The founder of a gardening school in Norfolk says she hopes a new course will help train the next generation of garden designers in the region.
Norfolk and Suffolk are home to some of the most beautiful gardens in the country, from shady city courtyards to landscaped grounds and everything in between – but until now the chances of learning have been limited.
Ruth Darrah started the Norfolk Gardening School in early 2019. She had just completed a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) course at Easton College but noticed many others were ending. This meant that despite many people needing gardeners or wanting to learn on their own, there was nowhere to do so.
After trying to find a place to house her, Ruth discovered Ketteringham Hall, a Grade II listed building near Wymondham, converted into offices, which also has a walled garden on its 36-acre plot.
“The walled garden was completely empty,” says Ruth. “It hadn’t been grown for over 60 years. It was completely overgrown with brambles and huge trees and everything and was practically just a field, without a single flower bed or anything.
Ruth took it in as part of the school, converting one of the hall rooms into a classroom and installing a greenhouse and polytunnel, which she purchased from local vendors. They even got to use the garden’s original tool shed, a “rare but absolutely amazing” two-storey construction, which dates from the 19th century.
Over the past three years, the school has grown, creating a reputation for the quality of its teaching and for its welcoming and inclusive environment.
His first course, an introduction to garden design, lasted six weeks, then eight, but has become so popular that it is now held three times a year. Over 100 students have also completed a Certificate in Practical Horticulture, which is accredited by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and taught by the school.
In September, Ruth and the team launch their final course, the Diploma in Garden Design, which will run part-time over one year. It will be taught by the school’s main tutor, Rajul Shah, who also runs design firm The Small Gardener.
The objective of the course is to enable students to broaden their horticultural knowledge while training them to think like designers. Taking place over two days a week, with a minimum of 10-15 hours of self-guided study, it will include studio time, expert commentary, site visits to public and private gardens – both local and further afield – and conference visits from industry professionals.
“The big attraction for a lot of people is that we’ve put together a really brilliant lineup of garden designers, really stellar garden designers, who are going to have their say,” says Ruth. “They won’t just hear it from a designer, but they’ll also get input from people who work at the highest level.”
These will include Tom Stuart-Smith – who Ruth says is currently one of the best designers in the country, if not the world – as well as Tom Hoblyn, Chris Deakin, Duncan Cargill, Stephane Lustig, Jane Scott Moncrief and Sue Townsend.
The programme, which is spread over three ten-week terms, covers all aspects of professional garden design, from building a ‘plant portfolio’ to managing clients and pricing. Ruth hopes the course will create a new generation of garden designers – which she says is crucial for the region, where there is “real demand”.
“There are very few new garden designers coming up through the ranks in Norfolk and Suffolk,” she says. “If you have a studio here, it’s really hard to recruit people because there’s no training anywhere here, so it’s going to be an opportunity for established designers to build a relationship with people who are coming up. .”
The Covid pandemic also had an impact, not only helping to foster a new generation of green-fingered hobbyists, who suddenly had time and an interest in plants, but also those who wanted to make a change. , whether in their careers or in their outdoor spaces. .
“There was a creative spike in Covid where people with money had more money because they had nothing to spend it on,” Ruth explains. “They weren’t going on vacation, so either they were doing things in their house and/or they were doing things in their gardens. All of the designers have seen a surge in demand for their services, and I’m sure that will level off, but there’s still high demand. »
Demand is felt at all levels, from those who have just moved into new construction, where the land is often thin and the owners want to create a somewhat unique garden, to those who have entirely moved to the area and have big, sprawling gardens that they suddenly want landscaped.
And then there are those who want to know more about their gardens. “I think spending a lot of time at home has definitely increased people’s desire to get out into their backyard,” Ruth says. “They couldn’t walk for more than an hour, but what they could do was make planters or create a raised bed and grow vegetables for the first time, and we certainly saw a strong increase.
“As soon as we reopened after the various lockdowns there was great pent-up demand, but even now we have people contacting us and saying ‘oh, I only really got into gardening last year and I am kind of confused and now i really want to learn how to do it better.
“Equally, we have had people changing careers because of Covid. Maybe they lost their job or lost interest in their work completely and now want to do something different.
Ruth certainly doesn’t believe that interest in gardening is declining – or that you have to be particularly artistic to be a good garden designer. “Some designers are amazing artists and they practically paint a picture,” she says, “but actually, more often than not, it’s very stylistic. You draw certain shapes over and over.
The course is more plant-focused than others, suggests Ruth, and will include a year-long plant portfolio, with students learning the details of over a hundred different plants. “We think it’s really important,” she said. “We believe that understanding the soil and understanding the plants is absolutely essential.”
The Norfolk School of Gardening Diploma in Garden Design starts in September 2022 and costs £6,950 which includes entry but not travel to site visits. For more information visit norfolkschoolofgardening.co.uk