From famous chefs rustling up salads decorated with edible flowers to Apple’s revamped Regent Street store in London boasting indoor trees and living walls, new horticulture trends continue to seep their way into our popular culture. The imprint that such trends leave on our psyche, coupled with a heightened level of investment in horticulture education, have arguably helped sustain the healthy number of applications received by UK land-based colleges this year for all types and levels of horticulture courses.
Douglas Coltart, Edinburgh-based Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) horticulture programme leader, says: "All of our courses remain popular and the number of applications for many courses are up on the previous year."
Stuart Davidson, director of marketing for Preston-based Myerscough College, adds: "We’ve seen a slight growth this year in applications to our general amenity horticulture courses, especially among school leavers — more at practical level 1 and level 2.
"Arboriculture remains strong at both our Preston and Liverpool campuses, as does sports turf provision. Landscaping is on a par with previous years. Bear in mind that in Lancashire the number of school leavers in year 11 has dropped from around 17,000 three to four years ago to just over 15,000 this year, so it’s tricky to make direct comparisons.
"Our online degree courses are also hugely popular for staff looking to upskill. We’ll have around 30 students enrolling from around the globe on each of our foundation degrees in arboriculture, sports turf management and our MSc in arboriculture and urban forestry."
Plumpton College: hard landscaping is the most popular course at the moment -image: Plumpton College
Furthermore, James Pashley, head of horticulture at East Sussex-based Plumpton College, says: "All of our horticulture courses are more subscribed than they have been in the last 10 years. Our most popular at the moment is hard landscaping, which has double the students it had two years ago. As the only provider of wine degrees taught in English-speaking Europe, we are also a popular choice within the growing wine industry."
Peter Allen, director of marketing and communications at Warwickshire College Group, which incorporates Pershore College, adds: "Numbers across our courses are all targeted to grow in the next recruitment cycle and we are working hard to convey the excitement and opportunities offered by this hugely varied subject. There are many young people out there with a passion for the outdoors and for gardening, and we need to ensure that we reach them and explain that they can continue their passion into a profession."
Admittedly, the most enticing courses are often those that offer students a unique learning experience, such as the opportunity to work at a world-famous garden, an event such as Gardener’s World Live or with a well-known company in the industry. For example, Coltart reveals: "Our most popular courses are the horticulture with plantsmanship HND and degree courses that we run in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. We have also recently launched the HNC in horticulture and HNC in garden design at Glasgow Botanic Gardens — it looks like these courses are also going to be very popular.
"The chance to work and study within amazing gardens seems to be the reason why these courses are proving to be so popular."
Large-scale investment has also perhaps attracted new students and opened up new learning opportunities for them. Two years ago, for example, Reaseheath College in Cheshire opened its £8m National Centre for Food Futures & the Environment, which features a 768sq m glasshouse.
Jo Maher, Reaseheath’s assistant principal, says: "I think the investments made reflect the importance of horticulture and there is a need to sustain the future of the industry by ensuring that young people are attracted into the industry.
"The National Centre for Food Futures & the Environment responds to this through state-of-the-art technology to provide education and training to meet the current and future needs of the industry. The facility also reflects our focus when it comes to training and education — we want our students to be able to apply theory to practice and have the skills and knowledge to be the future innovators of the industry."
In addition to an inspiring curriculum and state-of-the-art facilities, the popularity of the sector’s apprenticeships — boosted by the new apprenticeship standards for horticulture and landscaping — are also helping to keep numbers buoyant.
Tomato trials at Reaseheath College - image: Reaseheath College
Pershore’s Allen points out: "As our apprenticeship provision grows we are seeing our overall ‘horticulture’ student numbers increasing. But the split of full-time versus apprenticeship might vary year on year."
Sarah Seery, head of horticulture for Capel Manor College in London, adds: "The new apprenticeships start in September and it’s been really good working with employers on that. Lots of people have signed up.
There’s now more opportunity for young people to get into landscaping and gardening, whether it’s in the city or the suburbs."
