My career journey: horticultural beginnings

mental health
The early days - Part 1

Chantel Davies


January 18, 2023

Why horticulture?

It happened by accident.

I had planned to do A-Levels once I finished school: Art, English Literature and Design (or something like that). Despite very early aspirations to be an astronomer and travel to space, I ended up at a bad secondary school and mostly stopped attending by third year onwards because I was very bored, and the behaviour of the other kids was how I imagine a juvenile detention facility might be. Teachers lacked the crowd control skills needed to create a learning environment, but in their defence, riot police might have struggled.

There was no encouragement from home to continue learning, and we needed money, so just after I turned 16 I got a job as a Tailoring Alterations Hand at a menswear company (this is not on my CV). I quickly became bored (again) and wanted to learn things, but had never really had any direction from anyone who might know better.

A chance meeting with someone I knew from school suggested studying horticulture as she had recently done and I thought ‘why not’?

The nearest agricultural college, Broomfield, as it was called back then, held an open day that I attended.

With my GCSE certificate in a file to show them, they urged me to consider the BTEC National Diploma in Horticulture - the equivalent of two A-levels. At that time it was a 3-year course: years 1 and 3 at college, and the second year on an industrial work placement. I knew nothing about plants and remember working so hard.

For the first term I felt very lost, except for plant identification tests. Somehow I just seemed to easily absorb botanical names, including families, and averaged 100% at the end of the course.

The following term I continued to work hard to catch up with everyone else on the course, which seemed to pay off with the sheer volume of knowledge I was developing. I really enjoyed it - the science, physical work, technical aspects and design. It had everything I needed.

For my work placement I chose James Coles Nursery in Leicester, where I spent a year in the propagation department taking cuttings and learning how to produce hardy ornamental nursery stock. When I started, I really wanted to work in a nursery and someday run my own. By the time I finished my placement I had endured so much bullying from the Head of Propagation that I decided I never wanted to step foot in a commercial nursery again. My college did nothing to support me and the nursery management never took any action, despite repeated complaints from various other staff in that department.

I did eventually return to commercial nursery work, taking seasonal employment with Johnsons of Whixley during my HND in Horticulture with Plantsmanship with the Scottish Agricultural College and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Johnsons was the opposite of Coles and I found myself really enjoying it. They seemed to like my work ethic and asked if I would return at the end of HND, but I already had aspirations to do a degree and they said they tended to not hire people with degrees.

Between the BTEC and the HND I worked at the Jerusalem Botanic Garden in Israel for a year, and upon my return to the UK took up employment as a sole gardener on a private estate in Cheshire. Stories I will save for another time though.