Summer is the time for traveling, exploring, and spending time with family. Thinking of where to go? Consider public gardens and arboreta. Many of these are historic places as well, great for teaching your kids. On my website, pegplant.com, I list local public gardens as well as gardening books written specifically for the Washington DC metro area. Several of these books, copied and pasted below, are resources listing botanical, public, or historic gardens in east coast states. Check out these books from your local library and plan a day trip with the family. Enjoy your summer!
A Garden for All Seasons: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood by Kate Markert and Erik Kvalsvik, Rizzoli Electa, 2020
All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses: How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America by Marta McDowell, Timber Press, 2016
Gardens of Georgetown: Exploring Urban Treasures, text by Edith Nalle Schafer; photos by Jenny Gorman, Georgetown Garden Club, 2015
Maryland’s Public Gardens and Parks by Barbara Glickman, Schiffer Publishers, 2015
Capital Splendor: Parks and Gardens of Washington DC by Valerie Brown, Barbara Glickman Countryman Press, 2012
A Guide to Smithsonian Gardens by Carole Otteson, Smithsonian Books, 2011
Historic Virginia Gardens: Preservation Work of the Garden Club of Virginia by Margaret Page Bemiss, University of Virginia Press, 2009
Virginia’s Historic Homes and Gardens by Pat Blackley and Chuck Blackley, Voyageur Press, 2009
Garden Walks in the Southeast: Beautiful Gardens from Washington to the Gulf Coast by Marina Harrison, Lucy Rosenfeld, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006
Garden Walks in the Mid-Atlantic States: Beautiful Gardens from New York to Washington DC by Marina Harrison, Lucy Rosenfeld, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005
The American Horticultural Society Guide to American Public Gardens and Arboreta: Gardens Across America, Volume 1, East of the Mississippi by Thomas S. Spencer and John J. Russell, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2005
A City of Gardens: Glorious Public Gardens In and Around the Nation’s Capital by Barbara Seeber, Capital Books, 2004
Barnes & Noble Complete Illustrated Guidebook to Washington, D.C.’s Public Parks and Gardens, published by Silver Lining Books, 2003
Complete Illustrated Guide to Washington DC’s Public Parks and Gardens by Richard Berenson, Silver Lining, 2003
demonstration of a mailbox garden and suitable plants
As the summer peaks, I like to visit the local demonstration gardens to see how well the plants and vegetables performed in this area. Demonstration gardens are a great way to learn what works in the Washington DC metro area and how to manage our local issues, such as deer and rabbits. Each county that has a Master Gardener program usually has at least one demonstration garden, managed by the volunteer Master Gardeners. To find such a garden, call your local county Master Gardener program representative (your local extension agent). Some have several to showcase various environmental conditions and some use the garden as a place to teach or host workshops. Continue reading →
This year the theme for the annual Philadelphia Flower Show is Riviera Holiday. In the past I have written articles about the show and the local nurseries and private organizations that host chartered bus trips. Taking a luxury bus is a great way to attend, no need to worry about traffic and parking. This year, there is a new trip so you can attend the first day, Saturday, February 29 (the show runs until March 8).
Teri Speight, owner of garden website Cottage In the Court, has reserved a bus departing from the lower parking lot of the District Heights Municipal Building, District Heights, MD. The bus departs at 8:00 am and returns by 9:00 pm. A native Washingtonian, Teri is a garden blogger, garden visionary, and a great garden speaker. For more information, contact Teri directly. The reservations deadline is Tuesday, January 14, 2020. Call at (301) 785-7507 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Each year the Philadelphia Flower show has a different theme and this year Riviera Holiday is inspired by the world’s exotic Mediterranean gardens. What a great break this will be from our cold, dreary winter! According to the flower show’s website, “groves of citrus trees lead the way providing a lush dramatic promenade to the sunshine drenched landscape ahead. Breathe in fragrant waves of lavender inspired by the terraced gardens of Monaco. Drifts of purple and white spiked salvias, specimen succulents, and an intoxicating variety of scented geraniums, roses, rosemary, and sage create a stunning mosaic that is at once picturesque and charming.”
