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14 Nov 2022

The PLANTS project: studying at Threave Garden

Written by Fran Culverhouse, PLANTS Project Inventory Officer
A bird’s-eye view of Threave Garden, showing the formal garden areas surrounded by woodland, farmland and the River Dee.
Threave Garden from above
Threave is home to the Trust’s School of Heritage Gardening, as well as a wonderfully diverse plant collection. The PLANTS project West team spent three weeks at Threave this autumn, and it was a great chance to find out how their plant collection is used for educational purposes.

In 1960 the School of Heritage Gardening accepted its first horticultural students, teenage boys aged between 16 and 19 years old. At that time the land surrounding the house at Threave was mostly fields used by the Gordon family for shooting. In the decades since, the horticultural trainees have played an integral part in developing the beautiful gardens we see today, the emphasis on creating learning rooms within the garden. Threave is now a varied horticultural landscape and includes a rock garden, woodland garden, herbaceous borders, a secret garden and patio garden. It is great testament to the approximately 300 students who have trained at Threave over the years.

Threave’s vast collection is ideal for the trainees to immerse themselves in studying plants, and they will learn to identify around 500 over the course of a year. Every two weeks the trainees are given a list of 20 new plants to learn at family, genus, species and cultivar level if applicable. They are tested on 15 plants from the recent list and 5 from any previous list meaning the trainees must revisit the plants throughout the season to recognise year-round characteristics. This is something that resonates with us on the PLANTS project, where we may be carrying out an inventory in autumn and find ourselves wondering what the flowers would have looked like in spring!

The fine tree collection at Threave is well labelled and is a great place for the trainees to build their tree knowledge. It includes many unusual trees, and several are UK or county champions (for height, girth etc. look out for the blue labels). The most mature trees were planted by the Gordon family over 100 years ago and include some majestic beech (Fagus sylvatica) and Douglas fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii) which have thrived in the growing conditions here at Threave.

The identification skills the trainees learn at Threave will stay with them throughout their horticultural careers. In the PLANTS project we are using such skills to record all the plants growing in the 39 Trust gardens. This information is added to our new database (IrisBG) which will then be available to all staff. Having access to data for all of our plant collections will be an invaluable tool for many reasons, including decision making, tracking plants, assessing threats to the collections, and prioritising propagation to ensure nothing of value within the collections is lost.

Once the PLANTS project has completed the inventory for Threave and the plants have been added onto the new database, future trainees will have a great new resource to learn more about plant records, why they are so important for managing a collection and the need to update them regularly to record changes in the collection.

Today, five trainees are accepted each year to train at Threave, and while some previous horticultural experience is required, most important is enthusiasm to learn and a love of gardening and plants. Trainees may be any age, and many are career-changers; all are highly motivated to make the most of their year at Threave. They can gain the RHS Level 2 Practical Certificate and the Threave Certificate, both internationally recognised within the horticultural sector.

Find out more about the School of Heritage Gardening

Threave School of Heritage Gardening trainee group 2022–23

As well as learning through identification tests, the trainees choose a plant to research in depth each month: finding out about the natural habitat of the plant, what soil types and growing conditions they require, and if there are any economic or medicinal uses. These plant profiles help the trainees build their plant knowledge and they also keep a work journal to record their year, giving them a valuable reference for the future.

The other piece of theoretical work required of the trainees is a study tour report. A tour is arranged each summer for the group to visit a range of gardens; this is a great way to see the opportunities that exist in the diverse horticultural sector, and a wonderful chance to explore plant collections in other parts of the UK.

Another highly valued aspect of the course is the chance to get lots of hands-on experience with the varied plant collections. The trainees rotate to spend time in different areas of the garden, learning skills along the way such as growing fruit and vegetables in the Walled Garden and tender plant cultivation in the Glasshouse.

The wide range of practical skills the trainees gain includes tree planting, shrub pruning and hedge cutting (there are in fact seven different hedge types at Threave for the trainees to learn how to cut, including an unusual Tsuga heteropyhlla hedge in the Walled Garden). The trainees also regularly come together for a varied programme of practical training sessions led by Threave’s Instructor Gardeners; while we were there in early autumn there was a masterclass in taking semi-ripe cuttings.

Threave is unique among our gardens as the only one dedicated to training horticulturists of the future. The training is highly regarded and gives the trainees a solid foundation on which to build their horticultural careers. Graduates go on to work in gardens across Scotland, the UK and beyond.

Behind the trainees’ success is the dedication of the team at the School of Heritage Gardening. As we recorded the plants in the garden this year it was a pleasure to spend time with them to learn how they use the collection for education at Threave.

With new gardeners learning the value of plant records, we know that the work the PLANTS project is currently undertaking will be in good hands for the future.

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