone not to do it, but I would advise them to get some real work experience and think about it very hard first.'-

TRAINING COURSES FOR GARDENERS

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in Surrey runs three-year Diploma of Horticulture and five-week courses at Kew School of Garden Design. For further details, send SAE to Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, Richmond, Surrey

TW9 3AB.

The English Gardening School at the Chelsea Physic Garden offers one-year part-time courses in Practical Horticulture and Garden Design. For details, telephone 071-352 4347.

The Inchbald School of Art and Design runs a range of gardening courses. For details, ring the Garden Design Faculty on 071-630 9011/2/3.

The Open College of the Arts offers a distance-learning course in Garden Design. For details, telephone 0226 730495.

The Horticultural Correspondence College, telephone 0800 378918.

The Royal Horticultural Society provides information and advice on a variety of gardening courses. Write to Audrey Brookes, RHS Garden, Wisley, Woking, Surrey 6QB. (Enclose short CV and mention career plans.)

Evening / day classes. Read Floodlight or contact your local authority for details of relevant adult education classes.

(Photograph omitted)

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