Gardening: grow your passion

Elly West on how to take your love of gardening a step further in 2018

It’s cold outside. The garden is dormant, and it’s the time of year when we, all too often, feel like hibernating. But once January arrives, it’s time to start making plans and thinking what the future might hold. Any time of year is, of course, a good time to make changes for the better, but the poignancy of the start of another year can be fertile soil for reassessing and deciding what your year will look like.

Moving to the Bristol area from west London was a time of new beginnings for me. I’d worked on the editorial team at BBC Gardeners’ World magazine, and had long been passionate about plants and gardens, but a career in garden design had seemed out of reach. Raising children, and life in general, meant I never took the plunge. It required some big life changes to make me really understand the old adage that you only live once, so I bit the bullet, retrained, and haven’t looked back.

That’s why this month, I’m going to talk about the benefits of learning a new skill. If you’re reading this, the chances are you already have an interest in plants and gardening, so why not take things further? There are lots of courses out there, locally and further afield. Of course, there is also distance learning, made much more accessible with today’s technology. However, I believe you can’t beat sitting in a classroom with other like-minded individuals in terms of motivation and immediacy, and being with and learning from others makes the experience far more enjoyable.

I studied at the Cotswold Gardening School in Gossington, Gloucestershire, where I gained a diploma in garden design, followed by another in plants and planting design. These courses were perfect for me, as they involved one day a week in the classroom, combined with home study and assignments to fit around my other commitments. I was lucky in that I already had some experience in design and had worked for a number of years in the gardening industry, but this was by no means a prerequisite. Attending the courses were people of all ages and from a diverse range of backgrounds, including IT and the police force, many of whom were considering a change of career.

The tutor and founder of the school, Caroline Tatham, has a wealth of experience and knowledge, and her approach is inspiring. I still hear her voice in my head when I’m designing gardens now – and I also came away with plenty of practical advice on the nitty gritty of how to run a successful business.

Gardening is one of those subject areas where you can never stop learning and being inspired, and Caroline’s own passion is evident in her teaching. The Cotswold Gardening School runs a whole range of courses, some a year long, and others lasting just a day; from courses for students seriously considering a career in design, to those dipping a toe in the water purely for personal interest and pleasure or to learn new skills they could implement in their garden at home. They also run regular open days where you can visit with no commitment to enrol.

Reckon you’d like to try your hand at garden design?

The RHS level two certificate in horticulture is another course I would personally recommend. The course is aimed at career gardeners and keen amateurs, and is available locally at The University of Bristol Botanic Garden. It covers basic plant botany and science, as well as practical skills such as propagation and pruning.

Diving into the unknown can be daunting, but doing a course can be a good way to test whether an area of interest is right for you. The choice is yours, from planning your garden, to growing your own food, to wildlife gardening and ecology, or rural crafts such as willow-weaving and willow-sculpture. By acquiring further knowledge or practical skills you might even turn your interest into a potential new career.

Keeping the brain active and learning new skills may also be a good way to help protect ourselves against degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, and it’s never too late to learn and indulge in a passion and take your knowledge further.

So if you’re sat indoors keeping warm but wanting a new project and some focus, why not consider some part-time study in an area you love? At the very least, you’ll meet some new people and learn some new skills, and it could be life changing.


Where to study (without travelling too far!)

✿ Garden Design School, Bristol University Botanic Garden, (
✿ Stoke Lodge, Stoke Bishop (
✿ City of Bristol College (
✿ Pickard School of Garden Design, Create Centre, Bristol (
✿ Cotswold Gardening School, Gossington, Gloucestershire. (

Plant of the month: Fatsia Japonica 

Nothing beats a taste of the tropics in the depths of winter, so this month Fatsia japonica takes the limelight, proving that evergreen structure doesn’t have to be staid and formal. Also known as the castor oil plant, it has huge, glossy leaves, like great big hands, and can reach more than two metres tall, but the stems are quite soft and are easy to chop back if they’re getting out of control. They’re quite fun to mess about with in terms of pruning, and look particularly good with the lower branches removed to make a single-stemmed tree.

Despite its exotic appearance, this evergreen is surprisingly hardy and tough, thriving in most soil types and in sun or shade, so it’s a great contender for a tricky corner. If leaves do become frost damaged, or when they start to turn yellow and die back, trim them off close to the main stem. New growth appears in spring. The ball-like umbels of white flowers appear from late autumn, turning into attractive black berries that are loved by birds. With year-round tropical good looks and reliability, this strong performer is well worth making space for in the border, in a container, or you could try growing it as an evergreen screen.