Thursday, 19 August 2010

Gardening at Woodbrooke - a second account

Last week, I posted Fran's account of being a Gardening Friend at Woodbrooke for three months. This week, I'm posting Jane's account of a different pattern of volunteering in the garden. Jane typically comes for two weeks at a time, two or three times a year, and has been doing this for some years now. The dates are fixed to suit her life and the working life of the garden. I asked Jane the same questions as those answered by Fran in last week's post.

My maternal grand-mother was a keen gardener and I suppose I very much wanted to be like her but didn’t do much about it until I was training as an occupational therapist (OT) and gardening was on the syllabus. I chose it as a special subject in my final year and on Saturdays during that year worked on a stall in York market selling cut flowers and pot plants for a nurseryman. I was often asked for advice and my stock reply was “Keep it moist”.

In my first OT job I got to know the gardener at one of the mental health units where I was working and he gave me a part of the garden to use with patients. We grew a good crop of potatoes with his help. At home we had an allotment at one stage and I tried to grow a few vegetables in the garden. Not long before I retired I had the chance to run a weekly group in the OT department’s garden, and after retiring I went back to work in the garden as a volunteer. This is when I really started learning more about gardening and more still when I moved and found voluntary work in a Green Gym, a community garden on an allotment site. Woodbrooke is probably the place where I’ve learnt the most as the garden is the largest in which I’ve worked, and contains such variety. Over the years, I’ve been here in every month of the year except August, apart from the winter months.

I was an attender at Quaker meetings for seven years before becoming a Friend in 1977. Earlier in the 1970s I had come to a weekend for attenders at Woodbrooke but think it must have been in wintertime – I don’t remember the garden at all! I must have known something about it from others who had been here, as I used to look with longing at the advertisements for Gardening Friends while I was working, feeling I did not have the time to come. I think it was in the first or second week of my retirement that I was here at last as a Gardening Friend. I continued coming, and in the last three years I have come three times a year, for two weeks at a time. It is especially satisfying the next time I come to see the progress of things I have sown or planted. I’ve done all sorts of other jobs – weeding (which I love), watering, digging, mulching, pruning, transplanting, harvesting, lifting and dividing, mowing, litter picking, haymaking, painting, stripping ivy off trees, tipping chalk into the lake from the boat (no longer done), chasing Canada geese, closing gaps in netting to keep squirrels out, introducing course members to tasks in the garden, talking to visitors and to intruders, putting things straight after vandalism and probably other things that haven’t come to mind.

The highlight I think was mowing the labyrinth. I couldn’t stop looking at it afterwards.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes – I’m better at mulching and more careful with pruning now – and had a few mishaps, including losing the padlock for the boat in the lake.

The routine duty of walking round the grounds has been a special time for me and I saw a tawny owl for the first time on one of these walks. Spotting a kingfisher has been a particular thrill.

After a day’s work I love to take the boat out and drift on the lake. I don’t regard myself as a knowledgeable gardener but I do recognise most weeds and I think I’m good at following instructions, provided that I remember them. I have difficulty remembering plant names, even when I’ve been told them numerous times – I should keep a notebook! I always come away with new knowledge and experience and ever-increasing delight in being and working in the now so familiar grounds of Woodbrooke. I regard being a Gardening Friend as an enormous privilege.

I could continue at length about the experience of living at Woodbrooke and being part of its community. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know fellow volunteers in the garden – it is a delight to see the local ones again each time I come, the Friends in Residence and people who use Woodbrooke regularly for study, many of whom have coincided with me on several visits. As for Woodbrooke staff, it is a source of great pleasure to feel I am known to most of them now. Their welcome, friendliness and helpfulness means a lot to me. It feels really good to be included in staff meetings and very interesting to have this insight into how Woodbrooke works. I’m proud to wear the oval badge! [That's the name badge worn by staff, Friends-in- Residence and gardening volunteers - as distinct from the rectangular badge given to guests on arrival.]

It’s quite easy not to feel any need to go outside the little world of Woodbrooke. For a start it seems a pity to miss any of the meals… On visits in the last two years I’ve tried to be a bit more adventurous and at weekends have been to Bournville, the Barber Institute, the Museum and Art Gallery, the Back to Backs, the Botanical Gardens, the Winterborne Garden, the Lickey Hills and further afield to Lichfield and Stratford-upon-Avon. Each time I’ve been here I’ve been to circle dancing in Kings Heath on a Thursday evening. I’ve only been on courses twice. The more I hear from course members about their experiences the more I feel I should be taking the opportunity to participate but I am torn between this and wanting the opportunity to just be at Woodbrooke without the intensity of being on a course.

What are the other aspects of the experience which are important to me? I value the call to silence at mealtimes and the reminder that gives me of all I have to be thankful for: not just the food and fellowship but also the opportunity to be in a place ‘where worship has been valid’ and to contribute to something which reflects my own interests and concerns. I love Woodbrooke’s diversity, its woodland and trees, its conservation areas, its lake, its wildlife, its walled garden and the fact that it is managed organically. Above all I value the trust placed in me, that what I do in the garden never goes unnoticed but is appreciated and provides either a learning experience or a source of encouragement.

Many people discovering I’m a Gardening Friend say “I’d like to do that” but I would not encourage every one of them to apply! I think some are fine weather gardeners but it does rain at Woodbrooke. As well as many delightful jobs there are those that are wet, dirty, heavy, back-breaking or simply tedious. Only if your heart is in it and you really enjoy most of these as well is it for you.

Beside the knowledge I take away with me there is the inspiration of working with someone of vision. I have seen how the garden constantly continues to change and develop under Steve Lock’s care – how his many experiments have worked, how his grasping of this and that “window of opportunity” (I think of this as one of his favourite phrases) has paid off. Despite my lack of expertise I feel my own suggestions are sought and valued too.
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Thanks to Jane for her reflections on being a Gardening Friend.

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