Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The volunteering life ... meet Helen & Bruce

From the benefits of growing in squares, to the riddles of the missing sprouts and strawberries, there's always something interesting to learn from our friendly volunteers. Here Helen & Bruce, volunteers and plotholders in the Walled Garden, share their experiences and reveal what makes Gibside such a big part of their lives.

Helen & Bruce on their walled garden plot
It all started with a trip to the loo in November 2004! We stopped off at Gibside for a cuppa after a local walk and I spotted a poster in the ladies asking for volunteers to work in the Walled Garden. Having fairly recently retired from Newcastle University Library, I was looking for volunteer opportunities, and being a keen gardener, this seemed just the thing. I rang the landscape manager at the time and she suggested I get back in touch in the Spring - so in April 2005 I joined the garden volunteers. After the first very rainy Wednesday spent sowing seeds in the greenhouse, the rest of the summer was hot and sunny, and I fell in love with the Walled Garden. At the end of the season, I was offered a plot of my own to tend - this was a great opportunity to begin growing vegetables again, as our own garden is too small for this, and I suggested my husband, Bruce, should come and volunteer too.

growing in squares is both attractive and practical
We have had our plot for 8 seasons now and have learnt a lot about what works and what doesn't. As we only come once a week, we have learnt that crops needing regular picking, such as beans, lettuce or radish, don't really work as they get too big or bolt; so now we go for crops that will stay in the ground or on the plant till we are ready, and that will store well, such as potatoes, onions, beetroot, borlotti beans. We still get gluts of course, and then it is great to be able to share the bounty with our fellow gardeners, and with the Tea Room. We have introduced perennial and annual flowers, for colour, for the bees and for pest control, and these draw many comments from our visitors, who love them, especially the Californian poppy, "Fruit Crush"! We like growing in squares, because it looks attractive and is practical for cultivation and harvesting. While on holiday in France this year, I found a book about gardening in squares within squares and would love to give this a try next year.

In winter, when the garden is put to bed, we join the conservation team, and have a wonderful time with good friends, chopping things down, building habitats and having big fires on cold frosty days. Gibside is a big part of our lives, and it is never anything but a privilege to come and work here. 

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Bruce watering in new seeds
Gibside got under my skin, or finger nails to be exact, about 7 years ago. It was when Helen was offered a plot and she realised that she would need a gofer! I didn’t mind as I like the brawny stuff and it saves going to a gym. Do a good day’s work in the Walled Garden – digging, bending, weeding and wheel-barrowing - and you know the muscles will ache in the nicest possible way. So, I enjoy the planning of what we shall plant each year, I enjoy choosing the type of seeds, I enjoy planting and watching them grow (don’t mention the parsnips) and what else, oh! Yes, the eating of the tasty veg and fruit (don’t mention the strawbs). No, I will! We have grown strawbs for many years at home in a small way, so we brought some to our plot and the first year had a great crop; the second and third years, flowers then small fruits appeared, but three weeks later nowt. I think it may be a combination of humans ‘testing’ the produce or the grey squirrel Keith, the Gardener in Charge, has seen high-tailing it over the wall with a very strawberry coloured mouth.

sprouts provide a "tasty nibble" for passing deer
It’s great to be able to chat to other like minded people – visitors, staff and other volunteers. A lot of gardening tips get passed on. David, two plots along, told us about Pink Fir Apple potatoes and we tend to have a competition for who’s grown the funniest looking ones. Phil Younger, Ranger, told us how to get rid of the badger droppings. One Wednesday, last March, we found all the sprout plants eaten to the stems. Wow, it must have been a giant caterpillar; no, it was a deer that had got into the Walled Garden looking for a tasty nibble. Yes, we do have pests at Gibside but maybe not your common or garden ones.

Pink Fir Apple potatoes: funny looking but delicious
This year, we have had monster crops, with shoals of Pink Fir Apple potatoes - a delicious salad variety - huge round "courgettes" like footballs, massive swedes (all recipes for using swede gratefully received), and, we think, competition bench size parsnips. This must be mostly due to the wonderful summer, but also we started many veg off in modules. Keith taught us this trick of starting root veg, especially parsnips, off in containers and when best to plant out.

Summer’s all too soon over and we will be called on to help as part of the Conservation Team, working on all parts of the estate. Hard to say what this will encompass but I’m sure it will include cutting down trimming back rhododendron patches, collecting and making leaf compost and maybe planting a few shrubs. But always having a chat and meeting friendly people. Wednesdays are good days!

Helen & Bruce MacFarlane

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