The Scottish Agricultural College's (SAC) position at the leading edge of higher-level horticultural teaching was reinforced this month with the completion of a new £240,000 teaching glasshouse.
According to college vice-principal David McKenzie: "The glasshouse was something that we identified as a necessary resource for our horticulture programme. We have a long-term strategy of focusing the higher end at King's Buildings and it has now come to fruition."
An official opening of the 260sq m facility is expected shortly. Installed by Cambridge HOK, it is half given over to rolling benches, the other half as multi-purpose hardstanding. Climate is controlled automatically through an Ecotech computer, which takes readings from the weather station on the glasshouse roof. Outside, a grid of beds has been created for open-air plant trials.
With around 150 students, horticulture represents a growing part of the UK's biggest agricultural college, whose total intake comes in at around 900. "Numbers are healthy - we are hitting our targets," says McKenzie.
The investment backs up the college's belief in the growing importance of the horticulture sector to the Scottish and wider economy. "The emphasis will increasingly be on local food production and horticulture will play a big part in that," says horticulture programme leader Dr Margaret Norton. "It will be a big growth area. Green space is also high on Government agendas - Edinburgh itself has new parks planned."
The college also claims employment rates of over 90 per cent for those who go straight into the jobs market. Senior horticulture lecturer Dr Colin Norton says: "There is work for everyone at some level - it's still a viable option even in a recession. But the industry doesn't have many places doing higher-end teaching in this country - that's out of step with the rest of the world. We need people to be inventive and to take the opportunities that are out there."
Perhaps the most distinct course offered at SAC is the BSc in horticulture with plantsmanship, run in conjunction with RBG Edinburgh, which equips students for work in plant conservation. "There's a gap in the botanical and plant science end of teaching," says Colin Norton.
Curiously, horticultural degrees are awarded by the University of Glasgow, though degrees in other faculties are bestowed by the University of Edinburgh. "Being awarded by one of Scotland's ancient universities makes them arguably the most prestigious in British horticulture," Colin Norton suggests.
A high proportion of graduates go on to post-graduate study, adds Margaret Norton. "It opens doors for students and we encourage them to go out into the wider world. We currently have an ex-student at Cornell University in the USA."
The department has a high proportion of mature students, many pursuing second careers. Geographically, they are "more static", Colin Norton adds. Senior tutor Mark Hocart, who also serves as welfare officer, says: "They also tend to be more grounded."
This skewing is partly a consequence of horticulture's low profile as a career option among school children. "We do some outreach into schools, but it's still difficult to entice young people straight into horticulture," says Margaret Norton.
"We find though, that having dabbled in something else first, older students are unlikely to then move away from horticulture. And we are very flexible about how we run courses, which fits in with their commitments."
A wide range of elective modules, from historical gardens to ornamental production, are on offer. If students decide not to proceed to degree level, their studies have a surrender value of an HNC after one year, or an HND after two. "Students can also join a course at that level, rather than starting from scratch," adds McKenzie.
The college also works closely with other Scottish land-based colleges - Elmwood, Perth, Barony, Oatridge and Langside. "Their courses are complementary to what we offer," says Colin Norton.
"We are looking closely at changes in Government policy and how it affects horticulture. It's likely there will be more funding available, but how many colleges still have links to production horticulture? There's not many that can compete at the higher level."
The SAC's finances benefit from a diverse revenue base, of which education accounts for only 17 per cent - the rest coming from commissioned research such as soil testing and from consultancy, which has helped the college fund this latest investment from internal resources.
Indeed, "Scottish Agricultural College" has become something of a misnomer because in addition to horticulture it also offers business studies, sport and tourism, though McKenzie insists: "They're all landor rural-based."
The college has three campuses - in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Ayr. Video conferencing between campuses on some modules allows teaching to be shared. While Aberdeen offers horticultural training up to certificate, and Ayr to diploma level, degree programmes are concentrated at the King's Buildings campus shared with the University of Edinburgh.
"We are very well sited," maintains Colin Norton. Not only is RBG Edinburgh in the city centre, there is also the Inch Nursery just around the corner, the highly-automated production nursery Pentland Plants a short drive to the south and the National Trust for Scotland's Inveresk Lodge offering practical work experience of heritage gardening also nearby.
Lecturer and garden designer Jason Russell adds: "I will also get them to do plant identifications on the campus. There's a lot of material there, where they can look at the detail of different conifers, for example."
He says garden design students at the college can also be confident of employment. "Clients are still investing large sums in their gardens - perhaps more so as they aren't planning to move house."
A croft original for Chelsea
The first ever entry by a Scottish college into this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show will have the theme of a 21st century Highland croft.
The courtyard garden, designed by a team of SAC garden design students with assistance from the University of Edinburgh mechanical department, will feature a section of building made of straw bales backing on to a loch and topped with a green roof, solar panels and a wind turbine.
Planting will consist of Scottish native species selected from around 1,700 currently being grown in the new glasshouse, all of which will have practical uses such as providing dyes. A small plot will feature Scottish-bred varieties of vegetables.
According to final-year garden design student Amber Goudy: "We entered as a group independently of the college, though it has been very supportive - it has rearranged classes, packing the last term into four weeks.
"The new glasshouse has been essential, otherwise we would have had to hire space in other nurseries." Larger plants are coming from Craignish Nurseries in Argyll, which is run by Goudy's parents, she adds.
Currently, the team is trialling the garden's design on a plot by the new glasshouse, in order to recreate the gradient of the Chelsea site. "There's a 400mm fall, which is a challenge when you're trying to build a house on it," says Goudy.
Garden design lecturer Jason Russell points out: "Bringing the garden from Scotland to London is a big logistical problem. But the attention to detail in their design is very high, which is what matters at Chelsea."
After Chelsea, the garden will be recreated at the Gardening Scotland show in June. Already, Goudy and two other students have plans to establish a design-and-build business together after graduating.