Maher adds: "Apprenticeship numbers continue to grow, particularly at level 2, despite a drop in funding for horticulture, which is making it extremely difficult to run viable provision. The new focus on higher-level and degree-level apprenticeships offers opportunities to develop training to suit industry needs and plug the identified skills gaps. We are working in collaboration with professional bodies and industry partners to look at what this provision might be. We are in a good position to be able to flex in response to both industry and Government requirements and I think the future for horticulture education and training is very positive as a result of the focus on apprenticeships, particularly as we prepare for the post-Brexit scenario."
Although colleges are evidently satisfied with the level of interest shown in their courses, from students of all age groups, they are perhaps a little frustrated that they have yet to close the skills gap in
Horticulture education resurgence
As Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, deputy group principal and deputy chief executive officer for Kent-based Hadlow College, says: "For the sector as a whole we have seen a resurgence in horticulture in terms of its output and level of investment. We are also getting an improvement in the calibre and quality of people coming into horticulture, but it isn’t enough because the horticulture sector has grown.
"Take the fresh producers AC Goatham and Thanet Earth, for example. Their requirements have got greater as they have expanded and grown. We are struggling to keep up with the skills sets that they need. There’s been movement but the goalposts have changed."
Paul Hannan, principal and chief executive officer at Hadlow, adds: "The sector as a whole has got to get the message out to people. It needs to keep pushing those fantastic opportunities that are available in horticulture because it is still crying out for people."
Reaseheath’s Maher notes: "There is still work to be done to get the message out to schools and school-leavers about the fantastic career opportunities in horticulture, and education and training providers can only do so much. We are yet to see an increase in full-time 16-18 learners despite campaigns such as Grow Careers and the focus from Government on apprenticeships.
"However, while we face some challenges, there is no doubt that there are great opportunities ahead for horticulture education, and we will continue to focus on providing high-quality education and training to meet current and future industry needs."
Trends: college courses changing with the times
Increasingly, colleges are observing many new trends in horticulture and adjusting their courses to suit the changing times. New trends include:
-A focus on gardening and growing in small spaces as well as vertical gardening. Plumpton’s James Pashley says: "Being based near a ‘green’ constituency such as Brighton, many of our students are interested in small-scale, sustainable food production that reduces carbon input and food miles." He notes that Plumpton offers a unique degree in urban horticulture.
-Capel’s Sarah Seery points out that the London-based college is starting a new foundation degree in urban green space management from this autumn.
-SRUC’s Douglas Coltart has observed a demand for horticultural therapy as a component of the college’s courses "and this is now being introduced to our programmes".
Ones to watch: three state-of-the-art facilities
Work on a £1.5m, 1,500sq m, industry-standard Venlo glasshouse at the Court Lane campus starts this autumn. Alan Harvey, programme leader for Hadlow’s BSc Hons in commercial horticulture, says: "It’s exciting. We hope it will be ready for a new crop around February 2018." Split into compartments, it will feature a tomato centre, a pepper centre and some research blocks used for dissertations and other student projects. It will also have bespoke areas for vertical salads using replacement lighting.
Meanwhile, Pershore College hopes to inspire new entrants into the sector with the opening of its new Agri-Tech Centre this October. With help from funds from Coventry and Warwickshire LEP and Growth Hub, the new centre will combine state-of-the-art equipment, laboratory and teaching facilities, including an 8m-long hydroponic chamber with space for more than 1,500 plants and a new 22m-long polytunnel featuring two vertical growing installations to enable the running of back-to-back trials.
New centre near Brighton
Heritage Lottery funding is leading to investment in a new horticulture centre at Stanmer Park on the outskirts of Brighton. Plumpton’s James Pashley says: "This centre will be a showcase of horticulture, with modern growing facilities being incorporated into a traditional walled garden. This will give our students the experience of working within a commercial environment, growing and selling plants, while being in a heritage setting with beautiful gardens that are open to the public."