Guest podcast: The magic of the Merlin Trust – Rebecca Slack


A special edition of the PlantNetwork podcast featuring a ‘take over’ by The Merlin Trust. The Merlin Trust has provided travel bursaries to young horticulturists (under 35 years of age or within first five years of a horticultural career) for more than 30 years. This podcast, introduced by Rebecca Slack and featuring Merlin Trust trustees Sally Petitt and Lee Hales with bursary recipients (also called Merlins) Michelle Woodall, Tracey Fahy and Rosie Treharne, explores the history of the Trust and the support it can provide as well as some hints and tips on writing a good application!

Interview transcript

Rebecca: Welcome to a special edition of the PlantNetwork podcast. PlantNetwork has very kindly allowed The Merlin Trust to take over for this particular episode. And we’re going to find out a little bit more about who The Merlin Trust is and what it does. [intro music]

Rebecca: We’ll hear from Sally Petitt, who is Head of Horticulture at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and is also the chair of the Merlin Trust Board of Trustees. So Sally, tell us a little about the Merlin Trust.

Sally: Well, the Merlin Trust was set up in 1990 by the fabulous Valerie Finnis, who had been a career horticulturist, she was one of the Waterperry Ladies. She had an extraordinary training and an extraordinary career, particularly being a female in that era [who] made such great strides into horticulture and become such a renowned plantswoman. That was something quite extraordinary, so she was quite a hero anyway. During her working life, she met Sir David Scott: they bonded immediately and married, [having a] wonderful life together. [When] he died, she really felt she wanted to do something to honour his memory, [as well as the] the memory of his son, Merlin, who was killed in action in Africa in 1941. So she set up the Merlin Trust. 

The aim of the Merlin Trust was to encourage young people in horticulture and give them opportunities that they might not ordinarily have. Today, we are still able to enjoy the benefits of her extraordinary gift. And certainly, I feel very privileged to be a trustee of the Merlin Trust. Currently I’m chairperson, but [I have also] been a recipient of Merlin Trust awards twice during my horticultural career. For me, there’s a real thrill in supporting and encouraging young people in horticulture: it’s something that I’m very mindful of, and I know many of my colleagues and peers are very mindful of, but I think Valerie particularly set that train in motion. She was one of the first people who really thought [about] promoting [horticulture] as a career. She was at the very forefront of professional horticulture, particularly for ladies. And she really was incredibly visionary. 

As a trust, we’re still able as a consequence of her gift and her endowment to give charitable awards to young people in horticulture. It’s been a real treat to me not only to have the opportunity to travel to China and Pakistan, as a Merlin, but also to be able to help other young people through her bequest. During my time with the Trust, we’ve seen countless number of people travel all over the world. It’s a real community and does provide this fantastic opportunity for people who may not be able to afford to travel, either independently or with a group, at the beginning of their career. Or just to study floras or other gardens in other countries and gain a greater understanding and appreciation of botany, of plants or plant habitats, and how gardens function in areas all over the world. We really do want to be encouraging today the trend that Valerie set, to encourage people to travel and continue to have those opportunities.

Rebecca: The Merlin Trust has changed a little bit over the years. I wondered whether you could explain a little bit about what currently the Merlin Trust funds and what makes a good application. 

Sally: We had to review what we were doing in the COVID era. Currently, we award grants to people to travel across Europe. We felt that this was quite a difficult decision, but we felt it was quite an important decision because there are so many opportunities on the continent. The UK [too] has such a fantastic gardening heritage but often our gardening heritage is overlooked [in favour of] the opportunity of going somewhere more exotic. We’re very mindful that horticulture has changed [as] the world is changing. There are issues today that weren’t prevalent 30 years ago, [when] Valerie set up the trust. We are very keen that people do actually think a little bit more about climate change issues. 

When we’re looking at applications, we’re looking for people who are very enthusiastic and interested in the subject. We hope that they [have] researched their project well, so that they know where they want to go. We also ask them to describe how they’re going to travel [and] what the costs will be. Have they thought about sustainability in their travel plans? If travelling in the UK, has public transport [been considered] rather than driving? We hope that people will think about not just going to look at a nice garden or a nice flora or even a nice mountain but that they’ll connect with people in these destinations to get the most from their trip. This can be quite daunting if you’ve never travelled abroad or travelled to see another garden but making contact with somebody is much easier than it was when the trust was first set up. There is always somebody who’s very, very happy to help you! It’s also a fantastic opportunity to network. 

