Jessica Smith

Category: Horticulture

Award: 2017

Awardee Image

G’day, my name is Jessica Smith, and I am one of two winners of the BBM Youth Support Award 2017 in the Horticulture category. This is my story.

I was honoured the day I received a phone call asking if my contact details could be sent to Graham Ross so we could talk about me applying for this award. I first met Graham at the Landscapers National Association Awards in 2016 where I had won Apprentice of the Year in Horticulture, I believe it was his knowledge of this that encouraged him to contact me about this trip. Meeting Graham again, I learned the details of the trip, and all I could think of is how much experience I would get and how much I could learn.

Travelling was never something I imagined doing once I entered my adult life, although coincidentally, when I was younger I dreamed of travelling to the UK. The idea of gaining experience in so many amazing horticultural places of work had my excitement edging out (most of) my nerves about travelling overseas for the first time. It’s hard for me to express just how much I enjoy learning from people, especially about horticulture. Although I enjoy studying and schooling I find it difficult to study independently and self teach. That’s the beauty of this award, I was able to be a student again. As a Leading Hand at my current job, I am responsible for teaching and guiding my own apprentice. Even though I enjoy my job, I appreciated the ability to be taught as a newbie, since I hadn’t had any prior experience in many of the awesome things I did while overseas.

Part of the reason I applied for this award was to rekindle my passion. After finishing my Certificate III in Horticulture Parks and Gardens, I got caught up in my job. Horticulture was no longer part of my life apart from working, and while I was at work I would be doing the same maintenance routine practically every day.  This trip has inspired me to experiment with different garden styles at home and explore horticulture in Australia to keep the knowledge coming in and follow better work practices.

 

 

Getting Ready

For me personally, the first step in preparing for my trip was convincing my husband to come with me. Although this trip was worth going three months bereft of him I was glad he agreed to come along. After that my focus shifted to reading Jack Hutchinson’s report and itinerary for inspiration and a better idea of whats to come. I wanted to book my flights asap to get the best deal but before I could I had to arrange all my placements to get an arrival and departure date.

Graham Ross (radio broadcaster, television gardening presenter and The Garden Clinic founder – as if you guys didn’t already know) and Andrew Fisher Tomlin (owner of London College of Garden Design and Fisher Tomlin & Bowyer) were pivotal to organising my placements. Graham got me in contact with Andrew who in turn introduced me to all of the people I would be working with. With each placement I finalised I would jump onto AirBnb or Homestay and search for accommodation within proximity to where I was working, I also researched transportation and the general price of living so I had an organised weekly budget estimate.

Clothing wise, I was preparing for chilly weather. I know it was summer when I visited but the week before I left was stormy and cold and all I ever heard about London was how dreary the weather would be (something I was very much looking forward to). About two weeks in of sunny 30 degree weather I caved and brought a pair of shorts and a couple more t-shirts to survive. If the winner of 2018 is reading this, be prepared for unpredictable weather, it went from freezing cold to Australian summer without warning.

 

Since 1912 the Chelsea Flower Show is a garden show, held annually for five days in May by the Royal Horticultural Society in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. It is a prestigious event where fabulous designers create garden designs and submit them to be viewed and judged. In addition to that there is a pavilion for specific  plant types and flowers to be displayed by expert growers and stalls for miscellaneous garden tools and decorations. I had the pleasure of working with Cambridge designer Robert Barker on his garden Skin Deep. The idea behind the garden was to represent different skin types/conditions people have through the use of texture and colours in plants and structural elements. He strategically stacked concrete blocks throughout the garden and included  few water features flush to the path.

While I was working with Robert and his team I picked up on some good tips, but I think my favourite thing was the care that went into creating the garden. Everything had to be at such a high standard, only the best plants to be used and they had to be put in at the perfect depths, angle and with their best face showing. All the plants that were used were manicured so there was no dead matter on them and makeshift shade cloths were made to protect certain plants from the sun.

I had the benefit of being able to work in several different gardens, in each of the four gardens I worked on there were different practices in place. This meant I got to do a wider range of things and meet some more people. It was at this show that I met Andrew Fisher Tomlin face to face for the first time which was important to me because he helped so much with the organisation of this trip, to shake his hand and thank him in person was a big deal.

During my time working in Chelsea (at the flower show and physic garden) I stayed with a lovely family in Walthamstow, it wasn’t super close and the working days for the show were pretty long so I was pretty much getting up, going to work, getting home and going to bed. It wasn’t so bad when I started at the Physic Gardens as they had shorter working hours, I found the travel time worth it anyway to save myself some money on accommodation.

