Education Minister Simon Harris full of praise for Belvedere's School of Horticulture

There aren’t many courses that can boast an 80 per cent progression rate for its students, but then again, there aren’t too many courses like the one run by the Westmeath Community Development School of Horticulture at Belvedere House and Gardens.

A three-way collaboration between Westmeath County Council, which owns Belvedere House and Gardens, Longford Westmeath Education and Training Board, which funds the course, and Westmeath Community Development, which runs it, the Level 5 fulltime course provides students with necessary skills and knowledge to gain employment or move on to further education.

Delivered by John Smyth, who is also the course coordinator, and tutors Valerie Beck and Eileen Mulligan, pre-pandemic, the 50-week course was broken up into 50 per cent outdoor training at the Victorian walled garden in Belvedere and 50 per cent work experience.

For a good portion of the last year, classes had to move online due to Covid-19 restrictions, but it is hoped that with the vaccine rollout under way and hopefully the gradual return to normal life, that will soon become a thing of the past.

Simon Harris, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

The Horticulture School’s high progression rate and its success at managing to keep the course going over the past year were praised recently by the Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris during a recent Zoom call on Monday last March 15 with John and Valerie, a few students and Frank Murtagh, CEO of Westmeath Community Development.

The minister pledged his support for the idea of developing the school of horticulture into a permanent horticulture college at Belvedere, and promised to visit the site after the lockdown is lifted. He also pledged the support of junior ministers to support the expansion of the project for Mullingar.

Horticulture students with their certs.

John and his colleagues have extensive experience of planting, landscape maintenance and construction and have designed a course that equips participants with the skills needed to make a career for themselves or to continue with their studies.

Since the course began in 2009, the vast majority of students (80 per cent) have progressed to employment or further education. Over the last 12 years, the school of horticulture has forged close links with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and many other top venues at home and abroad to provide top work experience.

Many of the public gardens, garden centres and nurseries in Leinster and further afield are managed by former students, while more than 25 graduates from the course have completed third level qualifications, mainly from the Botanical Gardens in Dublin.

Tony McCormack from Westmeath Community Development says there are a number of factors that explain why the course has such a high progression rate.

“Many of the students come from the LWETB’s Level 4 Horticulture courses, which take place in Marlinstown, Athlone and Longford. That means they have a genuine interest in horticulture and want to make a career for themselves in the area. They also have already acquired some of the basic skills that John and his team can build on.

“Secondly, the work experience portion of the course is popular with students and provides an invaluable real world dimension to complement their studies and practical work in Belvedere. We have a good database of public gardens and landscape gardeners for people going on work experience, while a few years ago a group of people went over to the world famous Kew Gardens in London.”

The course has been using Microsoft Teams to its advantage and students linked in with Diarmuid Gavin and Paul Smith recently, as well as a number of other industry professionals.

“The course has received huge support from the LWETB and especially Tom Grennan, and the quality of the teaching provided by John, Valerie and Eileen is second to none and leaves students well prepared to enter the workforce or continue their studies. The high progression rate really is a testament to their expertise and teaching ability,” Mr McCormack said.

• School of Horticulture, Belvedere House Gardens and Park, Mullingar, County Westmeath, N91 EF80

• John Smyth, co-ordinator, School of Horticulture, Westmeath Community Development; 0862292523; email or