Volunteering at the Garden

A Rewarding Experience

Volunteers are fundamental to the physic garden and carry out a central role in plant care throughout the season. They say they experience many rewarding opportunities at Dilston Physic Garden and in a number of different and exciting ways.
As well as keeping all of the physic garden herbs healthy and happy and harvesting them to make tea or to dry and package them, volunteers also show visitors around and answer questions.

We provide any training needed and volunteers pick up herbal tip bits, enjoy good company and the odd healthy herbal lunch!

Volunteers can be reimbursed for travelling expenses when available and also have the chance to join a workshop of their choice (up to £45), free of charge.

‘Volunteering at Dilston’ written by a volunteer at Dilston

Retire? Done. Downsize? Done.
Time for some fun. Time to find different ways to spend my days.
That wasn’t meant to be a poem, just a summary of what led me to volunteer at Dilston Physic Garden, roughly half way between Hexham and Corbridge in Northumberland. I’d visited it many times, and attended workshops there, and now I spend most Wednesdays enjoying it from a different perspective.

One of only a few physic gardens in the UK, Dilston was created by Emeritus Professor Elaine Perry, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University. Each plant grown in a physic garden has the power to heal or to maintain health, and Elaine directs research into plant medicines.
Of course any garden needs constant attention so there are always jobs for the team of volunteers. Here’s an account of a typical volunteering day. It begins with a delightful walk from the car park along a lane fringed with wildflowers……

…. and along a leafy track.

That short walk is the perfect start to my volunteering day – a gentle warm-up for the joints and muscles, and also a mental transition into the joys of the day ahead.
I report for duty to Nicolette Perry, the Education and Science Director at the garden, and she consults the list of the tasks that need doing. Broadly, the work done by volunteers is weeding, pruning, watering, or potting-up and harvesting herbs. The garden is open to the public on Wednesdays (also on Saturdays, and Thursday afternoons) so there are opportunities for volunteers to spend time with the public, either showing people around, serving them pots of herb tea, or assisting in the Botanic Bliss shop.
I opt to start my day weeding, and Nicolette shows me the angelica bed. Good choice – the domed white flowers are exactly at nose height so their delicate scent is all around me. All tools and gloves are provided, so I equip myself from the tool shed and get to work.
Weeding in a Physic Garden needs a slightly different mindset from the type of gardening I’m used to. The herbs are left to seed naturally because wild herbs are more potent medicinally than cultivated plants, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the tiny seedlings of angelica and the seedlings of invading species. Angelica leaves are soft and downy, so I end up weeding without gloves so that I can feel each seedling and check its parentage.
Also, the style of the garden is not neat and tidy – it has a wonderful wild look. The plants are very much at home, living their lives and going through their cycles as we merely pass by.
There are plenty of seats and benches around, so I can sit and listen to the birdsong whenever I need a rest from my weeding. There are also many sculptures and artistic decorations in the garden, including a beautiful metal Angelica Archangel. The plant’s Latin name is Angelica Archangelica, so named because a monk had a dream in which an archangel pointed to the herb as a cure for the plague.

There is fascinating information about all the plants and the trip to and from the compost heap takes a while because I stop and read each one. Other volunteers are beavering away.

Moira is weeding the chamomile lawn, using a dinner fork to tease out the weeds without leaving a bald patch on the lawn.

Margot is cutting back a rampant dog rose ……..

Melanie is weeding the plants associated with dog health (herbs have veterinary uses too)…..

And Linda is harvesting sage to be used by medical herbalists in the North East ….

On my first day as a volunteer I took a packed lunch, but it stayed in my rucksack. Professor Perry provides a delicious meal which we eat around a table under a shady tree. The whole day is very relaxed and there are no pressures to complete our tasks or our lunch within a certain time, so we sit and chat.

In the afternoon I choose to move from weeding to pruning, and an overgrown hedge needs cutting back to clear a pathway. The whole garden is criss-crossed by gravel paths, and although the overall ethos is for a wild look, there has to be intervention when the plants obstruct exploration by visitors.

Volunteer Frances begins pruning at one end of the path …..

While I start at the other …..

While we work we can hear the happy sounds of visiting children exploring the garden. They scamper about exclaiming at the sculptures (monsters, wizards, fairies, and dragons all feature), or they have a go at croquet or chess.
Sometimes we stop work mid-afternoon for a cup of herb tea – I haven’t offered to make the tea yet, but leave it to a more experienced volunteer to wander off and gather a mixture of herbs to brew together. The resulting flavours are always different.

The garden closes to the public at 4pm, although there’s no obligation for the volunteers to stay until then. I head back to the car park and look across the fields where the garden’s Herbology House is just visible against the woodland backdrop. I’m looking forward to next Wednesday already.

  • Tending the Garden

    Work alongside other volunteers and enjoy a central role in the upkeep and care of the physic garden species with the various weeding tasks under supervision. This is a physical task and tools are provided, though bring your own gloves if you have a favourite pair! There are unique opportunities to learn more about the health aspects of the medicinal plants from the signboards and from other members of the team and experienced herbalists associated with the garden.

  • Pot and Harvest Herbs.

    At different times of years our most popular herbs are ready to pot-up or to cut, dry and package and to sell in our shop. This a dedicated and rewarding task.

  • Meet our Visitors

    If you’re a people person then enjoy welcoming our visitors, guiding them around or providing Herbal Highways or other information about the plants, responding to their questions and assisting with purchases from our Botanic Bliss shop. Prior training given.

  • Welcoming Groups

    If you’d like to learn more you can assist with our booked group visits, including welcoming them, helping with parking arrangements, leading them to the physic garden entrance, providing a guided tour of the plants and different areas of the garden and assisting with purchases from the shop. Prior training given.