For the past 12 months I’ve been studying for the RHS Level 2 certificate in horticulture (old style qualification, pre-QCF changes). I completed my second (and final) exam last week. For those who have not come across it, the RHS Level 2 cert is a theory-based qualification designed for the keen amateur, as well as people already working in horticulture. For those who don’t work on a daily basis with qualifications, Level 2 is at the same level as GCSEs.
The RHS have been training horticulturalists for over 100 years. The majority of the people attending the course that I attended were keen amateurs, wanting to learn more about how to get the best out of their gardens, with a scattering of apprentices.
So, the big question is - has this course improved my gardening skills? The answer is yes, probably.
I have learnt a lot of theory on fruit and veg production, pests and diseases, botany, ornamental plant growing, soils. The course in itself covers no practical work, although where they could the tutors levered in some practical work, such as soil testing, dissecting seeds and flowers, and looking at weeds and diseased materials. I have learnt the theory of how to sow small, medium and large seeds, but could in theory gain maximum marks in an exam question on seed sowing without ever having touched a seed in my life. The RHS have recently introduced a practical module at level 2 (the Level 3 qual has had a practical module for a number of years, I believe) – this is a “good thing” as far as I am concerned.
In practice, the knowledge has helped me to understand why different methods of propagation are done at different times of the year, and has made it less likely that I will drown my cuttings in future. I have a sharper eye for pests and diseases, and realise that cultural conditions will help me reduce the incidence of powdery mildew on the allotment. I’m no longer phased by the myriad of fertilisers on the shelf at the garden centre, but head straight for the N:P:K ratio on the back to see if it’s what I need. I know what I should be doing, even if I don’t always get around to doing it on time.
I also know that the RHS require an awful lot of information for just 2 marks in their exams – if I was to write exam questions for my degree students and require such a large amount of information for such a small amount of marks, the external examiner would require me to re-write the paper. Questions can also be ambiguous – difficult in an exam when you have approximately 90 seconds per mark (and by all accounts, the new Level 3 exams are much worse than this). If anyone wants to see what the old style exams involve, the RHS have past papers. Suffice to say that in 90 minutes, you do not have long to ponder, just write, write, write. I get my results for the exam I’ve just taken at the end of April.
I know, too, that the garden and allotment have been ignored a little over the past 12 months, as I have been learning instead of doing. So, I’m taking the next 6 months off from RHS studying, but may be tempted to start the new Level 3 qual in September. In the mean time, I’ll be sowing, propagating, weeding and feeding for real, not just in a book.