As a young woman in Deal, Kent, where she was born in 1957, Susan Hewitt tried her hand at a number of jobs. She worked as a nanny, cleaner, secretary and barmaid, and in a warehouse, bank and a butcher's shop, but was always happiest pottering in her garden. She never imagined that her green fingers would lead to the job she would stick at.
In 1988 she moved to Scotland to escape a crippling mortgage and Maggie Thatcher. With her upholsterer husband Chris and two young children, she eventually settled into a lodge house, covered in Virginia creeper and with roses around the front door, at the gates of an estate near the small village of Leitholm, north of the River Tweed in Berwickshire. The rent is paid in return for helping to look after the estate's walled garden, formal terraces and woodland. Her own garden is divided into three. A scruffy wildlife area with willow, birch and plum trees and a pond full of frogs. An informal garden with densely planted beds, apple trees and a well surrounded by rhododendrons. In the small vegetable garden she grows runner beans, potatoes, chard and carrots, and plants out cuttings and seedlings for the following year.
Susan says: 'I've always been self-taught, but I decided to take things a step further by enrolling for a three-year diploma course with the Horticultural Correspondence College. It's quite scientific, and mainly theory rather than practice, studying things like the chemistry and biology of plants and how soil systems work. I've always used compost and manure, but now I know why it works.
The Royal Horticultural College diploma in horticulture is a challenging qualification, which is the equivalent of two A levels. It's divided into 12 bite-sized chunks, which means that you can take it at your own pace and do more in the winter, when there's less to do in the garden. If I pass the examination in 2002, I might go on to study a degree course in garden history or garden archaeology. Home study fits into our way of life here. There's a lot of physical, hard work in gardening, but life here is so peaceful. I wouldn't want to change a thing.'
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Girton College, University of Cambridge
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on loan from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (P)