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I was 19 when I fist started volunteering regularly. I was fresh out of an intense first love that ended with the intense first and then the second dump and I was looking for something, anything to do. To distract me, just a little bit. And I answered an email and that turned out to be the most profoundly life-changing thing I have ever done. But it was a few years later when I finally started volunteering in a garden.
My partner and I started volunteering at Occombe Farm – a working organic farm run by the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust. We’ve been since March 2010, the organic garden only a few months old, and we’ve seen it grow.
When we arrived it was a few raised beds and a gorgeous plan; now it has a forest garden in its infancy, a CSA scheme, a lovely productive raised bed system, a wartime allotment and three polytunnels. There has been a joy in seeing it grow and in being a tiny, tiny part of that.
Often I find myself talking to people who just don’t see the point in volunteering. Not them volunteering, I’m not looking for any converts, but me volunteering. Why would I waste my time when it doesn’t benefit me? Why would they worry so much about what I do with my life if they aren’t me? Anyway, they are missing the point.
Why do I sow seeds when I don’t get to sell or eat the vegetables? Why do I weed when I don’t get to stare at the results from my window? (Why don’t I weed my crops outside my window? That one I can’t answer.) Why do I build fences and plant trees when it isn’t going to add to my property value? Why do I show children – who aren’t my own! – how to grow and cook and eat?
Aside from being unbelievably fun you mean?
I do get to eat the vegetables on occasion. Sometimes I pay for them like everyone else and sometimes I take home bags or armfuls of unsellable stuff. This year I’ve made chutney from overgrown courgettes, green tomatoes and windfall apples. I’ve made a quick curry out of spinach that had massive holes in the leaves and I often take home chard that has been nibbled through or lettuce that has bolted.
The physical work I find to be incredibly rewarding and therapeutic. Rewarding because it’s easy to see what you have done. The ground cleared by hoe or by hand speaks for itself – it can’t be argued with. You can see your results and nothing can take that away.
Suffering from depression I also find that physical movement helps me regulate my moods; at least it helps me sleep at night. I see joy in a job well done, in knowing that I made a small part of the garden a better place for visitors and people who work there.
I’ve also managed to pick up skills that I never would have been able to try gardening at home. I have a balcony. I have managed to squeeze in a tree but it’s small. It didn’t need a mattock and I don’t use a hoe or a spade or a fork. I don’t have the space to construct an entire forest garden or to split hazel and weave it into a fence.
These are skills that are, yes, fun but also necessary when I finally get a grown-up garden. Sometimes I can even scale down ideas, like planting strawberries as a living mulch for my olive tree which acts as living shade for the strawberries in high summer – my own miniature and geographically confused forest.
The community we grow is also incredible. I’ve gardened with people from other countries, other continents even. We grow around language barriers, swap wisdom about the best way to eat herbs and share laughter over how British people have trouble pronouncing that famous Icelandic volcano.
There are people at the garden I see every month, some less often, some I know I’ll probably never see again. But we’ve all touched the same soil. Growers, students, trainees, volunteers, visiting experts… we’ve all been part of something bigger than ourselves. To me, that is the big, wonderful, amazing thing about volunteering.
I said earlier that I wasn’t looking for converts but if you think volunteering in a garden sounds like fun then look for an opportunity near you. You might not have an organic farm but there are other options like historic houses and gardens, or local hospices. When you find a garden that suits you it’s worth it.