To paraphrase Hamlet:

“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my interest in gardening”.

It’s a bit bewildering to find what was a burning passion is now feels like a pile of cold cinders.

If anything is to blame it is the woeful experience I had with my RHS3 course at my local college. Having to put so much effort into it does seem to have had the effect of thoroughly burning out my interest in horticulture.

In an attempt to reignite that flame I have been looking at various talks and courses in the vicinity for 2011. A nearby horticultural society had some good speakers last year with Fergus Garrett being particularly inspirational, and Matthew Wilson similarly engaging. Looking at the RHS’s Growing for Success talks I found that Matthew was doing a brace of talks at the nearest venue to me (not that that is particularly near).

But here I found issue. These are billed as “a series of talks to inspire gardeners across the UK. The RHS subsidises these talks to encourage a diverse audience to listen to high profile speakers.”, which seeing as the talks are at 2pm & 4 pm is frankly ludicrous. The timing means that those who are attend will not be at all diverse, and the audience will consist solely of pensioners and the non-working Chelsea-tractor driving mummies that abound in that neck of the woods.

If the RHS is serious with it’s intent, then surely these talks should be at weekends and in the evenings, or if they insist on having them in the day time place them in cities at lunchtime, where working people could steal away to attend them in their lunch-hour.

Looks like I’ll have to find inspiration elsewhere.

The last six weeks have been a bittersweet period. I shan’t bore you with the details of what has been, at times, a very dark and difficult phase, but in even the murkiest depths everything has been laced with nuggets of light and happiness.

Listing them is a bit trainspotterish, but I’m too fatigued to come up with a clever mode of presentation. So in no particular order:

i) Getting on with the research for my book and finding the first chapter taking shape exactly as I imagined it. In the last week I have got a professional illustrator involved and there is a publisher who may be interested.

ii) The arrival of a complimentary copy of Mark Diacono’s excellent new book (review to follow).

iii) Little Boots announcing “I know this song” on hearing The Kings of Leon on the radio, and then launching into “Whooooaaah, My Socks are on Fire!”

iv) Buying an illustration of Beverley Nichols’ cottage ‘Allways’, from his book “The Thatched Roof”, for my little collection of pictures with a loose horticultural theme.

v) Reading some of the articles in The Garden Design Journal’s October issue on trees and realising that I could do a better job. This is not meant to sound big-headed, but I often undervalue my knowledge and abilities, and I need to stop that. And the articles were at best pedestrian.

vi) Receiving the final two results that mean I now hold the RHS Advanced Certificate, and two long unnecessarily hard years are over.

vii) Winning £113M on the Euromillions, but misplacing the ticket.

So with this, the third instalment of my RHS 3 travails, we’re now up to April of this year. Two of the three exams I need are tucked away, with good results – especially given the circumstances. The last exam is in July, a few months away and I have a sizeable chunk of the notes for the last module already prepared.

Downhill all the way I thought.

I should have known better, because, of course, downhill has two meanings. Instead of thinking only in terms of myself, I should also have considered the rest of the class who had 20 months attendance at college and mostly a single pass, often a motley one at that, out of the three they needed. Unsurprisingly a right royal shitstorm broke out, with people complaining like mad. The college fought a rearguard action ringing round everyone to placate them.

As a direct consequence the last term was changed so that it was not spent solely on Module A, but Module I and Module A.

Module I was the one that we had planned to do all along, but that college had changed for the ill-fated Module D, without any consultation whatsoever.

Being the only person that had objected to this at the time, it was a bit of an eyebrow raiser. Perhaps we shouldn’t have done Module D after all. At the risk of sounding smug this was one of those “I hate to say I told you so, but…” moments.

To my mind an apology was called for, for wasting everyone’s time, but then that would have been an admission of culpability, and would probably have opened the door to claims for a refund.

Not withstanding that fact that most of the class had struggled to pass a single exam, the idea was that people could take two exams in July and so complete the course. This was many things and optimistic was one of them.

Another interesting development was that college offered to foot the fifty quid cost of the extra exam.

At this point I was really starting to feel miffed. Not only was I deprived of the £50 “failure bonus”, but for me this meant that the classes would be split between an exam I was doing and one I was not., i.e. half of them will be irrelevant.

