Discover more about life as a garden volunteer

Thelma Jack, a keen gardener and horticulturist, is one of 40 volunteers (around eight per day) at West Dean Gardens. She has been helping out for over nine years and her dedication is noted by all those around her.

"Thelma's a star," comments Jan, a fellow volunteer; "whatever the weather, she comes once a week and if for some reason she misses her day, she arranges another time to come and help out."

Having trained as a teacher, studied horticulture and taught rural science for many years, Thelma certainly has a lot to offer. On a typical day, she arrives at 9.20am and rather than finishing at midday like most morning volunteers, stays until 2.30pm when she has a cup of tea with the gardens team before heading home.

The companionship and camaraderie of volunteering is clearly very important to Thelma, who now lives alone. The team spirit between the staff and volunteers makes her feel like they are one big family. Even on her 80th birthday she couldn't stay away and celebrated with her fellow volunteers and friends by having a picnic in the gardens.

Being able to work within the original set of Victorian glasshouses is a real motivator for Thelma. She was keen to broaden her gardening experience and to learn about the growing processes inside and out of the glasshouses. Nine years on, she says she's in awe of the work undertaken by our head gardener, Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, who are steadily bringing the 13 glasshouses back from dereliction - an ongoing endeavour, which you can read more about here.

Thelma's love of gardening shines through in all she does and says. She is still learning new techniques and methods under the expert tutelage of Sarah and Jim, who willingly share their lifetime of knowledge with all volunteers.

The result is a beautifully tended garden that continues to delight and inspire its visitors - all year round.

Thelma enthuses that there is something special about each season in West Dean Gardens, for example: "In autumn, the sunlight on the 'hot border' shows off the colours and in spring there are thousands of bulbs that push up through the soil, reminding me of planting the snowdrop bulbs. Plus the light is truly magical - all year round."

Thelma also maintains a garden at home which, she admits sometimes gets neglected - 'it is definitely not up to West Dean standards!' she says.

(Article: Discover more about life as a garden volunteer first published Discover more, West Dean Friends' magazine, 2015)

Header image: Gardens Team, circa 1990s

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Pass it on

Passing on their knowledge and skills is an important element of their work, and Jim and Sarah head up a team of nine permanent gardeners, around 40 volunteers, including international volunteers and a Historic and Botanic Gardens Training Programme trainee.

Image: Thelma, sewing seeds at West Dean Gardens

25 Years of Glorious Gardening exhibition

This year marks 25 years since Head Gardeners, husband and wife team, Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain began transforming the derelict 92-acre site into award-winning gardens, in the wake of the Great Storms of 1987.

A photographic display illustrating the highlights of 25 Years of Glorious Gardening is open in the renovated 'old mushroom shed' at West Dean Gardens and runs until the end of October. Free entry with a garden entry ticket (adult standard entry £8.50, children go FREE, except at events).

Gardens team

Thelma a volunteer at West Dean Gardens
Anne the 'border queen' at West Dean Gardens
Jim, Sarah and the team circa 1990s
Shaun the Kitchen Gardener gives a talk to visitors
Gardens volunteer Lee
Shaun the Kitchen Gardener