We are having a hot, dry streak now which really separates the weak from the strong in the garden. Now is a good time to see which plant is tolerating this weather well in other people’s garden so you can copy for your own garden.
On one particularly hot day this past weekend I was downtown visiting the Smithsonian museums. I spent a lot time in the Pollinator Garden, next to the National Museum of Natural History. This is a 400 x 40 feet area on the east side of the museum at 9th Street between Constitution Avenue and the Mall. The Pollinator Garden is managed by Smithsonian Gardens staff and is a wonderful place to relax and watch the butterflies.
I noticed several plants that were tolerating the heat well, that is, they were in full sun and not covered in powdery mildew. As expected, they were definitely attracting bees and butterflies. These seemed worthy of copying in my garden. When I got home I looked them up and learned that they are rabbit and deer resistant as well as being full sun, drought-tolerant perennials. This is not to say there weren’t other worthy notables in the Pollinator Garden but these are definitely plants to add to my collection next year!
Although this plant is called wild petunia (Ruellianumilis), it is not related to petunias. These plants have lavender blue flowers that bloom from summer to fall. They are low growing with a trailing habit, reaching about a foot tall. They can serve as a groundcover and be used as a spiller in a container.
‘Millenium’ is a member of the onion family (Allium) grown for its ornamental, purple globe flowers. The plants grow to 1 to 1 ½ feet tall, providing a strong vertical interest. They are great in the garden and can be used in containers as thrillers. After the flowers fade and die, the globe structure becomes tan and remains for a while, which also provides interest.
Walker’s Low catmint (Nepeta) is a member of the mint family, so it has gray green aromatic foliage. In the summer, the plant has small, lavender blue flowers, but each stalk has so many that sometimes the plant seems covered in a purple haze. The plants are low growing, about a 1 to 2 feet tall, and used as a groundcover or small shrub.
As the summer peaks, I like to visit the local demonstration gardens to see how well the plants and vegetables performed in this area. Demonstration gardens are a great way to learn what works in the Washington DC metro area and how to manage our local issues, such as deer and rabbits. Each county that has a Master Gardener program usually has at least one demonstration garden, managed by the volunteer Master Gardeners. To find such a garden, call your local county Master Gardener program representative (your local extension agent). Some have several to showcase various environmental conditions and some use the garden as a place to teach or host workshops.
Glencarlyn Library Community Gardens, corner of S. Third and S. Kensington Streets, off Carlin Springs Road, Arlington
Teaching Garden at Fairlington Community Center
Master Gardener Tribute Bench and Garden at Fairlington Community Center
Organic Vegetable Garden, Potomac Overlook Regional Park, Marcy Road, Arlington
Rock Quarry Shade Garden, Bon Air Park on Wilson Boulevard and N. Lexington Street, Arlington
Simpson Park Gardens, E. Monroe Avenue at the end of Leslie Avenue, next to the YMCA in Alexandria
Sunny Garden, Bon Air Park, Arlington
The Prince William County Master Gardeners manage a very large “Teaching Garden” at St. Benedict Monastery, 9535 Linton Hall Road, Bristow, VA. Within this large garden are mini gardens to illustrate certain conditions or issues, such as a deer resistant garden, shade garden, vegetable garden, and pollinator garden.
The Montgomery County Master Gardeners have a demonstration garden at the Agriculture History Farm Park, 18410 Muncaster Road, Derwood, MD, and they manage the herb garden at the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda. Each year, for a temporary period they manage award winning gardens near the Old MacDonald Barn at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair.
The Prince Georges County Master Gardeners have demonstration gardens at their headquarters at 6707 Groveton Drive, Clinton, MD.
In addition some plant societies such as the National Capital Dahlia Society have demonstration gardens specific to their plant of interest. Contact the society directly to see if they have one. The National Capital Dahlia Society has the Nordahl Exhibition Garden for displaying dahlias at the Agricultural History Park in Derwood, MD. The Plant NoVA Natives has a list of demonstration gardens that have native plants on their website.