There is quite a lot of research I think that people need to put into an application, but I think we’re quite kind and generous as well. We would predominantly expect that applicants would be horticulturists, but also that they have actually thought about what they want to get out of the trip and how they might use it in the future. 

Rebecca: Thank you, Sally. And just to say that gardeners are the friendliest people, so if you’re ever in doubt contact the Merlin Trust with your queries or contact your potential host garden. People are always so welcoming so do get in touch with them.

So now I’m going to talk to the newest trustee of the Merlin Trust. And that’s Lee Hale who’s Head of Winterbourne House and Gardens in Birmingham. Lee, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Lee: Horticulture has been with me since I was a small child. I always enjoyed being outside. I spent a lot of time in the garden. That’s been an important part of my life. When I was 12 years old, I had a glasshouse for Christmas, when everyone else was getting BMX bikes! That was my first introduction to growing plants. I was really very fortunate that when I left school at 16, I got a placement at Birmingham Botanical Gardens on a training scheme for two years. Then I went to Pershore College to do a certificate, diploma and Higher National Diploma before returning to Birmingham Botanical Gardens as a supervisor and leisure learning tutor. I also worked for myself in a self-employed capacity for a few years and [at a] garden centre as a plant area supervisor. I had varied [work] experience including some time on a private estate as well. Then I ended up here in Birmingham, my hometown. I’ve been at Winterbourne for almost 20 years now and although I don’t work in the garden anymore, horticulture is still important. The reason that I do this job today is to support this site that I’m passionate about and it’s wonderful. 

Rebecca: And it’s even more wonderful that it’s still an active University Botanic Garden, used by the students and young people. That brings us [back] to the Merlin Trust. I wondered whether you could tell me a little bit about why you are a trustee and what the Merlin Trust means to you. 

Lee: I was delighted to be asked to be a trustee around 12 months ago. I’ve been passionate about horticultural education for a while. Winterbourne is an RHS accredited training centre: we deliver level two and level three RHS courses [in] an initiative we started in 2017 [and it’s] been incredibly popular. I’ve personally been concerned about the [horticulture] sector and everyone that works in the sector has been worried regarding skills shortages. Many sectors have experienced skills shortages over the years, but I think horticulture has been quite severely impacted by that shortage. So anything that we can do to support education, training, skills, [and] development is incredibly, incredibly important. Any opportunity we have to increase people’s knowledge and skills set should be taken advantage of and that’s why I’m a trustee at Merlin to help support that process. [It] gives people a chance to develop their CV and their knowledge working in botanic gardens, having a placement or spending some time with professionals in the sector really does develop knowledge and confidence as you move through the sector and take on various roles within horticulture. 

Rebecca: I wondered whether you have any advice for people applying [to the Merlin Trust]; any hints, tips, anything that you just want to say to potential applicants .

Lee: As with all applications, be clear about what you’re wanting to achieve, what the funding is for, make sure it’s realistic and you’re going to be able to achieve what you want. 

With the application form itself, make sure that it’s not too long, but we do need enough information. [Around] 300-400 words is a good [length]. Keep it fairly succinct, but make sure that you get the main points across [such as] how is it going to develop your skills? How will it develop your knowledge? What area are you looking at developing? Who will you be working with? You might want to [name] the people that you’re [hoping to] work with and the key contacts. 

This sector is so broad, defining horticulture is quite a job. It’s a massive sector. It’s usually split between ornamental horticulture and commercial horticulture. But you know there’s a place for everyone interested in plants and the natural world who wants to develop skills and wants to learn from people, or maybe [attend a] conference or symposium, or [obtain] work experience in a slightly different area of horticulture. That’s [all] great, [as] you’re developing skills and you’re developing your knowledge. As you work through your career, you can then identify different opportunities within the sector. I think it will help make contacts as well, developing and building networks which is really important. 

My interest is horticultural heritage, [particularly] how we can conserve historic sites and how we develop and conserve those skills related to horticultural practice and husbandry. [It’s also about how] horticulture provides for the public and the space that gardens sit in, because well-being and welfare are an increasingly important role for gardens. [It’s] not just [about] supporting biodiversity [and] ensuring sustainability, but also in relation to people’s well-being and welfare as well. 

Rebecca: Lee raises an excellent point about health and well-being alongside biodiversity and sustainability as these are topics the Merlin Trust has focused a lot more on in recent years. So let’s hear from one Merlin who recently completed her project. This is Michelle Woodall, who is a student at SRUC, Scotland’s rural college. Michelle undertook a summer placement at RHS Garden Bridgewater in therapeutic horticulture earlier this year.

