'I was willing to learn': How one green-fingered graduate swapped history for horticulture

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The Independent Online

For the very rich, there's no difficulty in finding a designer to make them a brilliant garden. Designers' names – Tom Stuart-Smith, Cleve West, Dan Pearson, Arabella Lennox-Boyd – are well known, their work much publicised. But finding a top gardener is much more of a problem.

In the Cotswolds, it seems, they pinch their neighbour's, but that's a dangerous game. The answer is to produce more of what's needed. But how? College courses are primarily geared to 'amenity horticulture' so you can learn plenty about health and safety, mowing, machine maintenance and spraying, but you're likely to be wobbly on plant names and the maintenance of herbaceous borders.

Once, a young gardener would have learnt all he needed to know under the guiding eye of an experienced head gardener, and the patronage of a garden owner who didn't need to look too closely at the wages bill. Working his way from apprentice to journeyman, a gardener learnt on the job and relied on the close-knit club of the head gardeners to find a suitable vacancy. But although there's been an orgy of grand garden making-over the past few years, providing the right kind of gardener to look after them is still a problem.

Partly it's a question of image. David Cameron didn't help when he made a speech about getting idle teenagers off the streets and into jobs like "litter picking and gardening". A top gardener actually needs skills as complex as any museum curator – practical skills, yes of course, but also an eye for what is beautiful, an appreciation of texture and form, an ability to think forward in time, for a garden never stands still. They also need to develop a sympathetic understanding of the things they can't change – soil, aspect, the vagaries of the British climate. A full-time gardener has to juggle budgets, realise an owner's dreams, but at the same time be robust enough to fend off demands that are either unrealisable or unreasonable (why should a gardener cart dustbins or look after security systems?).

Any move that improves the image of gardening as a job is to be welcomed. So when Christopher Woodward, the dynamic director of the Museum of Garden History in London's Lambeth, announced they were setting up a horticultural internship, I cheered. They'd done it, explained Woodward, as a direct, practical response to concerns about the way professional gardeners are trained and recruited. "We were very conscious of how much talent there is among new graduates in horticulture. But we can provide a bridge to the next stage. We can provide opportunities for our interns to work with some of the best names in the business."

Their first intern, Matthew Collins, was immediately snapped up to work in a private garden designed by Mary Keen in Richmond. Their second, 25-year-old Ben Dark, has just finished his year and I went to the museum to find out from him how the internship worked and what he's got from it. "Really scary interviews," he said. "But they needed to know I was seriously interested in being a gardener. That I was willing to learn and that I could benefit from my year here." He feels he has. "It's by far the strongest thing on my CV," he says, stronger than the degree in medieval history he got from Bristol University. Or the year's course he took at Capel Manor. "You can't apply for the internship unless you've got some qualification in horticulture," he explained, so after a kind of gap year running a secondhand book stall in St Nicholas Market, Bristol ("a wonderful time") and an unsatisfying job at the British Library, he studied four days a week at Capel to get his National Certificate in Horticulture.

Interns get an allowance towards living expenses and are expected to give 20 hours a week to the museum. They work in the garden, they help set up the debates and lectures which are held there regularly and, once a month, they're sent out to work with some of those "best names". Ben particularly remembered his days with Tom Stuart-Smith, setting out plants in a client's garden. "It was made on such a huge scale. I'd never seen so many plants laid out all at once." The rest of the time is his own, he said, and he spends most of it "hacking round south-west London" with a haversack of garden tools on his back; £160 spent on some well-designed flyers brought him in as much gardening work as he can handle.

The garden surrounding the Museum of Garden History is a surprising delight to find in this busy part of London. It falls into two distinct sections – the historic part, with an intricate knot garden designed by the museum's president, Lady Salisbury, and a contemporary garden that fills the approach to the museum, with a long herbaceous border planted in strong blocks of aster and spurge, artemisia and yellow daisy. Ben's first encounter with the border was during the selection process when all the shortlisted candidates were given a planting plan and asked how they'd incorporate bulbs to give a year-long display. "I really went to town on that. I wrote whole stories on why I'd chosen particular things."

Walking round with him at the end of his year, you notice how involved he has become with the garden. He's developed that slightly proprietorial feeling that's necessary in all good professional gardeners. After a year at the museum, he knows now what new ideas he'd like to incorporate for next season. But he won't be there. Now his internship has come to an end, he's hoping to find a job as an assistant gardener rather than a head gardener. "I just know I would benefit from a few more years working under someone really knowledgeable."

What do his friends think of his choice of job, I wondered. "There's a very clear split," he replied. The friends he left behind in Hampshire when he went to university think it's bizarre that he's got a degree, but wants to do gardening. His city friends think it's all incredibly romantic and envy the fact that he's outdoors most of the time. I, of course, believe profoundly that he could not have chosen a more brilliant way to spend his life.

The Museum of Garden History has already chosen its next intern – 24-year-old Gareth Scotland, boxer, watercolour artist and Royal Parks trainee. Advertisements for the 2012-13 session will appear from July next year. For more information about the internship contact The Garden Museum on 020-7401 8865 or email info@gardenmuseum.org.uk.

Other bursaries available for gardeners include the Christopher Lloyd scholarship which aims "to educate and inspire the scholar to the highest level of plantsmanship and garden craft". Scholars spend a year at Great Dixter, the late Christopher Lloyd's garden in Sussex, mentored by head gardener Fergus Garrett.

For more information about this Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme call 01737 244664 or go to hbgbs.org.uk. There is also a Christopher Lloyd bursary worth up to £1,500 for trainees and young gardeners "to enrich their gardening knowledge by travel in the UK and abroad".

For more information about the bursary, call 01797 254048 or go to greatdixter.co.uk. The Royal Horticultural Society takes on nine trainees a year for its Diploma in Practical Horticulture (Dan Pearson's starting point). The two-year course gives trainees a chance to work in all areas of the garden. For more information call 01483 212335 or go to rhs.org.uk