Lending a Hand

PUBLISHED: 13:35 27 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013

There are 106 volunteers working in Cornish gardens Photo Lousie Danks

There are 106 volunteers working in Cornish gardens Photo Lousie Danks

In this April issue Cornwall Life learns how popular volunteering in Cornish gardens is becoming and how to get involved

Lending a Hand

What is it like to work as a volunteer in a garden in Cornwall? Louise Danks finds out

There is a Greek proverb that says, 'A civilisation flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit.' Perhaps this goes some way to explain why people volunteer with such dedication and enthusiasm to improve the environment around them. With the days lengthening and the sap rising, perhaps you'll be inspired to try something new? Volunteering is one of the best ways to get out and about and get to know your surrounding area or favourite garden.

It is astonishing just how many different volunteering opportunities are available across our county and it doesn't mean signing away every minute of your spare time. The schemes are very flexible and work to suit the volunteer and could even result in a qualification.

The National Trust has more than 50,000 volunteers throughout the UK, with 106 working in Cornish gardens and nurseries. You'd be hard pushed to visit any National Trust property and not come across a volunteer since they are involved in every aspect of the National Trust's work.

Trengwainton, a National Trust garden near Penzance, has an active and hugely varied community of volunteers. They range from college groups, people contemplating a career change, internships from overseas, retired people and garden lovers who want to hone their skills.

Trengwainton's Head Gardener, Jan Hoyland, speaks highly of her team of volunteers. "It's a very diverse garden and we offer our volunteers the chance to pick up an interesting range of skills and the chance to socialise. In return they give such a lot back."

I spoke to a couple of Trengwainton's volunteers: Pauline Geake is the longest-serving volunteer at the garden and Jude Page is currently retraining and gaining valuable practical horticultural skills. Their enthusiasm for the garden is obvious. They are in the process of moving one of the sweet violet crops to a better-drained site in the kitchen garden. Jude says: "It's more than just gardening, there's a social side to it too and you just don't stop learning! It's a great combination of being outdoors, being amongst nature and being with new people."

Volunteers work with the team of permanent staff. A big project for 2009 is to get the Kitchen Garden up to full production, where they will be involved in sowing, planting and harvesting, as well as answering visitors' questions. Head Gardener Jan hopes that those skills will go on to be used in the wider community.

The Conservation of Coast and Countryside sector within the National Trust receives a growing number of volunteer requests as it's a great way to gain employment in this line of work. In fact, a quarter of all National Trust wardens started out as volunteers. "Volunteers enable us to get work done on the ground, they spread the word and are an invaluable link to the wider community. They are good messengers and supporters of the organisation and the staff pick up and thrive on their energy," says Anthony Sandham, National Trust Volunteering Officer, Cornwall.

Volunteers have also been a large part of life at the Eden Project. Its Volunteer Scheme began in earnest in 2002 and Eden now has 228 volunteers working all year round alongside staff. All that's asked of would-be volunteers is that they pledge a minimum of 72 hours that can be worked at any time throughout the year. This works out at around a day each month and it is possible to work those hours at a time that's convenient to the volunteer. To volunteer at Eden you must be over 16, but if you are under 16 and would like to help out, there is a schools and work experience programme.

Eden's volunteers are divided into five teams. The most popular team that volunteers request working in is the Gardens Team, which is made up of 26 volunteers who work closely with the Horticulture or Green Team - the Eden team of qualified, employed gardeners - both inside the iconic biomes and outside. Volunteers undertake tasks such as bulb planting, weeding, potting and anything that the Green Team does on a daily basis. Two of the Gardens Team volunteers have gone on to secure jobs on the Eden staff as gardeners. It is necessary that volunteers for the Gardens Team have some horticultural experience.

Alan, a Gardens Team volunteer at Eden, says: "I gain a great deal from volunteering at Eden and use the opportunity to help me refresh my horticultural skills and to get my brain back in gear. I have recently been working in the tropical biome helping the team with their work on the philodendron, which is a plant I have never worked with before."

The range of people who volunteer is surprising - from those wanting work experience, to students researching, recovering addicts, people with spare time who love Eden and retired people. There are volunteers from all over the world on student placements or internships. In return, Eden offers training and references to its volunteers and has started offering NVQs in Customer Services and Spectator Safety, along with any basic training relevant to the tasks being carried out. "We have a massive group of people who are our friends and are ambassadors for Eden. They add value to what we do and spread the word about volunteering at Eden," says Jess Collings, Eden's Volunteer Manager.

Anyone with a spare regular day can contact the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) in Cornwall. Whether working part-time, retired or returning to work after an absence, you could find yourself hedge-laying on Bodmin Beacon, putting fences up for Natural England, clearing rhododendrons in Steeple Woodlands near St Ives, pond clearing, footpath maintenance, or clearing gorse on moorlands. This helps improve wildlife habitats and access for the local community. There is no age limit, but anyone under 16 must be accompanied by a guardian.

"It's energising, the physical work is great for anyone who has been away from work or who has been ill, it improves health and fitness, you'll meet interesting people and get to visit lovely parts of the county that are off the beaten track," says Betty Levene, Project Administrator for BTCV.

The BTCV office in Cornwall employs ten staff, four part-time; they are supported by between six and ten Volunteer Officers who receive training in leadership, community working and valuable practical conservation skills. It is an excellent grounding for working in the environmental sector. On three days a week and alternate Saturdays a minibus leaves from Tuckingmill Valley Park and takes up to 15 volunteers to work on a project that can be anywhere in Cornwall.

Volunteering is a hugely rewarding experience: it can benefit the wider community, enable you to meet like-minded people and, if you're thinking about changing career, it's a great way to dip a toe in before you take the plunge.

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