Aiden Couzens completed his level 2 horticultural apprenticeship at The Royal Horticultural Society in 2020 and is now employed as a horticulturalist in the new wellbeing garden at Wisley
I was lucky enough to have been raised with a good sized and mature garden at my disposal. From a young age, I followed my parents around as they worked on the garden, my mother especially encouraged me to join in. I remember one of the first things I grew by myself without help, was carrots in a large pot that I could just about see the top of. They were meant to be fully sized carrots, but I got so excited and impatient that we ended up eating baby carrots for that night’s dinner!
The house was my grandparents’ before it was passed on to my parents, and the garden was built and established by my grandad. Sadly, I never met him, but I am glad that I can still connect with him through our shared love of gardening.
Admittedly, I never knew that I wanted to follow this career path. Growing up it was never made apparent to me that horticulture was an available career path. I was always guided towards lawyer, doctor, scientist, etc. Reflecting this academic push, I followed a route that lead to a bachelor’s degree in psychology. While I found the subject incredibly interesting, I wasn’t attracted to any of the career paths that stemmed from it. Nothing called out to me.
Shortly after my graduation from university, my mother fell ill with Lymphoma. So I was unemployed for a while, partly by choice as I wanted to stay at home to care for her and help around the house. Just before her diagnosis, she had sowed and planted out a lot of vegetables. Because of this, one of the main ways I helped out was by caring for the garden.
A family friend popped round to visit, and greeted me as I came in from the garden, knees and hands coated in dirt. She asked me if I was looking to do gardening as a job, or if it was just a hobby. At the time I said ‘Oh, no, it’s just a hobby. Something to keep me busy while I’m looking for a job’. I look back at that moment every now and again, and laugh. If only I knew!
But it planted the seed (pun intended), and I started looking into horticulture on Google. Almost immediately, a link to the RHS website popped up, and after a bit more digging, so too did apprenticeships. I was a little unsure at first, because I was almost 22, and I knew that apprenticeships are usually for 16-19 year olds. However, the advert said that it also accepted career changers. Ultimately, I thought that it didn’t hurt to try, so with a little excited bubble in my belly, I clicked on ‘Apply’.
Alongside a very enticing liveable wage, RHS Garden Wisley was fairly local and easy to get to by car, so I lived with my parents while taking driving lessons. For the first few months, my dad had to wake up extra early to drive me to work each day, so he was happier than most when I got my licence!
It didn’t take me long to realise that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Everyone in the RHS loves what they do, and they inspire colleagues and visitors alike with their passion. They are always willing to share their knowledge, and actively encourage you to ask questions, no matter how obvious the answer may seem. Their passion is evident in how gorgeous the gardens are year round, and their sunny dispositions even on dreary days!
A two-year apprenticeship is an excellent way of practicing the knowledge and skills you gain from your shared time between the RHS and college. There is no shortage of opportunities to experience and build a wide network with other areas of the horticulture industry.
The end-point assessment consists of a knowledge test of 40 multiple-choice questions, three practical tasks, and a professional interview. I passed with distinction, which is testament to how well the combined mentoring efforts of the RHS and the college prepared me.
From the very beginning of my apprenticeship, I wanted to find a future career that would combine my interest in psychology and my passion for horticulture. I didn’t want to follow a horticultural therapy route, but I wanted to focus on how garden design and the plants themselves can affect people’s minds, akin to how lavender can help treat insomnia and anxiety. Such an experimental perspective of practical horticulture didn’t exist at the time, but little did I know that the planning and designing for the Wellbeing Garden was already well underway.
It felt as though the stars had aligned. The Wellbeing Garden was exactly what I was looking for and the timing couldn’t have been any better, as the vacancy for the position in the seed and wellbeing team opened a mere few months before the end of my apprenticeship. A few months in and already the entire team get along really well, and I couldn’t have asked for better colleagues.
It isn’t often that you get to see the making of a brand new garden from scratch. It’s a fantastic opportunity to watch your hard work come to fruition and really make a difference.
Immediately the garden rooms have transformed from patches of bare soil to works of art. The Molinia and Panicum give the garden a sense of gentle swaying movement, the large swathes of Pinus mugo creates a calming sea of emerald green, and the scent of rosemary and sage being carried on the breeze is simply divine.
I’m excited for when it will be opened to the public in June 2021, when the surrounding fencing comes down and everyone can get up close and personal, and experience a fantastic new area of Wisley.
To find out more about apprenticeship training at the Royal Horticultural Society, visit www.rhs.org.uk/training