The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network designed to help individuals with many activities, one of which is gardening. It is actually managed on a federal level within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). NIFA provides federal funding to the system. Each state and territory has a state office at its land grant university. The state office then manages county extension offices. For gardening assistance, you will want to reach out to your county extension agent and depending on the office, you can:
In Virginia, the Virginia Tech University manages the Virginia Cooperative Extension program. Headquarters is at Virginia Cooperative Extension, 101 Hutcheson Hall, 250 Drillfield Drive, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0327; (540) 231-9347. Contact your Virginia county extension agent for gardening assistance.
The Formal Garden is enclosed by buildings and white washed stone walls
This past April, I was fortunate to visit the Oak Spring Garden Foundation with one of my gardening clubs. I say fortunate because the estate is not open to the public yet. They have just started to open to gardening clubs by lottery, with a limit of three clubs per year. Because they could only accommodate 30 people and very few cars, we carpooled on a misty Friday morning to Upperville, Virginia. The short trip put us in horse country, very remote with no other property in sight.
Bunny and Paul Mellon
The Oak Spring Garden Foundation was established by Rachel Mellon, known as “Bunny,” before she died in 2014 at the age of 103. Bunny was born to a wealthy family in New Jersey. Her grandfather was the inventor of Listerine and founder of Lambert Pharmacal Company. She married Stacy Barcroft Lloyd Jr. in 1932, divorced him in 1948, and married Paul Mellon. Paul, a recent widower and son of Pittsburgh financier Andrew W. Mellon, had already purchased the estate then known as Rokeby.
Espaliered fruit tree
Bunny and Paul renamed the 4,000-acre property Oak Spring. This was a working farm, with cattle raising, thoroughbred horse breeding and racing, fox hunting, and gardening. They also owned residences in Cape Cod and Nantucket, Massachusetts; New York City; Washington, DC; and Antigua. Together they were very interested in collecting artwork, much of which has now been donated to museums. Bunny was a keen gardener and landscape designer. She was especially interested in the art of pruning and topiary. Bunny was friends with Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy and redesigned the White House Rose Garden and redesigned the White House East Garden that was later dedicated to and renamed the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. She actually designed other gardens as well including the gardens of her other properties. Bunny liked all things French and was an avid collector of horticultural books and manuscripts. She amassed a collection of 16,000 books, manuscripts, and botanical artwork now housed in a singular building on the property. Today, this library is open by appointment for researchers and scholars but the Foundation is digitizing some of the collection. Several books have been written about Bunny. Paul, who predeceased Bunny at age 91 in 1999, wrote an autobiography.
Part of our tour was to see the Oak Spring Garden Library but we were not able because of the humid weather. Angie Ritterpusch welcomed us and although she showed us other parts of the estate, this article is solely about the gardens.
We gathered under the famed crabapple allee, with our umbrellas and boots. The allee, made up of Mary Potter crabapples trained to arch over and create a tunnel, connected the Formal Garden with the Lord & Burnham Victorian-style greenhouse. Horticulturist Judy Zatsick led us through a large wooden gate into the walled, formal garden (see video below). It was like stepping into a forgotten secret garden that flourished during war-torn France. Evidence of time passed was reflected in the white washed walls, the lichen encrusted trees, and the old brick paths. Bunny’s garden was restrained and purposeful. The half-acre was a composite of many, small garden beds enclosed by stone walls and small buildings, such as the basket house and guest houses. The land was laid out in three levels ascending (from the gate) to the back of the house.
We immediately walked towards the backside of the house and on to the Sunday Kitchen Patio, which afforded us the view of the Formal Garden and the greenhouse in the distance. From there we could see the three levels and the central axis path that went directly from the house to the gate as well as a parallel path to the left side of the enclosed garden. Because it was spring, pansies, tulips, aquilegia, viola, and daffodils were blooming. The fruit trees had greened up and there were large hostas, untouched by deer. You would think that with their wealth the garden would be ostentatious but it wasn’t, it was relatively formal because of its geometric design and symmetry. However, the plantings made it simple and delightful. The garden encapsulated Bunny’s motto that “nothing should be noticed and nothing should be obvious.”
