Garden: Landscaping is in, vegetables are out: At horticulture college as the new term starts, Anna Pavord learns what the students want

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The Independent Online
What makes people choose horticulture as a career? The group of students I talked to this week, just starting a new term at Pershore College of Horticulture in Worcestershire, divided into two distinct categories.

The younger set, in their teens and early twenties, were forging their first careers, their sights set on managing garden centres and landscape contracts. The mature students, mature in this context meaning anyone over 24, were escaping from careers, usually city-based. They had a less hard-nosed attitude towards the business. They spoke of avoiding the rat race, being masters of their own fate, starting their own nurseries perhaps. Producing food - what you might call the primary business of horticulture - was a low priority in both sectors.

There are just six students in the final year of Pershore's commercial crop production course. Out of a total of 300 full-time students, this seems a remarkably small number. They and similarly dwindling numbers at other horticultural colleges are the people we will be depending on in the future to produce whatever home-grown fruit and vegetables we can find among the Kenyan beans, Thai asparagus and Dutch lettuce in the shops.

The shift away from teaching crop production to what is called 'amenity horticulture' started more than 10 years ago, says Dr David Hall, principal of Pershore, which is widely recognised as one of the foremost colleges in the country. The college must tailor its courses to fit the job market. Garden centre managers are now more in demand than tomato growers and 'landscaping' is likely to provide a more lucrative career than planting orchards.

But landscaping is closely bound up with the building industry. As that is in terminal decline, numbers are just starting to creep up again on what you might call 'proper' horticulture. Twenty students in this year's new intake have opted for the commercial crop production course.

'And a good thing too,' said Jonathan Cook, one of the handful of students now in the final year of this course. He is a local boy, 'a veg family. My father grows cherry tomatoes and exotic lettuce.'

The garden of England, they used to call this area round the vale of Evesham in Worcestershire, crammed with orchards, small glasshouses and market gardens. 'I'm the last one in horticulture in my village,' says Mr Cook.

He is only 21, but even he can remember when everybody there was involved in growing things, small landowners working perhaps 15 or 20 acres of land. 'It was all outdoors, all done by hand. But a tray of leeks is cheaper now than it was 10 years ago. The best chance for a small grower is to do exotic veg. There's quite a good market supplying the Chinese in this country.'

The National Diploma course he is taking is a full-time course spread over three years, with the middle year spent on placement. Mr Cook had spent his year out with a firm that specialises in pot plants and bedding. 'It was good,' he said. 'It was a change not to be out on the open ground the whole time. And we made record sales last year, despite the recession.'

Flowers were a new venture for him and he enjoyed the novelty. The firm offered him a job at the end of his course. But if he took it, the family veg business would most likely come to an end. He was the only one among the 20 students I talked to at the start of the new term at Pershore who had horticulture in his blood.

Neil Fischer, 22, had also just returned from a placement for his final year at Pershore. He is studying for a National Diploma in Hardy Nursery Stock Production and had spent his year out at a wholesale nursery in the West Country. It specialised in growing magnolias and camellias for sale to garden centres. He had not enjoyed it.

'It was very repetitive work,' he said. 'Just like being in a factory. There was no room to use your initiative. But I stuck it out. It's worth it, to get a good reference from your employer.'

A French horticultural student was working at the same place. His father has a nursery near Morlaix, and Mr Fischer has an offer of a job there when he leaves. 'There's a lot of scope if you have reasonable qualifications. That's why I came to do the course. But I think the market abroad is the place to look now.'

Males outnumbered females about two to one in the group I met. That exactly mirrors the actual intake, said Dr Hall. The average age of students is rising. Once, most were about 19 and were school leavers with a year's practical experience. Now the college is seeing more mature people, in their late twenties and thirties, embarking on new careers. Some, like Steve Eaglestone, 36, are doing it because they have been made redundant. Insurance was his life until, after his second redundancy, he thought fate might be trying to tell him something. He has begun a one-year course in nursery practice and hopes to run his own business, turning a passion for hellebores into a money-making concern.

Some come to Pershore to escape from a way of life that they found increasingly unsatisfactory. Clara Slater, 30, has just started the same course as Mr Eaglestone, but for different reasons.

'I had what I suppose people would think of as a very good job, working in London for a charity,' she said. 'But I was in a room with no windows and I thought I would go mad. I wanted something that would allow me to be more flexible in the way I spend my time.'

Was she worried about the drastic drop in income that this new career move would entail? 'No,' she said with a firmness that rather surprised her neighbours in the group. 'I can get by on very little.' She gets no grant for the one-year National Certificate course, but has saved enough money to support herself for the year. She lives out, having found a room close to the college.

The mature students feel that perhaps they bring greater commitment to their courses than those who come in straight from school. 'It's do or die, isn't it?' said Andrew Rankin, 28, in the second year of a Higher National Diploma in Amenity and Landscape Management. He had done a little contract gardening before he came to Pershore, but realised that in order to expand his business he needed some formal training. He considers himself lucky to have got a grant from his home county, East Sussex.

Claire Hayward, 23, made the break sooner rather than later. She had been an office worker in London since she left school. 'Everything I tried, I got sick of by lunchtime. It's the variety in horticulture that appeals to me. And I am quite a practical person.'

She is hoping eventually to set up a garden design business. Along with 600 others. It is one of the ironies of the horticultural business now that it is far easier to find a competent garden designer than a competent gardener.

For information on training in horticulture, send a stamped addressed envelope to the Institute of Horticulture, 80 Vincent Square, London SW1P 2PE (071-976 5951). The institute has details of a wide range of openings in the business and the names and addresses of all the colleges in the country offering training.

For details of one- and three-year courses at Pershore, which is the only college in the country to concentrate solely on horticulture, apply to: Pershore College of Horticulture, Pershore, Worcestershire WR10 3JP

(0386 552443).

(Photograph omitted)