Cut flowers, nuts and berries.

We have been working hard to provide new courses and add them to the Garden Design Academy web site. The latest batch fills me with nostalgia and reminds me of the beginnings of my horticultural career as a boy in south-west of England.

My Father was a highly skilled tool-maker and precision engineer and still, in his eighties, makes skeleton clocks as a hobby, starting with sheets of metal and transforming them into a unique timepiece over the course of a year or more. Dedicated though he was to his work, his passion was gardening and his dream was to own his own nursery.

An opportunity came his way when a couple of elderly ladies who ran an organic smallholding wanted to retire. They liked my Dad (everyone does!) and decided to help him fulfill has ambition. An arrangement was made whereby he paid a lump sum and the remainder from future earnings; we were the proud owners of a house and 10 acres of Cornish countryside, with crops in the ground including bulbs, foliage plants and strawberries. All the machinery and equipment was left in the barns and sheds and at the age of fourteen the ladies taught me how to plough and showed my father how to grow the traditional crops organically.

Our Cut Flower Bulbs course would have been useful to Dad. We understood so little and the learning curve was steep. We made hugely expensive mistakes out of ignorance of the most basic techniques, but made up for it in enthusiasm and share determination. At harvest time it was not unusual for me to work until midnight and go to school the next day.

Daffodils were the major crop in our region and features prominently in the course. One year, I remember, we went out to check on a field which should have been close to picking, to discover the whole crop of nearly two acres had disappeared; they had been stolen over night and we were not surprised to see cheap Daffs for sale on the streets of Truro that weekend. We also grew Anemones, Dutch Iris and Kaffir Lilies outside and had a try with Freesias in the glasshouses we built together. These flowers were packed and sent by train to the markets of London, Birmingham and other cities; sometimes they fetched a good price but on occasions they made nothing. The trick was to have flowers for Mothers Day.

The other major inherited crop was strawberries. These were grown in the fields with a proportion protected under glass cloches to produce earlier crops. Ladies from the village used to come to help with the picking but Mother could outperform all of them, cutting them carefully with scissors and arranging them in punnets. The fruit were sold at the farm gate, in local shops and through wholesalers, where the price was lower but the volumes far greater. We grew other berry fruits to sell locally in small quantities, currents and gooseberries especially and these and many more feature in our new Berry Fruit Production course. We learned the hard way about Gooseberry Sawfly larva, which can strip the leaves from a whole plantation in just a few days if you are not attentive.

The Nut Production course reminds me not so much of my childhood, but of my current life in France, where we regularly pick sacks of hazel nuts, chestnuts and walnuts from local trees and bushes, storing them in the cool of the cellar for use throughout the year. Walnuts are grown here commercially, both for the edible nuts and for the oil, pressed at several mills in the area and in France generally, many nut crops are important to the local economy.

During forty years in the industry I have worked in most sectors of the horticultural industry and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to pass on what I have learned to students of the Garden Design Academy. Many more exciting courses are in the pipeline and I am enjoying working with students through the existing range. The RHS qualification courses are always stimulating and the vast subject of Garden History is fascinating, especially now that I can easily compare the English tradition with the French. Living in the Touraine with a Bordeaux-born wife gives an extra edge to our Viticulture courses, with one of our students owning a boutique vineyard in New Zealand. Garden design and landscaping courses involve art, craft and science in creating the gardens our clients demand and are hugely satisfying both for students and ourselves.

I have been saying for years that you never stop learning in horticulture and gardening. I get back as much as I give while teaching these subjects and trust this will continue for many years to come.

Garden Design Academy

My recent lecture to a group of visiting UK garden enthusiasts, made me think about my experiences of gardening and garden design in France.  I was also keen to show them slides from the International Garden Festival at Chaumont, which I have been going to for years.

Chaumont is challenging for the average garden enthusiast, but a “must see” event for professionals, being a show committed to the outer reaches of contemporary garden design. Abstract themes have been set each year since 1992 to encourage designers to create the unexpected, to think “outside the box”. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else, although imitators come and go. Every year a number of visitors stay at our B & B or gîte to witness this amazing gardening event.

