A large ginger tomcat was asleep in a basket on the windowsill of the gardeners' bothy at Cragside, Northumberland. Lunch boxes and plant catalogues covered the wooden table. Ten plants of the season were lined up in jam jars on a shelf, each one carefully labelled with its Latin name and its proper botanical family. This was the week's homework for the 18-year-old trainee gardener who had just joined the workforce at Cragside, the extraordinary house and garden that was laid out towards the end of the last century by the armaments manufacturer Sir William Armstrong. It now belongs to the National Trust.
It all seemed deliciously cosy. It lulled me into feeling that everything was still as we imagine it used to be, when young gardeners worked through practical apprenticeships under the guidance of an experienced head gardener and the patronage of a philanthropic owner. But, of course, it isn't. Philanthropists are thin on the ground these days. Although gardening has never been higher on the national agenda, providing good training for gardeners has become ever more of a problem.
I went to Cragside to see Alison Pringle, who was 26 when she decided on an abrupt career change, and was swept into the first of the National Trust's three-year training programmes for gardeners. How did it happen? Alison already had a degree in fine arts and was working as a freelance etcher. "My studio was in a factory unit in a fairly rundown area of Newcastle. I never saw daylight. I just felt it was no way to live. Then by chance I saw this article in Cosmopolitan about women who worked outdoors. `If only,' I thought."
But nobody could show her how to do it. She already had one degree and didn't want another paper qualification. She wanted to learn by experience, the way garden apprentices used to. She didn't want to ride round on a tractor all day, mowing sports pitches. She wanted more from the job than manual labour. That's when she saw the advertisement for the Trust's training programme, which they call "careership". She was lucky to get in. The Trust can fund only eight students a year, and six of the places are reserved for people under 20. Each student is assigned to a particular garden, carefully chosen to provide a wide range of experience. They are also committed to 10 weeks' study at Bicton College in Devon, where the Trust has arranged courses tailor-made for the kind of work their gardeners are likely to tackle. Ordinary courses in "amenity horticulture", as it is chillingly called, take little account of the needs of historic gardens.
"I think the Trust took a gamble on me," says Alison. "I had bright purple hair, extremely long fingernails and luminous trousers." But she has been spectacularly successful in her second career, and is now assistant head gardener at Cragside, responsible for propagating all their plants. By some miracle, she's even managed to hang on to her fingernails, though the hair has calmed down. She didn't want to clash with the summer bedding.
"A culture shock", is how she describes her first months as a trainee. "I had no idea how much was involved - especially with historic gardens. It adds a whole new layer to all the basic things you have to know: historic techniques of gardening, principles of design." All the careership students (at 26, she was relieved that she wasn't the oldest) went off together to do their block release courses and, in their final year, were encouraged to arrange exchanges between each other's gardens. "We got paid, and we got the professional qualifications," explains Alison, "but it was the practical experience that was the key for me on this scheme."
Had the job turned out to be what she hoped? "Oh, far more than I was hoping," she replies. "I love plants, and here I'm responsible for bringing on at least 50,000 plants a year. We don't have much in our budget for buying new plants."
Stoicism is an important qualification for the job, she says. There are so many things outside your control that, as a gardener, you have to learn to accept. And patience. "I fall down there," she confesses. "I'm always poking at my seed pans, wanting to hurry the seeds on." Most of all, she acknowledges the contribution of Cragside's head gardener, Andrew Sawyer. "It's a huge commitment on their part to take on a student. They have to remember to involve them in everything that's going on. It's up to them to make sure the student gets as wide a spread of experience as possible."
So, as far as Alison is concerned, the Trust's careership scheme has been a success. But each student costs the Trust pounds 10,000 a year. They would like to expand the programme, but they don't have the money. They would like private owners to join them in offering placements for trainee gardeners, but there have been few offers. The Historical Royal Palaces have joined in, and so have English Heritage, but there are still big gaps in the network.
Despite the extraordinary richness of our historic parks and gardens (the Trust alone owns 160), there is no properly funded centre of excellence devoted to their history, care and upkeep. There is no central clearing- house that Alison could use to guide her towards what she wanted to do. The Heritage Lottery Fund has voted a generous pounds 57m towards an urban parks initiative, and the money is badly needed; parks are vital lungs in Britain's cities. But there is nowhere for the people responsible for Britain's parks to go, to get advice about the best way to spend their windfall. There are no courses tailored to provide gardeners with as good a grasp of the historic significance of urban parks as they have of turf care or tractor maintenance.
Parks have suffered badly in the wake of "compulsory competitive tendering" (CCT), which focuses people's minds on a figure at the end of a balance sheet. But there are many different ways of doing sums. Before CCT, the parks provided the best practical training on offer for young would-be gardeners. Nobody minded that, when fully fledged, they might move out of the public sector into private gardens. The view was that wherever they went, the training would not be wasted.
But a requirement to provide similar opportunities for training has never been written into the park contracts that local councils put out for tender. Often the contracts go to landscapers based hundreds of miles away from the parks they contract to look after. You can't put a figure on the local pride, and the local distinctiveness, that come from employing local people to look after their own landscapes. But the loss is obvious to everybody.
Recognising the gap left after the collapse of the parks apprenticeships, the Trust has tailored a scheme ideally suited to this country's vast inheritance of historic gardens, but can't find the money to expand it. The Professional Gardeners Guild, in a separate initiative, also sponsors one trainee gardener who spends a year in each of three different gardens. Beyond that, a great black hole looms.
We are constantly told that we have the richest heritage of gardens on earth. But who is going to care for them, come the millennium?
For details about the National Trust's careership scheme, send an sae to John McKennall, c/o Regional Office, Llanhydrock, Bodmin, Cornwall PL30 4DE. Training starts each September.