Friday, 12 February 2016

6 months

We're about halfway through our Homebase Garden Academy year.  The experience so far has been amazing.  On the road we've helped transform an abandoned BBC garden, whilst almost completing an Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) Level 1 Practical Horticulture qualification.  We've had our minds opened to garden planning and design with Adam Frost.  We've visited market leading suppliers, enabled and informed to relay the information to customers and colleagues.  In our own stores, we've stormed through Christmas, and the preparation for the peak Easter season.  We've taken cuttings, divided bulbs, cultivated ground, and seeded soil at Birmingham's historical Botanical Gardens.

The Evergreens (pictured) might be the smallest of this year's Academy groups, but the shared experience has brought the team together.

So what happens in the second half? Well, we don't know for certain.  There is talk of a charity project, with an Academy competition to design the space.  We have the City & Guilds recognised Garden Licence to complete.  Two further seasons of learning in our stores including the colourful and busy Spring and Summer.  There are a host of suppliers to visit around the UK as well.  We might even be able to pursue the RHS Level 2 qualification.  Its going to be a fascinating time.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Visiting Fiskars

The market leading garden tool manufacturer and supplier, Fiskars, received a visit from the Homebase Garden Academy last month at their showroom in Birmingham.  Account manager Steve introduced us to the brands the Finnish owned firm operate, and what a diverse range of brands too!  The business are big players in several global markets: kitchen utensils, crafting and outdoor equipment to name a few.  However, we were there to get to grips with the Fiskars garden selection.  If there is a chopping, cultivating or cutting task in the garden, Fiskars appear to have it covered.  It is very interesting to hear about the revolution in weeding, the differing European attitudes to innovation, the new Fiskars 'Light' range of digging and cultivation tools.  

The business mission is to make even the simplest things can be made better and smarter.  For a company that traces it's routes back to the 17th century, that is a very progressive ambition.  Even the most advanced of their hand tools can be recycled, or is sourced from natural product.  In-house manufacturing in Finland helps reduce the product miles too.

Following insightful explanation, we were let loose with an assortment of secateurs and loppers to experience the benefits of Fiskars Powergear for ourselves.  We failed, however, to extract the secrets of Fibrecomp.  Plus, our sub group failed to impress the sales director with our long handled, ultra lightweight trowel concept, but heh!  Massive thanks to Steve and John for making the day so memorable.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Visiting Forest Garden

Forest Garden are the latest supplier that the Evergreens group had the opportunity to visit.  They are the leading manufacturer and distributor of timber garden products, primarily sheds, fencing, decking and decorative structures.

This is a business that is truly growing.  Reaping the benefits of changing social, financial and environmental factors in the UK.  More people have smaller houses, with less indoor storage, requiring a shed.  More people are entertaining at home - rather than dining out - and are investing in their gardens and decking.  Severe storms are becoming more frequent boosting the demand for new fencing and fence posts.  Rising popularity for grow-your-own is injecting money into timber greenhouses and coldframes.  Suffice to say, Forest have invested a great deal in their Hartlebury bases in recent years to prepare for this 'perfect storm'.  Forest have several UK sawmills, and no shortage of trees!  Tastes are changing though, and besides the plantations in Northumberland and Scotland, more timber is being sourced from the colder, northern Europe for some products.  It was interesting to learn how UK and Continental timber compare.  It is also interesting to consider how a changing climate could affect both types of tree, and demand for them in the future.

The Homebase Garden Academics were spared the chance to build a shed of their own, but Rob and Andrew made us very welcome on our tour of the facilities, for which we are very grateful.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Visiting Needlefresh Direct

The most recent Garden Academy visit was to the buyer, grower, retailer and supplier of Christmas trees: Needlefresh Direct.  They are based near Swindon, and manage a patchwork of fields in West Berkshire of their own. You might not know where your live tree comes from.  Perhaps you might assume your Christmas trees herald from Scotland, Scandinavia or maybe further afield.  Its worth considering that around 30% of the UK's Christmas trees are grown in Southern England.
The Garden Academy 'Evergreens' team visited and were provided with a fascinating insight into Christmas tree agriculture.  We were taken on a tour of the some of their fields, and our guide, Paul, demonstrated how and when trees are felled.  As staff in Homebase stores, we would normally only have limited contact with the trees. Employees typically rely on corporate training on how to handle and sell the trees.  It was very helpful to see behind the scenes at the supplier of all Homebase's trees.  To learn and ask questions.  To see how sustainable the process is.  To appreciate the scale of the operation.  To understand the wide range of issues and problems the tree farmers face: from rising deer populations to short term staffing.  From soil quality to changing customer requirements.  

It was a great day, and thanks must go to all at Needlefresh Direct for welcoming us.

Top tips for looking after your cut Christmas tree...

* Keep it outside, stood upright in water, undecorated until you are ready to bring it in.

*  On taking it indoors.  Saw the bottom inch of tree stem off. then place the tree in a stand that holds water.  The tree will absorb about 3-4 pints of water after being cut, so keep the water topped up.  Treat the tree as you would treat cut flowers.  The tree will 'sweat' releasing an attractive scent, and the resin in some spruce that give them their 'blue' hue.

*  Keep the tree away from intense heat sources such as radiators.  The tree will quickly shed needles if it is too hot.

*  Remember to recycle or dispose of the tree appropriately after Christmas.  Your local council will likely offer facilities.