 

Chelsea Physics Garden

The Chelsea Physic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in London, it sits  inside four walls which gives it a secluded and peaceful feel. Back in 1673 the Worship Society of Apothecaries chose an area close to the Thames because it gives off warm air currents, it also gave them easy access to go on plant finding expeditions. The idea behind establishing the garden was to grow medicinal plants, and to teach the public about them, in regards to this the land is left to the garden as long as that remains its purpose.

I had the pleasure of working there for three weeks. During that entire experience there was only one day that I didn’t get a chance to do something I haven’t before, the entire thing was wildly interesting and fun. Everybody who worked there was fantastic, especially the head gardener Nell, she ran the garden very well and I admire the work ethic and practices they follow there.

One of my stand out memories was working in the pond, the first time, I wore waders and walked around in the pond to place some new pots. To do this we had to find bricks and stack them in the correct places and to the right height to make sure the pot was positioned properly and that the plants were in the correct depth of water. I also got to weed the pond, it was tricky as a lot of the weeds were tangled with the plants left in to aerate but I found the experience itself to be very relaxing and enjoyable.

I think my most favourite thing I participated in during my time at the gardens was the plant identifications, they did them weekly and would hold a non obligatory test at the end of each week. It reminded me so much of Tafe and I absolutely loved having the drive to study for a test, I was so into it that Nell let me run the ident in my last week. She gave me a list of roses to cover and showed me where they were and then I got time to research them. When it came time I took the group for a walk around the garden and discussed the roses, giving them the fact sheets I made earlier in the week.

The whole team at the garden were really great, I actually felt really at home with them and was sad to leave all my new friends. The great thing about all these places is that they have multiple students at a time, so you get to meet great people from all over the globe!

 

Hidcote Manor

I spent two weeks at the Hidcote Manor, it was the only placement where I slept where I worked and boy was it nice to be able to wake up and head straight down to the lunch room. I had a beautiful view of the old garden from my window and a library downstairs to look through.

Something interesting about the garden is that it is still a work in progress, the gardeners speculate on what they think the gardens would’ve been previously and what plants would’ve been used. It’s still evolving to be restored to its previous grandeur, they have a lot of knowledgeable staff and many dedicated volunteers to tend to the garden.

The very last day of my placement was the one I enjoyed the most, it really was a wonderful morning. I got to work in the kitchen garden collecting sweet peas and other flowers. I spent my morning with a very experienced volunteer who trained with an advanced florist, she taught me the basics of making flower bouquets and we arranged different flower bunches that people walking around the garden could buy.

A great thing that I got to participate in was a couple of plant identification walks, my favourite one was where we walked through the long border and talked about the roses. As we went through them we were taught about the history of roses and were able to identify different types in the garden bed. It was fun in the days afterwards to work in the same garden beds and remember everything you were taught.

I’ve never been very interested in lawns, but getting out the snips and doing some lawn edging was pretty fun. It’s another one of those particular, super tidy things you can do in a garden to make a difference. While I was there, myself and Joel Smith, the other winner of this award were given the opportunity to fill in some gaps in two of the garden beds. We were given a list of plants we were able to use as well as some time to research them, we discussed our plan and planted them out where we thought fit best. I felt like it was a pretty big deal to have another horticulturist leave his area in the hands of students, especially in such an important garden. I really appreciated that he gave us that chance and hands on experience to make a difference and leave our mark back at the Hidcote Manor.

 

Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh

I spent a week working at the RBGE and was able to find a great Airbnb just a 20 minute walk from work. I stayed with a couple of lovely Scottish hosts for the week I was working and my husband and I booked a last minute camper van for the weekend previous so we could travel to the Loch Ness River.

One thing that will always be a standout memory of my time there was being able to climb scaffolding to prune away some vines that climbed up the walls in the first glass house. I got to assist in assembling it and that was something I had zero experience with and found very interesting, I worked with a hella cool Scotsman who took me onto the roof of the glasshouse and I got my first view of the surrounding gardens. He showed me an old sun dial that they keep on the corner that uses a glass orb that burns paper sitting in the contraption to record the length of days.

On my last day, Gunnar, the head gardener took some time out of his day to sit with me and ask me what I’m interested in and my plans for the future. I really appreciated the conversation, this was past the half way point of my trip so it was nice to reflect on what I had done and what kind of track my mind was on.

The RBGE is participating in a great program to re-establish native plants that are near extinction in their former habitats, as well as collecting and propagating multiple species. As a student I was able to go to the nursery and hear about some of the plants they were working with, including some species that are very rare to see in the wild.

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The National Botanical Garden of Wales has a mission to inspire, educate and conserve in a beautiful and relevant way. The garden is set in the countryside of Carmarthenshire and it is the first national botanic garden to be created in the new millennium. I worked there for a week and had an AirBnb booked not far from it, it wasn’t until the weekend before I started that I realised there was very little public transport to the garden, the morning I started I packed all my things and took  cab over, luckily for me there was accommodation available on the farm at the garden. Even luckier was when I was talking to some other gardeners and a lovely lady with flaming pink hair offered to give me a lift to and from work so I could stay with my husband.

