Changes to Royal Horticultural Society courses

In spite of all indications to the contrary, we have been very busy recently preparing for the new RHS Certificates and Diploma in Horticulture. The RHS Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture is by far the most popular of the courses run by the Garden Design Academy. As part of the Government reform of qualifications, a new structure has been introduced called the Qualifications and Credit Framework (or QCF). This is intended to make qualifications clearer, and to offer greater choice and flexibility to learners.

Cistus Rospico

New Rock Rose - Cistus x corbariensis Rospico

The RHS will be introducing a range of new qualifications through the QCF from September 2010. These will replace the existing qualifications at level 2 and level 3 although we may still offer these courses under another name. Partial completion of the current RHS qualifications can lead to exemption from particular units in the new QCF qualifications and from lessons or modules in Garden Design Academy qualifications.

The existing RHS Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture will be replaced by three courses:

RHS Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Plant Growth, Propagation and Development

  • Exams are only theoretical and can be sat, by arrangement, anywhere in the world.
  • The course involves 100 hrs of study
  • The course is now available through Garden Design Academy


RHS Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Garden Planning, Establishment and Maintenance

  • Exams are only theoretical and can be sat, by arrangement, anywhere in the world.
  • The course involves 100 hrs of study
  • The course is being written and should be available very soon


RHS Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Horticulture

  • This qualification is simply the two above certificates combined.
  • Can be awarded to anyone who completes the two certificates above.


In addition the RHS is seeking accreditation for a Practical Certificate to be taken in the UK only. Similar changes will be made to the RHS Level 3 Certificate in Horticulture so, as you can imagine, there is a lot of work to be done. Fortunately, the bulk of this work is being undertaken by our Australian partners ACS and we are looking forward to seeing how gardeners and horticulturists react to the new courses.

Penstemon Melting Candy

Penstemon Melting Candy

Back in the garden, some of our favourite summer flowers are blossoming. The variegated Cistus corbariensis Rospico was a very welcome addition to the garden last year and is doing well. Close by, Penstemon Melting Candy was less successful, with two of the three plants not overwintering. The remaining plant is looking delightful however, and I shall be taking cuttings to ensure I have backup plants if I have similar problems this winter.

And for those who commented on my photograph of Salvia argentea, here is what it looks like in flower.

Salvia argentea
Salvia argentea

This species is from north Africa and has been given the common name Silver Clary. It is said to be short lived so I am leaving some flowers in place in the hope of collecting seed later. Failing that, I see both Thompson and Morgan and Chiltern Seeds offer it.

Winter gardening down-time

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”~Marcus Cicero, 106-43 BC, Roman statesman and philosopher.

Winter can be hard on the gardener. We are longing to be outside but are generally stuck indoors while all around us blizzards rage. This is not strictly true in my more gentle part of the world, but I feel you those of you in less equitable climes. While Cicero may have left out a few essentials with which my adopted home is well blessed (art, music, wine, food, anyone?), garden books make it much easier to survive the dreary weather.

Pyracantha with berries

Pyracantha with berries in Chabris

My own collection runs into scores and ranges from antique, leather bound works by eighteenth century radical agriculturist William Cobbett and the plant hunter George Forest, to those great little “Expert” books by DG Hessayan. My first copy of Be Your Own Rose Expert set me back Two shillings and six pence and was bought to assist customers on my parent’s nursery in Cornwall. I have several others in the series, one or two in multiple additions as they were updated to reflect new varieties, new techniques and gardening fashions.

We moved to the Loire Valley from Hertfordshire 16 months ago and have been slowly organising our home, social and business life ever since. There are still unpacked boxes in the loft and buildings awaiting renovation and most of my books are stored out there somewhere.

We did come across a few in the early days and the RHS Encyclopaedia was one of the first to be unpacked. A boxed set of two volumes, this is the third edition that I have owned and is completely indispensible to me. It is not perfect –  in a world where new varieties are released every year it is impossible for a book like this to be completely comprehensive and up to date – but it is about as good as such an ambitious work could be.

It describes over 15,500 garden plants, many with photographs, and lists them in the only sensible way: alphabetically, by Latin name. The large format makes it a pleasure to leaf through in idle moments and for those times when you need to identify an unknown plant, a pleasant hour skimming through the pictures normally results in a find. If you know what you are looking for and just want to check cultivation notes, you can go straight to the plant concerned. Now that my growing is slightly more exotic I welcome one aspect that I used to find irritating: the number of plants in the encyclopaedia which I was not able to grow in southern England.

