Volunteering to dig up the lavender at Ham House (Surrey)

Between us, the volunteers dug up more than a thousand mature lavender and santolina plants.  In just over four hours.

In early 2018 I was reading the National Trust guide to events in the South East and my attention was caught by a small advert in which Ham House was seeking recruits for a micro-volunteering morning in March.  I decided to put myself forward.

I’m planning to create a number of lavender borders at home, and of course I want to ensure that I choose the right variety of lavender and then make sure that I offer the plants the right conditions to thrive (treat them badly, right?).  That why my eye was attracted to the notice about Ham House’s lavender garden, a garden I really enjoy visiting.  Below is a picture that I took of it in summer 2017:

At the beginning of 2018 I had never volunteered in someone else’s garden.  However, it was around that time that I had begun to consider studying towards my horticulture qualifications and starting to get some general practical experience beyond the gardens I have regular access to.  So I thought to myself “this could be a good place to start”.

The first email I sent (to the address given in the advert) bounced back: “email address unknown”.  Mmm.  I did a bit of research and based on other email addresses for Ham House, I realised that there must have been a typo in the advert.  Nevertheless, I managed to guess the correct email address and I soon I was in touch with the volunteer coordinator.  She said thank you and told me that I’d get more info nearer the time.  Success at step 1!

In the diary it went.

I hadn’t volunteered with the National Trust before.  Living in Central London, I didn’t know what opportunity I would have to be involved with them on an ad hoc basis.  Yes, there are a couple of properties less than 90 minutes’ travel from home, but the closest property to me and the only one that I could realistically make a regular commitment to is Carlyle House in Chelsea.  It’s Victorian, so doesn’t really rock my boat architecturally.

To that I can add my past involvement while working in an historic house environment.  I know from my experience of working as a room guide at Buckingham Palace some 15 years ago that I prefer to be on the frontline, doing something, rather than watching visitors move around the interior of a house.  If I’m honest, I found being a room warden at Buckingham Palace boring: I spent most of my time watching visitors walk around with headsets on, never speaking, and my only interaction with most visitors was to ask them to stop eating something or to ask them to turn off their telephone.  When the occasional visitor asked me a question, it was usually the same question over and over.  I’m sure room warden work suits many people, but not me.

Gardening, however, now that appeals to me.  What I can’t commit to, however, is one day (or even half a day) a week, every week.  Having looked around at options to volunteer in gardens, Chelsea Physic Garden really appeals to me.  However, they want a regular commitment for one year on a weekday.  So for me that’s not a realistic option.

Even though.  I am nothing if not tenacious and I keep looking for opportunities.

I’m keen to volunteer in lots of different gardens, learning about more plants than just those in my own flowerbeds.  I’ve also learned over the years, following over a decade of doing nearly as much volunteer work as I did in my paid work life (some weeks more!), that to keep a passion going I need to be doing something that I enjoy.  Gardening I do enjoy.  Gardening at historic houses built in period that I’m passionate about (1500-1760) is a particular joy.

Having started my “official” horticultural studies a few months ago now, each time that I open the academic text and read a new chapter, it’s like a revelation to me.  The science makes sense of the behaviour of the plants that I’ve worked alongside ever since I started gardening as a child.  But I had never studied the reason for that behaviour (other than in GCSE biology classes). For example, I’ve learned about the turgor of the plant (what makes it stand up if it has enough water); and the influence of gibberellins and apical dominance (the hormones that affect growth and the leading bud on a stem that suppresses the growth of those further down the stem), and how to manipulate both of those with my ultimate goal in mind of creating a garden to a specific design.

What I took away from my day at Ham House is that if I have lavender in my garden, I should plant to dig it all out and replace it every 5-8 years.  That’s exactly what the gardeners at Ham House do with their Cherry Garden, periodically and with the help of a mini army.

The volunteers were divided into three groups, of 90 minutes each.  Our only reward was a National Trust badge, but that wasn’t why we were there.  Everyone seemed to have their own motivation: one man wanted to volunteer on a regular basis and thought that the micro volunteering day was a good way to make first contact with the National Trust; another volunteer had been a professional gardener when she was younger and the option of a single day’s volunteering appealed to her; another helper had come over from the National Trust’s Osterley Park, where he volunteers on a weekly basis in the garden.  What was particularly interesting to see was that two of the professional gardeners at Ham House originally joined the team as volunteers, both after other careers for the best part of a decade.

The professional gardens and regular garden volunteers that were involved in the groups were passionate about what they do and are great team players.  Gardeners are indeed generally a nice bunch, colleagues it’s a pleasure to work with.

I was involved in the second group of volunteers (1030-1200).  Some of us dug up the plants, others stacked the old plants into wheel barrows and took them to the skips, a brave few spent time in the massive skip, jumping on the plants and compressing them down.  Tip: to get the plant out of the ground, stick your garden fork into the centre and lever it out.  Keep moving the fork around the plant until it dislodges from the ground.  Don’t worry about digging from around the plant, given that it’s going to be composted.

Nearing the end of our session, we were being so efficient that the professional gardeners had to ensure we left enough plants for the final group of the day to have something to tackle.

I took myself off into the garden for a well-earned sandwich and a packet of crisps.

A couple of weeks later I received this really nice PDF documenting the day.  A very good touch.  Thank you National Trust for letting me be part of your day.

Micro-volunteering is definitely enjoyable.  I recommend it, especially if you have a busy life and a weekly commitment doesn’t work for you.

When visited: 24 March 2018


Volunteer at Ham House: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house-and-garden/features/volunteering-at-ham-house

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