I understood this, but effectively I was being punished for being successful and for the college’s failings. I know the picture is more complicated than that and mine is a selfish perspective, but I feel I’ve earned the right to voice it.

Not knowing whether the class will be on the module I need, or not, became tedious and a waste of my time. Bored with this ‘RHS roulette’, and after a lesson featuring a rather poor gallop through the history of gardens in Britain, there seemed little point in attending classes anymore.

The college’s course salvage attempt is not enough for others and several of the class bailed out.

My own non-attendance was taken that I’d withdrawn from the course and the college wrote to ask why. I replied that I hadn’t and resisted the urge to have a go at them. I was just fed up with the whole sorry mess.

I did attend the last few classes, but they were a pretty much a waste of time.

The tutor Chrissie does know her stuff but too many times was clearly going through the motions. By the last lesson, I just wanted to be anywhere else, but was resigned to wasting two hours, given that it would soon all be over. So I was more amused than miffed, that the tutor noticeably upped her game for the first hour because an assessor was sitting in. Lots of questions were asked of the class, lots of encouragement given, lots of referrals to things we’d skated over as if they’d been studied in-depth. When our guest left we went back to normal mediocrity. I’ll leave moaning about college with one last example, which comes from this last hour.

We’d been spending the time going through a Module A past paper. There was not an air of confidence amongst the students for any of the questions, but then one came up about Gley soils, Podsols and the like. “Never heard of them” said one of the class. “No idea” said another. The rest looked blank. The tutor also seemed rather perplexed. I know what they were, not only because they were an important part of the syllabus, but also because I’d looked at the past papers and they cropped up in exam questions quite a lot.

It was embarrassing for all concerned, but I actually found it quite funny as well. Fortunately one of the class, Miranda, was an ex-geography teacher and she gave us a brief, concise and informed summary of each soil type, plus their fauna and flora.

It summed up two years – forget that you have paid good money to be taught – you will have to do it yourself by any means you can find. 

I practically bounced out of that class, so glad that it was the last one – two years of grind are over, I just needed to pass the last exam.

I thought I’d take a brief rest from banging on about RHS 3 and my pathetic college. After all, there is a positive side to the end of any academic course, in that you have free time. And I’m spending mine on reading for enjoyment, rather than for compiling study notes.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy some of the course reading, but ‘The Complete Guide To Commercial Vegetable Growing’ by Frank Hardy & Graham Watson is not exactly a page turner. Nor is it to say that I was reading academic horticultural texts all the time. Although I did feel a slight nagging guilt when I wasn’t. It’s also not that I didn’t read the odd non-horti book, just that then the guilty feeling was stronger.

The thing is having the freedom to read without a bad conscious, even if those feelings were self-imposed and rather pointless.

But it’s not just about having the time to read and not having to feel self-reproach, there is a psychological freedom having finished the course, which coupled with a good book doubles the pleasure.

Life is good.

So, the first year had been pretty poor, with an inadequate level of teaching along with hooking us up to the college’s online net that didn’t work, but not to the RHS qualifications portal, that did, topped off with the tutor’s sudden disappearance.

The second year started even worse in that it didn’t even have a tutor, but after a month the clouds broke and I was optimistic – we had a new tutor, and I had a huge chunk of Module A notes prepared already.

Then two things happened. Firstly I got a call from college saying that after just one week Gloria, our new tutor, wasn’t coming back. My conscience was clear there, since I wasn’t one of those who’d moaned at her at length, but in any case it was disappointing as she’d seemed pretty clued up.

Later I heard a rumour (via college) that her departure was down to the class’ carping. This is entirely possible, but she was very engaged and mentioned a number of practical projects, which the class were enthusiastic about, but (based on experience) said the college would not support. Perhaps she found that to be true and together with a disenchanted class, quite sensibly baled out.

So we got another new tutor – just- apparently someone high up in the college called in a personal favour. And notwithstanding we had wasted a 5th lesson (Gloria’s last, and first, stand) and now a 6th with a new meet and greet, we seemed to be back on course. But there was a new development, which to my mind was a much bigger issue than a change of tutor.

