From pop charts to pot plants

Eighties pop icon Kim wilde celebrates her own FE training and syas if the STAR Awards scheme had been in the charts when she trained in horticulture, her tutor would have been her nomination.

My introduction to Capel Manor Horticultural college was the single biggest influence upon the gradual change from my being interested in all things horticultural to being completely hooked! After a few short summer courses in planting and design, while I was pregnant with Harry in 1998, I felt like a born-again person who had discovered a new and enlightening path. Subsequently, I spent two years attending an evening class in plants and planting design, and the knowledge I have gained from my time there has had a large impact on our own garden, as well as others I have been involved with.

Miscanthus, stipa, eryngium, echinacea, sedums, knautia and the long flowering scented verbena bonariensis crwod a space once covered in grass, while Musa basjoo, Canna and Hedychium add a touch of the exotic to what was once a tired, shrubby border.

Between 2001 and 2002, I would go religiously to my City and Guilds Phase 2 evening class and drink in every word. Surrounded by other adult students who got excited about plants was really inspiring, and the knowledge and enthusiasm of our tutor, Hilary Lewis, made us all feel very fortunate indeed. The gardens at Capel, in Enfield, Middlesex, provide an extensive variety of plants from which to learn, and evening walks around the grounds were an ideal way for all the information to seep in. Assignments by the tutors were a serious matter and we were under no illusion that if work was not handed in on time it would not be marked.

I remember my first assignment was a plan for a small shady courtyard; I was so worried about handing it in on time that somehow it didn’t get handed in at all. I discovered the project (of which I was rather proud) in my file at home, and can barely ever remember feeling as gutted as I did then, knowing that I would incur the wrath of my no-nonsense tutor.

Another occasion I got an uncontrollable fit of giggles as the tutor drew a root system of a tree on the blackboard. I bit my lip and started shaking as I tried to suppress the laughter, and pretended I was having a coughing fit.

To prepare for the real world of having to present one’s work to a client, we had to stand up in front of the class and talk through and explain our projects. I must confess that standing in front of my class was scarier than standing in front of thousands to sing. I remember watching as other students clearly felt the same way I did, and realising that we all had a bit of a habit of almost apologising for our work – what strange creatures we all are!

There was much talk of the dreaded exam, and about technique and reading the questions proply. By the time the exam came round we had all thoroughly prepared and all of us did really well. I aimed for a distinction, but had to settle for second best: a credit, of which I am very proud. Exams and I were never great partners, but I thouroughly enjoyed this one – at last I was writing about a subject that I really loved.

I am now involved in a garden project at Capel with designer David Fountain to plant a permanent youth garden next to the Japanese garden that inspired me so when I studied there. My time spent learning at Capel Manor really changed my life, and gave me confidence to pursue a new career in garden design. I also made some lovely friends there, some of whom I have done gardening projects with, and one, Judith Glover, who has recently done some wonderful illustrations for my latest book, ‘Gardening with children’.

As for my tutor, Hilary Lewis, it was a pleasure to aspire to her high standards as she supported and encouraged me to develop my knowledge and love of plants and design.