Dan Poole takes a closer look at the career routes available for green-fingered students

If you're attracted to a career in gardening or horticulture there is fertile ground when it comes to gaining the necessary qualifications; indeed the options open to you are as plentiful as the silver bells and cockle shells in the quite contrary Mary's garden.

The City and Guilds national certificate in horticulture (NCH) is a one-year, full-time course, designed to give you the practical skills necessary for a career in horticulture. Another option if you're planning on going straight into employment from school, is the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ, or SVQ in Scotland). There are many centres across the UK that offer this qualification, and if you were to reach level five it is actually equivalent to a postgraduate degree.

There are various universities and colleges where you can do foundation courses, HNDs and degrees in subjects such as horticulture, countryside management, garden design and plant science. Your best bet is to visit the UCAS website and type horticulture into the course search facility.

Alternatively, there are four levels of BTEC qualification you could consider. The first diploma in horticulture is for school leavers with at least four GCSE passes, and is a work-related course that gives you practical experience. On completion you could look for a job or go on to study for a national award, certificate or diploma, which are available in subject-specific areas of horticulture such as sports turf management, commercial and organic. An award takes a year to complete and is equivalent to one A-level, while a certificate and a diploma take two years to complete and are worth two and three A-levels respectively.

Sally Mayer, 26, did a BTEC National Diploma in horticulture at Nottingham Trent University. "I found my last job boring and I knew I didn't want to spend the rest of my life sitting indoors," she says. "I thought horticulture might be the answer - the course is a good starting point as it covers a bit of everything. I've studied the science, design and business side of things as well as more practical hands-on aspects such as machinery, propagation, landscaping, arboriculture [tree surgery], turfing and plant maintenance."

Another option is to apply for the Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley Diploma in practical horticulture. The RHS offer all sorts of education and training, but the Wisley Diploma is a particularly rare species. It is a two-year paid course (around £12,000 a year) of work experience that takes in just 14 students a year. Trainees live on site at the RHS's study centre, and applicants need a City & Guilds NCH or similar - competition is fierce!

Tim Hughes is the principal horticultural training officer at the RHS School of Horticulture. "We specialise in converting the theory into practice. If you look at the horticultural press over the last few years, there's a perception that the skills to actually do the job are going down.

"We put students through additional qualifications, the sort of things that employers are looking for. Spraying certificates, correct use of hedge trimmers, tractors and chainsaws."

The RHS also do year-long paid work experience placements in six different specialisations, and you can also apply to do a voluntary internship of anything between a month and three months. The society is also an awarding body with four levels of nationally recognised qualifications offered at various institutions and the final level - The Master of Horticulture (RHS) Award - is equivalent to a degree, and takes three years to complete.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew is another institution that has its own course: the Kew Diploma takes three years and is taught to undergraduate degree level. Nine months of each year on the course are spent working in the gardens, and there is some student accommodation available on site. Kew also offer three-month internship programmes that consist of a mixture of mainly practical work with some private study time.

Once you have completed your horticultural education there are a number of routes available. "People don't realise quite how vast he horticultural sector is," says Tim Hughes at RHS. "You can come in and be a journalist, a scientist, work in gardens, sports fields or aboriculture. It's very varied."

Mayer has got her career plan in mind. "I'd like to work in one of the training positions offered at botanic gardens throughout the country, before working in either a botanical or traditional heritage or estate garden." How might your garden grow?

Further information

NVQ/SVQ

NVQs are looked after by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - www.qca.org.uk

City & Guilds National Certificate in Horticulture

Dig up information at www.city-and-guilds.co.uk

UCAS

Find out about the range of universities and colleges that offer horticultural qualifications at www.ucas.com

Edexcel

You can ask at your local college for details of BTEC qualifications, or visit www.edexcel.org.uk

RHS

For information on the Wisley Diploma and other aspects of the RHS's education and training, go to www.rhs.org.uk

Kew

For more on the Kew Diploma log on to www.kew.org

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