Patchworking Garden Academy

On a beautiful sunny day in early November, six Patchworking Garden students gathered together at the Academy, in the field below Box Hill to receive their Level 1 Diploma in Practical Horticulture. It was a quiet but friendly occasion, befitting of the Patchworking Academy. The certificates were handed to the students by Chris Munford, and all three tutors, Frank, Carol and Fred were present to congratulate the students. Also present was Carmel O’Shea who paid tribute to the students –

This is an incredible achievement and I am so impressed and proud of them all. Congratulations to everyone and good luck to the new students just starting,” she said.

Frank said that it had been a difficult 18 months for the students: “Covid and lockdown meant the Academy had to close for three months and then we moved from our first site in Ockley to the Pixham site which meant everyone basically had to start again – preparing and planning their plots at the same time working towards their Diploma. They have all done incredibly well.”

Six students have opted to progress to Level 2 so will be continuing at the Academy when it starts again in February. They will also be joined by several new students who started their first year this summer.

How it all began

The Academy began life in September 2019 when an Ockley landowner offered his land as an extension to the Patchworking Garden Project. The Academy is led by Chris Munford who has been involved with the main Garden from 2016. She previously worked for many years in Adult Education delivering qualifications to female prisoners. She felt that providing volunteers at the Garden with the opportunity of moving into education and then into voluntary or paid work would be a huge benefit both to the students and to the Garden itself. “One of the aims of the Patchworking Garden is to support and assist those who were ready and willing to move on. A course like this would provide a perfect vehicle”.

“I was probably the one with the most concerns initially,“ she added, “and didn’t believe it could work – but here we are!”

It was essential, she explained that the course was a recognised one and also appropriate for our volunteers. The City and Guilds Practical Horticulture Skills was deemed ideal involving as it did a focus on practical skills. “We also needed to find the right tutors, funding and a sufficient number of Patchworking volunteers with the dedication and desire to return to education.” She explained that the part-time course – two days a week – required serious commitment – to attend every day and to engage in the learning process.

In spite of initial doubts, unsurprisingly, once the possibility was mooted the idea took firm hold. Trustees, the management committee and the volunteers themselves were all hugely enthusiastic and Chris with the help of others, undertook the task in hand including recruiting the students. She continues to oversee the project.

The course began in September 2019 but when the new term started in 2020 alarm bells were ringing about Coronavirus and it had to close in March. At the same time it became clear that the garden in Ockley, was not a viable option in the long term and it would be necessary to move nearer home. Negotiations began on using a strip of land adjacent to the Patchworking Garden and thanks to Aviva who were the leaseholders at the time, and now Surrey County Council, it was agreed that a parcel of land could be used. From November 2020 work began, putting up rabbit and deer fences, marking out plots and eventually converting the lean-to into a classroom.

The Level 1 course finished in July and six of the original seven students have decided to stay on and complete the Diploma course and Level 2. The Level 2 course is internationally recognised course in Horticulture and is the benchmark for employment. As outlined by City & Guilds, a Level 2 Award can help start a career as a gardener, garden centre worker or landscaper to name but a few.

Our Students and our Tutors

There are now eight learners attending the Academy – for six this is their second year – a longer year than normal due to lockdown last year. There are two new students who started in September. The three tutors, Frank, Carol and Fred provide guidance and teaching, Fred being the assessor ensuring key stages are completed. In addition to tutoring, Carol is the Internal Quality assurance assessor for City & Guilds, ensuring requirements and standards are maintained. There is also a small team of support volunteers who work alongside the learners each session. This mirrors the practice in the Garden. Frank explained that the students are now working towards their Level 2 Certificate which will take a further year and they will graduate in July 2022. If they wish, he explained, “they can then take further units to complete their Diploma.

The Academy closes at the end of November and re-opens mid-February till July. “We encourage everyone to take up voluntary jobs if they feel it suits them,” said Chris, “At the moment we have planters at Deepdene station and the students are going to be responsible for planting and maintaining them. They contain mostly herbs now, it being the end of the summer, but we plan a wider range of herbs and vegetables for next year. So far feed-back from commuters, who can help themselves, has been very positive.

We welcome new students and at the moment we have capacity for new students should they be interested. Students come via the Patchworking Garden and the ethos here at the Academy is the same – to be kind, to be gentle and to be non-judgemental.

Frank explained that a typical day on the course may mean students tending their own plot (each student has their own patch which they plan and then plant out according to conditions, time of year etc). “The lessons are not formal and we encourage participation,” he said. On fine days lessons tend to take place outside in the field: if it’s wet, then we retreat to the classroom. On this particular sunny November day, prior to the presentation, everyone gathered round for a tutorial from Frank and a general question and answer session.

