Thursday, 12 August 2010

Gardening at Woodbrooke

I've posted here before about Woodbrooke's gardens and grounds - our gardener, Steve Lock took me around the garden and talked about his work. That resulted in two earlier posts, one generally about the site and Steve's approach to gardening; and one about the fruit and vegetables in the walled garden.

Double-click on any photo to see an enlarged version, and then click the back arrow to return to the blog.

In those earlier posts, I mentioned our gardening volunteers, without whom our gardens and grounds wouldn't be the wonderful places they are.

Gardening volunteers come in three 'varieties'! There are some local Friends, living in Birmingham, who come in to help perhaps one day a week. Then there are Friends from further away, who come for maybe a couple of weeks, once or twice a year. And then are the longer-term Gardening Friends who come for several months, covering the main growing season, and live with us, giving 25 hours a week of work, and participating in the life of Woodbrooke.

I thought it would be interesting to know more about some of these volunteer gardeners who are so vital to the life of our 10-acre site.

First of all, I asked Fran, who was one of our longer-term volunteers for about three months earlier this year. Fran is third from the left in this photo.

How did you first become interested in gardening? How did you learn what you know at the moment?

I've always loved plants, so much so that I have two botany degrees! However, academic learning has little to do with horticulture. Until becoming a Gardening Friend, I'd only ever tended plants for experiments or my own herbs and container plants.

What particularly interests you?

Everything I learned in my three months at Woodbrooke genuinely interested me. Probably the most eye-opening was the organic management, which most people might equate with worse-for-wear fruit and veg. Woodbrooke is Birmingham's largest organically managed garden which no one, who's seen it in all its splendour, would ever call worse-for-wear! The compost comes from kitchen scraps and gardening waste, the wormeries and comfrey composting produce all fertilisers, and the autumn leaves get raked up to become the next spring's leaf mould for mulching. Even the weekly grass cuttings get used to mulch the herbaceous borders. No visitor leaves without some inspiration on how they could manage their own gardens more organically.

What did you know about Quakers and Woodbrooke before you came here?

My mother grew up in Germany during World War Two. Among many her many horrific memories were also heartening ones of Quaker care packages arriving from America with gingham dresses, tinned fruit, and – luxuries of luxuries – bubblegum! I myself grew up in Canada, and in school learned more about Quakers through history lessons on the abolition of slavery and the Underground Railway. When I later moved to England, I volunteered as a healer for the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. They rent rooms in Quaker Meeting Houses throughout the UK to run their free spiritual healing clinics. We were always made to feel very welcome, and I attended some meetings for worship out of curiousity.

How did you hear about the Gardening Friend position?

I work as a freelance writer, and decided to take a creative sabbatical this year to concentrate on my own work. When I asked around for suggestions of peaceful and inspiring live-in positions, two friends (who don't know one another) suggested Woodbrooke. One was my friend Mohammed, an Environmental Science PhD student who'd attended a conference at Woodbrooke last year. He cheekily said that if it was peaceful enough for Gandhi (who was once a guest), chances are it would be peaceful enough for me! The other was my friend Alison Leonard, who teaches some courses at Woodbrooke and whose fiction and non-fiction books can be found in its library.

What made you think you'd like to come here?

I couldn't resist the synchronicity of both Mohammed's and Alison's independent suggestions and had a look at Woodbrooke's website. I was really taken by the photographs of the grounds and the wide range of exciting courses. When I applied last November, I genuinely didn't think I had a chance of being accepted as I figured there would be zillions of applicants and that – understandably – applications from Quakers would be preferred. I was more than happy to be proven wrong when I was offered an interview in January!

Can you say something about your general experience as Gardening Friend here?

It was rich, rich experience both for the actual gardening and everything besides. As a Gardening Friend, I was eligible to attend any courses with spare places. I sat in on three, all of which were thought-provoking and deeply moving. Although most of the students were Quakers, my 'outsider's view' was welcomed during discussions and I made some wonderful friends that I'm still in contact with.

Herbs growing in the walled garden

Being in residence also meant I ate all my meals on site. The food is d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s, and it was a real kick seeing the herbs and produce we gardeners delivered in the morning already being served at lunchtime.

I also relished the 101 conversations swirling about the place, depending on what courses were taking place. On any given day, I'd chat about everything from Shakespeare's plays, to living up a tree for a year, to Quaker missionaries in Burundi, to the current one million children prisoners in the world, to the latest World Cup updates, to the latest UK child protection laws, to research into the ministry of truth, to what was happening on the Archers.

What kinds of things did you do?

My mornings were spent in the garden, doing routine duties like watering, picking up litter, harvesting herbs and produce, collecting the kitchen scraps for the composting, and chasing the Canada geese off the lawn. Steve Lock, the Head Gardener who manages the volunteers, would then give everyone individual tasks. These ranged from sowing, to planting, to pruning, to weeding. Alongside longer-term residencies like mine, there are also several volunteers who come help for a week or fortnight and others who live locally and come in a day a week. In my own time, I wrote or visited Birmingham's sites. As Britain's second largest city, there's plenty to see and do on days off. I especially enjoyed walking the canal into town.

What were the high and low points for you?

The highest point was the staff and fellow volunteers, no doubt about it. As a Gardening Friend, I was invited to attend staff meetings and was always impressed by the genuine regard everyone has for each other. I wish more workplaces could be that considerate and thoughtful. Whether I was gardening or off-duty, I always enjoyed a laugh with the FiRs (Friends in Residence, who volunteer indoors) and the members of the gardening, house-keeping, administration, and catering staff. The only low point was feeling a bit 'peopled out' by my third month. At the start, the coming-and-going of students made for interesting conversations; towards the end, it could feel too much of a good thing and I sometimes retreated to the Quiet Table.

I suppose I should add falling in the lake on Open Garden Day, but that was more comic than low! Let's just say I'd recommend anyone reading this to either enjoy the lake from the shore or in the rowboat.

As a gardener, what do you think you gave and what did you gain?

My three months at Woodbrooke gave me an insight to many aspects of gardening – from hardening off seedlings, to harvesting herbs and produce, to mulching with both leaves and grass cuttings, to woodland management, to organic pest control, to hot and cool composting, to fertilising with comfrey. At the end of my residency, Steve presented me with the 'ministry of blue skies' - understandably, things could sometimes get tense in the run-up to Open Garden Day and he felt my playfulness helped keep things light. And this summer was possibly the hottest in recent years, so I spent much time with a watering can in hand.

Looking back at the whole period, what will you take away with you from your time here?

Many new friends, much knowledge about everything under the sun from gardening to spirituality, and a deeper appreciation for the Quaker way of life.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to be Gardening Friend in the future?

Don't worry about knowing much about gardening and prepare to be stretched! As Steve said at my interview, he's looking for people who are open and willing to give things a go.
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Thanks to Fran for her reflections on being a Gardening Friend.
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1 comment:

  1. Fran, this is a beautiful account of your time at Woodbrooke. If I could, I would sign up and be on the next plane! Is that the infamous lake in the last photo? I might have had to chuckle at your mishap (as long as you weren't in danger of drowning) but I would have given you a hand out!
    I know that both you and Woodbrooke were glad you found each other.
    Hollywood, Florida