What does it take to be a head gardener?

Anna Pavord meets a young man whose horticultural leanings have led him to singlehandedly manage a 60-acre plot
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I've just finished reading Life in the Gardeners' Bothy (Malthouse Press 2000) by Arthur Hooper, who, born in 1908, never wanted to be anything else but a gardener. After washing pots, sieving soil and washing greenhouses for his father, a head gardener himself, Arthur was sent off to Fonthill House at Tisbury in Wiltshire. As a bothy boy, he was right at the bottom of the hierarchy that had existed in all big gardens for generations. You started in the bothy as a journeyman; then, if you were good, you became foreman of a part of the garden – the glasshouses, the kitchen garden or the pleasure grounds.

Your destiny was entirely in the hands of the head gardener who, when he thought you had learnt all you could in the present place, sent you off to another garden where, perhaps, they did more training of fruit, or growing of orchids. The idea was to put you in the way of as much practical experience as possible before you in your turn felt ready to take on the exalted status of head gardener. Arthur was 42 before he found a garden, Tyntesfield House (now owned by the National Trust) that fulfilled his dreams.

The bothy was the place where the unmarried gardeners lived, and were looked after by a 'mum', a bothy lady who cleaned and cooked for them. Food was bought by the bothy foreman and the cost, the 'grub score', divvied up between the group. Each man had to do a week of bothy duty: washing up, getting in coal and wood, lighting fires, trimming the wicks of the oil lamps, keeping the glass chimneys of the lamps clean. The same man would that same week also be on out-of-hours garden duty, opening and shutting the ventilators, making sure the boilers that heated the glasshouses never went out.

Arthur Hooper was among the last generation of head gardeners to be trained in the old way, but although paper qualifications are now the norm, practical experience, says head gardener, Owen Vaughan, still counts as the most important part of preparing for the job.

Vaughan was only 28 when he landed his present job as head gardener at Rookwoods, near Bisley in Gloucestershire. There, he is responsible for a three-acre garden that tumbles down a steep slope to the Holy Brook in the valley below, as well as 60 acres of woodland beyond. But whereas Arthur Hooper at Tyntesfield had 10 men under him, Vaughan has just one person, two days a week, to help him.

But like Hooper, Vaughan never wanted to do anything but garden. At school near Birmingham, he says, horticulture and gardens were never mentioned. Careers advice was appalling. He left at 16 and quite by chance, taking his grandma to a garden show, found a stall run by Pershore College in Worcestershire, advertising diplomas in what they called Amenity Gardening. The two years he spent getting his BTec were, he says "brilliant". "Brilliant everything: campus, tutors, work – all fantastic."

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Owen Vaughan is responsible for a three-acre garden (John Lawrence)

He stayed on for another two years to get the next qualification, the Higher National Diploma and, with the rest of his gang at college, built a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. For this, he had to grow some special geraniums, but the day before the show opened there was a sudden frost which blackened all > the leaves of his key plants. "A steep learning curve," he says.

Pershore was evidently a difficult place to leave (it was the only college he ever looked at) and Vaughan decided to go for an even higher qualification, the BSc. Before he did that, though, he took a year out to work as an apprentice at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales's garden in Gloucestershire. "I just saw this card, pinned on the college noticeboard, asking for applications for the apprenticeship. I never thought I'd get it."

Fortunately, the informal network that, in the old days, spread news about jobs and vacancies (and employers to avoid) still exists, though in a different form. After he'd got his BSc, Vaughan went on holiday to France where he got a call from a friend, working at Slimbridge, the wildfowl sanctuary, telling him about a job going in the gardens there.

"I got a three-month seasonal placement at Slimbridge, which eventually stretched to three years. I loved the place and might be there still if they hadn't gone in for a restructuring that got rid of my job altogether. I'd just finished getting the nursery back into order – phormiums, crocosmias, daylilies, lovely plants. It was heartbreaking."

But without that unwelcome shock, he would probably never have found himself at Rookwoods, which he loves with an equal passion. But that's typical of the best gardeners. They look on the garden they work in as their own. They have to, if they are turning up there at quarter to eight every morning as Vaughan does.

The previous gardener had been at Rookwoods for 18 years, but left rather suddenly, before there could be any kind of handover between them. The owners, Des and Ro Althorp, loved their garden, but were not themselves gardeners. They didn't hand out lists of jobs to be done. They expected Vaughan to know what he was about and to take charge. So he did.

It was fortunate that he started his new job in September with an autumn and winter ahead of him to get to know the place. What was it, I wondered, that first attracted him to Rookwoods? "The seclusion," he answers immediately. "And the three weeping pears in the courtyard. And the roses. Every corner you turned, there were more roses." It's fortunate that pruning and training roses is his favourite job, as there are more than a hundred different kinds in the garden – 'Bobby James' sprawling into a tree, beautiful pink 'Dentelle de Malines' bred by Louis Lens in Belgium, tied in to an iron arch framing one of the many courtyards.

As we walk round the garden together, Vaughan outlines some of the projects he's planning for the year ahead: paths to be laid out in the kitchen garden, pots to be replanted, aged clumps of phlox to be split, plants for late summer and autumn to be introduced. What luck for him that he went with his gran to that gardening show. What luck for the Rookwoods roses that they are in the hands of a man who understands them so well.

For details of horticulture courses at Pershore College go to warwickshire.ac.uk or call 0300 456 0047

WEEKEND WORK

WHAT TO DO

* Sudden oak death ('Phytophthora ramorum') is the kind of sneaky disease that keeps gardeners awake at night. Despite its name, it attacks rhododendrons, camellias, viburnums, pieris, kalmias, yew trees, beech and horse chestnut, as well as oak. There is no known cure. We need a really cold winter to slow it down.

* Palms have become standard kit in small town gardens, where they usually thrive in the extra warmth created by escaped central heating. One of the most popular is the chusan palm 'Trachycarpus fortunei', with handsome pleated leaves a metre wide and long. The older it is, the tougher it gets, but a chill winter wind can easily kill off a young chusan. Wise gardeners will have already swathed their palms in fleece, a sheet of sacking or an old blanket.

WHAT TO SEE

µ The orchid festival at the University Botanic Garden, Cambridge, continues until 22 March with a display focusing on pollination. Bees, wasps, moths, flies, hummingbirds – all are used by orchids that have evolved to attract very particular pollinators. The garden is open daily (10am-5pm), admission £5. For more information go to botanic.cam.ac.uk or call 01223 336265

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