Casual Gardener: On the right course

There are gardening courses out there to suit all tastes and abilities...

Serc horticulture lecturer Claire Dunwoody

WHEN it comes to gardening, every day is a school day – the more you learn, the more there is to know. Yet rather than being a drawback, this is one of gardening's key attractions, because there's always something new to discover and fresh knowledge to be gained.

The internet and the ever-growing of number of gardening books mean specialist information is more freely available now than ever, however, it's hard to beat learning directly from an expert. While some are privileged enough to hone their horticultural skills first hand with a seasoned gardener, the easiest way of expanding your know-how is through a gardening course, whether in a formal educational setting with qualifications or something more casual.

Over the past 35 years, Castlewellan man Sean McAlinden has had experience delivering both kinds – and everything in between. In the coming term, he'll be passing on his wealth of knowledge in three separate 'Leisure Gardening' courses at South Eastern Regional College's (Serc) campuses in Downpatrick, Ballynahinch and Holywood.

The courses Sean oversees alongside Serc's full-time horticulture lecturer Claire Dunwoody are designed for beginners and experienced gardeners alike, ranging from general instruction through to specialist subjects and RHS qualifications with worldwide recognition. It's an approach that's hopefully replicated at regional colleges across the north.

"The learning never stops in gardening – whether you garden for the sheer pleasure, want to grow your own vegetables, design your garden to suit your lifestyle or want to develop your skills and knowledge for a career in the horticulture sector, there really is something for everyone at Serc," says Claire.

"The wonderful thing about gardening is that everyone can get involved, whether you live in an apartment and have a window box or a few containers, an average family garden or something larger and more mature, or access to a local allotment, getting outside and growing gives great satisfaction."

In addition to the potential to enhance your employability and horticultural knowledge, Sean stresses the social and wellbeing benefits of regular classes. Even during lockdown his classes still managed to maintain that sense of camaraderie via Zoom.

"The course content is naturally very important but so is the social aspect and meeting people matters equally to some," he says.

"Likewise, it's also a great way to unwind and offers numerous mental health benefits."

Sean says his classes are "seasonal" focusing on gardening tasks you can carry out at that particular time of year, while he also applies the "jukebox approach" to subjects and fieldwork, allowing the class to choose what will be covered and what gardens they might visit.

For those unable or reluctant to travel, there are an increasing number of online courses available, such as the one hosted by Co Leitrim-based Klaus Laitenberger. Beginning weekly in late September, the course's 45-minute sessions will be filmed by Co Fermanagh filmmaker Mark Megahy and streamed fortnightly.

It promises step-by-step tutoring in creating and managing a vegetable garden, improving fertility and readying it for next year's crops.

"There will also be simple valuable gardening lessons such as pruning fruit bushes and trees, taking cuttings, dividing plants, compost making," Klaus says via email.

Klaus's classes too follow the gardening calendar, with each session featuring a "What to do in the garden this week", alongside "some interesting gardening facts, weed, pest and plant identification and lots of other useful tips and tricks". The course runs through to February and costs €70.

For more information on the courses available at Serc visit - you can contact Klaus at

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