Often when we hear the stories of accomplished gardeners known for their TV work or bestselling books, we hear about their lifelong ambition to work in gardens. Their first memories were of wandering through fields in the Midlands, sitting under old oak trees and blackberry picking. Their first words were the Latin plant names their horticulture-savvy parents taught them. It sounds fantastic and idyllic but that’s not where my gardening story began.
You see, I never had any inkling I wanted to work in gardens, beyond the occasional watering of plants in my family home or sweeping fallen berries from under an elderflower tree, if you can call that work. The same way that some people knew they were destined for gardening greatness, I was certain I wanted to be a journalist.
I dropped science and maths as soon as I could and dived headfirst into humanities, studying English literature, journalism and media studies, as well a a handful of languages. Getting into a competitive journalism degree in the university of my dreams was incredible. However, I was moving from a northern hemisphere school in Kuwait to a South African university with an academic year flipped on its head. This meant that I had about seven months to kill before I would be packing up my things and starting university.
So, in the two months before I turned 18, I enrolled in a safari guiding course in the middle of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. I was to learn about animal behaviour, botany, plant identification, stargazing and how to engage a vehicle full of people with short attention spans and one, often challenging demand – to see the ‘Big Five’. I parrot-learnt scientific names and was absolutely terrified by our Nature Reserve First Aid training (think photos of crocodile attack victims and what happens when you spook a young bull elephant). I learnt a lot at the Bhejane training centre, including how not to catch a centipede racing around your tent (a whicker basket will not work) and that Savannah Drys are delicious, but can send you to bed if you overdo it. I left after ten weeks with my qualification and the conviction that I would never use any of the information I had learnt.
As excited as I had been, I didn’t enjoy my degree. Initially, I found the work boring, with too much overlap with my AS curriculum. By the end of my degree, I had studied Wuthering Heights five times in my academic career. I still love the novel (and how it led me to Kate Bush), but there’s only so many times you can read about Heathcliff verbally assaulting his family before it starts to grate.
After three years and lots of reporting on student protests, I left my university town relieved and very shaken. I had definitely experienced more stun grenades and rubber bullets than I had expected when I first applied and it truly put me off the kind of journalism I was doing.
At the beginning of 2017, I moved to London, to take care of my little brother as he started stage school. I discovered the notion that London is full of jobs is absolutely true. What they don’t tell you is that most of these jobs will be terrible and you’ll find yourself walking out of many a ‘buzzy’ start-up near Old Street with the EDM music still ringing in your ears wondering if you should just sell your underwear on the internet to pay the rent.
After two years of working in advertising, marketing and social media jobs and feeling my soul slowly draining from my body, I accepted that I would need a drastic change. So I took a year out, but not in the fun rich kids on a gap year way; I worked full time in a bookshop. I was at work every other weekend and barely saw my newly-wed husband. I faced the wrath of customers who just wanted to bully someone over a 10p bag before heading on to the next shop and the next victim earning minimum wage.
The one redeeming factor about working there was the nature writing writing section. I read everything I could get my hands on. I fell in love with agriculture and its heritage in Britain through James Rebank’s The Shepherd’s Life and I started to take notice of my surroundings much more after reading the beautiful depictions of nature in On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin.
I decided to pursue horticulture after asking myself a simple question – what did I enjoy doing as a child? I loved being outdoors, running around the garden and climbing trees. I loved running my fingers through long grasses and watching the mangoes ripen on the stem, but never being able to reach them. I loved walking across school sports pitches early in the morning and seeing the dew collecting on the cuffs of my trousers. I especially loved feeling the textures of leaves, bark and flowers and ‘dissecting’ them to see their inner workings. Looking back, I realised I had always had a deep connection to plants and the outdoors; I just hadn’t recognised it as something I could pursue as a career.
So here I find myself: eight months into a two-year apprenticeship and working towards my RHS Level 2 qualification. I have never been so excited by a job or my studies and I’m thrilled that I’m finally getting to appreciate the childlike joy of dissecting flowers, walking across dewy sports pitches and running around gardens, this time with a wheelbarrow in tow. While it’s not wandering through fields or blackberry picking, it feels pretty fantastic and idyllic to me!