It’s been ages since I wrote my first post about Kew (Royal Botanic Gardens), but that doesn’t mean nothing has happened since then – quite the opposite actually! I went up to London on the 15th March, as my application for Kew’s three-year Diploma course had been accepted for the interview stage.
I’m going to tell you straight away that I didn’t manage to secure a place on the course. The interview didn’t exactly go to plan, that is putting it mildly! I’m not using it as an excuse but my head wasn’t in the best place to start with, because my Nan died shortly beforehand and the funeral was three days after the interview.
I tried to focus as best I could but it wasn’t good enough. To be honest with you even if I hadn’t been grieving I still don’t think I would have got a place on the course. It’s not an understatement when people say the Kew interviews are the hardest ones in horticulture!
I had an hour long practical test, an hour long interview and a thirty minute written test. It’s quite ironic that the practical test was the part I was most nervous about, as I could have been asked to do virtually anything, yet it was the bit I found easiest about the whole process!
It was intense, a lot was crammed into that hour but I think I found it okay because I was doing it instead of talking about it, if that makes sense. There was one person in charge of that part of the test, a chap called Nick who was really nice and made the situation less intimidating that how it could have been.
I had four tasks to complete, the first was putting together a pair of dismantled Felco secateurs as quickly as possible, and I was timed with a stopwatch as I was doing it. I did it in one minute and fifty two seconds which I didn’t think was bad considering my hands were shaking!
I was shown samples of pests and diseases and had to identify what they were, how to control them, why they occurred, etc, and explain the basics of IPM (Integrated Pest Management). As I’ve worked in both biomes at Eden I’m pretty clued up about pest and diseases and the various methods of control we use, so that didn’t panic me at all.
I then had to sow a packet of seeds and talk through what I was doing and why, expanding on every detail as if I was explaining it to my bank manager who had no idea of gardening whatsoever.
That fazed me a little as I was having to concentrate on what I was doing, as well as talk about it. I was well aware that my whole technique of seed sowing was under scrutiny, it’s one of those tasks I normally do without thinking, yet all of a sudden I was questioning myself and going “am I really doing this right?!” not outloud though, obviously!
Then it was plant identification time, there was a table of twenty plants and I had to identify as many as possible. Ideally with genus, species, family, cultivar/variety and common name – hmm, piece of cake!
I definitely knew ten of them with just genus and family name, five of which I knew the whole botanical name. That was lucky as only five plants of your choice were put forward for marking at the end of the test. I guessed for the rest of the plants as it looked better than leaving the paper blank!
I had a three minute break (seriously, not even long enough to nip to the loo) before I was taken into a different room and introduced to the formal interview panel – I’ve forgotten their names, I just remember there were two women and a man, each asking different questions.
The first section was about my formal qualifications and general education, then it moved onto horticultural experience and qualifications and finally there were questions on plant science and botany.
It didn’t start off too badly, I’d say for the first fifteen minutes the ball was in my court – then it went downhill from there. Never have I been in a situation where I’ve felt more stupid and ignorant, with no way of escape.
There were several awkward silences when I had no clue how to respond to a question, eventually replying with the dreaded “I don’t know” – the one answer you want to avoid saying at all costs in any interview!
It wouldn’t have mattered if I genuinely didn’t know the answer (which, for most of the questions, I just didn’t) but for example I was asked “Name a plant which flowers in spring and thrives in a shady site”.
I could actually see the plant in my head but for the life of me couldn’t think of the name – I’ve only worked in a nursery for five years and said the same thing to hundreds of customers, yet couldn’t pull it out of the bag when it really mattered! I had several similar slip-ups which I tried not to dwell on but it was hard when my self-belief was fading fast as each excruciating minute went by.
I’d practically given up when I was halfway through the botany/science section and couldn’t understand half the questions, let alone know the answers. I asked for them to be repeated as much as possible, to stall time if nothing else!
