An apprentice gardener at the University of Chester is proof that sometimes the grass really can be greener on the other side.
Lisa Owen, who is 41 and from the city, made a life-changing decision just over two years ago to follow her dream, and become a gardener – and she has never looked back.
Four days a week she works as an apprentice Grounds and Gardens Technician, based at the University’s Parkgate Road Campus in Chester. On the fifth day, she studies horticulture at Reaseheath College in Nantwich – which also offers degree courses in partnership with the University of Chester.
Lisa explains how she came upon the apprenticeship: “I had always been interested in art and floristry. After high school I went on to study Art and Design, also taking a part-time job at M&S. I was given a position in the horticulture department, where I was trained in floristry and ended up staying with the company for 18 years. In my late 20s I developed severe hyperthyroidism and Graves Disease (an autoimmune disorder that causes hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid), which had a significant impact on the next decade of my life.
“During this time, I found my love of horticulture increasing; being outdoors became a kind of therapy that I would look forward to after work or at weekends. I started visiting gardens more (especially Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens and my favourites in Cornwall) and most flower shows in the UK every year.”
At the same time, Lisa found working ‘within four walls’ increasingly frustrating, and craved the outside world, nature, wildlife, and the changing seasons.
She said: “I started searching regularly for outdoor job roles in gardens or nature reserves, but I did not have the desired qualifications. I also couldn’t find any evening or part-time horticulture courses suitable for career changers/mature students that would give me the qualifications I needed.
“As I started thinking about giving up on the whole idea, I saw a job advertisement for a Grounds and Gardens Technician at the University of Chester. I took a chance and applied for the job, despite being under-qualified. Surprisingly to me, I was invited for an interview and, several weeks later, I was asked if I would consider an apprenticeship position. This would enable me to gain the qualifications I needed, whilst being in full time paid employment too.
Accepting the apprenticeship position was not an easy decision to make and the proposition caught me by surprise. I had a lot of misconceptions around apprenticeships and presumed they were just for school leavers. How wrong I was! I also worried about being able to master the machinery, but I had full training, both in college and at work, to use all the equipment and I have attended additional courses with my work colleagues. I came to realise that confidence would come with practice, time, and training. Also, mistakes are part of the learning process!”
As well as the variety of day-to-day duties, Lisa has been involved in numerous projects during her apprenticeship, including a recent, experimental ‘potager’ (kitchen) garden on the Parkgate Road Campus. The garden has miniature raised beds with a selection of salads, herbs, vegetables and cut flowers. Lisa planned and designed the garden from scratch, following the process through to the planting at the end. She has also spent time in the greenhouses, helping to grow many of the bedding plants from seed and propagate a lot of cuttings from around Campus.
With her skills in Art and Design, Lisa recently refurbished some of the signs with flower designs, using acrylics, and made a new bee sign for one of the car parks, where there were some very active bees over the summer! She said: “I love the idea of bringing art into a garden, whether it is in the medium of modern sculpture, painting, wood, or even stained glass.”
Peter Gallagher, Grounds and Gardens Manager at the University of Chester, said: “It has been a delight to see Lisa grow in knowledge as a Horticulturalist over the past two years. She is always busy and seems to enjoy all aspects of her work, which is a real bonus for anyone. Lisa loves to help with the student volunteer groups for such things as litter picking and the making of homes for hedgehogs to hibernate in. Her Instagram page, done on behalf of the Grounds and Gardens Department, has some marvellous photographs of plants and trees and is always worth a look. Along with other members of the team, Lisa has helped to raise the profile of the Grounds and Gardens Department and the work that is done is always green and growing!”
Lisa’s Skills Coach at Reaseheath College, Alan Royle, added: “It is a joy to work with Lisa, helping her achieve her long term goal, during these testing times. Lisa is upbeat and ready to learn. Every visit is constructive and always amazing from the point of view of Lisa’s progress and her involvement with so many green projects. Working with the University of Chester is a good fit and I am confident that, with the University’s agreement, Lisa will also be an asset to us at Reaseheath in the future. Well done Lisa.”
Lisa is now approaching the end of her apprenticeship, and says she loves the new-found confidence it has given her, and how many new friends she has made along the way: “I think I am a completely different person to the Lisa of two years ago and my life has changed for the better. I look forward to going into work, as every day brings different tasks. I also love spending time with my work colleagues as we all get on really well and they have passed on a lot of their knowledge to me.
“My advice to anyone who thinks it is too late to change their life and career is to consider an apprenticeship. It may not offer the financial rewards of a highly paid position in the short term, but it is the start of a journey to a brighter future and great prospects. “
Lisa also has a passion for photography, and her images can be found on the Grounds and Gardens Team’s Instagram page.