My best teacher

28th January 2000 at 00:00
My favourite teachers at Cove comprehensive, near Farnborough in Hampshire, were Mike Gibson and his wife, Pat. Mike was my biology teacher. Pat, who taught RE, didn't actually teach me, but I got to know her really well and we became good friends. The Gibsons were also among my first and best customers when I started growing bedding plants as a kid.

I didn't have a very good reputation at primary school. I was uncontrollable and almost got expelled. When I got to secondary school I started to enjoy school a bit more, which I think was because of the encouragement I got from the Gibsons. Also, it was a time of self-discovery: I realised what I wanted to do with my life.

My parents were very keen gardeners, and my grandfather had been a nurseryman in Canterbury, so I think I was destined to become a gardener. I loved being outdoors and watching things grow, and helping in the garden we had at home.

Soon after I started secondary school, my parents gave me a greenhouse for my birthday. I began growing flowers and vegetables and taking them into school to sell.

I charged about half the price they charged in the shops. My plants were of a very good quality, and my geraniums always sold very well. I suspect the headmaster knew what was going on, but nobody tried to stop me. I always went in early and was careful not to set up shop too close to the headmaster's window. Sometimes I brought free samples - usually tomatoes and cucumbers - which went down very well.

I enjoyed Mike's lessons. I liked the subject and he always found time to talk to everybody. His wife was very approachable too. I often talked to her in my breaks or during lunchtime. What really bonded us, though, was that Pat and Mike bought a lot of my plants.

I had a thriving business by the time I was 14. I spent the money on seeds, and saved up to buy a paraffin heater so that I could start off seedlings much earlier. I bought myself a bicycle and financed my first motorbike from the profits.

Pat and Mike were unconventional as teachers. Although Pat taught RE, it wouldnt surprise me a bit to discover that she is not at all religious. Talking to her was like talking to a member of my family. She and Mike talked about lots of things other than the subjects they taught - usually about plants. They didn't have children of their own, and after I left school they would invite me round for supper. They are retired, but we still keep in touch. They were astonished when my book, Portfolio of Contemporary Gardens, came out - they couldn't believe that I could actually write a book.

The great thing about my teachers was that they never pushed me. They encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do, and helped me to realise my vision. I love what I do and it doesn't feel like work. I wish I'd paid a bit more attention in class, though. It would have helped me when I started writing about gardening.

I applied to train as a student gardener at the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley, but if that hadn't worked out I was going to study stage design. Now, when I'm arranging flowers and displays for parties and weddings, I'm fulfilling both ambitions because arranging a wedding celebration is like doing a piece of theatre, really.

Garden designer and florist Stephen Woodhams has clients including Barbra Streisand, Pink Floyd and the Royal Opera House. He was talking to Pamela Coleman


1964: Born in Guildford,Surrey 1981: Begins training as a gardener at Royal Horticultural Society, Wisley 1984: Awarded RHS certificate with honours and is one of the youngest gardeners ever to win a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show 1986: Starts floral design company in Chobham, Surrey, with pound;5,000 and pound;40 a week from the Youth Enterprise Scheme 1992: Opens first London branch 1994,1996,1997: Awarded gold medals at Chelsea Flower Show 1998: Opens second London branch 1999: Portfolio of Contemporary Gardens published by Quadrille TES FRIDAY january 28 2000 .

I had a thriving business selling plants at school by the time Iwas 14. I financed my first motorbike from the profits The story so far

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today