Michelle: I’ve noticed that when lots of people speak about [their horticultural career], they often talk about being interested in horticulture from a young age and I absolutely wasn’t! Nature was something you occasionally passed through in the car. My interest in nature and later horticulture has been a slow rolling things and I think it’s probably only been in the last five years, I’ve begun to really notice them. I think it was something to do with COVID. I was a psychotherapist and during that time, I found myself working outside quite a lot [when] I hadn’t before. [Now] I’m loving it so much! I’ve recently changed to a garden design [course] from horticulture probably because of the placement and partially understanding what I need to know to become a community gardener, as I said in my [Merlin Trust] report. There’s something about creating the space which seems so important for that kind of role. 

Rebecca: Why did you apply to the Merlin Trust?

Michelle: I heard somebody speak about applying to the Merlin Trust. I can’t remember his name, unfortunately, but he came to speak to our class about basically applying. [He said that] if you’re interested, there might be somebody out there who’s willing to fund you: so just give it a go. I did!

Rebecca: Thank you to that mystery person for promoting [the Merlin Trust]. They did a wonderful job.

Michelle: And you gave me some money which is great…

Rebecca: You did a great project. What has that project meant for you so far in your very short career in horticulture and potentially garden design? 

Michelle: I began with a sense of anticipation. I was quite nervous, because I wasn’t sure [about] therapeutic horticulture. Even though I had some ideas that it might be for me, I wasn’t totally sold. In going to RHS Bridgewater to the social prescribing [project], it just made so much sense to me. It lit a fire inside me again, like I used to have for psychotherapy. It also made it really clear what skills I could do with having that I don’t already have: there are quite a few, but not an insurmountable [amount].

Rebecca: It’s good that it’s lit a fire in you but also showing you where you need to go and what kind of skills you need to develop in that area. That just shows you what a work experience placement can do. 

Michelle: It was only three weeks and it felt so long. It also felt confusing that I’d only been there three weeks because I think I made some really good connections. It felt like it just started, [that] I was all fired up – and then I had to leave.

Rebecca: Looking back on the application process, your work experience [placement] and then writing the report, [do you have] any hints or tips for people who are thinking of applying to the Merlin Trust?

Michelle: I think there’s something about being honest about what it is you want to understand. And digging into that a little bit about why that might be important, not just to you but maybe also the world around you. Taking nice photos was quite enjoyable at the time and I think it made my report look quite pretty. 

Rebecca: Images not only make something pretty, they make it accessible as well. 

Michelle: I really enjoy having the space to reflect on things. So the report helped me to do that. 

Rebecca: That’s what it’s there for: hopefully a record for everyone who takes part in a bursary, they can go back and they can see where they were at a particular time in their life. [It’s] also [there to] inspire other people, and to try and encourage other people to explore the world of horticulture and different aspects like therapeutic horticulture. We will now hear from two prize winning Merlins, Tracey Fahy and Rosie Treharne. Tracey and Rosie won the two prizes that are offered annually for the best report and best use of photography as judged by a panel of Trustees for 2023.

Tracey: My name is Tracey Fahy. I’m a gardener, florist and also an artist. Now I’m trying to combine all those three things together. I applied to go and do a forest gardening design course with Martin Crawford in Devon. My interest is in food growing and productive horticulture so I wanted to go and see what he was doing down there. As we’re all worried about the climate, I want to garden in a way that is more resilient to weather extremes. I think forest gardening is a good system and what he is doing in Devon, he’s thinking ahead and thinking about temperatures rising and the crops we can grow. A lot of the crops are not familiar foods so it’s [also about] learning how to cook and how we eat [the crops]. So that’s my reasons for wanting to go to do the course in Devon.

This is actually my first year of growing so I haven’t harvested a lot of the stuff I’m growing [like] oca which is Oxalis tuberosa. I’m growing in a community garden and I’ve had a few problems with people stealing my plants. So that’s been a bit of an issue. I did an artists residency in the summer, and from that they’ve given me a walled herb garden to manage in Norfolk so it’s not close to home. I will have to manage it like a maintenance job where you just go sort of four or five times a year. [The forest gardening system requires fewer inputs so lends itself well to this situation]. I also volunteer at Chiswick House in the kitchen garden and we’ve been growing New Zealand spinach which has been very successful [as well as] mashua which is something I will try next year. The problem I’m having at the moment is getting hold of the plants because they’re quite [difficult to source], but hopefully next year, I’ll really get going with it. 

