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Garden Traineeship: What's It Like

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We ask Steph to spill the (organic, homegrown) beans about what it's like joining the traineeship in our Garden...

"Making the change from full time employment to creative freelancer left me feeling lost and yet light. When you work 9-7 every day for 4.5 years, your daily life takes on a routine with little room for learning. I had stopped being proactive in my development, so when my days suddenly became empty, I realised that when new projects and experiences came up, I could say, “Why not?” 

One of these came with dual purpose: getting over a fear of climbing, and also being outdoors. I live just a short walk from the Castle, and yet had never visited. There was an anxiety in going somewhere I felt like an imposter. Fortunately there was a women’s climbing week going on, so I signed myself up for a Movement Course led by Suzie. Shaking with nerves, I sat in the café trying to steel myself up. We warmed up in the garden, and being in that quiet place affected my mood to one of calm. By the time the course had finished, I was confident in my body and motivated to return. 

Yet signing up to volunteer also led to imposter syndrome; the only gardening I had ever done involved my Grandad’s allotment, and blackberry picking to create natural dyes. I grew up on the North East coast, where there is a symbiosis of industry and wild landscape so I learned to appreciate the familiarity of the smallest of spaces. I think my introduction to the Castle garden was like that, where the stillness and the warmly welcome from the team made me feel immediately at home. 

I continued to volunteer for the next 3 months, at the beginning of the winter season in late October, barely ever missing a session. I learn through action, so despite not having any skills, and honestly being disgusted by any type of insect, I quickly picked up tricks and jargon for the running of the garden. It was a revelation to eat produce that was grown right on site. It felt uplifting to spend the day with new people, working on something that felt purposeful and going home completely shattered in body, yet fresh in mind. Some evenings I stuck around to use my climbing credits, unperturbed that I only did a short bouldering set as there was never seemingly any judgement from other climbers, but for me it was an improvement and escape each session. The Castle became a safe space for me, with a family of confidants and scope to grow - literally and developmentally. 

Then a new opportunity elsewhere came up, and I felt I couldn’t prioritise volunteer work anymore. I took the job. Then one Thursday, only a few weeks later, that I realised I was walking in the opposite direction to what felt natural. Despite going to a job that could fulfil me in other ways, I’d become so accustomed and enlivened to the enlightenment that came from the garden that suddenly it felt wrong. The Garden Traineeship I’d heard about now became a possibility. I knew a 6-month long traineeship would involve giving up a day off so that I could still earn enough to live in this city, and yet it felt like it was a wonderful way to spend a day off anyway. 

Wangling the fact that what I would learn at the Castle could be utilised in our business’ allotment in Higham Hill (Walthamstow), my boss at the new job understood, and I applied to the trainee scheme. Coming from a textiles background, and one that championed the understanding of where our fibres come from, my vision was to use growing knowledge to help educate on plant fibres. I already dabbled in natural dyes, but it was delving deeper to the science behind fibres that I really wanted to learn - why do we get the colours, why is it beneficial to make clothing from linen over cotton, what effort does it actually take to even produce fibre. The further I progressed into the traineeship, the more I learned, and the more driven I became to share this important knowledge; it was through sharing that I understood other people do want to know this stuff, that there is a genuine interest and provocation to further comprehend our systems. It was probably Sean’s (one of our permanent garden employees) tutorial on soil that was the instigator to this mind-blowing amendment to my perception of the world. As part of the traineeship, trainees from other gardens including Growing Communities come together to learn fundamental growing principles, such as soil, rotation and planning, and pests and diseases. But I’d flippantly mentioned to Sean just before his tutorial, “How can you even spend 2 hours talking about soil?” He just smiled and told me to just wait and see. Honestly, at the end of those two hours I felt like there were more questions, and that I needed to go out and talk to every single person I met about just how important soil was for the health of our planet. I now use it in pretty much every conversation I have on food and crucially to me, in my line of work, textiles. 

But what does a day in the garden for a trainee look like? Volunteers start at 11am, working through the rest of the day with us trainees and staff. There are Monday ‘herb day’ trainees, and Thursday ‘vegetable day’ trainees. Staff and trainees begin the day just before 9am, checking over the garden to see how it is doing and what possible tasks and harvesting is needed. This early part of the day was new for me; after a moment of quiet to reflect on the birdsong and distant traffic noise, we would have a check-in, homemade herbal tea in hand. This is a welcoming moment to check in physically and mentally with yourself, before ploughing on with the day’s tasks, so that you are attuned not only to yourself, but have awareness of others and the land you’re about to work. It is never forceful, and you can even just do a check in using thumbs up or thumbs down, yet no matter how expressive you want to be, the space is accepting of all feelings. We also check in with volunteers, and often do some movement exercises to get us physically ready, as well as awakening the mind to the space and tasks to come. 

