This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
Examinations for gardeners have been held for some years by the Royal Horticultural Society of London, who hold two examinations annually, and also by the Society of Arts, who hold but one examination each year.
Any information respecting these examinations may be obtained by addressing a letter to "J. Richards, Esq., Assistant Secretary, Royal Horticultural Society, South Kensington, W.," and to the "Secretary of the Society of Arts, John Street, Adelphi, London".
As to the examinations for certificates, they are conducted by means of printed questions, which the assembled candidates are required to answer in writing, - pens, paper, etc. being provided for the purpose. Three hours are allowed to answer each paper, which consists of from twelve to sixteen questions, of which the following, taken indiscriminately from the current year's papers, will suffice as examples: -
"Describe the treatment required to form a Pyramidal Pear-tree from the graft till it is four years old".
"How would you distinguish a Green-Gage Plum tree from a Blue Imperatrice by the young wood?"
"Write a short treatise on the cultivation of the Cauliflower".
"Describe the process of Budding, and name the kinds of plants which are most readily propagated thereby".
"Describe in detail the treatment of Mignonette in pots for early spring flowering".
The preceding half-dozen questions will give intending candidates some idea of what is required of them. Above all, let the candidate acquire as much facility in writing and composition as possible. There is not much time to think when you are at the examination-tables, and this is where many candidates fail. They possess a good practical knowledge of horticulture, but lack the ability of lucid expression. Candidates must remember that the examiner has nothing to guide him in his awards but the answers, and the more clear and concise these are written, the greater is the chance of success. Only two things are requisite in order to pass the most severe examination - viz., a thorough knowledge of the subject, and a clear style of expressing your ideas.
Examinations are good, inasmuch as they are emulating; but at the same time it is impossible to prevent a large amount of "cramming" or "grinding" being practised by the candidates. For example, it is well known that the distinctive characters of fruits form a leading feature in one paper. Let us take Peaches or Nectarines by way of illustration. The old candidate knows very well that it is sheer waste of time to learn their characters by actual observation and careful comparison when he can take the 'Fruit Manual' and learn them off by heart, flowers and glands, clingstones and freestones, in a few hours, so as to face the most severe examiner. The other fruits are "worked up" on the same system. Many a really good practical head-gardener would fail to obtain a first-class certificate at these competitions, while his right-hand neighbour, perhaps a beardless boy, with any quantity of cut-and-dried information from books, obtains a first-class certificate with ease.
If a candidate gains a certificate of the highest class, it does not follow as a rule that he is a first-class gardener; this is a fact that one cannot deny, for the simple reason that it is a fact. I look upon a certificate as a bubble; it looks well, but the moment you grasp it, you find that after all it is useless. If you have added to your store of knowledge by studying in order to obtain it, what you have learned in that way is the true grain; the rest is chaff.
By way of a check upon those who carry out the above-mentioned system of grinding, could we not have "practical examinations" conducted under the surveillance of a committee of "practical gardeners," whose names should be appended to the candidate's certificate? The candidates might be set to dig a small plot of ground, to prune a fruit-tree, or plant a few feet of box edging, etc. A practical gardener would see in a moment who were, and who were not, acquainted with practice as well as theory. Suppose three hours be allowed for practical operations, and three hours for theory (as in the present examinations), for each subject, the examinations would occupy more time, and cause a little extra trouble, but would not the result be better, and a certificate more valuable than one obtained under the present system? Gardeners as a rule laugh at the certificate already obtained by aspiring candidates. Would, or rather could, they do so if the certificates had such names as D. T. Fish, D. & W. Thomson, W. Earley, E. Sage, J. Wills, or Barnes (Bicton), appended to them, and accompanied by a statement that they were awarded for practical skill as well as theoretical talent? Who would have presumption sufficient to gainsay the combined opinions of such a committee as that above named, or one equal to it? That these competitions are not at present popular, may be inferred from the fact, that but few - very few, comparatively speaking - care to attend them.
If examinations for gardeners are to be held, let them be held so that all concerned may reap at least some small amount of benefit from them. If seed is sown, we expect the produce, and that before many days, in these pushing times. By way of conclusion, I wish it to be understood that I speak as a candidate, and one, moreover, who has been successful in obtaining both certificates and prizes at these competitions, both as regards those held by the Society of Arts and the Royal Horticultural Society.
Feed. W. Burbidge.