I knew I really had blown it when I was asked “Name three different types of trace minerals and how they affect the soil”. I was feeling like a rabbit-in-the-headlights so blurted out a couple of made up names.
That interview was the longest hour of my life, ever. As I came out of the room, cringing, I then had to focus again and complete the written test, which was writing a synopsis of the practical test, no more than two hundred and fifty words.
I know interviews are designed to put you under pressure, to see how well you cope, but that was something else entirely. I came out of there with my confidence at zero, feeling like a first class muppet. I’m only telling you how appalling it went to make anyone else feel better who has had a terrible interview – just compare it with mine and I’m sure you did absolutely fine!
It came as no surprise when I received a letter informing me I hadn’t been selected for a place on the course. In short the panel felt I was too young and didn’t have enough knowledge or experience for the demands the diploma would bring – they suggested I spend time building up my CV by applying for traineeships or studying a horticultural qualification that is higher than the NVQ I’m doing at the moment.
They recommended a few courses in the letter and concluded that they would welcome a further application from me for the diploma course in the future, which is absolutely fair enough. Obviously I was disappointed but understood their points of view and agreed with them that I needed more experience.
It went from bad to worse then, I had organised to go up to Kew and do two weeks of work experience over Easter in their Palm House but that didn’t go to plan at all. . .
In hindsight it was probably one of the most stupidest things I’ve done, choosing to go on an eight hour coach journey when you’re feeling as weak as jelly – and then having to catch a tube and taxi from central London to the outskirts of Richmond, carrying a backpack which weighed a ton. Nice one Bex, clever thinking!
I’d arranged to stay in student accommodation, which was a twenty minute walk from Kew itself, and was blessed with the loveliest, kindest landlady you could imagine.
I don’t know what she must have thought, having a sick looking girl arrive on her doorstep who was about to start a work placement(!) but she showed me to my room, and gave me a hot water bottle and ginger tea – I couldn’t have asked to stay anywhere better.
I was supposed to start on the Monday but couldn’t face getting out of bed for a few days so began on the Wednesday. I felt weak but managed a day of work, even though I was ill it was still amazing to be in the Palm House, surrounded by loads of new and exotic plants.
My good spell didn’t last however, that evening I went backwards and spend most of the night being sick. If it wasn’t coming out of that end then it was coming out of the other! I was becoming severely dehydrated, getting cramps and headaches, so my parents came to the rescue – they drove up and collected me on Good Friday.
The traffic was horrendous, everyone was escaping London and coming down to the South Hams for Easter – it took us seven hours to get home! Once I was back in Devon I saw a doctor immediately and was diagnosed with gastroenteritis and bronchitis, ie a stomach and chest infection.
I was on antibiotics for ten days to clear up the infections, and off work for three weeks until I regained my strength, and appetite. It made me think I was cursed with all things concerning Kew!
There is some good news however, regarding the work placement and interview. Kew were very understanding about my illness and said they would be more than willing to re-arrange it once I was fully recovered. I re-scheduled it last week and it is now booked for the last two weeks in July – I can’t wait. Hopefully the weather will be warmer and my health will stay strong – no more bad luck for me!
When I applied for Kew’s three-year diploma course I asked for my application to be put forward for the one year traineeship course Kew also offers – I’m now being considered for it and will know the outcome by the beginning of June. Every cloud has a silver lining!
I have also been busy writing an application for the Professional Gardener’s Guild three year traineeship course, where you spend a year in a different garden around the country. I’ll know if I’ve been selected for an interview by the beginning of June as well.
If I can’t get on any traineeship course then I have the last resort, which is studying the RHS Level 2 course in the Principles and Practices of Horticulture, at Bicton College – I had an interview for it at the end of April and was accepted onto the course. It’s only three days a week so I could hold down a part time job alongside my studies, ideally in a public garden or plant centre.
I’m happy to say that, whatever happens, I definitely won’t be stacking shelves in Tescos at the end of my apprenticeship! Keep your fingers crossed for me, you will be the first to know when I receive any news! 🙂