Before the RHS encyclopaedia was published, my favourite of this type was by the Readers Digest and every so often I still refer to my battered copy of The Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers dating from the ‘70’s. At half the price but with only a fraction of the plants, it remains a great reference book with a much more practical edge than the RHS encyclopaedia.


Mahonia brings a little winter cheer to the streets of Angers

Of course if you want practical, the Royal Horticultural Society does practical, and a series of publications approaching plants and gardening at different levels are available. I have various books under the RHS banner on plant pests and diseases, fruit cultivation, herbs, vegetables and many specialist subjects. They are all written by experts in their field, whose authority is beyond question.

A great deal of our time is these days spent teaching gardening, garden design and a range of horticultural subjects, mostly by distance learning. Our Chinese clients think this is an admirable thing to do: to pass on ones knowledge to those coming up behind. We have a surge of bookings for courses during the winter, with gardening amateurs and professionals using their down-time to improve their understanding of the subject. For much the same reason we always have plenty of garden design appointments at this time of the year.

I find teaching is both pleasurable and instructional: you learn a great deal, with personal prejudices challenged and memory stretched by the probing questions and demands of students. The internet gives them such extensive access to information that your task is to explain errors in judgement and interpretation rather than just to dish out facts to be accepted without question. Our courses now include some serious vocational studies like the RHS Diploma in Horticulture however, and facts are facts. These sometimes need to be checked, so I’m glad I still have access to all my old horticultural books from back in the days when I was a student at Pershore College.

Holly berries

Ilex meserveae Blue Angel

Now that we live in France it is fascinating to compare and contrast French gardening books and magazines. I subscribe to ‘Jardins de France’, the excellent revue of the SNHF, the French equivalent of the RHS, while still receiving The Garden from the Royal Horticulture Society in England. I also have a few French gardening books, although many of the best over here are translated from English. Le Guide Clause-Vilmorin du Jardin is the latest version of an encyclopaedia I have been using for many years, since working for the seed company Clause near Paris. It tries to be comprehensive and has sold over 5 million copies, but the use of common names, French common names, drives me crazy!

Before I lose the tenuous grasp I still have on the English language, I am determined to write my second book. “Was there a first”?  I hear you ask, as well you might for all the impact it made in the book shops at the time. At one stage I was considered an expert on bedding plants and this was the subject of my little book. These days I have CAD training to offer to garden designers and while we do quite well from residential courses it is suggested there is a need for a training manual on the subject. The outline is done and the plan is to complete the book this winter. It may have been last winters’ plan as well!

Another profitable way to pass time at this time of the year is with the latest editions of the seed catalogues. We are still sent these automatically by many of our favourite suppliers while others need to be hunted down and paid for each year. New varieties are the stuff of gardening and seed companies understand this. Old varieties are rebranded and presented as something new while, it is true, some genuine novelties appear most years. Planning your new floral displays and the vegetables you are going to eat this summer is one of life’s great pleasures and accompanied by mulled wine around a roaring log fire……or was that the latest Disney Christmas film?

Gardening is full of romantic images like this and it is hard to deny that it seems to fill some great need in the human psyche. Whether you consider gardening to be “the new rock ‘n’ roll”  or a connection with “the good life” with which so many of us have lost contact, the pursuit of gardening is something that links us to each other and with nature in one single, shared activity. If this activity is slowed or even brought to a halt by inclement weather and the passing of the growing season, we can still dream, surely?

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Its Courson time again!

I look forward to Courson, the twice-yearly plant fair held at the Domaine de Courson, Essone, in the countryside south of Paris.

If you are passionate about plants the event is blissful, with nurseries from around Europe showing their wares in the park of the chateau. It has a relaxed country fair feel but the staggering range of  high quality and rare plants available to purchase always leaves me with a feeling of shock from overexposure to so many bank account-draining temptations.

This year there is an added thrill for me having been asked to talk to the International Camellia Society (and the RHS Rhodendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group) at their hotel after visiting the show on the Friday. I am busily preparing slides for them, concentrating on my other favourite French gardening event, annual the International Festival at Chaumont.

On Saturday 17th they are off on a trip to a couple of unique gardens, the Arboretun Vilmorin and the Jardin Albert Kahn and I am delighted to have been invited. In fact, wild horses failed in their attempt to drag me away!

Les Jounees des Plantes de Courson is on 16th – 18th of October. You really ought to go.