A "passionate", "aspirational" and "brilliant" apprentice has been named Green-tech Apprentice of the Year 2013, beating dozens of hardworking hopefuls to the top spot.
The judging panel, comprising Green-tech's Rachel Kay, BALI chief executive Wayne Grills, Oak View Landscapes' Paul Downer and Horticulture Week technical editor Sally Drury chose Natalie Meredith, 20, from the ten shortlisted candidates because "her passion for horticulture shined through".
Drury said: "The panel thought Meredith went beyond the call of duty working in her spare time with volunteer groups and we liked the fact that she was trying to learn all the time.
"We felt she was aspirational but down to earth. She wants to be a head gardener and in charge of her own site, which is a fine ambition."
Green-tech marketing and strategy manager Kate Humes, who presented the award to Meredith, said: "What most inspired the judges about Natalie was the fact she had started her course just 12 months ago with limited knowledge of the industry but had already embraced and acknowledged what we all love about the landscape environment.
"Natalie has already identified a goal to work towards, which we believe is invaluable for any apprentice, and designing an installation at Dulwich Park in her first year of training, speaks for itself."
Meredith, who works for Quadron Services in Dulwich Park on its Southwark Council contract, was nominated by former head gardener Ric Glenn, who described her as "a credit to the company, to her generation and to herself".
Despite finding horticulture by accident during a trial internship by employment support organisation A4E while she was unemployed, Meredith immediately loved the work and "kept her fingers crossed" that she would be offered an apprenticeship.
Meredith is currently studying for both her NVQ level 2 and 3 at Kensington & Chelsea College in Holland Park, and is even considering taking up botanical illustration as a hobby.
"I'm really happy to have won," she said. "I've not done anything like that before and I was really pleased when Ric told me I was being nominated. I'm hoping this will look good on my CV.
She added: "I'm still really enjoying my job. It's nice to realise it's been a full year and see the park come full circle, but from what you've learnt you can do the jobs better this time around."
Current Dulwich Park head gardener Gerry Kelsey is equally impressed with Meredith. "Natalie's just brilliant - definitely a high flyer," he said.
"Her level of work and her theory is absolutely spot on. Her attention to detail is different from other apprentices I've had and her communication skills are absolutely amazing. Apart from that, she's a delight to work with. We're absolutely over the moon she's won."
Drury said all the judges felt the standard of entrants was really impressive. "What we came away with most of all was that horticulture is in safe hands," she added.
"I was relieved to see such promising youngsters with real energy who want to do horticulture. People often talk of the skills gap, but the next generation is there."
Green-tech Apprentice of the Year 2013: Shortlisted candidates earn plaudits for impressing their employers
Nurture Landscapes apprentice Peter Petts, 21, is appreciated by colleagues and managers alike for his easy-going manner and hard work. When HW spoke to him he was studying for a level 2 diploma in horticulture at Hadlow College while working in Kent Science Park, Sittingbourne. Contract manager Stephen Packman said: "Peter has shown a continual, ongoing eagerness to learn."
Second-generation landscaper Sam Butcher, 20, impressed Hillier Landscapes with his proactive approach and thirst for the industry. He "sailed through his course", said director Lynda Barnard. "We thought this young lad could be going places," she added, so much so that she offered him an apprenticeship and then a full-time job.
Lewis Tucker was "over the moon" when, aged 22, he was offered an apprenticeship with South Hams District Council in Devon. A year later, green-space operations manager Robert Harkness asked for funding to create a post for him after his apprenticeship. Harkness said: "He goes the extra mile."
English literature graduate James Brindley, 29, smiles when his alarm clock rings. He has done two level 2 national diplomas and is studying for his level 3 sports turf management qualification. Brindley works for ISS at the De Vere Staverton Park Golf Course and has impressed bosses with his initiative and IT skills.
By the age of 20, James Sponder had worked on four RHS Chelsea Flower Show gardens and been praised by Alan Titchmarsh. But he initially impressed the Outdoor Room aged 15 when he showed his own garden designs in an apprentice interview. Managing director David Dodd said: "I have never seen someone so young with so much talent."
Southwark Park head gardener Lynne Olding spotted "a spark" in Jake Cater-Bassett as a part-time worker. "He's the best apprentice I've ever had," she said. He has completed level 1 and 2 amenity horticulture NVQs and is now studying level 3. He loves to make park users smile when they see his work.
"Motivated and enthusiastic" Richard Creswell, 20, impressed so much during work experience that he was kept on by Streetscape and worked with Andrew Fisher Tomlin at Chelsea. Manager Keith Whitmore said Cresswell has "an amazing memory for plant names".Ellis Molyneux, 22, saved himself from "a dead-end job" by applying for an apprenticeship with John O'Conner, a job that he loves. One year later, he was given charge of his first team. He has completed an NPTC level 2 work-based diploma and is studying for level 3. Molyneux's manager Geoff Kazer said: "He's conscientious and does a good job. We are very impressed with him."
Matthew Bryant, 19, became an apprentice for the Landscape Group in Bristol three years ago, one week after finishing school but two years after first impressing during work experience. He said he enjoys the job satisfaction of working on parks and green spaces. Contract manager Paul James said: "He has so much potential - he just shines."