* Consider a living tree - which is sold complete with potted and bagged root system.  You could plant it in the garden after Christmas.  Trees create an excellent ecosystem for wildlife, offering food and habitat for birds.  They absorb carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide - harmful gasses - from the atmosphere and produce oxygen.  It may also provide you with a (slightly larger) Christmas tree for next year!

Monday, 2 November 2015

Garden Academy - October (Part 2)

The second stage of my Garden Academy week introduced two very different gardens, both of historical importance, and both very different to the Winterbourne estate.

Firstly, we were introduced to Greenacre.  BBC Gardeners World moved in to this former playing field between 2008 and 2009 with ambitions of basing a long term series there.  The nurseryman and gardener Toby Buckland was lined up as presenter.  Within two years however, falling ratings prompted the BBC to make changes and they moved out of town, axeing Toby in favour of Monty Don and his Herefordshire garden.  The state that had befallen Greenacre was reported in 2011 by the Daily Mail, who found the garden "Abandoned".  Though several groups have visited and made their mark in the proceeding years.  It was an eerie scene that greeted the Garden Academy in 2015.

We were put to work at Greenacre clearing the small garden plots of rubbish, overgrowth and animal corpses (!).  The RHS training was put into immediate practice through single digging, cultivation and tool maintenance under the watchful eye of our teacher, Helen.  We will be returning to these gardens throughout our course, and perhaps we will play some small part in returning them to their former glory.  Perhaps they shall be returned to the community as a vibrant, living resource.  Hopefully the pictures below indicate the condition of Greenacre we encountered, and some of the work we carried out.

After two days of practical horticulture at Greenacre, we moved on to the incredible Birmingham Botanical Gardens for the next stage of our learning.  First opened to the public in 1832, the botanical gardens include a Japanese garden and the National Bonsai Collection.  The gardens are a tourist attraction and educational charity.  With 15 acres of landscaped grounds and Victorian glasshouses, just minutes from the city centre.  What better surroundings to study propagation and how to take cuttings.  We have the pleasure returning to the study centre here several times over forthcoming months.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Garden Academy - October (Part 1)

After sending last year's Academics to Barnsdale to study, a new location was sought for this year's students.  The city of Birmingham was selected and the extensive gardens of Winterbourne House and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens were chosen to be our bases.  Both are used widely by the Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMet), who are also accredited to offer the Royal Horticulture Society qualifications involved in the Garden Academy.

Our first day at Winterbourne, however, was spent mostly in the company the talented Adam Frost.  Adam is passionate about nature and design, and is obviously happy to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with the Academics. Winterbourne House and garden form a small country estate dating from 1903, built in the Arts and Crafts style for John and Margaret Nettlefold.  The Nettlefolds found their fortune as part of 'Guest, Keen and Nettlefold plc' - a quite extraordinary enterprise tracing it's roots back to the Industrial Revolution, and still exists today as GKN Aerospace.  The last family to live at Winterbourne bequeathed the property to the University of Birmingham.

We were provided with a tour of the garden by resident guide Abbie.  The Walled Garden with spectacular acers, the Display Glasshouses with incredible cactus and succulents, and the impressive Nut Walk were explained in fascinating detail.

Back in the classroom, the Academics were challenged by Adam Frost to consider where they wanted the Garden Academy to take their careers and lives.  He provided a fascinating insight into his own life as a garden designer, and how unlikely paths, luck, judgement and sheer determination can all lead to the achievement of dreams.  Adam has won Gold medals at Chelsea Flower Show on no less than five occasions, but yet he has even loftier ambitions - inspiring the next generation of gardeners and garden designers.  Adam was clearly instrumental to Homebase Garden Academy's existence.

During the forthcoming days, we are due to commence our RHS training, and attempt some practical horticulture for ourselves. This day had simply reinforced our excitement for the Garden Academy and our future within it.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The adventure begins...

Homebase Garden Academy - the class of 2015/16, featuring Ian Barber: horticulturalist (2nd from right)
What can I say?  Ian Barber: horticulturalist.  Wow.  After typing 'Retailer', Retail manager' or 'retail assistant' for what seems like forever, it seems odd, but here I am.  At the very beginning of an exciting (perhaps perilous!?) journey into all things green and garden-like!

Why? Well, I am one of the chosen few (just 40) on the Homebase Garden Academy 2015-16.  This ground breaking scheme was set up to train, inspire and develop a new generation of gardeners.  We will be set to work alongside the multiple award-winning garden designer Adam Frost among other exceptional learning opportunities.  These include earning a Level 1 RHS award in Practical Horticulure plus a City & Guilds Garden Licence.  Not to mention involvement in charitable projects, major UK garden shows, and helping to maintain Winterbourne Gardens in Birmingham.

Previous 'academics' have won gold medals at BBC Gardeners World Live and RHS Tatton Park, and have moved on to incredible opportunities worldwide.

I am under no illusion that the next year will be very busy, not least because of a full time role in my nearest Homebase garden centre is a challenge in itself!  That and an almost complete Open University degree in Environmental Studies running simultaneously.  Its a wonder I have any time for my passion for the Great Outdoors and Dartmoor Letterboxing (see my other blog: whoisthechallenger)

This blog will document my progress through the year, not just in the Academy, but also in my own garden, which may prove to be my greatest challenge - the nature of which I shall save for a future post!