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Founded by Rosemary Alexander in 1983 in response to a need from enthusiastic garden lovers for more information about how to grow and nurture plants, the English Gardening School still serves this purpose today.
About the English Gardening School
Opened by Rosemary Alexander in January 1983 in response to a need from enthusiastic garden lovers for more information about how to grow and nurture plants, the English Gardening School began with 16 students and a small advertisement in the Telegraph. A trial six week once weekly garden design course was held in the historic Chelsea Physic Garden, at that stage only very rarely open to visitors. An immediate success, this was quickly followed by a one year or three term course in Garden Design, again taking place on Tuesdays. Rosemary and her colleague Anthony du Gard Pasley did most of the teaching and successful graduates were awarded diplomas graded distinction, credit or pass, provided that they had completed the required work.
It soon became clear to Rosemary that the amount of tuition required for fully training garden designers was difficult to fit into the once weekly curriculum, so the course was extended to a twice weekly programme, all this as a fairly casual but remunerative arrangement with the then Chelsea Physic Garden administrator, Philip Briant – at that time there was no Curator. Usually there were about 20 students, several of them now well known gardening personalities – Julie Toll, Cleve West and Joe Swift among others. Tutors were well known gardening personalities such as Bill Baker, James Compton (Head Gardener of CPG at the time) and Fiona Crumley. Many of the one year students wanted to continue their studies, especially to learn more about plants, and so the one year Practical Horticulture class evolved, plus other specialist one day courses on subjects such as bulbs or summer flowering perennials. Rosemary also pioneered garden visiting, taking groups of keen gardening enthusiasts by coach to exclusive private gardens mainly in England but also on week-long visits to French gardens (led by French author Louisa Jones) and to exclusive Italian, Belgian and Dutch gardens.
At the same time, Rosemary realised that there was a growing interest in flower painting so a course was devised under the tuition of Elizabeth Jane Lloyd, a well respected flower painter, but Rosemary wanted to extend this further to explore detailed botanical painting, and eventually, through Lady Sarah Aberdare, managed to persuade the leading UK botanical art tutor of the time – Anne Marie Evans – to run a two year course in this unique subject. At about the same time, the much travelled Dr Shirley Sherwood began to collect the work of living botanical painters worldwide. And so, according to Country Life magazine, a ‘new era of botanical painting was born’.
Many of the students on the horticulture or gardening courses demanded still more tuition, so another one year course, this time an advanced one year part-time course for former students and entitled Plants and Plantsmanship began, the lecturer list reading much like the Who’s Who of the gardening world.
The School grows
By the 1990s The English Gardening School was operating four days per week during term time at Chelsea Physic Garden and was paying an annual rent under a legal agreement to the CPG Trustees. More office staff were recruited, including in 1994, Simon Pyle, who became Vice Principal, and at a later stage, Mary Ellen Taylor, originally a botanical painting student from the Galapagos and now a highly respected botanical artist in her own right.
The recession of 2012 affected the English Gardening School badly and for the first time the school was short of students. Simon Pyle became seriously ill, Rosemary was spending much time on the international lecture circuit, and also opening her own garden regularly to international and local groups. The botanical painting side of the curriculum was taken over by the principal tutor, Helen Allen, and is now the Chelsea School of Botanical Art at the Chelsea Physic Garden.
Other schools began teaching garden design and as Rosemary wanted more time to travel and write her books and realising that many aspiring garden designers could not spend two days over three terms studying, a new 10 week intensive Diploma Course in Garden Design was devised, taking place early January – end March and aimed at an international intake as well as students from the UK. All 11 of the first year’s intake graduated and are now making gardens. The 2015 intensive course was full at 16 students and is run by Rosemary Alexander supported by Rachel Myers and other tutors.
A new once weekly course – Good Gardening, a planting design course – covering plants, horticultural techniques, planting design and occasional private garden visits, began in September 2014 and was oversubscribed. The School continues to be based at its natural central London home, Chelsea Physic Garden, and both the location, high standard of tuition and deep commitment of the students help the School maintain its reputation as the leading international establishment in gardening education.
More information on the English Gardening School website