The photograph above shows volunteers, on a day out in June 2019, having a guided tour around the Royal Horticultural Society's new Bridgewater site which is under construction. The plan is for it to be opened next summer.
They also serve who only stand and weed – reflections of a volunteer gardener
I grew up in flats and had no experience of gardening until my 30s. Although I've now had a garden for many years – and listened much to "Gardeners' Question Time" – I mostly conserved what was there and hadn't developed my skills and confidence. I mowed, pruned (timidly) and weeded. What with family and work, I was a spare-time gardener, and then only in fair weather. All that changed when I became a Parrs Wood volunteer gardener in September 2014.
I'd previously been to open days and fairs there and bought delicious fruit and vegetables. At that Autumn Fair, I explored the whole area (four and a half acres, I later learned), finding many unexpected delights, including the iris-fringed pond, the woodland and the walled herb garden. Admiring its luxuriant mint bed, neat box hedges and giant central cardoon, I noticed that some herb beds could do with weeding.
At the vegetable stall, I said rather shyly, "Could you do with another volunteer?" I was immediately signed up, and so began a chapter of my life that I would title "Balm for the soul and fitness for the body".
Balm for the soul: birdsong, especially in the herb garden; the satisfaction of removing weeds which are choking plants; watching cuttings in pots outside come through the winter; weeding in the tropical greenhouse (warm and sheltered, and up close with banana palm and hibiscus); spring (daffodils round the apple trees, starry blue and white chionodoxa, the huge old magnolia covered in bloom); summer in the perennial bed (roses, tall white phlox, the 6-ft michaelmas daisies covered with butterflies); laughing with colleagues over tea or even over a pile of manure.
Fitness for the body: if you're a weeder, as I am, a lot of bending and pulling; digging after rain; carrying heavy watering cans; washing the polytunnel inside and out; carrying trays of plants; reaching high to gather elderflowers for my cordial; hours of fresh air (and maybe sun).
I've learned so much: potting hardwood cuttings; pruning apple trees; a hard (for me) lesson not to be sentimental about forget-me-nots and speedwell – they may have lovely little flowers, but they are thugs. I learn from my colleagues, I learn by doing and also from the excellent reference books we use when none of us knows the answer.
I hope I've given a flavour of what being a volunteer gardener can offer you. I choose to specialise in weeding, but there are opportunities for any aspect of gardening you may like. Above all, you will be welcomed, as I have been, by a friendly, humourous, varied, lively group of colleagues. They are doing magnificent work in conserving and improving this hidden gem, and I'm delighted to be part of that work.
Whatever time you have – helping at our events, coming monthly or weekly – we would love to hear from you and would make you very welcome. Volunteers are central to our future.
Please contact us first so that we can arrange to have someone show you around. As we are co-located with Parrs Wood High School, volunteers who would like to work on the site during school hours will need to undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, previously called a CRB check.