Sunday Kitchen Patio
The Sunday Kitchen Patio was a brick-laid patio directly off the house and kitchen. There was a small dogwood tree and seating area with a narrow bed of irises. From there we stepped on an old circular millstone down to the next level, the Upper Terrace. The Upper Terrace was paved with fieldstone so old that plants grew in the cracks. There was a small White Garden and a Rose Garden off to the side.
Square Garden in foreground with Upper Terrace in background
Using the main axis, we descended down stairs to the Middle Terrace. The paths were paved with fieldstone. The Square Garden on the left was a square patch of lawn. The Tea Garden and Butterfly Garden were on the right. The Tea Garden was full of herbs for making tea and the Butterfly Garden had butterfly shapes in the ground with plants to color the wings. Descending down stairs again was the Lower Terrace with gravel paths. On the left and right were large vegetable and herb gardens with a wishing well. Throughout the formal garden were espaliered fruit trees on the walls, cordon-style fruit trees to border the small gardens, a few clipped trees as well as large old trees.
East Vegetable Garden with Croquet Lawn on right
On the perimeter were more garden spaces such as the croquet lawn, pantry garden, and shade bed. This is the type of garden where you could spend a lifetime exploring and enjoying each small space, differentiated by plants, season, and light. Bunny’s design motto was that “Nothing should stand out. It all should give the feeling of calm. When you go away, you should remember only the peace.”
Oak Spring Garden Foundation
Bunny established the Oak Spring Garden Foundation so her library, gardens, and home would be a resource for those who love horticulture. The vision is to host scholars, writers, artists, and interns to not only learn about horticulture but also to learn from her library of over 16,000 original manuscripts and books.
View of South Vegetable Garden from Basket House
The Foundation also hopes to serve as a site for academic conferences. The Foundation mission is to support and inspire fresh thinking and bold action on the history and future of plants, including the art and culture of plants, gardens, and landscapes. Access to the gardens and library is by appointment only. In 2020, the Foundation plans to open the gardens to the public for Virginia Historic Garden Week, which takes place in April/May.
Formal Garden map, courtesy of Max Smith and the Oak Spring Garden Foundation
Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Flamingo Display
The U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) has a new exhibit called Gardens Across America. The exhibit showcases 21 public gardens through vignettes created by each garden displaying plants and items illustrating the gardens’ stories. The displays were chosen from a call for entries to all gardens across the country. The vignettes are located throughout the outdoor area of the USBG in Washington DC and range in size and scope. For example, Fort Worth Botanic Gardens is showcasing its begonia mascot; Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is demonstrating cleaning mine water and creating new gardens; Tucson Botanical Gardens has cacti and agaves in its barrio garden; Atlanta Botanical Gardens has carnivorous pitcher plants; and the State Botanic Garden of Georgia has native pollinator plants. The exhibit demonstrates the diversity and beauty of the more than 600 public gardens in the United States. Throughout the exhibit run, which ends on October 1, the USBG will offer programs, workshops, lectures, and tours related to the exhibit.
Tucson Botanical Gardens’ Barrio Garden
The USBG is open to the public, free of charge, every day of the year from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm with outdoor gardens having extended hours until 7:00 pm from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The USBG is at 200 Maryland Avenue SW on the southwest side of the U.S. Capitol. Photos are courtesy of the USBG and gardens include:
Atlanta Botanical Garden, Georgia
Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, Colorado
Bookworm Gardens, Wisconsin
Denver Botanic Gardens, Colorado
Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Florida
Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Ohio
Lockerly Arboretum, Georgia
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, South Carolina
Mt. Cuba Center, Delaware
Norfolk Botanical Garden, Virginia
North Carolina Botanical Garden, North Carolina
Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden, North Carolina
Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, Pennsylvania
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, California
Sarah P. Duke Gardens, North Carolina
Smithsonian Gardens, Washington DC
State Botanical Garden of Georgia, Georgia
The Botanical Research institute of Texas and the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, Texas
Tucson Botanical Gardens, Arizona
U.S. National Arboretum, Washington DC
Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s Water Filtering System
If you are a parent of a high school senior like me and find yourself with the prospect of driving down to James Madison University, you have to visit the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum. A week ago, I spent several hours walking through the wooded sanctuary, taking photos of the wildflowers and daffodils. Although it was a rainy day, the wood-chipped paths made it easy to transverse and the staff were delightful.
