Gardening: The cutting edge

A new generation of professional gardeners is rising through the ranks. Committed, independent and backed by a strong grounding in traditional practices, they deserve to be taken seriously. Mary Keen reports on how sponsored apprenticeships are providing a lifeline for young talent
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The Independent Online
Courses on garden design for ladies who lunch are all the rage. Gardening, the glossy magazines announce, is the New Sex. Features on the clothes to choose for this agreeable pastime suggest that a cashmere apron, pounds 300, or an equally expensive leather jerkin, as modelled by Dan Pearson on television, might be just the thing to wear. Dan's own jerkin came from a second-hand stall, of course. Like all working gardeners, he knows that expensive clothes get scratched to pieces and that trousers which wet hands can be wiped on are by far the best option.

There is, after all, an enormous difference between those who regard gardening as another excuse for shopping and those who spend every day of the year attending to the needs of plants. Most professional gardeners would not earn enough in a week to buy a cashmere apron and the people who actually do the work are not fashion fodder. Not even Sarah Cook, currently in charge of Sissinghurst and with a university degree in addition to her formidable horticultural skills, has ever been asked to pose for Vogue.

While it may be glamorous to play at garden design, being a working gardener is still not a career to boast about. There are fewer courses available for real gardeners than for New Gardeners, and far from being something to while away the hours of leisure, the training for a career in gardening is very hard work. Horticultural colleges tend to turn out people qualified to work in the public sector, in landscape contracting or in the horticultural industry. There, familiarity with plants is more often learned from the computer screen than from the flower bed, and traditional skills, such as topiary or vegetable and fruit growing, are rarely taught. Yet without these crafts, the gardens of everyone's dreams can never be maintained. We need good gardeners; we need to value them much more highly than we now do; and somebody needs to find the funding to train them to work in the sort of gardens that are currently the subject of so much fashionable aspiration.

The National Trust has made a start. Their Careership Scheme provides apprenticeships for eight people a year. It costs the Trust about pounds 8,000 to fund each person on the scheme, which includes 10 residential weeks at Bicton College in Devon, with the government contributing about 20 per cent of this total. For the rest of the time, the trainees work at gardens where they are closely supervised and taught on a one-to-one basis by head gardeners who have been handpicked for their ability to teach others.

Many of those who have been on the scheme stay on to work for the Trust after their training is over, and of these, a few may go on to make head gardeners of the calibre of Sarah Cook or Bill Malecki. Bill was recently promoted from running the garden at Biddulph Grange to being a gardens adviser. He is one of four advisers within the Trust, all of whom have horticultural, rather than design backgrounds.

Until not so long ago, the National Trust's was the only traditional apprenticeship available, but links have now been made with the Royal Parks and other historic houses. The Professional Gardeners Guild has also run an apprenticeship since September 1995 when it was offered pounds 1,000 a year sponsorship from Alitex, makers of the best traditional greenhouses on the market. The first Alitex trainee, Nicola Canham, is now working her way through three Heritage gardens over a three-year period, with her wages funded by each property in turn. The sponsor's money goes to- wards things like spraying and chainsaw courses.

Nicola is typical of the new independent young gardeners who are working all over the British Isles. She began as a children's librarian but found it did not pay the rent. After a summer in Cornwall with a Strimmer and a bicycle, she took a year off to do a horticultural course and then worked in the parks at Barnet. She was 29 when she saw the advertisement for the Professional Gardeners Guild traineeship. The interviews, she recalls, were horrific. Ten people sat round a table asking if she could stick at things, and who was her inspiration. "Gertrude Jekyll," she said, having read the first two pages of a book about her.

The first year was spent at Waddesdon, where she gained a reputation for enthusiasm and her gardening knowledge and experience. Now she is at Chatsworth, where ducklings swim on a formal pond and hundreds of lilies are being bedded out near the rock garden. She has been given responsibility for the Cottage Garden, where plants and flowers are being grown in the design of a country cottage. Inside the "house", the "bed" will later be spread with a "quilt" of begonias. Ian Webster, the gardening department's second in command, has told her that he knows how many begonias will be needed but she must do the sums herself.

"The most brilliant thing," Nicola says, "is the vines." The Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown at Chatsworth regularly take first prize at the RHS Show and now that she knows the state secrets of the vinery, her personal challenge when she leaves will be to grow grapes as good as those at Chatsworth. At night, she reads and studies for exams, or walks on Kinder Scout hill, which she finds gives her as much of a high as surfing. She has fallen in love with Derbyshire.

Nicola has no ambition to become a designer: "People who leave college and do that are running before they can walk." Instead, she wants to learn the basics - what really interests her is growing things well. What, I wondered, did she feel about the set-up at Chatsworth; was it perhaps not quite as politically correct as a modern independent woman would like?

"No, I think it's great," says Nicola, but adds that it was a real culture shock arriving from London. She had never experienced such a sense of community as she found at Chatsworth. "The head gardener still spends ages sorting out housing problems for people who retired 30 years ago."

Nicola moves on to West Dean at the end of the year; after that she wants to work in a garden that is open to the public, "not just for some lord and lady, where no one else sees it". Horticulture, she thinks, is for the people and she likes the idea of "vegetables being eaten and flowers being picked for the house as they are at Chatsworth".

The commitment and enthusiasm of younger people like Nicola is invaluable to the horticultural world. But until the profile of working gardeners is raised from its lowly status, and the job is given the recognition it deserves, good gardens may continue to hang back from offering apprenticeships. If the New Gardeners - who I doubt will ever wield a spade for a full day - could be persuaded to put up some money for training apprentices, then the present fashion for garden design might last a little longer. For without skilled maintenance, even the very best of designers will fail to deliver the dream. !