I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to curate this exhibition at Sissinghurst. It is free to visitors of this world-famous garden and runs from 5 May until 21 October. Highlights include a beautiful suffrage banner embroidered by Gertrude Jekyll and one of Vita Sackville-West's own garden notes which, we believe, has never been publically displayed before.
Standing in the greenhouse in the tranquil grounds of Combermere Abbey in rural Shropshire, it’s hard to believe Claire Howard (above) wasn’t always as stress-free as she is today.
Just five years ago, she was working in Social Services in senior management. After a 15-year career, reorganization was imminent and she took the opportunity to review the direction of her life. “To contemplate such a massive career change” she says “was very frightening.”
In 2010, she started her WRAGS training at Combermere Abbey, reducing her social services commitments to 4 days a week. (WRAGS is the acronym for The Work and Retrain as a Gardener Scheme). The scheme is run by the Womens Farm and Garden Association, an educational charity formed in 1899 to improve opportunities and conditions for women. Uniquely amongst training programmes, recruits are placed for a year, generally for two days a week, in one or sometimes two larger gardens. Claire was one of the first trainees to do one day a week over two years instead of two days a week over one year. She also took on weekend gardening jobs at the same time.
When she completed her placement she was offered a full-time gardening position at Combermere & resigned from Social Services to accept. Her former manager told her, encouragingly, that she was going into a job where she would see results.
Aerial view of the 6 acre walled garden at Combermere, complete with fruit maze (top of picture) consisting of Espalier apples and pears in the micro-climate of the walled gardens, which also nurture more tender exotics such as Echium pininana and Euphorbia mellifera
The results are truly spectacular. Claire is responsible, under Head Gardener Phil Tatler (a career changer himself) for cut flower, fruit and vegetable production. This is a very demanding job, as the Abbey is a highly sought-after wedding and corporate events venue. Her duties include pruning, maintaining and harvesting the fruit of 139 apple and pear trees. She can – and does – give masterclasses in the art.
Claire first heard of the WFGA as a National Trust volunteer gardener at Attingham Park. As Claire says, ‘Working as a volunteer I discovered that the possibility of becoming a professional gardener could become a reality. The WRAGS scheme enabled me to stay part time employed whilst gaining practical and technical experience and allowed me to explore the real world view of being a full time gardener.’ Through the WFGA too she discovered like-minded people and has made friendships that continue to support each other.
Garden Owner Sarah comments: ‘Combermere has supported the WRAGS scheme for a number of years with 5 trainees being placed with us over that period. It is extremely satisfying to see enthusiastic individuals taking the chance to change their lives for, hopefully, the better and to see them grow from nervous starters to confident gardeners.’
The WFGA aims to improve its geographical coverage and increase its public awareness through fund-raising and greater marketing efforts in 2015. There are some 70 trainees in 2014, but there are also more places available than people to fill them. The WFGA believes there is significant unsatisfied demand for training, particularly from men and women career changers, who may find it difficult to source elsewhere.