The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum is part of James Madison University, across from the JMU Convocation Center on University Boulevard. There is so much to see now in April and there will be even more with each season. After I dropped my daughter off at the Convocation Center, I parked at the Arboretum and walked into the Frances Plecker Education Center. Serving as the visitor’s center, this very modern looking building also houses the botanical library, staff offices, and rooms for meetings, workshops, and events. It opens out to an expansive deck with a pergola and picnic tables where they also have events such as plants sales.
Frances Plecker Education Center
As I picked up the self-guided walking tour brochure, Jan Mahon, the director, entered. She was very gracious about spending time with me even though I had not made an appointment. She explained that the Arboretum’s mission statement is to inspire outdoor engagement in a woodland sanctuary. It is a public (free admission) urban garden and forested greenspace that preserves native plant species. They are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year and to celebrate they have chosen the theme “Year of the Trees.” They will have tree-related programs, wellness activities, native trees for sale, and forest bathing and sound bathing classes. She even had bookmarks made from actual trees with the tree name on the backside. I picked up Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperusvirginiana), which serves as “year-round cover and nesting space for wildlife.”
A view of Frances Plecker Education Center from across the lake
The JMU faculty can use the grounds for teaching, the local schools can bring children for field trips, and the public can either walk around on their own, take a self-guided tour, or participate in docent-led tours. Throughout the year, the Arboretum has workshops, lectures, plant sales, wildflower walks, children’s programs, volunteer opportunities and even weddings and private events.
The Arboretum is named after Edith J. Carrier, wife of JMU President Emeritus Ronald E. Carrier. However, the inspiration and vision comes from former JMU botany professor Dr. Norlyn Bodkin. In the early 1960s, Dr. Bodkin began to use the “College Woods” to teach botany to his students. In the 1970s, he advocated for an Arboretum. In the 1980s, then JMU President Carrier and the University Planning and Development Commission approved the plan and the Arboretum opened to the public in 1989. During Ronald Carrier’s presidential tenure, 1971-1999, Edith Carrier served as a hostess for visiting dignitaries and as an event planner for JMU thus the name honors her service to JMU. The Bodkin Oak-Hickory Forest, a woodland tract in the Arboretum, honors Dr. Bodkin who not only created the Arboretum but served as its first director.
Covering 125 acres, the Arboretum has developed tracts near the Frances Plecker Education Center and undeveloped forested areas further away. Near the Center are small gardens or collections punctuated by educational signs. When I finished talking with Jan, I walked out of the Center toward a very large lake.
I passed the Viette Perennial Garden where purple-red peony stems and green daylily foliage were emerging. Famed horticulturist and nurseryman Andre Viette donated the perennials for this particular garden. As I headed toward the Herb Garden, the bluebells (Mertensia virginica) were just about to bloom, with clusters of tiny, pink and purple pinched buds. The Herb Garden is quite large; the plants are on short, retaining walls. A variety of herbs were coming back to life in early April. I could see purple-tinged anise hyssop leaves and valerian’s lacy green foliage. Across the way daffodils were peeping through a band of gold and red-twigged dogwoods (Cornus sericea).
yellow and red twigged dogwood with yellow daffodils peeping through
As I walked back down the path ribbons of yellow splashed across the April Walk Daffodil Garden. There must have been thousands of daffodils weaving in drifts under the leafless hardwood trees. I walked toward the wooden Pavilion and sat inside at a picnic table, taking a short break from the rain. Because of the rain, no one was outside so I had the pleasure of having the Arboretum all to myself.
ribbons of daffodils
I spent quite a lot of time in the Bodkin Oak-Hickory Forest and the Wood Wildflower Garden, taking photos of wildflowers. It was a treat to see the majestic trilliums with sessile, mottled leaves and mahogany-red flower buds. Most of the buds were not open yet but the leaves were large and gorgeous. The white blood root flowers (Sanguinaria canadensis) were closed but that might have been because of the weather. There were fields of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) creating a fern green carpet with white, pendulous flowers.
