The Royal Horticultural Society's Certificate of Horticulture has long been recognised as offering the 'gold standard' in garden education. Offered at three levels, it is Level Two that has been the most widely taken, giving a good grounding in practical and theoretical skills. Originally developed some decades ago, the course has however looked increasingly old-fashioned, designed for an era when gardening was centred on an annual cycle of preparing for elaborate displays of bedding plants. Talk of modernising the course has been in the air for a number of years, a discussion document was produced three years ago, and the implementation was postponed because of the pandemic. It is now going live today (September 1, 2022).


One of the tutors on the course is Tom Cole, now head of faculty at Writtle University College, who has been teaching it since 1991. For him the new course is “about bringing it up to date. The biodiversity section is really good, it's out there, a subject in its own right, and that's very good”.

There is a lot of new material on the role of the gardener in supporting biodiversity

Indeed, this is what first struck me about the new course, there is a whole lot of new material on the role of the gardener in supporting biodiversity, in being aware of sustainability issues, the value of green space in helping people live healthy lives, and in helping create inclusive communities. Inevitably there is also a section on climate change. There is also one on the 'garden economy', a recognition that we, in Britain at any rate, are an important part of economy as a whole.

“All more holistic” in Tom's words. Given the criticism that is so often levelled at professional qualifications in Britain, that they have become less and less practical it was good to hear him say that he thought the course was “more practical in many senses”, an example being “there's content on the maintenance of hard landscape features; we're not going to be teaching how to put a panel fence but students will be expected to know about preserving and repairing, that's very good”. This is not only about sustainability (better to repair than replace) it is also recognising what is useful knowledge in the working lives of many garden professionals.

The 'old' qualification seemed aimed at private practice where clients had a vision of striped lawns and neat rows of begonias

The 'old' qualification seemed aimed at people who might be working for council parks departments, or for private practice where clients had a vision of striped lawns and neat rows of begonias. Having said that, as an online tutor of parts of the course myself, I know that many keen amateurs do it too, as a way of learning the science behind good garden practice as well as essential knowledge and skills. Working my way through preparing teaching materials for the new course I had a very strong vision of the new kind of gardening practitioner who it might be aimed at. This person could be involved in one of the many 'city farm', 'community garden' or 'urban agriculture' projects that have sprouted over the last few decades. They need to know not just about photosynthesis and plant nutrition but also about the therapeutic benefits of horticulture, about community building through working on projects together, and even if they are not that interested in 'wild' nature, their colleagues and certainly their management committee will expect them to care about the biodiversity in the trees and hedges that surround the project. Indeed, the members of the management committee themselves would benefit from doing this course.

The new course is about the gardener being part of the natural world, being aware of the impact their activities have on the wider world, to the wider community and their responsibilities to the nature that is inevitably part of the garden. It is about a new, wider, but also somehow more generous conception of what it means to be gardener.

RHS Level 2 Syllabus

Out with…

Greenhouse management
Fruit and veg growing as a distinct topic
Alpines and rock gardens.

In with...

How gardeners need to support biodiversity and communities
More on sustainability
More on climate change


Here's more on the new syllabus for the RHS Level 2


Noel Kingsbury is an internationally renowned writer who focuses on plants, gardens and the environment.