The list of themes is interesting, but bear in mind that when written in French many of them have dual or obscure meanings in a deliberate attempt by the organisers to illicit a range of responses from garden creators. I’ve talked about this show before, I know, but not provided this list:

¨  1992 Pleasure

¨  1993 Imagination during the economic crisis

¨  1994 Acclimatisation

¨  1995 Unexpected gardens

¨  1996 Too much technique, not enough poetry?

¨  1997 Water, water, everywhere

¨  1998 Ricochets

¨  1999 Only vegetables

¨  2000 Freedom

¨  2001 Carpet bedding etc

¨  2002 The Erotic Garden

¨  2003 Weeds

¨  2004 Chaos: order and disorder

¨  2005 Gardens have memories

¨  2006 Play in the garden

¨  2007 Mobiles: gardens for a world on the move

¨  2008 Gardens to share

¨  2009 Colour

This year’s event was surprising in many ways, with many gardens seeming to lack colour rather than celebrate it. There was much discussion on the use of black (is it a colour?)  and on the nature of gardens (what is a garden?) but fear not gentle reader, there were also plenty of plants to admire. The gardens are left in place to develop and grow from March to October and maintained by students of the horticultural college on the site.

I often take students attending Academy residential courses to Chaumont as a stimulus to debate. Some of the more animated discussions have gone on well into the night, lubricated by more than a little Touraine wine; such is the provocative nature of the festival. Garden designers on our CAD training events have been very enthusiastic in general, but even amateurs with us for the ‘Design your own Garden’ workshops have enjoyed it.

Our most popular course has proved to be the RHS Certificate in Horticulture (level 2), offered by distance learning with course notes on CD and support by post and email. Garden Design and Garden History are also attracting students, mostly British but also a few Americans. A few students live in France as we do, but most do not. We work closely with a distance learning college in Australia which gives us access to a very wide range of professionally written courses.

While we now spend a great deal of my working day teaching the science, art and craft that is horticulture, gardening and design, it keeps our feet on the ground to see the country folk around us working with nature and the seasons.

Many of our neighbours have vast gardens while others work in the fields of the Berry or the vineyards of the Touraine. Gardening tasks are often (I was going to say, religiously) undertaken on Saint’s Days and planting on St. Catherine’s Day (25th November ) is a guarantee of success:  “a la Sainte Catherine, tout bois prend racine” – “on St. Catherine’s day, the trees take root”. We will plant a Magnolia grandiflora this year and have no doubt it will thrive, as did last year’s Cherry trees.

I like to talk to the locals about their customs and traditions and learn much about living in this rural community from them. We find we have adapted to the pace of life and like everyone, keep our eyes peeled for wild food such as mushrooms and walnuts while walking the dog through the countryside each day.

I also like to give something back and have helped identify plants, advised on pests and diseases and suggested horticultural techniques they may not be aware of locally. They don’t always accept my advice and no amount of self-promotion seems to impress them, but I have had some successes. I was recently discussing Cloque du Pécher (Peach Leaf Curl) because I needed a photograph of the disease for one of our RHS Certificate students. Would she be spraying for it? I asked the garden owner. Yes, I was told, but not until after the full moon! I should have known really: the region was once notorious for witch craft.

Teaching the science of horticulture is relatively straightforward: the facts are all in the course notes and students’ answers to test questions are either right or wrong. In addition to the RHS Certificate we also offer an Advanced Certificate and the RHS Diploma: a vocational qualification of some seriousness. Teaching garden design is different. The subject is a wide-ranging mixture of art, craft and science and opinions on garden aesthetics are subjects for debate rather than learning by rote.

Students are expected to work through the Certificate in Garden Design in around 700 hours but in practice you never stop learning with a subject like this. It involves everything from soil chemistry to playground health and safety, in addition to plant knowledge and drawing skills. The course has modules in garden history, surveying, drainage and rockwork. Even after designing more than 1000 gardens I would never claim to know it all and in fact one of the joys of teaching is learning from your students. It’s stimulating, challenging and still great fun after all these years.

Some of our students have asked me to get involved with projects they are working on. A recent design contract in Cornwall came to us from a student.

A few of our students clients have written to us to ask for references and many are amazed that training and qualifications are available in subjects like garden design and horticulture. I come across gardeners and garden designers in the UK and France with little interest, knowledge or experience charging as much as highly qualified professionals. I am proud to now be in a position to pass on what I know to those who wish to do better in the industry I have worked in all my life.