A Volunteer’s Perspective

It started out as a small idea. Some might say I was at a crossroads in my life; not so much a midlife crisis but more the need to do something that would be creative, fulfilling, and productive.  A new career as a Garden Designer. It would be all about planting and making gardens look pretty. Straight forward enough. Oh boy, was I wrong!  

It was not rocket science but the course took off like one and I soon realised there was a lot more to learning about garden design then just pretty plants. 

It involved an intensive course, run by one of the top award winning garden designers in the country, which was supposed to be done and dusted in a year but ended up being nearly 2 years, thanks to that five-letter word putting a stop to everything in March 2020.   

Surrounded by an eclectic group of men and women, all bright, all aspirational, all fulfilling their varied roles but somehow with so much more ease and aplomb, I definitely had a case of imposter syndrome. What was I doing?! Construction drawings, surveys, Latin plant names, hard-landscaping, soft-landscaping, lighting, water-features, health & safety, marketing, tree planting….. the list went on. 

As they say in the West Country, it was ‘a proper job’.

Yes, it was an intense course with high expectations, it turned out to be one of the most satisfying and fulfilling things I have ever done. I learnt more than I ever thought possible about gardens and garden design and I made new friends who I laughed with, cried with and sometimes even cried at!

What next? 2 years on, qualified and raring to go, that five letter word continued to create barriers.  I needed to be out there doing something and still wanted to learn more. That’s where volunteering came in and I was introduced to Troy Scott Smith, head Gardner at Iford Manor; described to me as the font of all knowledge when it came to gardens. Troy had been head gardener at Sissinghurst, Bodnant, The Courts,  just three of his many accolades, in addition to travelling all over the world teaching, executing and sharing his skills and winning several awards. I heard through the Bath grapevine, that he was taking on volunteers to help him bring the gardens at Iford Manor into a new chapter of glory. I cannot say my stepping up was a completely selfless act, after all I was going to be learning so much from Troy and his team. What’s more, I was going to spend my day surrounded by beautiful antiquities in an Italiante garden designed by Harold Peto; one of the leading architect and garden designers of the Edwardian era.

I always park my car on the other side of the medieval bridge and walk across the River Frome,passing by ‘Britannia’ wearing her “lichen coat”, a Corinthian helmet and shield. I am wearing my fleece lined trousers, steel cap boots and carrying a small grey bucket of garden tools – feeling a little overshadowed by the strength and beauty of her presence. I enter through the grand wrought iron gates and I find myself in another world. A real feeling of a time past, when glamour, romance and style were just part of this home’s everyday habit. It still manages to feel ‘homely’;  yes, a very, very special home – but a family home nonetheless.

The day’s tasks are written on a white board and all the tools have been sanitised and social distancing from one another is strictly followed. I read the white-board in anticipation of what we are being asked to do. Is today going to be a day of sweeping up the remaining autumn leaves? Will I be pruning or maybe working in the greenhouses or learning the skills of propagating, step cuts, and the right way to hold a pair of secateurs – who knew? More Latin plant names to learn today and no doubt more knowledge to imbibe.

Lunch time always seems to arrive remarkably quickly, and we sit under and around the casita, a medieval Italian loggia, surrounded by Wisteria sinensis with views out to the gardens and fields beyond. It feels slightly dreamlike, as if looking through a camera with a soft focus lens. Hot thermos’ of soup, sitting several metres apart, we project our voices across to each other sharing our accomplishments of the morning. At some point in the afternoon, regardless of the task at hand, I find myself having to stop for a moment, taking a step back from the job I have been tasked with and I just have to take in my surroundings.

Troy walks by and shares more of his gardening and design knowledge and everyone stops instantly, listens intently, desperately wanting to remember all that he is telling us and inevitably, after he has gone, wishing we had hit the record buttons on our phones so we have the knowledge on tap. The family cat curls its ginger Maine Coon body around your legs, tail standing to attention, purring with approval and reminding you that in-fact this is his garden. When Troy talks about the visitors arriving in April, I am excited for Iford Manor but I can’t help but feel a tinge of territorial pride. I worked on ‘that’ bed and I will have to share it with visitors. Of course it is there to be shared but ‘it’s my bed’!

Another day passes by at Iford Manor. I step back and look with amazement at all that has been achieved, not just by me but all the volunteers on that day. I always feel privileged to have played a very small part in this historical garden’s on-going growth. I know my name will never be part of its fabric but it does not matter – I took part, I was involved, and perhaps I helped to make a very small mark in its ongoing development.

Milton Glaser once said, 

“There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.”

Iford Manor gardens are definitely WOW!

If you are interested in volunteering then contact Troy Scott Smith on Instagram.  Troyscottsmith1

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