Blogs >> Planting Lightly at Schumacher College, by Lynne McDonagh

Planting Lightly at Schumacher College, by Lynne McDonagh

2011 had been a bad year for me – I had been made redundant for the second time in two years, become embroiled in a battle to save my local allotment from being developed into a car park, and people I had previously trusted had let me down. But when the opportunity arose to study Sustainable Horticulture at Schumacher College, some rays of sunshine seemed to pop out from behind the dark clouds. Looking back at it now, I see that signing up for the course was the first step in letting my intuition take me on a positive journey – and that’s so characteristic of the college’s ethos.

Right from the start, my experience of Schumacher College was a positive one. Lou Rainbow was my first contact with the college staff and she was so encouraging and up-beat, that I felt I had to go for it. I had originally been drawn to Schumacher College because of its reputation for developing ethical and sustainable practice. As a mainly self-taught organic grower, I was keen to extend my knowledge of sustainable practice, a subject that few other colleges were able to offer. In my first year at College my Level 2 horticultural studies combined both theory and practical sessions in a range of settings – the College forest garden, the local market garden at School Farm and Dartington Hall, a formal landscaped garden.

In the classroom, along with standard horticulture instruction in botany, we explored the complexity of sustainability and ecology – and I soon realised that the problems posed by rising carbon emissions and climate change would take more than planting a few trees or less air travel to resolve. When we studied the link between the environment, habitats and the food web, I began to make personal connections with my own experiences of growing. I realised that it wasn’t just having access to better-quality organic fruit and vegetables that attracted me to horticulture, but also the experience of being closely connected to the natural world. Moreover, what had started as a way of strengthening my organic growing credentials through study, slowly evolved into discovering my own niche within the horticulture community.

During the practical sessions we worked in small groups and soon got to know each other well. These sessions were not only informative but also great fun. In the forest garden, those of us with poor carpentry skills surprised ourselves by building compost bins and raised beds. Whilst in the idyllic setting of School Farm, we climbed elderly apple trees, pruning them into shape to promote healthy new growth. We also gained valuable information about how to develop no-dig systems. And whenever we worked at School Farm we never left empty handed: there was always seemed to be some salad, sweet corn or cucumbers for us to take away. At Dartington Hall we had the opportunity of tending the famous Sunny Border and learning more about herbaceous plants from the team of gardeners there.

Many memorable experiences also came after hours, as I joined college friends for bonfires in the forest garden, ceilidhs, and an amazing dinner at Old Postern with food to rival the best of Devon’s restaurants. Then there were guest speakers and opportunities for additional study, such as the natural bee keeping course I attended for several weeks. One of the highlights of these extra-curricular activities was an evening spent in the woods near to the College, where we learned about forestry skills. We all sat spellbound in a candlelit clearing whilst the teacher drummed out tall tales of woodland creatures and cooked up a squirrel, nettle and wild garlic stew – this was definitely an experience I will never forget.

However, it was the opportunity of taking part in a writing-for-publication competition, organised by one of the tutors, which really opened some doors for me. I was lucky enough to win the competition and the college year ended with the exciting prospect of having my first article on wildlife gardening published that autumn in a national gardening magazine.

Awash with all these wonderful experiences, and feeling that I still had so much more to learn, I enrolled on the Level 3 course in 2012. There is a lot of theory to take on board this year, but it has been rewarding to make even deeper connections. I have now developed a much better understanding of soil chemistry and biology – and it is truly amazing to take a few handfuls of soil and examine them under the microscope as we have done in class: the variety of life that is contained in the soil, creating its fertility and keeping it healthy, is astounding. And learning about the chemistry of the carbon cycle has extended my understanding of the web of life and my place within it.

Project management is a big feature of the Level 3 course, and since I now hope to develop a writing career alongside any practical horticulture involvement, my project has been to set up a blog to showcase my writing and photography skills as well as promoting the message of sustainability. was launched just a few weeks ago, so it’s early days but so far I have received a very positive response from all who have visited the site.

My interest in developing a new career in writing also received a huge boost when I received several new commissions for magazine articles on subjects ranging from planning a crop rotation to exploring the underground networks of plants. In the future I hope to combine my love of writing and photography with practical work in community gardening. Thanks to Schumacher College, I am now looking forward to a more positive future – with a clearer understanding of the direction I wish my life to take, a deeper knowledge of horticulture and the natural world, and some wonderful new friends.

For more information visit Lynne’s website Plant Lightly

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