When you admire the eye-catching show gardens at events such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, it is hard not to be inspired by the creativity and skill that has gone into making these pieces of art.
But if you decide to pursue a career in designing, or planting and building, the soft and hard elements of such spaces, where do you start? Admittedly, when you look at the lists of horticulture courses offered by the UK's many land-based colleges, it can de difficult to know which option to choose first.
Fortunately, there is a general consensus amongst those working in the landscape sector that if you want to work outdoors and are keen to get a taste of horticulture, national diplomas such as those offered by the RHS offer an ideal starting point.
Dave Campbell, head of horticulture at Askham Bryan college in Yorkshire, explains: "If you come into it (the landscape sector) at 16, for example, on a multidisciplinary course, you can decide 'I like trees' or 'I don't like this'. If you go into it with an open mind there is bound to be an element of it that you fall in love with - and that will stay with you for the rest of your life."
Askham Bryan runs, for example, an introductory level 2 diploma in landscaping and horticulture for students who have gained four GCSEs. Once they have completed their level 2 qualifications, students are then free to either pursue their studies further - up to degree level and beyond - or join the workforce.
Those who wish to continue their studies can, for example, continue their education with a two-year level 3 extended diploma in horticulture. This type of course can lead students onto degree-level study, such as a BSc in applied horticulture, or a career in an entry-level management position.
BALI technical officer Jonathan Tame agrees that "a solid horticulture or landscape management course can set you up for a good grounding". He adds: "I also learned a lot of practical skills on the job and that's what apprenticeships offer. For 'grafters,' this might be a more practical route."
Apprenticeships combine practical, on-the-job, paid training with study and are open to people aged 16 and over. They can take between one and fours years to complete, depending on their level, and are currently being reformed by the Government so that, within the next year or so, they will led by employers rather than training providers (colleges).
Simon Ford, business partner at the award-winning Foxcroft Landscapes based in Bolton, is currently mentoring two apprentices (see case study, p31) from Lancashire-based Myerscough College. A former horticulture student at the college and a previous apprentice with Foxcroft Landscapes, Ford hopes to continue the tradition of recruiting more apprentices as the business grows.
He reveals that, when it comes to building inspiring green spaces, there is a shortage of skilled workers at the moment. Apprenticeships are therefore an ideal way of ensuring that people are being taught the right kind of skills. "We need people who can multitask and problem solve," he maintains. "Every aspect, from brick work to cutting mature trees, involves a different skill set."
Ford also points out that "a good, sound horticulture knowledge is essential". He continues: "Without the plants it's just a load of concrete. You are best to study, especially the more technical aspects of the horticulture side, such as what your plants need to grow and sustain."
The value of gaining some work experience with a reputable business should not be underestimated, he adds. "Look around and find good companies," he says. "Chelsea (show gardens) all have good landscape contractors doing work for them. Look at local colleges also. If you see someone doing good work, just stop and ask them because most companies are desperate for good and keen people. They will give you a chance."
Ford and his team have recently been building a playground for Kingsway Park High School in Rochdale. "When the kids are playing on it and are happy, you get satisfaction out of a job like that," he says. "We are creating something better for these kids."
At the opposite end of the country, garden design students at Hadlow College in Kent are also busy working on a school garden. Caroline Jackson teaches the university's garden design courses, which include a degree and a higher national diploma. She says: "Every year the students have to go out and design a garden as part of their course. At the moment they are working for a school."
She points out that, given the amount of mature students who choose to study garden design, applications for such courses are often considered on merit rather than determined by a specific set of qualifications. However, being able to draw is a key skill, says Jackson. "Our students have to hand draw as well as do a lot of electronic drawings."
A lot of Hadlow's garden design students become self-employed, while some go and work for landscape architects and others choose to run their own garden maintenance businesses, she explains.
Society of Garden Designers chairman Philippa O'Brien reiterates that a national diploma is "a pretty good start". She adds: "It will help you to see the direction you can go in and once you have a diploma you will always be able to earn a living. For 17- or 18-year-olds, it gives them a really good grounding in the basics. From there they can do another course such as a foundation degree or a degree in garden design."
The landscape architecture profession shares some similarities with garden design, such as the need to have a creative eye, but it is generally dealing with larger green spaces as well as a wider range of landscape-related issues.
Landscape Institute head of education and membership Chris Sheridan says: "Landscape architecture combines art, science and the environment, and degree programmes bring together drawing and computer modelling skills with ecological and technical knowledge, creativity and vision, and communication skills like consulting, condensing and presenting information and designs, and giving presentations - all ways to communicate your ideas."
He adds that the average entry requirements for landscape architecture degrees, the completion of which is the first step towards becoming a chartered landscape architect, are around 260 UCAS points or two A-level Bs and a C. For further details, see bealandscapearchitect.com.
