Learning through lockdown

Elinor James is an apprentice at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Her apprenticeship was made possible through the generous support of the National Garden Scheme and the Patrick Daniell Apprenticeship Scheme. The National Garden Scheme recognises that it is often hard for people to get started in a gardening career that’s why we fund a variety of training and apprentice schemes. Here’s Elinor’s story:

My name is Elinor James and I’m a second year apprentice at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. 2020 has been a year that has been challenging for all. I have been lucky enough to continue my apprenticeship throughout lockdown and it’s been a busy one! During lockdown I got to spend quite a bit of my time in the nursery glasshouses. The tasks varied from watering and caring for the plants to taking cuttings and germinating seeds. One of the special tasks allocated to me was to bring a neglected wild collected fern (Doryopteris palmata) back to its original state. I took pride in this task and enjoyed watching it thrive over a couple of months.

In September I had my RHS level 2 exams on vegetable and fruit production and protected environments, and I passed. As I was working in the walled garden at the time I felt like I could put what I was learning in college to practice with the help of my supervisor. My time in the inner walled garden was busy. I worked quite a bit in the vegetable quarter; I learnt how to broadcast seed for a crop of green manure. I also did some pruning training which really improved my confidence.

Also in September we went on a couple of apprentice trips. The first being a trip to Glasbren which is a growers collective and permaculture garden here in Carmarthenshire. It was a real eye opener to see the no-dig method being used and to be a part of such a lovely close community, even just for the day. I helped plant winter greens in the polytunnel and they taught us all sorts about mycorrhizal fungi systems and their successful three week composting method. Our second trip was to Picton Castle Garden, in Pembrokeshire. It was very insightful to see how an independent garden functioned and also the amount of visuals that can be achieved with a woodland garden. I wasn’t so sure on conifers before this trip however, afterwards, I realised I definitely didn’t give them a chance; there were some spectacular specimens there!


At the end of October I was lucky enough to take part in the Sibbaldia and PlantNetwork virtual conference on promoting excellence in horticulture. This was my first horticultural conference and I found it fascinating. It was really interesting to learn how a lot of the gardens in the UK and abroad have managed with the pandemic, and how they spoke about the future. It all seemed really positive and hopeful. They also included virtual tours of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, giving us all an insight into the work they’ve done throughout 2020 and previous years.

In November – December I worked alongside the estate team. This involved various tasks from strimming to planting native tree whips throughout the wider landscape. I also had a great experience learning how to use the Exeter biochar retort and understanding how this could be beneficial to the garden.

When restrictions in Carmarthenshire eased, I got to experience a week placement at the Tywi Gateway Project, Carmarthen. A heritage lottery funded and Welsh Government backed-project to restore the landscape and Museum back to its full glory. I really enjoyed my week working alongside Piers Lunt, Head Gardener. He taught me all sorts about woodland and meadow management and I felt a part of the team.


I’ve seen the new year in with a two month rotation in the Great Glasshouse, this is one of my favourite areas at the National Botanic Garden of Wales to work as I get to experience such diverse and wonderful plants. I find it’s a really good time to get to grips with plant families and I learn so much from my colleagues.

It’s strange to think that there is just over six months left of my apprenticeship, I really feel like I’m part of the team here. However, I’m excited for what the future holds.

Read more about the apprentices the National Garden Scheme has helped fund here.

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