Dutchman’s breeches, up close
As I walked towards the front of the Arboretum I passed the McDonald Azalea and Rhododendron Garden and the Mid-Atlantic Chapter for the American Rhododendron Society and Native Azalea Garden. I saw a few flowers, it is too early yet, but I can imagine how beautiful this place will be in a few months. There are flowers in every season here — even a large paperbush, (Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Gold Finch’), had pendulous golden flowers left over from the winter.
The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum is a must visit next time you are at JMU or even in Harrisonburg. The next time I bring my daughter to JMU, I plan to see the labyrinth, the Fern Valley, the Monarch Waystation, and the blooming azaleas, rhododendrons, and perennials. Edith J. Carrier Arboretum, 780 University Boulevard, Harrisonburg, VA 22807; (540) 568-3194.
April is National Volunteer Month and this week, from April 7 to 13, is National Volunteer Week. I originally posted this article in December 2018 but in honor of National Volunteer Week/Month, I am re-posting for you to think about volunteering at one of DC’s public gardens. The Washington DC area has many opportunities for people with a passion for plants and gardening to volunteer. This article focuses on three opportunities where the entities are not non-profits, they are actually part of the federal government. Thus, they share several unique characteristics.
This article provides a broad overview and compares and contrasts three places. However, it is best to reach out to the organization that interests you for more detailed information. Opportunities to volunteer are like the tide, they ebb and flow depending on the season and annual events. To learn about additional organizations that may need volunteers, view this list of public gardens and contact them directly.
U.S. Botanic Garden
The U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) was established by Congress in 1820 and is one of the oldest botanic gardens in the country. The USBG is comprised of the Conservatory, the National Garden, and the Bartholdi Park. It is administered through the Architect of the Capitol. It is a prime tourist attraction, open every day of the year, and within walking distance of metro stations.
“Volunteers are vital to the support of the Botanic Garden,” said Elizabeth Barton,Education Specialist and Volunteer Coordinator, who oversees about 250 volunteers. People interested in volunteering at the USBG should first complete the application form on the USBG website, which gives Elizabeth a sense of timing, availability, and interests. After she receives the application, she calls the applicant to set up a meeting with her and possibly another staff person. Applicants can apply between January and early October.
The USBG has a public programming team and a horticultural team. Volunteers who work with the horticultural team work with the plants either inside the conservatory, outside with the gardens and grounds crew, or at the USBG production facility in Maryland (large production greenhouses). Volunteers who work with the public programming team assist with the public programs, such as lectures and children’s programs, answer questions at the visitor’s desk, manage the Discovery Carts, or serve as docents.
All volunteers attend a general volunteer orientation. Starting in 2019, all volunteers will attend an accessibility awareness training where one learns to interact with people who have special needs and disabilities. There may be further training depending on the assignment. “None of the volunteer duties require prior horticultural knowledge,” explained Elizabeth. “We work with you where you are. The horticultural team loves working with people who have horticultural experience but they also love working with people who have no horticultural experience but have enthusiasm. As long as you have the enthusiasm, we can teach you about the tasks.”
Docents obtain additional training on how to give a tour and basic botany and plant morphology. Docents focus on a particular area of the Botanic Garden to learn about those particular plants. For example, a docent who leads tours of the National Garden outside would get additional training on the National Garden before leading a tour.
Elizabeth emphasized that there is also the opportunity to explore a special interest. A volunteer can present an idea to USBG staff who will discuss it to see if the idea fits with current programming. She explained how a volunteer had an interest in conifers and thus developed a conifer Discovery Cart. (Discovery Carts are informal, pop-up educational opportunities on specific topics such as conifers, chocolate, or poinsettias.)
Volunteers need to commit to 100 hours per year, which could be a 4-hour shift every other week or 2-hour shift every week or a condensed number of weeks. It varies because some people live nearby and can easily commute to work a few hours at a time while others live further away and prefer infrequent trips and a longer day.
Because USBG is part of the federal government, volunteers need to go through the background security check and fingerprinting process that is required of all feds. If you are a current or retired government employee, you would have been through this process before.