Me & My Job - Stuart Charles Towner, garden designer, Hambrooks
- How did you get started in the industry?
Before Hambrooks I worked at a local garden centre - Keydell Nurseries in Horndean, Hampshire - and I was doing a HNC at Sparsholt College while I was there. I decided that the time was right to move on so I got the job at Hambrooks, where I have now been for more than six-and-a-half years.
- What advice would you give to others starting out?
Go with your instincts and stay true to your principles. For me, it's about things you love bringing in - Gertrude Jekyll planting style, the arts and crafts movement and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. That will all lead to original design and sit in context with your garden.
- What is the best aspect of your job?
Designing gardens for clients and getting that client satisfaction out of the job for small or large gardens. I like being in control of the full package, from the very first meeting right the way through to the build. As a designer you are involved the whole way.
- And the worst?
My beef is that garden designers do not get the respect they deserve and pushing education is the key thing for the future. There are minimum standards for registered architects and doctors, and good designers should move that way to give a bigger understanding to the profession.
- What does your typical job involve?
Our average garden is £15,000 and we're very busy this year. There was an explosion of work in March. The weather was on the turn and the recession is over. I started six years ago just before the recession and things are now getting back to that level. We've had a good pay rise. I recently designed the £13,000 Halo garden at Hampton Court.
- What does the future hold?
Finishing my degree. You can never stop learning.
Me & My Job - Tim Howell, managing director, landscaping, MITIE
- How did you get started in the industry?
I've always had an interest in the outdoor life so landscaping seemed like a good thing to do. I joined a Kent firm as a landscape technician straight from school, worked for Hillier for several years in landscape construction, then Gavin Jones.
- What does your typical day involve?
I can be at any of our offices or on a customer site and I'll be meeting the people who work with me or our customers. If I'm not meeting them face-to-face I'm talking by email, phone or text. There are days when I get barricaded behind a spreadsheet but that's an important part of my work.
- What is the best aspect of your job?
The great thing about landscaping and this industry is that you really see when you've done a great job - to be able to stand back and say: "We've done a great job there."
It's also great when you get good feedback and win quality awards like BALI. But it's not just about the business. I love developing people. We've got people who have grown up with the business and seeing them rewarded by expanding their careers is great.
- And the worst?
I'm a really positive person. Everyone has their challenges but it's such a positive thing that I do that I don't have bad things.
- How do you wind down after a hard day at work?
I love cycling, skiing and being outdoors. But I also like to sit down with a good book and a glass of wine.
- What does the future hold?
I want to keep on growing the company along the same lines. There's a real opportunity for more technology in our industry. Management systems are the sort of thing our customers really like. These days people want real-time live information. That's what our customers are telling us. We'll be seeing some significant growth.
Case study: Foxcroft Landscapes apprenticeship scheme
Myerscough College has extensive links with horticulture firms in the Preston area and therefore runs dozens of horticulture apprenticeships.
One such scheme is Tom Cornthwaite's and George Isherwood's two-year intermediate apprenticeship in horticulture and landscaping with Foxcroft Landscapes.
The 17-year-old apprentices are both being supported in the workplace with regular visits from work-based tutor James Fare. They are also taking part in specific industry training days at college every month.
"We (have) run workshops on fencing, brick-laying, block paving, pest and diseases, plant nomenclature and soil science," says Fare.
"Both Tom and George are showing real promise. It's clear that they are prepared to work hard to not only achieve the qualifications within the apprenticeship but also to do a good job for the customers of Foxcroft Landscapes. It's great to see their development and the level of work they can achieve increase throughout the programme."
Isherwood says: "I saw the opportunity with Foxcroft Landscapes on the National Apprenticeships website and then spoke to Myerscough College. After applying I had an interview, a brief trial and then Foxcroft took me on."
He continues: "Myerscough tutor James Fare came to see me and I then started on the apprenticeship. The work is harder than I thought but so far all is going well.
"For me the best bit is right at the end of a job when things are handed over to the customers. Seeing the job well done really gives me great satisfaction and as I get more experienced I will be able to develop and do more complex tasks."
Landscape architect career path
You will need a degree followed by a period of study at work to fully qualify as a chartered landscape architect. Membership of the Landscape Institute, the profession's qualifying authority and regulator, is also needed.
Garden designer career path
Short courses, diplomas and distance learning are all available from various organisations such as the RHS, the English Gardening School, the Garden Design School and the Oxford College of Garden Design. Horticultural colleges including Capel Manor in Middlesex, Merrist Wood in Surrey and Writtle College in Essex also offer these courses.
Contractor career path
GCSEs in subjects such as geography, biology and arts can be useful for landscape construction. Many firms offer modern apprenticeships combining formal diplomas such as NVQs with personal skills training in teamwork, problem solving, communication and IT.
For further details, please see www.growcareers.info