Rebecca: [Do you have] any hints or tips that you would suggest to someone [thinking of applying?]

Tracey: I would say apply, state your reasons for wanting to go and why it’s going to be useful for the work that you do. Even if you’re not successful, try again because I’ve had plenty of funding [applications] that have been unsuccessful. Just keep trying, and you can just improve on your application each time. I wouldn’t have been able to do the course without the funding so [it’s a] totally valuable thing that the Merlin Trust does [and] very much appreciated. It was an amazing experience. You can read all you want to do: I could have done a lot of research online, which I did do before I went but actually going there and seeing it in practice [makes] a much bigger impact than just reading about it. 

Rebecca: That’s exactly why the Merlin Trust was set up. There’s a lot written about horticulture and there’s a lot of information out there that you can dig into but it’s not until you actually get out and either get your hands dirty or talk to other people face to face [that] it gets your enthusiasm going. It gives you the opportunity to ask those questions to the experts as well. Thank you, Tracey.

We’d like to introduce you to a Merlin called Rosie Treharne. So Rosie, tell me a little bit about yourself and why you applied to the Merlin Trust.

Rosie: I’m currently working on Exmoor in the southwest of the UK, and I work as a garden designer and horticulturist. I set up my little business three or four years ago before locked down in 2019. But before that I worked for the RHS and I was a horticulturist working at RHS Rosemoor in the edibles department, growing fruit and veg. That was fantastic. It was such a learning curve and really great to be growing food, almost organically, [which is where] that connection with our food comes from. While I was there, there was one person on our team and he used to go away to all these very exotic places regularly at least once a year, [like] Kenya and Zimbabwe: I was quite envious of him. He was a real inspiration to apply for a bursary because all of his trips were bursary funded, and he used to go off looking at really exotic things that I’d never even heard of.

Then one day, a lady came round to our mess room and she just did five minutes talking and explaining that there are pots of money available for travel bursaries and for funding for horticulturists. I think she was RHS, but I was aware that there were other pots available. I can’t remember how but I came across an organised trip by the Mediterranean Garden Society to go to Jordan in 2020. Things just coincided and I thought, right I actually would love to do this and just bit the bullet and went for it. I was lucky enough that I had people in my team at work and they were helpful in encouraging me to plough through the paperwork because the forms did seem a little bit daunting. I applied to the RHS for part of the funding, but the Merlin Trust also provided the funding as well. I was lucky enough to have the costs of the trip completely covered by both. It was a great adventure and fantastic to see plants in their native habitats. We had an author and botanist Oron Peri who’s Israeli, and an expert on plants of the Middle East: he led the trip. I was the youngest person by a couple of decades, but we were scrambling over hillsides and along roadsides and in very different terrains looking at quite exotic plants: bearded irises, rare irises, and orchids, and some really fantastic plants. A fantastic experience, and one that I would highly recommend. 

I think that there is sometimes a lack of awareness [of bursaries]. I’d worked in horticulture for probably eight to nine years before I applied for a travel bursary, and I had people that were willing to help to give me a few pointers or proof read the application for me, but that was my first application. I was just in the nick of time with the Merlin Trust because I was coming up to 35. There was a cut-off age after 35. So that probably spurred me on a little bit. Rebecca: It’s a good incentive, isn’t it when the eligibility criteria are being met! Has that trip had any lasting impression on you? 

Rosie: It was actually great to have the experience to write the report afterwards. And it coincided with lockdown in 2020 with that first great long lockdown period. So it was great to have that challenge of writing a really in depth report. And through doing that it made me research and dig a little bit deeper and really look more deeply into the culture and history of Jordan [as well as] the plants and habitats. Although I haven’t really been able to specialise in Mediterranean gardens because I’m on Exmoor where winters are long, wet and cold. And perhaps the climate is not quite right. It has been really lovely to share that experience with a lot of my clients and to share the report with them as well. It’s been a real point of discussion. 

Rebecca: If you want to read Rosie’s report and it’s a prizewinning report. Then do visit the Merlin Trust website.

Thank you to all the contributors in today’s podcast, Sally Petitt, Lee Hale, Michelle Woodall, Tracey Fahy and Rosie Treharne who were all talking to me, Rebecca Slack. If you have any questions about the Merlin Trust and would like more information, or to find the application forms and eligibility criteria, please do see the website.