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An informal apprenticeship led me to a career in gardening – and TV | Education


I started my career with a Saturday job at a garden centre. I was studying for A-levels but I hated college, so I dropped out – which went down like a lead balloon with my parents. I went to work at the garden centre full time over the summer.

By the end of the summer I realised I probably ought to do some training. It was that wonderful thing of being a teenager and feeling like you know everything then having to eat humble pie.

This time, though, I did day release while continuing to work at the garden centre. I went to Sparsholt College, which was mainly agricultural at the time, with a little bit of horticulture. Nowadays they do absolutely everything from beekeeping to floristry.

It wasn’t a formal apprenticeship, but working while studying via day release was so different from the boring formality of A-level college. I used to cycle seven miles in and out to work and I earned my own money – £32.50 a week! I relished my independence.

A garden centre is a lovely environment to work in. People are glad to be there, focusing on something they enjoy. It suited me so much better than college. You still get told what to do at work but it’s nothing like college tutors telling you what to do.

I mixed with people of all ages and outlooks. I think being an apprentice helps you grow up in terms of your confidence and social skills. It really helps prepare you for the real world. There’s no getting your mum to phone up and say you’re sick or not doing the work. You had to do it and that was it, otherwise you got a flea in your ear. It’s a bit more serious than a teacher telling you off.

While I was there, the lecturers kept mentioning horticultural colleges so I applied to Cannington College and studied there for three years. I was fortunate that my placement year was at Chelsea Physic Garden. Living in London at 19 was wonderful.

Then, I went backpacking around New Zealand. I worked as a check-in clerk for Air New Zealand. It was fun, but the experience convinced me I didn’t want to work in an office.

When I came home, I went back to work at the garden centre as a horticulturalist responsible for nursery stock. I took part in some filming for a TV programme called Grass Roots and then, out of the blue, I got a phone call asking me to do a screen test for Ground Force. I went on to present it for about eight years. It was just one of those unexpected things. I had intended to take over running the garden centre when my boss retired, but I ended up having to leave once my TV career took off.

The garden centre doesn’t actually exist anymore. These days I’m working on various media projects and I’ve just done series five of Garden Rescue for BBC One.

I’m still as excited as ever about instilling a passion for gardening in people. When I started out, only people over 45 were into gardening but young people today understand that being out in the garden is good for you. Nearly everyone who writes in wants a garden that’s good for the wildlife, too.

There’s a lot of pressure on young people to go to university and a sense that you’ll be missing out if you don’t. But that’s not the only way to study. Parents, try not to freak out if your son or daughter doesn’t want to go to college. There are so many other possible paths to a career that makes you happy.

Charlie Dimmock was speaking to Heidi Scrimgeour

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