We were with now doing Module D (Outdoor & Protected Plant Production).

At the beginning of the course we planned to do Module B (Taxonomy & Physiology) then Module A (Plant Propagation/Soils), and with those two compulsory elements out of the way coast into the last exam with our optional third – Module I (Ornamental Gardens) an area we were all familiar with.

Module D never , ever, came into it.

The thought behind the change was that it was short module and we had little time.

That may have sounded sensible but it overlooked a number of important factors.

To begin with the module was pretty dull. Commercial horticulture is not massively engaging to most gardeners. “It’s like farming,” said one of the class.

Not only was it of only peripheral interest to the class, it wasn’t something any of us were familiar with, so whilst Module I was a bit longer, it was one we all knew something about.

Added to that, it’s not so easy to get the right books. At least not inexpensively.

But most importantly, we had in no way been consulted about the change.

I voiced my dissent and although this was an utter “grab your ankles and grit your teeth”-type scenario, no-one supported my protests and I was left looking like an idiot.

(I did have the last laugh, albeit a hollow one, when I was the only person in the class who passed the module.)

I was irked about the swap, but nevertheless determined to make the best of it, and set about writing my own notes from the syllabus. This wasn’t that easy since you can’t just walk into a high street bookshop and pick up a book on commercial horticulture. Luckily I had a couple of books myself that I had acquired out of curiosity over the years, but had never actually thought I’d ever find useful. With a couple of bargain eBay purchases, some hefty textbooks arrived through the post and I at least had some guidance.

Meanwhile the class ploughed on. I say ploughed, I mean wandered with all the determination of an arthritic guinea pig with a sock pulled over its head.

The addition of insult to injury might have been swallowable if we’d been given expert coaching on the subject. I’m not sure we were. Certainly the 30 minutes we spent in early December compiling a fruit and veg shopping list by looking at the Sainsburys website, simply to illustrate that organic produce can be sold at a premium – a point that surely everyone knows – was a waste of quarter of a session.

The next week the snows came and there was no class, which meant that we lost another lesson. Not that the college actually rang and told anybody. Why should they you ask? Well they’d phoned two weeks before to tell us there was no class as the tutor was sick. Whether this was the same week she moved house I can’t quite recall.

Some of my classmates were re-sitting Module B. I leant one of them, Adam, a copy of my notes. He must have been impressed as a week later another classmate, Anna, sidled up and said, “Please may I have a copy of your notes – I hear they are wonderful.” I duly provided a set and a week later she came up to me and told me she now understood lots of things she hadn’t previously. It was a delight to hear this, but sad that she couldn’t say that same about a course we’d all paid for. 

By the time the exam came round in February we’d had only had proper lessons for 7 out of 15 scheduled classes. With that, and a horticultural subject most people were unfamiliar with, it’s no surprise virtually the whole class failed. I had a tough time myself for other reasons. Whilst I’d put together a reasonable set of notes, I was worried I might be seriously ill and my head was elsewhere. All things considered, I told myself all I needed to do was pass.

On the day, I knew I’d done OK on the short answer questions but my heart sank when I turned over the long answer paper. The first thought that spluttered through my mind was “I can’t answer any of these”. Then I rationalised things and did some quick sums on the edge of the exam paper. If I had got say 90% of the marks from the first section, that worked out at about 22%of the whole exam, which meant that I needed to get about 7 and a half marks from each of the three remaining 20 mark questions. So I took a deep breath. Straight away I realised that one of the questions was one of those special questions that the RHS sets just to annoy the Campaign for Plain English. You are required to read the question a number of times in order to work out that they are actually asking something quite simple. Once I’d unpicked the question, I reckoned that I could get most of the marks out of it. Then I moved on to another question where I knew enough to grab a few more points and by my calculations I only had to glean a small amount from a final question. It seems to me that people get quite hung up on specific details in RHS exam questions, which are the sort of thing that gets the final marks out of the thing, and forget that a reasonable proportion are available for outlining basic principles. To put it another way – there are marks to be had for stating the obvious. So on my last question that’s what I did.

This wasn’t the end of my adventures that day, as I wrote about at the time.

