People volunteer at Winterbourne for all sorts of reasons: some for the experience and new skills, while others come to share their knowledge and meet new people. But for our shop and garden volunteer, Ann Kelly, volunteering is all about spending time at the place that inspires her. This is her story.
The door opens and in comes a couple of visitors, slightly flushed from the cool spring weather. “How lovely and warm it is in here” they say. I smile, and they say how lovely the gardens are looking. “Well done to Dan and his great team”, I usually remark.
No matter what the time of year, there is always something to catch the eye and comment upon: snowdrops and crocus, followed by daffodils, tulips, wallflowers and then the rhododendrons and famous wisteria. There are also the wonderful autumn colours, notably the Cornus kousa by the Japanese Tea house, that lead into the walled garden where the seed heads from the herbaceous plants give structure and a wildlife habitat for the winter. But there are also so many wintering flower delights, including witch hazel, viburnum and the striking white bark of the silver birch in the White Garden. I can go on and often do.
This is one reason why I volunteer in the shop: to chat to our lovely visitors about everything Winterbourne has to offer. Yes, the shop needs to be dusted, the stock to be topped up and straightened, and price labels added, but that is no problem. It is nice to be busy.
In 2019, I saw the RHS qualifications advertised at Winterbourne. I have always liked gardening and have been lucky enough to have lived in houses with some degree of garden and was given a tiny strip of garden to do what I liked with when I was about eight. Sadly, it ran along the edge of the greenhouse and a path to the lawn. It was dry and hot with poor soil so not much grew, but I could be outside and use my trowel and think I was helping.
Dad grew some veg and, being keen on cricket, liked a neat lawn. Mum looked after some roses. It all rubbed off on me and I turned my own first garden from a fairly neglected patch to something half decent, sharing ideas with neighbours who still remain good friends. Although we now live in different places, we still talk plants. My husband smiled and brought me a cuppa as I would happily, as he put it, “sit in the mud, stuffing dead looking twigs into the soil all winter and the following year it all grew and flowered”. So, gardening can be pretty good, even if you only know a little.
Now it was time to understand how it worked and expand my horticultural knowledge. I applied and was successful in getting a placement on the RHS Practical Gardening course. This was great, and I learnt the professional ways to cultivate the garden, being able to have a go at digging a new plot, sowing seeds, taking cuttings, pruning bushes, all in the extensive training garden area at Winterbourne. (Very occasionally, Head Gardener, Dan allowed us into the main garden, provided we were under the watchful eye of our RHS tutor, Helen).
Everyone loved the course and good friendships were made. Last September, I decided to sign up for the theory-based course, covering choice and establishment of plants. This time our tutor was Darren, (the BBC WM’s ‘Laughing Gardener’) and it has been good fun learning and laughing. For anyone thinking of taking an RHS courses, (newly aligned this coming year to better meet industry needs), there is plenty to learn, practice, and research for assignments. There are also seemingly hundreds of Latin names to learn for those plants, but at least many are actually growing around the garden: it is easier to learn from live specimens. Studying plant types makes you look at them afresh and really appreciate their beauty and purpose.
Whilst my knowledge is sadly lacking compared with Winterbourne’s gardeners – especially Abbi who has an amazing knowledge of plant names – I can now discuss with our visitors the flowering Galanthus nivalis, Hamamelis x intermedia, catkins on the Garrya elliptica, and peeling bark of the Prunus serrula if need be. I often learn lots from them too, as many of our visitors are very knowledgeable in this area.
This year a call went out for more garden volunteers, and I decided I needed to put my learning into practice and was lucky enough to be accepted. (After all, you can’t be in a cosy warm shop all the time!) It is lovely weeding, listening to birds sing, the children playing, and learning even more about horticulture from the other volunteers.
I have been trusted to tidy up the Agapanthus campanulata and a ‘Queen Mum’ from the greenhouses, pot up Osteospermum ‘Summer Spell Orange’ and prick out Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’. With some RHS qualifications as well, I am sure I could gain a gardening position somewhere if I tried hard enough – indeed several fellow students are already doing just that, and some have started their own businesses. Thank you to all who make Winterbourne such a special place to visit, volunteer and study at.
I urge everyone to come and enjoy the atmosphere; there is always something new to see: the house and ever-improving exhibits, the constantly evolving garden, formal RHS qualifications to be studied (or just informal masterclasses if you don’t wish to commit to anything too long and involved.) And you can take it all in with a nice cuppa and piece of cake on the sunny terrace under the wisteria. Don’t forget to pop into the shop, say hello and maybe buy something to remind you of your visit too.