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

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