Teaching gardening skills – the decline stops here!

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Two conversations recently about the terrible state of horticultural education in Britain: both with former teachers at (former) horticultural colleges. Another reason for national shame – the world’s leading garden nation (well probably!) has now hardly any college courses teaching horticulture. As for ‘adult education’, run by local councils, this was something we used to be really good at, but it began to run into problems back in the 1980s, and then be starved of funding from the 1990s onwards. It is now effectively dead. ‘Lifestyle’ publishing stressing design over gardenING. End result is a whole generation seems to be growing up not knowing how to prune, take cuttings, grow their own bedding plants.
I feel more and more concerned and interested in the whole issue of ‘garden education’. I write as someone who has worked in adult education in the dim and distantly youthful past, and socially I move in a world where there are a lot of professional educators. As a writer and ‘communicator’ I am fascinated by information and how you present it, in particular the challenge of how you break down really complex or counter-intuitive information and get it across. I really feel its part of my mission now.
Teaching gardening is a complicated business, which is perhaps one reason why I find it so fascinating. It is a mix of art, craft and science. Art means creativity, and beyond the basic growing of lettuces in straight lines, almost any gardening involves some creativity. By craft I mean the application of a set of skills, something which through constant repetition, you get better at. When people talk about science however, what they often mean is technology, a trial and error process of making something work. Understanding some basic plant science however, does help a lot – it enables you to take some acquired knowledge and then apply it to new situations.
OK, that’s enough definition defining. One of the wonderful things about gardening is the way that leads people who often don’t think of themselves as artistic into creative activity. Just how do you set out the begonias you just bought from the garden centre? Now that you have got the clippers out, just how are you going to shape that hedge? Shall I buy those screaming pink lythrums and put them next to the yellow rudbeckia? Traditionally gardening was essentially a craft activity, the perfecting of skills which could be applied in more or less creatively, depending on the person. Most would clip a hedge to a straight line, but those who felt like it could turn their skills to castellations or curves. Artistry and creativity have always been like optional add-ons; more or less as mood and confidence allow.
The last thirty odd years however have seen a ‘design revolution’ which has completely turned the craft/art equation around. The creativity of many gardeners (very often women, traditionally rather marginalised) has been given a boost, but at the expense of the passing on of the craft skills necessary for quality garden maintenance. Gardening media have focussed on ‘getting the look’ rather than ‘how to do it’, and have simply not been transmitting the nitty-gritty practical knowledge. We now face the situation of gardeners ‘getting the look’ but being unable to keep it. And no use turning to professional gardeners, because there are not many of them, and so many of the semi-skilled ones are precisely that, capable of doing the basics but with no real depth of skill or plant knowledge; they can mow, clip and weed, but cant’ prune properly, propagate or train.
We, in Britain, don’t do too badly with ‘garden schools’, privately-run institutions which put on day classes on various aspects of gardening, and garden design. These to some extent make up the slack left by the loss of council adult education. Except that most of them are in the south and south-east of the country and are marketed at, and priced for, older and reasonably well-off people. If you are a youngster trying to get into gardening these days, or find out more, the opportunities are greatly reduced.
What do the ‘garden schools’ offer? A lot actually, up to a point. Getting big name speakers is part of the appeal, so there is an opportunity to learn from real expertise and knowledge. However, the quality of teaching is pretty basic, so basic that ‘teaching’ had better go in inverted commas – it’s actually lecturing. Most of the speakers at these events give a good lecture, and that’s that. There is often little ‘active learning’, where participants have to do things; the design-orientated courses seem to be ones most likely to include an active participation element. However good a lecturer is, they cease to be good after about an hour or so – the human mind only has a limited ability to concentrate, and after a while begins to switch off. Another activity is needed to refresh the mind and preferably, to enable information acquired to be put into practice.
There are garden lecturers who seem to think that showing slides and talking to people for hours at a time is ‘education’. Sorry, its not – its being ‘talked at’. I remember one experience, in the US, where a speaker lectured an audience for two hours solid in a temperature of over 30C, allowing the prisoners a brief break and then launching into another hour. The few gardening conferences (all in the US) annoy me too, wall to wall lectures but no conferring.
The trick is to design events where participants can do something: make lists of plants, analyse plans, take some cuttings, discuss a plant selection, prune a rose bush. Its not always easy, as venues often don’t have enough space or facilities to allow this. But this active engagement is vital, if information gained is actually to be retained and internalised.
Which, in short, is why Annie Guilfoyle and I have started the Garden Masterclasses. 13 events and 20 tutors across 8 venues, in the South-West, South Wales, South East, Cotswolds, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Scotland.
Find out more here and come and join us:

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