Volunteering in public gardens seems a big new trend. Basically – the idea is that public gardens, such as those owned by Britain's National Trust, use volunteers to help maintain their gardens. A great idea? Not according to gardener Rachel Cassidy who wrote about this recently on Thinking Gardens.
I was initially inclined to be sympathetic to her viewpoint, except that I knew sometimes volunteers can do a fantastic job. Many of us have heard horror stories of volunteers pruning the wrong tree, weeding out the wrong plants etc., but then trainee gardeners and apprentice do this too. I discussed this piece with a couple of National Trust gardeners I know. One, let's call him Roger, basically agreed with Rachel's posting, but did say that about a third of the volunteers in his garden are “fantastic”. To me that sounds quite significant, but it was the others who are a worry. He works in a small NT garden however and there are no staff with much experience of selecting or managing volunteers – crucial!
The reason volunteers are being promoted is clearly to save money. Its obviously a strategy of 'having to'. Looking at it more broadly, it is all a part of the 'Big Society' idea. This was launched by our Prime Minister David Cameron, some time ago, as part of a regeneration of civic responsibility, that society benefits if everyone does some voluntary work. I tend to instantly distrust anything said by a Conservative politician but this did strike me at the time as being good and sensible, but then along came the recession and a government hell-bent on 'austerity'. The Big Society soon became an excuse to save money, and slash budgets for all the services that government provide, and which anyone in the civilised world outside the American Tea Party brigade expects them to provide. The whole concept of volunteering is in danger of being undermined by using it in a cynical attempt to plug holes in budgets. We await a call for volunteer heart surgeons.
Back to the garden. Volunteers are used very extensively in some public gardens in the US. I've talked to colleagues there about this and there seems to be a general agreement that they work well. Part of this I suspect is that in big cities there are a lot of people who have good gardening skills who simply do not have anything more than a couple of pots on a windowsill to exercise their gardening skills on, so volunteers tend to be good gardeners.
Volunteers of course, need managing, which is one of Rachel's points. Some big American gardens have a volunteer manager whose job it is solely to organise volunteers, but realistically very few gardens are going to have the resources to do this, which means that managing volunteers becomes the task of garden staff who have no experience in managing people. Time to point out that a lot of people go into gardening precisely because they do not want to manage people and are no good at it.
Another NT gardener I spoke to, works in a much larger garden. John describes how “we have a recruitment process, we select carefully, we interview”. The Trust, he says “is a social organisation and providing volunteering opportunities is part of that, and so it is a two way process, we provide a social sphere and training and they help us”.
There is no doubt that many volunteers are people who are really committed to the garden and to good gardening and who make a massive difference. In a world where we have a growing number of fit and healthy retired people who want to do something, continue to make a contribution, and, to be honest, get out of the house and make themselves useful, then volunteering in public gardens strikes me as a splendid thing for them to be doing.
Does Rachel's point that volunteers undermine gardening as a profession stand up? I think that it is possibly too early to tell. Using volunteers is still relatively new. In the old style Victorian garden there were often huge numbers of gardeners who the Head Gardener and sometimes his deputies had to manage. Management was part of the job. It is only since those days, as garden staffs have shrunk, that management has dropped by the wayside. I can actually see a situation where gardeners who are good at management of volunteers, or who have received training in doing so, will be able to lever higher pay for doing so.
A point I would make, from the point of view of someone who promotes naturalistic planting, is that using volunteers might enable old-fashioned high levels of garden maintenance to continue unchecked. I think it was Nick Macer of Pan-Global Plants who said to me many years ago that some of Britain's best gardens have been through a period of neglect, during which time things happen that would not be allowed to happen in a traditionally, highly-maintained garden. Things like lilies seeding into lawns, trees developing interesting bendy shapes, shrubs suckering into impressive thickets. One of the things I can't stand about so many National Trust gardens is that they are so overmaintained: too much bare earth, crisp lawn edgings, plants kept rigidly separate. One of the drivers towards naturalistic, sustainable and biodiverse planting is the need to reduce maintenance. We will never see gardeners or garden owners try to develop complex ornamental low-maintenance plant communities if there is an army of volunteers ready to weed out anything that steps out of line.
Its a balancing act, like so much in life. Probably the best thing to conclude is that volunteering in gardening is here to stay, at least in the English-speaking world, and that it can be a very positive experience for all concerned, but does need commitment and continued assessment. I might even put out an appeal for some in our garden!
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