Why I Want To Be A Learner Gardener

Why did I recently chose to learn how to garden and make a living from it? Well, I had spent the last two years recovering from a long illness followed by an operation. I’d decided, if I was forced to sit in a chair for most of the day, I might as well do something constructive with my time. I embarked on a part-time academic masters degree.

Previously, I’d had a manual job that, over the years, had involved a lot of hard landscaping, but now I felt so useless. I’d made vague plans that I would spend the rest of my life doing remote work from home and possibly studying for a part-time for a PhD. The most exercise I’d had during those two years, when I was at home, was walking my dog for an hour a day and pushing a shopping trolley around the supermarket. It was depressing, I felt a lot older than I should, and writing all the time, I was terminally bored.

I felt very out of place at university but I loved the gardens, even if you are not supposed to walk on the grass

Then, I’m Offered A Landscaping Job

As I was completing my masters, in June 2019, one of my neighbours remembered that I had once been fit and active and enjoyed manual work. He didn’t know I’d been ill and asked me if I’d be interested in working for him. He wanted a landscaper to build a Zen-style gravel area in the upper part of his garden, which is on top of an old quarry. The job entailed carrying bags of gravel seventy yards up flights of steps and slogging it out on the steeply inclined paths.

My task was to transform this area into a gravelled Zen garden

Understandably, my customer couldn’t find anyone else who was keen to take on the job. They’d most likely have to be training for the army, half-crazy or desperate for work.  For some still inexplicable reason, I agreed to do it.  When I got home, I ordered a one-ton bulk bag of gravel from the local builders’ merchant. I thought afterwards, Oh no, what have I done?

The first flight of steps up to the Zen garden

The day the bulk bag arrived on the job, I put all thoughts of illness aside. I shovelled the gravel into scavenged and recycled twenty-five kg clear plastic builders’ bags and set off with the first one, wobbling and tottering on the steps up to the top level of the garden.

Some more steps and a brick path up to the Zen garden

It was incredibly hard work but I was regaining my sense of movement and balance. It was a constant battle with self-doubts, but over the next few days, I forced myself to get the job done. There were other heavy things to haul up there: bags of sand, block paving, and stone slabs.

The finished job

 By the end, I had transformed an area of weed and wasteland into a Japanese -style gravel bed with the plants that customer wanted to grow in it. At first, I couldn’t believe that I’d managed to complete the job, and doing so gave me an overpowering sense of achievement.

The square spaces for plants are cut from block paving

Word got around, and new customers asked me to landscape their gardens, dig borders, and cut hedges. In the space of a few months, my fitness returned, and I had unintentionally built a small one-person landscaping-gardening business. It happened organically, by word of mouth and meeting and talking to people on the pavements outside the gardens where I was cutting hedges. No advertising. Genuine enthusiasm and positive thinking are, I believe, contagious and attitudes that will get you through the bad patches in your life.

An old air-raid shelter which I’m turning into a garden feature

Gradually, I forgot about any academic aspirations and pretensions. The feeling that I was semi-disabled and housebound slowly began to fade. Now, instead of rolling out of bed and hacking away on the computer, I was waking up each morning happy and looking forward to the day ahead. Rain or shine, I wanted to get out of the house and go to work.

Hedges to cut!

Over the summer, as I was doing various jobs for customers, I had a growing awareness that I had thirty years of experience in hard landscaping and building work but little knowledge of horticulture. The ‘growing side of things’ was what professional gardeners or the customers did after I’d finished and cleared off the job. I was good at killing plants by covering them with paving slabs, weed control fabric, gravel, and tree bark.  I knew almost nothing about nurturing and caring for delicate, temperamental and demanding living things. I started reading horticulture books and quickly realised that I was going to need some practical help and guidance if I was to learn how to be a gardener.

An ongoing landscaping project

Finding Out about the RHS

By chance, another neighbour mentioned the RHS Level 2 in Practical Horticulture. I went along to an open evening and signed up for the course. Reflecting on the experience now, it was so different from university. The tutors are practical and the place is utterly down-to-earth. You turn up in work clothes and steel-capped boots. At the RHS centre, I was made to feel welcome and that I belonged there.

Over the next year, and throughout the coming seasons, I’m going to make weekly posts and share my experiences of what I’ve learned on the RHS course with you. If you don’t have the time to attend an RHS course, or if you are not sure if it’s for you, we can learn together.