Whether you are advising a fair-weather gardener who enjoys pottering in their own backyard, or somebody who yearns to be in charge of a several hundred acres of gardens and meadows, there is likely to be a horticulture course to suit.

Qualifications are available from BTEC and NPTC (City & Guilds) right up to postgraduate study. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) also offers four levels of qualification and the opportunity to undertake distance learning.

It is a common misconception that horticulturalists prefer the company of plants to that of humans. This is certainly not the case for Linzi Gladwell, 33. She uses horticulture to help humans in her job as a horticultural therapist working for Thrive, a charity that employs gardening to improve the lives of people with a range of needs, including those with learning disabilities, mental health problems or physical illness.

"We use horticulture as a means of training, teaching and educating people, and helping them increase their well-being, self esteem and decision making," says Gladwell.

Already a teacher working with autistic children, Gladwell studied for an NVQ in horticulture at Basingstoke Technical College three years ago.

"I have always had gardening as a hobby and I was brought up in and around the garden and nature. When I was working as a special educational needs teacher, we had an allotment and Thrive used to come and visit. We would grow plants from seeds, weed the beds, plant flowers, plant vegetables, harvest and then eat the produce."

When a job came up with Thrive, Gladwell applied and got it, taking her horticulture qualification in the evenings. "The horticulture qualification is very important but the most important thing is being able to teach in a way that meets people's needs," she says.

People wanting to work in horticulture therapy or similar jobs should have particular personal qualities says Gladwell: "You need to like plants. You need to like being outside in all weathers. You have to have patience. You have to have a sense of humour and not take yourself too seriously and have a laugh and a joke. You need to be creative as well. You can't be outside when it's tipping down with rain so you have to come up with different things to do inside."

Marshall Hutchens is curriculum area manager for horticulture at Duchy College in Rosewarne, Cornwall, where he manages the HE level programmes in horticulture. Duchy College offers a number of horticulture options in HE and FE. Subjects covered include garden design, organic production, commercial production, smallholding management, ethnobotany and global plant use. The college has close links with the Eden Project and foundation degree students spend one day a week there.

"Horticulture is the professional end of gardening. Gardening tends to be something the amateur does and horticulture is much more professional and looks at the science behind the practice," explains Hutchens. "The foundation degree attracts a very wide range of ages and backgrounds - students ranging from 19 to in their sixties."

Hutchens recommends that students wishing to pursue a horticulture qualification should have studied science subjects such as biology, together with English and maths. "A good grasp of English is always very important because communications skills are essential, and mathematics is useful because horticulture does involve quite a lot of statistics and processing information."

Students wishing to take the foundation degree should have either a national diploma or two A-levels, although the college is taking an increasing number of mature students who can demonstrate the ability to study at that level.

Barry Mulholland also works at the college. He is a senior lecturer in horticulture and programme manager for the BSc in horticulture. "The typical student on the BSc is relatively mature. They usually have a degree already and they're looking to change direction and change their skills base. Horticulture is not one of those subjects that often springs to mind when people are 18 and just finishing A-levels. They often have a different career and then realise later they are interested in horticulture. Our courses are ideal for people to retrain."

Jobs, says Mulholland, vary immensely, from working as a gardener, to working in food technology for a supermarket to managing nurseries, working in research institutes, becoming a journalist and teaching. "It's a very broad subject," he says. "You need to have a diverse knowledge base. It's essential you can establish relationships with different sectors within the industry. You also need to be innovative and practical, able to apply solutions to problems."

Jenny Charnick, 27, is assistant to the show manager at the RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park. She studied for a degree in horticulture at Writtle College in Chelmsford, Essex, and was a student with the gardens and landscapes team at English Heritage for a year before she took two diplomas at RHS Wisley.

She agrees that horticulture is varied and can lead to many different jobs: " It's such a broad subject. There are so many different paths you can choose." However, she thinks there is one overriding characteristic that potential students need in spades: "The most important thing is passion."`


Clinton Ward is a successful landscape gardener working in Manchester

Ward develops gardens throughout the North-west and has many corporate clients. To keep up with his clients' increasingly sophisticated demands, Ward, who has been working in landscaping for 20 years, decided to enrol on the foundation degree in garden and landscape at Reaseheath College in Cheshire.

"Up to now I have been able to walk around the site with the client, discuss the merits of the proposed scheme and sell it as a visual concept. Now I'm finding that clients ask for a drawn plan and much more detail.

"The contents of the foundation degree, particularly the design elements, are very interesting. It's good to understand the principles and science behind the things you do. I've also enjoyed learning about contemporary planting."

Clinton was one of a team of Reaseheath garden designers to be awarded a silver medal at the RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park for their show garden "Luscious Living" and a silver gilt medal for a smaller, back-to-back garden "Science and Innovation".