8 Feb 2023

I have never been happier

Zoe Phelan

This time last year, I was struggling. Working in the NHS through the pandemic had left me longing for a complete change.

After years of sitting behind desks in badly-lit rooms with windows that only open about an inch, I felt a strong need to be outside. I was also feeling hopeless when it came to the scary things happening to our planet. I wanted to do something to help not hinder.

With two small children and financial commitments, most further education options were out of reach and starting a completely new career felt impossible.

A turning point was hearing an interview on the radio. A woman in her 60s was explaining how she had just completed an apprenticeship. This blew my mind! This could be an exciting option for me.

Horticulture has always been a hobby. Once I had a space of my own to work with, I was hooked. Any spare time would be spent pottering around trying to grow lots of things from seed. Plenty of trial and error.

It was my escape and I’d always found it such a fascinating (and vast!) subject area. This was my first thought after hearing the radio show: how amazing would it be to learn in such an immersive and hands on way?

I’d struggled in school. I’d always favoured learning by ‘doing’ so this felt ideal. I started researching apprenticeships and was steered mostly towards local council websites but there wasn’t much in the way of horticultural opportunities.

A few weeks later, I was awake in the middle of the night and checked whether the Botanic Garden had any apprentice programmes. That was back in May and, on the September 5th, I started a two-year apprenticeship. 

Five months later and I’m having the most incredible experience.

Every day, I have regular ‘pinch me’ moments. The opportunity to learn in this environment is very special. I am surrounded by very skilled and experienced horticulturists who are so generous with their time, sharing their knowledge, and so patient with this new learner.

No two days are the same, as we react to things which are happening around the Garden as the weather and seasons change.

Over the next two years, I will work on a three-month rotational basis in different sections around the Garden. I spent my first three months under glass. This included working in the Great Glasshouse, Tropical House and the three nursery glasshouses behind the scenes.

I spent three months learning about plants from the other side of the world. Misting tropical plants, potting on plants I’d never even heard of, plunging plants in the Great Glasshouse pond, choosing and arranging plants in the Great Glasshouse and just generally learning a lot.

I’m now in my second month on the Broadwalk. I started on December 1st during a serious cold snap. After three months under glass, it was a shock to my system.

I’ve really appreciated how beautiful things are in the winter. Beauty can be found in shape and form and not just when things are in flower.

I recently went fern collecting with the Pteridological Society who have been helping us identify fern species from our landscape for a new display that will hopefully soon greet visitors near the main public entrance.

I’m really interested in gardening for biodiversity and pollinators so the plan is for me to try and get some time in the Bee Garden on this rotation. Hopefully, I’ll be able to don a bee suit in the next few weeks.

As well as my rotational work, I’ve had the opportunity to get involved in external projects . A month ago, I spent the day at Neath Port Talbot Hospital tidying hedgerows and planting plug plants along with Buglife Wales and the Botanic Garden’s Biophilic Wales officer who work on various projects promoting biodiversity in communities.

Last week, I visited a private estate in the Black Mountains where I learnt to prune apple trees. I got to walk among extensively stocked orchards, which even had trees grown from seed from a small town in Kazakhstan where the first ever apple genome was traced back to.

One day a week, I attend a local college, which is the RHS Level 2 theory element in Principles of Horticulture, and the other four days are on-site at the Garden.

There is an abundance of support both at college and here in the Garden. So many wings to shelter under.

One surprising thing is how much goes on behind the scenes and the projects that you wouldn’t necessarily hear about as a visitor. The Science Department does some very exciting work. Last summer, I went wild seed collecting at St Govan’s Head. Using GPS plant location maps, we were hunting rare and endangered native species. I then cleaned and sorted the seed which will be sent to the Millennium Seed Bank.

By the end of most days, I’m tired, cold, dirty and exhausted but I have never been happier.

I’m excited to see what the future holds. Trading medical needles for garden forks is the best thing I’ve ever done.