After our team check in, we look at making harvest and task lists. As a new trainee, I would sit back and observe, however as the weeks drew on, the confidence in recognising what we needed to do allowed me to speak up. As I had already volunteered for some time, this gave me an advantage on fulfilling certain tasks, yet there was always learning opportunity and as a trainee it is about speaking up to what you want to gain from the day. This was sometimes difficult for me, as I can struggle with the balance of efficiency and proactivity, so I have a tendency to step back to allow others to learn, rather than putting my own development first. Yet, the garden staff are so acknowledging and approachable, that speaking up is all that is needed, and they’ll prioritise your learning - even if that meant sacrificing the joyful tomato harvest! The traineeship also involves looking after and training volunteers, being both a point of contact and in a way, mentoring; one of my first learnings was not to step on the bed so as not to compact the soil, a titbit I’ve passed on to a few others in the last year. The garden isn’t only a place for practical training on growing plants, but an opportunity to grow in wisdom from other people too. Over the last year we have had young people on work experience, to older gents with a myriad of stories, to differently abled regular volunteers. We all have something unique to bring to the continued growth of the garden. 

Mornings are generally spent harvesting, ensuring we get produce up to the kitchen in a timely manner so that they can start cooking and preparing salads for the café. Here it is about working quickly and efficiently, especially if it is summer and you need to get in and out of the glasshouse before the sun is at its highest. Garden days always vary on the number of volunteers that come to help; the rain definitely controls what can and can’t be done. Harvesting covers salad, vegetables such as beetroot and cooking greens, and fruit like berries or tomatoes. We also make a note of herbs if it is a dry day. General garden tasks cover the physical such as compost turning and sieving, and in winter we have leaf raking and wood chip laying, or the slower and more thoughtful sowing of seeds and planting out. These tasks are usually completed in the afternoon, with teams pulling together to get them done, yet with chance to catch up and chat as we do them. It is imperative we mark and check off tasks in the book, as jobs like watering shouldn’t be completed twice. There are tasks generally reserved for garden staff, such as checking on the bees, but mostly volunteers and us trainees will always be asked what we’d like to get involved in. You would never come away from a day not having learned something, and you’ll most definitely feel fresh (though weary) from a day spent outdoors.

My traineeship finished at the end of September (it ran from April), and yet I wanted to stay on. Despite the fact that it would be handy to earn for my effort, there is still so much to learn and frankly there would be a hole in my life were I not in the garden each week. At the end of this period I feel able to manage the garden, look after volunteers and know what would need to be done for the day or week to enable continued growth. My aim for the traineeship was to learn the principles of organic growing so that I could utilise this knowledge for textiles. For most employment or projects, it’s often the case that you only get out what you put in, so there is genuinely a great effort needed to run a functioning market garden, even one on this relatively small scale, so that it continues to be healthy and productive. I feel the same about myself, that this nurturing keeps giving me new perspectives and calls to action that I hadn’t expected; the practical action of growing changes your perspective on the food you eat, where everything comes from, the overall systems governing our planet. 

This traineeship has galvanised me and now my next step is to find a useful and purposeful way to link organic growing and textiles. At the end of the traineeship, with “free” time looming and a positive attitude that I know what I’m doing, I hope to bring local creatives together and grow a space for textile learning at an allotment at my job. 

When I said I would like to write about my traineeship, in the hope that it would inspire others to come and at least volunteer, I was asked for a favourite moment. There are a few elements: seeing the chilli and tomato plants persisting in growth despite hard pruning gave me satisfaction that I knew what I was doing, that life will find a way and that I was working for a purpose. Conversations over lunchtime and tasking on such varied topics as kombucha leather, land policy, and outdoor spaces to visit gave me connections not found with other friends and groups. It opened doors that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise been privy to, so now I actively engage in other growing and community-related opportunities. But mostly, my favourite aspect is being part of the team, the quiet space, encouragement abounding and silly jokes. You can wake up in the morning feeling tired, perhaps dreading the cold and wet, knowing you’ve got too much on - and yet, just entering that space can lift your spirits.

Steph was the Garden trainee during the 2019 season. She still volunteers in the Garden now. 

Garden Trainee Opportunity 2020

We're offering this same traineeship to two new gardeners for 2020. To find out more and to apply, head over to our website.