A few months ago, I signed up for the RHS Level 2 course with 'Best in Horticulture'. My personal circumstances and other responsibilities mean distance learning is my only real option, and having reviewed the different providers, 'Best' were often recommended. Level 2 is made up of 2 certificates - 'Principles of Plant Growth, Propagation and Development' and 'Principles of Garden Planning, Establishment and Maintenance', each made up of 4 units. There is no obligation to do both certificates (in fact, there's no obligation to do all the units - you can still sit exams for individual units, you just won't be awarded a certificate unless you do - and pass - all 4). If you complete, and pass, all 4 units in either you are awarded the relevant certificate - if you do both certificates (8 units), you will be awarded the RHS Level 2 Certificate in the Principles of Horticulture. If you also do the practical exams, you are then awarded an RHS Level 2 Diploma in the Principles of Horticulture.

Prices vary, but in my case each unit costs £72, so each certificate will cost £288. Exam fees are extra, and will rise to £16 per unit from September 2018. That brings the total cost for each certificate to £352 at the time of writing. Theoretically, you don't need to sign up for a course in order to take the exams - you can register yourself as an external candidate at any test centre and simply pay the £16 exam fee for each unit. Personally, I'm finding that having some form of structure that the course offers, even remotely, helps.

I haven't studied anything formally for over 20 years - and even back when I did my last formal qualifications I never really 'did' revision - I could never get my head around the process. You'd imagine that being older, and less 'able' to learn as you do with age, that this would be a difficult task - but I'm actually finding it far easier for things to 'soak in' because I have an active interest in the subject - I actually want to learn, rather than simply pass an exam. That's not to say the topics aren't complex - they are - and I often need to read the same information, presented different ways, numerous times before I fully understand it.

I've chosen to study this primarily to build my confidence in Horticulture. Whilst anyone can learn WHAT to do in the garden, I'd also like to understand WHY I'm doing it. Even the bits I've learned so far have paid dividends, and I'm seeing much better crops as a result of better understanding the process.

I won't sit my first exam until next February (so, with that in mind, take all of this with a small pinch of salt!), but I will share some tips that have helped me learn so far;

Books - If you have relatively little horticultural knowledge, I'd advise against jumping straight in to the Level 2 specific titles - I did that initially and found myself really struggling to grasp some concepts. The title that really helped introduce me into things gently was 'RHS Gardening School', which was published earlier this year. The topics are fairly simple, but reading about concepts I didn't fully grasp beforehand, I felt able to explore in more detail later. Thereafter, there are two Level 2 specific titles available - 'A Handbook for Horticultural Students' by Peter Dawson and 'Level 2 Principles of Horticulture' by Charles Adams, Mike Early, Jane Brook and Katherine Bamford. 'A Handbook for Horticultural Students' is fairly 'dry' and monochrome and pretty much jumps straight into it - this was the first title I got, and I was scratching my head a few pages in. 'Level 2 Principles of Horticulture' eases into the topic a little more gently, and is presented in full colour with various photographs and illustrations throughout, which helps break things down into 'chunks', something I personally find helps me digest information.

I'd suggest, if you can, obtaining all 3 titles - but read them in this order - 'RHS Gardening School', 'Level 2 Principles of Horticulture' and finally 'A Handbook for Horticultural Students'. I'm told that many of the concepts learnt in these books go beyond the scope of Level 2 and edge towards Level 3, but in my mind that can't be a bad thing. If you're anything like me, you'll end up buying any book that could be remotely useful - I've added titles such as 'Practical Latin for Gardeners' and a whole host of plant encyclopaedias!

Finally, and ONLY after reading through the books, take a look at the previous exam papers, which are free to download and come with examiners reports. I would caution that reading these before you've gained at least some understanding of the topics will dent your confidence - but reviewing them once you've grasped at least the basics, will at least help guide you towards the exams. I'd use these papers to test yourself when you feel you may be read to sit the exam(s) - obviously the questions will be different, but they will at least give you an inclination of what to expect. The examiners comments should give you further guidance thereafter. With the 'Best' course I've signed up for, they will also add further guidance for each paper - for example, their interpretation of the questions and potential pitfalls in answers. I've found this particularly useful as it's reinforced the need to *really* read the questions carefully and look for key words in there (i.e DISTINCT).

The pass rate in 2017 was over 75%, with some units achieving a pass rate of over 85%. 2018 results and examiners comments will be released at the end of August, with 2019 exams taking place in February and June. If you're planning to sit the February 2019 exams, the closing date for entries is 30th November 2018, and entries for the June 2019 exams close on 13th May 2019.