Volunteering is a great way to enjoy gardening
As far as gardening goes, February and March are a little chilly and there’s not much to do, but wait. Still, it’s a great time of year to think about the upcoming spring and summer.
A 2020 study by the European Center for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, found “that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces…were significantly 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 home with outdoor space, there are plenty of ways to enjoy gardening on Capitol Hill. An easy way is to explore volunteering in one of the many gardens and green spaces in our area. It’s the time of year to seek out the amazing opportunities so that when spring rolls around, you’re ready to get out there.
Volunteering is good for the heart, helping us connect to others and our communities. Whether you are retired or in your early twenties looking to socialize and learn new skills, helping out in public gardens is a double win for your physical and mental well-being.
No experience necessary
First of all, you don’t need to have previous gardening experience. All volunteer gardening programs offer orientation and often 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 and work your magic. Although there are garden jobs that require herculean strength, most garden jobs can be adapted to your physical abilities. All types and skills are welcome.
Often gardening work is done outside working hours due to a need to adapt to weather conditions or to work before the public arrives. With Washington’s intense summer heat and humidity, volunteer hours are often early mornings or evenings, outside of the normal 9-5 hours. Flexibility in schedules is a plus in garden volunteering. Weekend work opportunities are also available, including volunteering for a day-long cleanup.
Volunteering in the garden is both solitary and social. Sometimes you share 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 have lunch or a drink and share the highlights of the day. There are often potlucks at the start 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 to work. It goes without saying. mother nature hasn’t slowed down with the pandemic, so the need to track weeds and planting has made it essential to find safe ways to operate. With reduced staff and other issues, you may need to contact more than once to connect.
A joy to go
Longtime Capitol Hill resident Barbara Johnson has been volunteering at the US National Arboretum for a few years, having started just before the onset of the 2020 Covid pandemic. A Wisconsin native, she says gardening, learned from his mother and his grandmother, runs through his DNA. “It’s just a joy to go to the Herb Garden once a week, especially last year,” says Barbara. “There are definitely volunteers who know a lot more about herbs than I do,” says Barbara, “but between the professional staff at the Arboretum and the long-time volunteers, I always feel like I have support for the work I do.
Barbara completed the UDC Master Gardening program a few years ago, which provided her with excellent training in horticulture. She lists the different tasks she performs such as weeding, pruning, planting and other odds and ends. Barbara believes that “you can make your volunteer experience whatever you want it to be”. If you’re looking for a way to spend time outdoors, meet people, and give back to the community, she highly recommends it.
At the United States National Arboretum, volunteers can choose the garden area in which they prefer to spend time. Fern Valley, Asian Valley, the Bonsai Museum and the Washington Youth Garden, run by the Friends of the National Arboretum, are all very popular areas. 150 volunteers dedicate 15,000 volunteer hours per year, with volunteer jobs both indoors and outdoors.
And you don’t have to wait for spring. During the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance on January 15, 2022, six hardened volunteers spent an extremely cold Saturday morning in the Springhouse Run Creek area pulling out vines and invasive weeds. Over 30,000 native plants have been planted by volunteers over the past few years in an effort to clean up the creek that runs through the Arboretum to the Anacostia River.
Urban Gardens at the Hill Center
Another garden experience is available near you at the Hill Center at 9and 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 designed by world renowned landscape architecture firm Oehme Van Sweden (OvS). David says the Hill Center is still using the master plan and consulting with current OvS staff for meaningful improvements. “After ten years of growth,” says David, “the trees are all maturing and areas that were once planted as solar gardens are now more shady than sunny. So we are now moving flowers and ground covers like pachysander to different areas of the garden.
David maintains 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 per season. Some volunteers help out in other gardens, such as the Congressional Cemetery, and others limit their work to the urban center. “If you’re interested in helping out in the gardens,” says David, “we’d love to have you and can help you get started any time of the year.”
Nicky Cymrot, one of the founders of the Hill Center, says she doesn’t know where the Center would be without David’s efforts and knowledge. In addition to volunteering with David, The Hill Center Galleries is looking for volunteers to help set up exhibits throughout the year. Ladder climbers are particularly needed, that is, people who can climb 12-foot ladders. To respond to [email protected] or call Atha-Simonton at 202-499-6447.
I am always inspired by this quote from Anne Frank: “How wonderful that no one has to wait a single moment before they begin to improve the world.” Below is a list of local gardens that use volunteers with a link to their website. Take advantage of these cold days to explore the opportunities and start your volunteer adventure in nature. You will not regret it.
The center of the hill
Friends of the National Arboretum
United States National Arboretum
Garden Guild Franciscan Monastery
Trees for Capitol Hill
American Botanical Garden
Smithsonian Garden https://gardens.si.edu/volunteer/gardenmaintenancevolunteers/
Friends of Kenilworth Water Garden
Rindy O’Brien says “Volunteer, you’ll love it.” Contact [email protected]