By Matt Collins, Head Gardener
We were saddened by the news recently that Bertie Leffman, a long time supporter of the Museum’s Horticultural Traineeship, had passed away. Bertie’s generous annual donation, which was given in memory of the pleasure he took visiting gardens with his late wife, has since 2013 enabled us to run a successful, unique and increasingly popular traineeship programme. Match-funded by the National Garden Scheme, it offers one gardener each year the opportunity to work with me in the gardens here and engage in the Museum’s busy and exciting schedule of horticultural talks and events, while also getting to spend time in gardens nationwide (and occasionally abroad), learning alongside fantastic plantspeople from head gardeners and landscape designers to floral artists, growers and garden writers.
We will miss very much our meetings with Bertie, who, visiting for lunch, would take great interest in hearing from each trainee about their particular year. And each would be different: this is the joy of the traineeship he facilitated. Outside of the garden’s seasonal calendar — which seems always to fly by, from the spring bulb displays through to winter mulching — one year at the Garden Museum is never quite like another, owing to its ever evolving and expanding trajectory. As the year’s series of events and exhibitions unfolds, and new projects spring into life, there are always a few singularities: a trainee might find themselves venturing to New Covent Garden Flower Market at dawn to source blooms on a theme of an exhibition opening or patrons’ dinner; they might assist local residents with the planting of a meadow, or, as on more than one occasion, they might be interviewed on national radio.
The selection and range of placements differ year to year, also. The chief aim of the programme is to assist newly qualified gardeners in finding their particular path within horticulture, offering developmental experiences in support of this: trainees with an interest in garden management, for example, have been immersed in Dan Pearson’s beautiful Ninfa-inspired planting at Lowther Castle in the Lake District; they have worked in Great Dixter’s colour-rich flower borders and gardened under Joseph Atkin at Aberglasney Gardens. A trainee keen on productive propagation might spend time in Tom Coward’s phenomenal walled garden at Gravetye Manor, or at Sarah Raven’s Perch Hill; those with an eye for design have shadowed some of Britain’s most celebrated garden and landscape designers: Sarah Price, Tom Stuart Smith, Nigel Dunnett. Such experiences not only inspire direction, but build confidence and connection. Throughout their time with us, trainees are encouraged to keep a record of their experiences, and a little collection of gardener’s diaries now gathers in the Museum’s garden design archive.
Having run the traineeship for almost a decade (albeit with a short pause during the museum’s redevelopment project in 2015-17), I love to hear how former trainees are getting on, and where their careers have taken them. Among the nine to date, there are accomplished gardeners working in public and private gardens both near and far — one, Ania Wiatr, as far as Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is Horticultural Curator at Philbrook Museum of Art. Thomas Rutter, our most recent graduate, sends me enviable updates from Tuscany, where he is now developing a garden designed by Luciano Giubbilei.
Others have written articles, published books and created popular gardening podcasts; Ben Dark — one of the museum’s earliest trainees — has done all three, and was named Gardening Journalist of the Year at this year’s Garden Media Guild Awards (congrats Ben!). That the traineeship has encouraged the pursuit of such interesting and diverse occupations within the wider gardening world is a fact worth celebrating, setting it aside from many conventional horticultural traineeships and apprenticeships. Our wonderful 2019 trainee, Elena Donovan, wrote recently to say that, coming straight from a horticulture degree, she considers the Garden Museum traineeship to have been the best first step into her gardening career. ‘Not only did it provide me with hands-on experience and introduce me to designers and gardeners, but it made me the confidant gardener I am today’.
So we express our deepest gratitude to dear Bertie, for enabling many to take these important first steps, and to the National Garden Scheme who continue their support for the programme. In January we will begin advertising for our tenth trainee — to start in spring — which feels like a significant milestone. Anyone interested in becoming our next horticultural trainee, please keep an eye on our website, and forthcoming newsletters, for an update early in the New Year.
Read Thomas Rutter’s account of his traineeship year