It was some months later, sat on a train, that I checked the RHS qualifications portal a week early before the result was expected. My squeal of delight at not just passing, but getting another 67%, was heard at the other end of the carriage. I know this because a friend who was at the far end of the carriage heard and seeing it was me, came to investigate. I was so pleased that I babbled him senseless for the whole journey.

All’s well that ends well you might say, but not for the rest of the class who pretty much sank without trace where Module D was concerned.

On a more positive note, both Adam and Anna passed their Module B re-sits and she was kind enough to make a point of telling me she wouldn’t have done so without my notes.

It can only get better, I thought.

The first part of a chest-clearing exercise in which I recount my woeful experience of trying to attain the RHS3 Advanced qualification.

Assuming I don’t have to re-sit it, I’ve just finished the last exam of my RHS 3 course.

It has been a 2 year process made horrendous, almost entirely, because of my rubbish college. It started promisingly enough, with a full class, many known to each other from RHS2 where we had been taught by Jeff, the same tutor as we had for the new course.

However it soon became apparent to me that the level tutelage wasn’t much above what we’d experienced in RHS2 and a proper look at the syllabus convinced me that if I was going to get through I’d need to do so under my own steam. I didn’t mention this to anyone else in the class, but about 2 months after the course started I began attending only intermittently, and commenced work on writing my own notes. This was a lot of work, but having done A-level Biology, and since the module was Taxonomy, Physiology and Plant Health, I pretty much knew where I was going with it. As I mentioned in a blog post at the time I ended up buying most of the text books I had used for my sixth-form studies.

Anyway the exam came round in the following July. The paper was a bit of a stinker, and I was no-where near where I wanted to be with my revision owing to a family disaster a few weeks previously.

The day after the exam we got a letter from the college telling us that the tutor had resigned. Strangely, he`d not mentioned anything in our last lesson a few days earlier.

So the summer drifted by, during which I discovered that the RHS had a qualifications portal, through which one could view everything to do with exams past and pending. I contacted the RHS and got myself set up, although this was something college should have organised for us. When classmates I`d told about it tried to do the same, they were refused on those grounds. So just before term started, and long before notification came though the post, I found that I`d passed with a respectable 67%. I was a happy, but a little disappointed, as I had wanted to get past the 70% barrier that merited a commendation. But then things had been against me.

Meanwhile I waited for notification that college had a new tutor for us. And waited. And waited. A month into the start of term we were told a new tutor had been found and on week five we all pitched up. Gloria, the new tutor clearly knew her stuff, and was friendly and enthusiastic. The same could not be said of the class. I had the highest pass mark (which seemed to annoy some people, perhaps because I’d scarcely come to class and they hadn’t noticed the cause and effect behind that), there was a 63% from a former scientist and the rest a mix of low 50% scrape-throughs and non-passers. After a barrage of complaints over year one and the delay in the start of year two, our new tutor went round the class asking what she could do for us. For my part I said simply I wanted help so that I could pass with a commendation, but for most of the rest it was another invitation to moan and Gloria stood it well. Nevertheless at the end of our two hour session, a lot of chests had been cleared and there seemed, to me at least, to be a positive air breaking over the class. I went home myself feeling fairly at ease. The new tutor did appear to know her stuff, was more dynamic and up to date than Jeff  and – having been bitten the previous term, when I’d had to spend ages writing my own notes – I’d dedicated a lot of time since the July exam working on notes for Module A (Plant Propagation & Soils), and was well ahead of where we should be, even if we’d been having lessons.

Should be easier from here I thought.

So there we are. Or rather, here we are. After a rather grim period life looks like it’s picking up.

Some of that is rather small things like seeds bursting into life, but then it’s often the small things, or at least an accumulation of them, that make a difference.

Other things are a bit bigger, like only having one RHS3 exam left and already having done over half the notes for it back last summer.

Of course none of this compares to being given the all clear health-wise, but there is one other big bit of news that has really buoyed me up.

It looks like I’m going to be helping to build a garden at this summer’s RHS show at Hampton Court. It’s all a bit nebulous at the moment, but it is nevertheless stupefyingly exciting and the best thing I’ve had to look forward to for ages.

And it’s especially welcome on a wet and miserable day like today, when I want to be out planting things.