The bnb was called ‘Castle House’ it was yellow and four storeys tall, we were on the top floor so we did our best to minimise our trips to and from the kitchen on the first floor. It was a beautiful old house that had three bathrooms and they all only had bath tubs, I can’t recall ever having to actually bathe in tubs for  a whole week.  This house was so old that it actually had a bridge leading into the backyard because underneath there was a big open space for people to park their carriages.

The unique thing about this garden is it’s location, since it is in the country side it has a lot of space and they make very good use of it. My favourite activity was collecting seeds from the fields outside the gardens, when we brought them back I worked with a girl to clean then bag them and hang them up to dry. At this garden you can see the largest single-span great glasshouse in the world, it was refreshing to see such a modern building. Although the Victorian glasshouses are beautiful, I feel like the new age glass house encapsulates the vibe of the Welsh Botanical Garden as a garden of the millennial age.

They really make the most of the space they have, while I was there I was able to visit the glass house, the apothecary hall, the birds of prey show, the butterfly house as well as all the gardens. I really enjoyed working in the double walled garden where they grow vegetables, I had a lot of fun digging out potatoes. I got some inspiration and handy tips for my own future veggie patch.

Scotscape

Scotscape has 30 years of landscape and construction experience providing living walls and living walls maintenance, green roofs, commercial and domestic landscaping, landscape maintenance and specialist irrigation services.

This was my last placement and unfortunately it didn’t go as well as I was hoping it to. I tried to check in with my contact the week prior and wasn’t able to get through. When I arrived it turned out my contact had been on leave and the staff were not expecting me for my work experience. They did try to arrange something for me over the next few days but it not working out I got to spend the morning with Angus Cunningham who showed me around their yard. That in itself was a great experience, I learnt a lot in the hour or so that I was there about their products and materials. They have a great vision for the future of horticulture in city-scapes and I really enjoyed learning about their ideas. I would love to see green walls being more prevalent in Sydney, I feel like they are a fantastic way to maximise green spaces in urban jungles.

(the picture above is not affiliated to Scotscape.)

Recommendations

 

First thing I think of when I’m asked about recommendations is the Chelsea Physic Garden. Whether you go for work experience or just a day trip I definitely think its worth it and if you are just visiting, try to join in on a tour. They’re free and usually on around 11am, I think. I found this garden entirely unique amongst everything I saw while travelling, not to say there isn’t other places similar, they just weren’t part of my experience. The history behind the garden is interesting, as it was nice to learn about a place that was created as a means to educate people rather than out of vanity or beauty.

Working in botanical gardens is an experience I recommend because there’s so many different things you can do from glass houses, to sorting seeds and weeding ponds etc. In terms of places to visit everywhere I went was beautiful and if you have a chance, I encourage you to see it all. Scotland and Ireland were particularly lovely, I spent most of my time exploring outside the cities in the country side and I feel like there’s so much more to see there.

Talking to people while your’e there is a great thing to do, talk to the people you’re working with, the people you’re staying with (if anyone) and they people around you in general. I found that most people are very happy to share their thoughts and ideas on what you can do in the area. By having a good chat to a person he only stayed with for two nights my husband got us invited to the local garden clubs visiting night were we got to take a tour of several local gardens in the area, so you never know where it might lead you.

Garden shows are a great idea, throughout the summer England has a few fantastic shows on. The Chelsea Flower Show of course, as well as the Hampton Court Flower show and the Chatsworth Flower Show are a few top picks. At these shows you can experience innovative designs and a truly fantastic standard of horticulture.

For insight into Urban Gardening I suggest organising a trip to Scotscape, even if you’re only able to be shown around the yard like I was I found it very interesting and quite different from the other placements.

TIPS AND TRICKS

  • I encourage you to exchange some currency before you leave so you have a little cash in hand upon arrival.
  • Be prepared for unexpected charges. Something I got stung by that I didn’t consider was how expensive the ferry to Ireland from Wales would be travelling with a camper van.
  • Pack for all weather because it was unpredictable and varied greatly.
  • Double check your placements throughout your trip, make sure things are organised and on track prior to your start date.
  • Make sure transport is always available, I almost got stuck in Wales because I didn’t predict how hard it would be to get to my placement, so be wary and remember that bus/train schedules differ on weekends and weekdays!

Thank you!

I wish to thank BBM Youth Support and, especially my mentor Graham Ross, for your encouragement, inspiration and for believing in me. It has been honour to receive this opportunity and to embark on this life-changing journey.

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