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AGS travel grant students share their experience

As part of our charitable remit, the AGS sometimes have subsidised places available on our plant tours. These are available to students or those new to a career in horticulture, providing them with the opportunity to study alpine plants in the wild. Two of our grant recipients share their experience.

Touring the Peloponnese

There were two subsidised places on our autumn 2018 tour of the Peloponnese. These places were given to Lucie Willan and Joshua Tranter who were both eager to learn more about Mediterranean autumn bulbs. They are both at the beginning of their gardening careers and joining our tour strengthened their passion for plants, allowing them to see plants in their native habitat and learn from other knowledgeable AGS members.

Lucie and Josh sat down with tour leader Răzvan Chişu to share how the experience has helped them. Their answers demonstrate the growing importance of social media in reaching new members and opening up opportunities for young gardeners.

Tell us about your background in horticulture and interest in plants?

Lucie: I have always loved plants and gardening but it took me a while to realise that it was what I wanted to do professionally. I studied Art History at Cambridge and then spent ten years working in the art world, most recently as an art specialist at Christie’s. I finally plucked up the courage to change career three years ago and have not looked back. I started my horticultural career at Bramdean House, Hampshire and whilst there studied for my RHS Level 2 diploma at Capel Manor Regents Park. I then went on to work at Sissinghurst as their 2-year HBGB trainee, whilst studying for my RHS Level 3 diploma at Capel Manor Enfield. Most recently I have been at Hidcote doing a fixed-term research project on Lawrence Johnston’s Pillar garden.

Josh: I have trained for two years at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens (BBG). In my first year I worked towards my Level 2 Diploma in Horticulture with Birmingham Metropolitan College on-site in the gardens.

I spent last year working at BBG as a gardening apprentice. My time was divided between the glasshouses, the nursery and the outdoor section. I have worked in the alpine house, the rock garden, repotting Cyclamen, taking cuttings and sowing seeds.

Currently I work for John Massey in his private garden at Ashwood Nurseries.

What alpines do you grow at home?

Lucie: I grow lots of auriculas, cyclamen, saxifrages and irises.

Josh: At home I don’t grow many alpines due to lack of space, but the ones I grow thrive in the troughs I made. I have a selection of cyclamen and I grow many from seed.

How did you find out about the trip and the travel awards?

Lucie: In summer, the AGS Instagram account advertised the subsidised place on the trip and seeing that made me wonder what it would be like if I were to visit Greece. I didn’t think I would stand a chance but a friend encouraged me to apply and now I am very happy I followed her advice! It was a very easy, straightforward process.

Josh: Nigel Hopes (a former Alpine Supervisor at BBG who has benefited himself from AGS and Merlin Trust travel awards to visit South Africa) told me about the trip and a friend tagged me in the Facebook post about the Merlin Trust places available.

What did you learn from the trip that you’ll take home with you?

Lucie: Never judge a book, or an AGS member, by its cover!

I learnt a huge amount about growing these exquisite plants through seeing the habitats they choose for themselves. Seeing almost epiphytic bulbs, both cyclamen and snowdrops, growing in the gnarled mossy branches and trunks of Platanus orientalis in the Taygetos mountains was fascinating.

Josh: Having worked with the National Plant Collection of Cyclamen at the BBG, Cyclamen are of special interest to me and I have learned a lot by seeing Cyclamen graecum en masse in its native habitat, displaying a rich variety of leaves.

What was your highlight of the trip?

Lucie: There have been too many highlights to choose just one but I think seeing the valley of Cyclamen hederifolium outside Gythio, the olive groves full of Sternbergia lutea in the Mani peninsula and the Galanthus drifts in the Langada gorge. I’m being greedy but can’t choose just one!

What was your favourite species you saw?

Lucie: Seeing Spiranthes spiralis for the first time was completely mind-blowing.

Josh: For me it has to be the various Cyclamen species.

How was this travel award benefited you?

Lucie: It has allowed me to see and experience plants growing in the wild in ways that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams! And without the bursary I couldn’t have afforded to come on the trip. It has been completely inspirational and enormously valuable in terms of learning about the conditions that these autumn-flowering bulbs thrive in. I have caught the plant hunting bug and was plotting how I was going to return in the spring before I had even left!

Josh: A travel award is great! I would highly recommend them. They give you the opportunity to see how plants actually grow in the wild and what conditions they need. At the same time, at the start of your career, a successful travel grant application looks great on your CV!

Why would you recommend the AGS trip to other horticulture students?

Lucie: It’s an opportunity to learn so much. I found the expedition completely awe-inspiring. It was very special and humbling to share these extraordinary natural wonders with fellow plant lovers, exchanging ideas and tips and I have no doubt that it has helped me to be a better grower of alpines and bulbs through seeing how the plants grow and flourish in their natural environments.

Any tips and advice for future applicants?

Lucie: Don’t hesitate! Apply for anything that comes up that interests you. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!

Josh: Take plenty of photos! They will be very useful in the future. Also take a few books with you about the plants in the area you are going to visit. The ones I took helped me write my notes down in preparation for my report.

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