(Written by Jeff Stephenson. Head of Horticulture and Aftercare at Bowles & Wyer)
A glimpse into my student days at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew;
“As we made our way up the steep wooden ladders, which were perilously lashed (Heath Robinson fashion), to the gnarled root encased hillside, our t-shirts already clinging to our backs with sweat; we looked up through the morning gloom and dense canopy to make out the mottled buff-grey stone wall of Temple IV up ahead of us. We emerged around dawn onto the precarious stone terraces of the structure to sit and rest, drawing breath whilst we surveyed the dizzying panorama now displayed. The moisture laden air swirled below us like a low fog over the sea. As the sun rose higher in the sky the white blanket of mist slowly rolled back, revealing one of the most memorable and awe inspiring views I had ever witnessed. My heart was beating fast in my chest. There, set out in emerald green, was the Guatemalan rainforest.
Majestic Kapok trees, festooned with Spanish moss and orchids, shouldered their way above the uninterrupted canopy which, when viewed from way up here, looked like tufts of lichen attached to a diorama. A cacophony of shrills, melodic woodwind like whoops and deep baritone honks could be heard emanating from the impenetrable green below. The hollow reverberating primeval ‘chant’ of howler monkeys could be identified in the distance. A small flock of Scarlet Macaws in red, blue and yellow passed in spirit-like effortless flight over the tree tops , whilst a pair of toucans bobbed and cavorted through the bows of a nearby tree, turning their heads on their sides to inquisitively eye each other, seemingly unhindered by their oversized tangerine bills.
I couldn’t believe I was really here amidst such rich natural beauty; I was in the heart of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.”
- Excerpt from my R.B.G. Kew Travel Scholarship Diaries; Tikal, Guatemala; 18th September 1992.
A client once said to me, only a few years ago and with much sincerity;
“When are you going to get a proper job, not just gardening?”
Unfortunately it is all too often that many people outside of our profession make assumptions about exactly who and what gardeners are and where they have come from. They have a very narrow perception of how large, interesting and diverse the horticultural industry is and how long good gardeners have spent in training (which never finishes), or indeed where it may have taken them.
I began the Kew Diploma in Horticulture back in 1989 with much trepidation, being surrounded by extremely bright students with amazing backgrounds. I’d already studied sciences but only spent one year learning horticulture and countryside management at Capel Manor College in Enfield whilst also volunteering with The Colne Valley Park Groundwork Trust; my peers had spent years at places such as R.H.S. Wisley, Hampton Court Palace and Singapore Botanic Gardens. I was woefully outmatched, so I set myself on a route of committed study to justify being amongst my classmates.
Kews’ intensive programme covers everything from systematics and genetics to surveying and landscape design. One day you are dissecting flowers under a microscope, another you are micro-propagating orchids in a test tube. With plant identification tests, every fortnight, covering wide agenda such as ‘The Palm House’, ‘The Pinetum’ or ‘The Order Beds’, you had to quickly build up your observation and recall abilities. We were privy to lectures from Kews’ own scientific and living collections staff (favourites included Mike Maunder and Tony Kirkham) and external lecturers with the likes of John Brookes, Peter Thoday, Sir Roy Strong and Brita von Schoenaich. Studies were both ‘in house’ and held at other centres such as West London Institute of Higher Education (now part of Brunel University), Otley College (Suffolk) and Writtle College (Chelmsford); we were influenced by wide ranging teaching styles and facilities.
There were study trips to Tuscany to see Medici Villas and Pistoia’s nurseries and field trips to Dorset and Sussex to survey coastal zonation and soil profiles respectively. I built a ‘Japanese garden’ for the NCCPG at the very first Hampton Court Flower Show and designed the interpretive Bee Garden which used to reside near Kew Palace. We worked in numerous living collection and administrative departments including ‘Planning’; one of my roles was liaising with film crews, book publishers, TV companies and celebrities (inc. David Bellamy), who wanted to use the gardens for filming and photo-shoots. A high point was winning two Travel Scholarship awards which allowed me to investigate ecosystems in Central America, both on land and around the coast via SCUBA; surveying mangrove swamps, seagrass lagoons and coral reefs with ‘Coral Cay Conservation’ (but that’s another story!).
After three years at R.B.G. Kew and a fourth intermediate industrial placement year with Clifton Nurseries’ landscape team (during 1990-1991, which incidentally is where I fortuitously first met Chris Bowles and John Wyer), I managed to graduate with Honours as the highest scoring student of each year; the focused study and sacrifices had paid off.
So the next time a gardener passes your way, have a thought for where they have been or where they could be headed. They may have rich stories to tell and extensive knowledge to call upon; your garden could greatly benefit from their experiences.
by Jeff Stephenson.