The founder of a gardening school in Norfolk says she hopes that a new course will help to train up the region’s next generation of garden designers.
Norfolk and Suffolk are home to some of the country’s most beautiful gardens, from shady city courtyards to landscaped grounds and everything in between – but until now there have been limited chance to learn.
Ruth Darrah set up the Norfolk Gardening School at the beginning of 2019. She had just completed a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) course at Easton College, but noticed that many others were winding down. This meant that, despite lots of people needing gardeners or wanting to learn themselves, there was nowhere to do it.
After trying to find a place to host it, Ruth discovered Ketteringham Hall, a Grade II listed building near Wymondham, converted into offices, which also has a walled garden within its 36-acre grounds.
“The walled garden was completely empty,” says Ruth. “It hadn’t been cultivated for over 60 years. It was completely overgrown with brambles and huge trees and things and was practically just a field, with not a single flower bed or anything.”
Ruth took it on as part of the school, converting one of the rooms in the hall into a classroom and installing a greenhouse and polytunnel, which she sourced from local suppliers. They’ve even been able to use the garden’s original tool shed – a “rare but absolutely amazing” two-storey construction, which dates back to 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.
Its first course, an Introduction to Garden Design, lasted six weeks, then eight, but became so popular it is now run three times a year. Over 100 students have also completed a Certificate in Practical Horticulture, which is accredited by the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and taught by the school.
This September, Ruth and the team are launching their latest course, the Diploma in Garden Design, which will run, part-time, over the course of a year. It will be taught by the school’s principal tutor, Rajul Shah, who also runs The Small Gardener design practice.
The aim of the course is to allow students the chance to expand their horticultural knowledge while training them to think like designers. Running over two days per week, with a minimum of 10-15 hours of self-guided study, it will include time in the studio, expert feedback, site visits to public and private gardens – both locally and further afield – and visiting talks from industry professionals.
“The big attraction for lots of people is that we’ve put together a really brilliant line-up of garden designers, really stellar garden designers, who are going to have input into it,” explains Ruth. “They won’t just be hearing it from one designer, but they will also get input from people who are working at the highest level.”
These will include Tom Stuart-Smith – who Ruth says is currently one of the top 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 syllabus, which is timetabled across three terms of ten weeks, covers all aspects of professional garden design, from building up a ‘plant portfolio’ to dealing with clients and pricing. Ruth hopes that the course will create a new generation of garden designers – which she says is crucial for the region, where there is “real demand.”
“There is very little pipeline of new garden designers coming up the ranks in Norfolk and Suffolk,” she says. “If you’ve got a studio here, it’s really hard to recruit people because there’s nowhere training them here, so this will be an opportunity for the established designers to create a relationship with people coming up.”
The Covid pandemic has also had an impact, not only helping to foster a new generation of green-fingered hobbyists, who suddenly had time and interest in plants, but also those who wanted to make changes, either in their careers or in their outdoor spaces.
“There was a Covid creative peak where people with money had more money because they had nothing to spend it on,” says Ruth. “They weren’t going on holiday so they were either doing things to their house and/or they were doing stuff to their gardens. All designers saw a big hike in demand for their services, and I’m sure that will level out, but there is always a big demand.”
The demand is seen at all levels, from those who have just moved into a new build, where there is often thin soil and where homeowners want to create a garden a bit unique, to those who’ve relocated to the area entirely and have big, sweeping gardens that they suddenly want landscaped.
And then there are those who want to learn more about their gardens. “I think spending huge amounts of time at home definitely increased people’s desire to get out in their garden,” says Ruth. “They couldn’t go for more than an hour’s walk but what they could do is do some window boxes or create a raised bed and grow some vegetables for the first time, and we definitely saw a big increase.
“As soon as we reopened after the various lockdowns there was a big pent-up demand, but even now we’re getting people who contact us and say ‘oh, I’ve really only got into gardening in the past year and I kind of muddled along and now I really want to learn how to do it better.’
“Equally we’ve had people who are career changing as a result of Covid. Maybe they lost their job or maybe they completely lost interest in their job and they now want to do something different.”
Ruth certainly doesn’t believe that the interest in gardening is waning – nor that you have to be especially artistic to be a good garden designer. “Some designers are incredible artists and they practically paint a picture,” she says, “but actually, most commonly it’s very stylistic. You’re drawing certain shapes repeatedly.
The course is more plant-based than some others, Ruth suggests, and will include a year-long plant portfolio, with students learning details of over a hundred different plants. “We think that’s really important,” she says. “We think understanding the soil and understanding plants is absolutely key.”
Norfolk School of Gardening’s Diploma in Garden Design begins in September 2022 and costs £6,950 which includes entry but not travel to the site visits. For more information, visit norfolkschoolofgardening.co.uk