BCA – A Case Study

Written for Berkshire College of Agriculture. I studied horticulture there from 1994 through to 1996. College, as many people have found, opened up a world of opportunity as well as being a great place for making lifelong friends.

At the age of forty I was having the standard mid-life crisis.  Since leaving school I’d hankered after going to agricultural college but instead followed a career in retail fashion.  My decision to enrol in a night class at BCA to “get the idea out of my system” ended as soon as I visited the campus and saw what was on offer – in a fit of enthusiasm (or madness according to some of my family), I signed up for a two-year, full-time course in horticulture and quit my job.  This was in 1994 and life has never been the same since for BCA opened up so many exciting opportunities.

Teamwork, BCA 1994

With a background in retail management the obvious choice of future career would have been with the garden centre sector.  However, my heart was set on gardening for my living, for being outdoors in all weathers and for getting my hands dirty.  At college, I worked hard knowing that, at forty, I couldn’t afford to fail.  I also needed to build up a new and relevant CV for the ability to sell shirts and trousers now didn’t seem especially useful!  I volunteered for everything and anything that BCA could offer and during my time there worked at the Chelsea Flower Show, worked on a then unheard of new style of television programme – the garden makeover – with designer Dan Pearson, had been on a study tour of Hungary and helped build a display garden at BBC Gardeners’ World.  I had also carefully chosen under guidance my two work placements where I received further excellent training and experience on private country estates.  By the time I left BCA in 1996 I was also able to add to the CV that I had passed my exams with distinction and won the top horticultural student award twice.  Of equal importance, I had loved every moment of my time at the college, had met many interesting people and made a lot of good friends of all ages and nationalities, several of whom I’m still regularly in touch with.

Filming ‘Garden Doctors’, Channel 4 Television, 1995

BCA had given me a good grounding (excuse the pun!) in all aspects of horticulture and I left knowing that I wanted to continue working on country estates.  I wrote to several and one replied that they would like me to apply for the position of Head Gardener.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, I found that I was in charge of 30 acres of gardens, a two-acre walled garden and a bank of glasshouses and several gardeners who probably had more experience than myself!  With the training I’d been given and the contacts I’d made at BCA to support me I spent several happy years there and when I left to take a new position continued to act as their horticultural advisor.  My next two positions were firstly, in an historic, Italianate garden; the second designing and creating new gardens and parkland from scratch. 

The Italianate Parterre at Kiddington Hall

With all the confidence that the latter position had given me, I decided to leave and set up my own business designing, creating and managing large, country gardens.  I wanted to keep the business small as I wanted to continue to be “hands-on”; I wasn’t ready to return to a desk-bound job.  One advantage of this has been that it is flexible and now, in 2020, I am able to work reduced hours so that I have more time for my own garden and also for writing – for gardening has also given me opportunities as a writer.

Book Signing

One of the exclamations I frequently heard when showing the public around my estate gardens was “Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?” and so it seemed the obvious title for a gardening book.  After publication in 2013 to excellent reviews, interviews on both British and European radio followed, as well as talks to groups and at literary festivals.  This in turn has led to my becoming the Chair of a heritage group researching the fascinating history of a remote and now derelict cottage on Exmoor National Park.  What relevance does this have to BCA?  It was on Exmoor, standing beside this house at the age of sixteen, that I first decided I wanted to go to agricultural college.  Life has turned full circle and it has been the most incredible and pleasurable journey imaginable, all made possible by my time spent at BCA.

John Shortland, BCA 1996

So, what would be my advice to someone beginning their studies at BCA?  Without doubt, it is to really embrace everything the college, with its marvellous facilities, has to offer.  Most of all, never lose sight of your dream for, despite the inevitable setbacks along the way, with determination it can be reached.