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Volunteering A Great Way to Enjoy Gardening

When it comes to gardening, February and March are a bit cold and there is not much to be done but wait. Yet it is a great time of year to think about the spring and summer season ahead.

A study in 2020 by the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, found “that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces… were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t.”  Just two hours a week!

The good news is that, even if you don’t live in a house with outdoor space, there are many ways to enjoy gardening on Capitol Hill.  One easy way is to explore volunteering at one of our area’s many gardens and green spaces.  This is the time of year to research the amazing opportunities so that when spring comes around, you are ready to get out there.

Volunteering does the heart good, by helping us connect to others and our communities. Whether you are retired or a twenty something looking to meet others and learn new skills, helping in public gardens is a double win for your physical and mental well-being.

No Experience Necessary
First, you don’t have to have previous gardening experience.  All the garden volunteer programs provide orientation and often will pair you with a mentor to teach you the ropes and show you the difference between a weed and a rare plant.  Tools are usually provided, while you bring your own water and garden gloves.  Of course, if you have a favorite pair of pruners, you can bring them along and work your magic. While there are garden jobs that require herculean strength, most garden jobs can be adapted to your physical abilities. All types and skills are welcome.

Barbara Johnson says it is always a joy to go to the US National Arboretum where she has been a volunteer for several years in the Herb Garden.

Often garden jobs are done on off hours due to a need to adjust to weather conditions or work before the public arrives.  With Washington’s intense summer heat and humidity, volunteer hours are often early morning or evening, outside the normal 9 to 5 hours.  Flexibility in scheduling is a plus in garden volunteering.  Opportunities to work during the weekend are also available including just volunteering for a one-day cleanup.

Garden volunteering is both solitary and social.  Sometimes, you are sharing a task. Other times, it’s just you at work in a section of a garden with your head down weeding.  But at the end of your day, volunteers tend to enjoy grabbing a lunch or a drink, and sharing the highlights of the day. Often there are potlucks at the beginning and end of the season to celebrate the beauty of the garden.

Covid, of course, has limited or closed a number of volunteer programs over the past two years, but many gardens have found ways to bring their volunteers in to work.  Needless to say. mother nature hasn’t slowed down with the pandemic, so the need to keep up with weeds and planting has made it essential to find safe ways to operate. With short staffs and other issues, you may need to reach out more than once to get connected.

A Joy to go
Barbara Johnson, a long-time Capitol Hill resident, has been volunteering at the US National Arboretum for a couple of years, having started right before the 2020 Covid pandemic began.  A native of Wisconsin, she says gardening, learned from her mother and grandmother, runs through her DNA. “It is just a joy to go out to the Herb Garden once a week especially in the past year,” says Barbara.  “There are certainly volunteers with a great deal more knowledge than I have about herbs,” says Barbara, “but between the Arboretum professional staff and the long-time volunteers, I always feel I have support for the work I am doing.”

Day of service volunteers braved very cold temperatures to pull invasive weeds along the Springhouse Run Creek over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend at the US National Arboretum.

Barbara completed the UDC Master Gardening program a few years back, which she credits with giving her a great horticulture education.  She lists the different tasks she performs as weeding, trimming, planting, and other odds and ends.  Barbara believes “you can make your volunteer experience what you want it to be.”  If you are looking for a way to spend time outdoors, meet people, and give something back to the community, she highly recommends it.

At the US National Arboretum, volunteers can choose which garden area they prefer to spend time in.  Fern Valley, Asian Valley, the Bonsai Museum, and the Washington Youth Garden, managed by the Friends of the National Arboretum, are all very popular areas. 150 volunteers put in 15,000 volunteer hours a year, with volunteer jobs both inside and out.

And you don’t have to wait for spring. Over the Martin Luther King Jr Day Celebration on January 15 2022, six hardy volunteers spent a bitterly cold Saturday morning at the Springhouse Run Creek area pulling up invasive vines and weeds. Over 30,000 native plants were planted by volunteers over the past few years in an effort to clean up the stream that runs through the Arboretum to the Anacostia River.

Urban Gardens at The Hill Center
Another garden experience is available close to home at The Hill Center at 9th and Pennsylvania Avenue, SE.  David MacKinnon is the garden guru and volunteer garden coordinator who has been involved with The Hill Center since it opened in 2011.

The eight different garden spaces were originally planned by the world renowned, Oehme Van Sweden (OvS) landscape architecture firm.  David says the Hill Center still uses the master plan, and consults with the current OvS staff for significant improvements.  “After ten years of growth,” says David, “the trees are all maturing and areas that once were planted as sun gardens, are now more shade than sun. So, we are now moving flowers and ground cover like pachysandra to different areas of the garden.”

David tends his own garden as well as those of The Hill Center.  He is always looking for volunteers to join his corps, usually about six volunteers a season.  Some of the volunteers help at other gardens, like the Congressional Cemetery, and others limit their work to the urban center. “If you are interested in helping out in the gardens,” says David, “we would be happy to have you, and can get you started any time of the year.”

Nicky Cymrot, one of the original founders of the Hill Center, says she doesn’t know where the Center would be without David’s efforts and knowledge.  Besides volunteering with David, The Hill Center Galleries Is seeking volunteers to help with installation of exhibitions throughout the year. Particularly needed are ladder climbers—people who are able to climb 12-foot ladders. Reply to galleries@hillcenterdc.org or call Atha-Simonton at 202-499-6447.

I always get inspiration from this Anne Frank quote: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Below is a list of local gardens that use volunteers with a link to their website.  Use these cold days to explore opportunities and begin your nature volunteer adventure. You won’t regret it.

Casey Trees

Congressional Cemetery

The Hill Center

Friends of the National Arboretum

US National Arboretum

Garden Guild Franciscan Monastery

Guerrilla Gardeners

Trees for Capitol Hill

US Botanic Garden

Smithsonian Garden                                                https://gardens.si.edu/volunteer/gardenmaintenancevolunteers/

Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Garden

Rindy O’Brien says “Volunteer, you will love it.” Contact rindyobrien@gmail.com

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