Fred, who is the tutor assessor works with Frank and Carol and explained that his work involves teaching, preparing lessons and lesson plans

When we first started I think the students found it difficult and challenging. Most of the students had not been in employment so a mental discipline was required,” he said. “However, it is very satisfying that they all rose to the challenge. I think we can help make it work as we acknowledge that everyone works at a different pace and we can accommodate that. What is expected is commitment and they definitely achieved this.

Coming back to Pixham after the hiatus of Covid worked well,” he added, “All the students knew the Garden and felt very comfortable working here, so it was a plus. I think at first with the assessments people felt some pressure, but we are quite flexible how we do the assessment. There are no strict rules as there would be in a classroom and there is very little written work – and we can support those who find it most challenging. Every single student is different and it’s been a pleasure getting to know them. As a group they’ve come together and work now as a team which is very rewarding too.

The students too were universally enthusiastic – I spoke to each of the students for their impression over the past 18 months.

Elaine

This has been an incredible opportunity. It’s a great environment and for me this has been a significant career change. It’s something I could do and something I love. I feel the course and the qualification will provide me with evidence of what I can do. I’m about to start Level 2.
What I love is that the course is not pressurised. It’s not in a classroom and for me that’s really pleasurable.”

David

I’ve been a student here since it began – it’s been quite a ride! Our tutors are very good and I’ve found it very helpful learning from their experiences. The atmosphere here is really nice – it’s like being with friends. When I volunteered at Patchwork Garden I mostly enjoyed the Arts and Crafts so I didn’t think of taking gardening more seriously. But people dropped hints that I should apply and it’s been great. The tutors here are brilliant. I’m not very good as a learner but this has been very supportive.”

Each student has a patch which they tend – David decided to concentrate on vegetables runner beans, sprouts, cabbages, potatoes and tomatoes. Unfortunately for David, like almost everyone, the potatoes and tomatoes were affected by blight. “We were told that it was probably due to the cold spring, followed by too much rain, followed by a very dry spell. The runner beans though were a great success. I have been giving them away for ages.”

Jo

I’ve been here since 2019 so I started when the Academy began. I am really enjoying the course – more so now even. Level 1 was the diploma and we’re now doing Level 2. I’m really hopeful this will lead into some suitable work. What I enjoy about the Academy is that you’re working outside and working with your hands – things I enjoy. I’ve got my own allotment in Bookham where I live and also help with my parents’ garden. Location is the best thing about this, and the organisation is excellent. Lockdown was hard but we came back as soon as was possible as we were working outside so it was a safe environment.

I enjoy seeing the plants through different stages and I enjoy using the skills I pick up here – so I’m helping my parents which is satisfying.” Jo helped lay the path at the Academy, “I enjoy physical work, always like working outside and like labouring: so gardening is ideal for me.

Chris (Christopher)

I’ve really enjoyed this course. The tutors have a real depth of knowledge. It’s been an exciting two years. I like gardening and nature generally. There’s a good atmosphere here. Being outside is really good both physically and mentally. It improves your well-being.

“The assessment is not too challenging. You have to explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You have a task but it’s practical and is pretty stress-free. I’ll be sad when it finishes.”

Janet

“I’ve really loved come here. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s such a stress-free environment. I love it.”

Nicole

I have been volunteering with the Patchwork Garden for ages so this felt like a natural progression and this is my second year,” She is enthusiastic about working as a volunteer in the community, specifically at Goodwyns Community Garden. “I have been working there – advising and also working on the beds for some time. I think the community garden is very satisfying as it reaches out to many people and hopefully it cheers people up. If you make a difference to one person’s day it’s worth it.

Kieran

Kieran is one of the new students having started in September so he’s at the beginning of student life. “I find it really interesting and am learning a lot. I volunteered at the Patchwork Garden and found I enjoyed the gardening most. It kept on getting hinted that I might enjoy the Academy when it first started but I don’t think I was ready then. But I have really enjoyed these last few months. The environment here makes it. It’s very calming working in such a beautiful place and away from the bustle of the town.”

Last word from Carmel O’Shea who has seen the Academy go from strength to strength

The Academy is a huge success story. We have weathered all sorts of difficulties in the past 18 months but everyone has risen to the challenge. We have been found to be exemplary by the quality assurance process which is a very rare occurrence and says a great deal for Chris Munford who does such a brilliant job, as do our dedicated tutors and of course our excellent students.