Nearly all land-based colleges contacted by HW are enjoying a rise in applications to full- and part-time horticultural courses starting next month. But this is as much down to their own efforts, they say, as to the wider trends in the economy.
Writtle College in Essex is enjoying its third year of growth in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, with a jump of over 50 per cent in applications to horticulture courses.
Head of the college's School of Horticulture Martin Stimson says: "We believe this has happened due to the recession, but also because of an increased focus within the department on the promotion of courses, attendance at external events and good follow-up of enquiries."
New courses available at the college including social and therapeutic horticulture, tree management and green space management have also boosted interest, he says.
Meanwhile, Shuttleworth College admissions officer Janet Hawes says: "Numbers in horticulture are strong, especially for the full-time Level 3 and National Diploma courses - they are more or less full. Traditionally, part-time courses fill later, particularly the leisure and evening classes."
Career-changers continue to make up a significant proportion of the Bedfordshire college's entrants, following in the wake of garden design student Fiona Bailey's Anne of Cleves garden at this year's RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, Hawes adds.
Bicton College representative Helen Brown also puts the buoyant level of applications down to a combination of wider interest and the college's own efforts.
"Our main courses, the National Diploma and the First Diploma, are looking very healthy," she says. "Horticulture seems to be enjoying a renaissance, with everyone like the RHS and National Trust encouraging people to grow their own. It's created an awareness among young people."
This year the college relied on its own efforts to interest schoolchildren by touring Devon's schools, complete with horse and tractor, to give them a flavour of what's on offer. "Devon is quite big and schools find it difficult to take pupils out to visit the college," she says.
There is still widespread interest in horticulture among older applicants too, says Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) senior tutor Dr Mark Hocart.
At least half will be "mature", if by that one means over 21, he says. "A lot are in their late 20s or early 30s. It can take a while before people realise there are careers to be had in horticulture."
SAC has also found that getting out and about to increase awareness of vocational horticulture has helped. "We push it at the Gardening Scotland show and that has had a big effect," says Hocart.
"Our horticulture with plantsmanship [course], which we run with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, is already full, though garden design is down a little."
However, Hocart does not see the downturn as a big factor. "Two or three [applicants] have been made redundant or have seen the writing on the wall," he says. "But the effects take time to filter through."
Overall, applications to SAC are up 15 per cent, but this is largely accounted for by a 40 per cent rise in admissions to agricultural courses, he adds. "Agriculture has struggled in the past but has had a couple of good years - people are coming back to it."
The newly merged Welsh College of Horticulture has a 29 per cent increase in student numbers from last year, with Foundation Degree courses in organic production and art and design for landscaping proving particularly popular. Two out of five applicants are mature - here, the recession may be a factor, as many are currently funded through the Welsh Assembly's ReAct scheme, which supports workers who have been made redundant. A college representative says many of these applicants hope to use horticultural training as a route to setting up in business.
Curiously, fewer than 12 per cent of applicants to the department are female. The representative says: "The college is striving to increase the amount of female applicants within the horticulture department, and continues to see balancing diversity in all of its dimensions within all academic departments as a key initiative."
The RHS vocational courses remain popular, with about one in eight applicants to its two-year Wisley-based Diploma in Horticulture making the final cut of 20 places.
THE NEW CROP
Lee Belgrau, degree in landscape and garden design, Reaseheath College Having just competed a National Diploma at Reaseheath College, Belgrau is about to undertake a full degree in landscape and garden design.
"I hadn't thought about design before the diploma course," he says. "Really, I was just interested in working outside."
Belgrau has already proved his mettle by designing a garden at this year's RHS Show Tatton Park. He describes the vividly coloured "Red Rhythm" as "simple and contemporary, using modern materials", but he admits: "Generally, I prefer more traditional, cottage-type gardens."
As well as relying on a student loan, Belgrau will maintain himself while studying by doing work arranged by the college.
Gavin Horniblow, Diploma in Horticulture, RHS Wisley Having served as a Coldstream Guardsman, Horniblow struggled to find a job in civilian life that suited him. "My last job was in a call centre and I realised that I wanted to get a job working in an area I really enjoyed," he says.
"Gardening had always been a keen hobby of mine and something I really liked, so I decided to get the qualifications I would need to get a good job in this field."
Having just completed a one-year National Certificate in Horticulture at East Durham College, he is now about to embark on the two-year RHS Diploma in Horticulture based at its flagship garden in Wisley, Surrey.
He describes his future goals as "working in a grand stately home garden, setting up my own business or even travelling the world using my skills".
Nicole Turner, Foundation Degree in Garden and Landscape Design, Reaseheath College Turner is looking forward to a flourishing career and already has plans for her own garden design-and-build business.
Straight after completing her GCSEs, Turner took the National Certificate and National Diploma in Horticulture at Cheshire's Reaseheath College, and is now about to embark on the more specialist Foundation Degree in Garden and Landscape Design.
She values having already gained a good grounding in plant care.
"I've learned plant science already and understand what conditions certain plants need to grow, so I can make the best use of new skills in design," she says.
She has already contributed to the design and build of the college's award-winning garden at RHS Show Tatton Park, and has already secured her first client. She plans to top-up to a full BSc degree in landscape design.
Anton Sperling, National Diploma in Horticulture and Arboriculture, Shuttleworth College After five knee operations put paid to Sperling's rugby career, he was on the point of heading off to travel around the world when relatives put a job his way that appeared to offer a new career avenue.
A filler job selling firewood led to a contract in woodland management. "I'm getting my chainsaw licences right now, and then I want to better my knowledge. I've always been quite a physical chap, but probably won't want to climb trees for-ever. I'd like to have my own business," explains Sperling.
But that may not be in the UK. "I played for three years in New Zealand and really liked it," he says. "If I decide to apply to live there full-time then having a skill will help."