Volunteers not only benefit from helping others, they learn more about horticulture and gardening. “Volunteers learn a lot no matter what they are doing here,” said Elizabeth. “They also are able to give back to the community, that is, the USBG is a great resource to the community.”
USBG staff host two volunteer appreciation events every year for the volunteers, a holiday and a spring social event. If volunteers have volunteered for a set minimum number of hours, they are able to attend a one day educational and appreciation event hosted by the Horticultural Consortium of the Greater Washington area (HCGWA). The HCGWA is a group of local organizations that depend upon a cadre of volunteers. Each year, one of the organizations hosts and develops the agenda and invites the volunteers from the other organizations.
The Smithsonian Institution was established by an act of Congress in 1846 and is a unique public-private partnership that receives federal funds. In 1972, the Smithsonian Gardens was established to manage the Smithsonian museum grounds and is comprised of the Grounds Management Operations, the Greenhouse Nursery Operations, and the Horticulture Collections Management and Education. The outside gardens are open every day of the week and there are several nearby metro stops.
Alison Kootstra, Volunteer Program Coordinator, explained that even though they have a small volunteering program, less than 100 volunteers, they have a very high retention rate. As with the USBG, applicants need to first complete the volunteer application form on the website. Alison reviews the application and contacts the applicant to set up an in person interview. Interviews are conducted at the Smithsonian Gardens office on Maryland Avenue (next to L’Enfant Plaza metro station) or at the Suitland, Maryland, production greenhouses, depending on the location of the volunteer opportunity.
There are three different types of opportunities: grounds maintenance, greenhouse, and docents for exhibitions. Alison most frequently recruits for the grounds maintenance position where volunteers work alongside staff horticulturists in the Smithsonian gardens. Tucked among the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall are 13 thematic gardens.
Volunteers are asked to commit to working from April to October, one day per week. Because staff work Monday through Friday, volunteers also work during the work week and not on the weekend. Recruitment occurs every year and three to eight people are chosen to work in specific gardens. “Experience is not required,” explained Alison. “It is more important that the person has enthusiasm, the willing to learn, and the ability to follow instructions.”
The Suitland greenhouses are not open to the public so the environment may be quieter than the public gardens, which are frequented by tourists. Tasks include planting, transplanting, and taking care of orchids and tropical plants. This opportunity is less frequent because volunteers tend to stay for a long time. Again, since volunteers are working with staff who work weekdays, the opportunity is also on weekdays.
There are opportunities for docents for exhibitions but this is less frequent, depending on the need or exhibit. Because the Smithsonian Gardens is responsible for an orchid exhibit that begins in February 2019, Alison just recruited 20 new volunteers to serve as docents. This exhibit is open every day so the opportunity to volunteer would be on the weekday or weekend and would require quite a lot of interaction with the public.
Alison ticked off the benefits of volunteering with the Smithsonian Gardens, which mirror Smithsonian employee benefits. Volunteers receive 20 percent off at Smithsonian gift shops and many of the public food eateries, access to behind the scenes tours or enrichment activities within the Smithsonian, discounts on some ticketed Smithsonian programs, and reciprocal arrangements with other museums across the country. In addition, Alison plans an enrichment activity every other month such as a tour of another public garden or a trip to see a local museum exhibit. Like the USBG, if volunteers have volunteered for a set minimum number of hours, they are able to attend the HCGWA event.
Smithsonian volunteers must also undergo the background security check and fingerprinting.They must attend an orientation and an annual security training. There may be additional training as needed for specific positions, for example, grounds staff may have more safety trainings than docents.
U.S. National Arboretum
The U.S. National Arboretum (USNA) was established in 1927 by an act of Congress. According to their mission statement on their website, the USNA enhances the economic, environmental, and aesthetic value of ornamental and landscape plants through long-term multi-disciplinary research, conservation of genetic resources, and interpretative gardens and exhibits. The USNA is administered by the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Services. Located in Northeast DC with entrances on New York Avenue and R Street, the Arboretum is made up of 446 acres and many plant collections. There is no nearby metro stop but plenty of free parking.
“We get inquiries from people interested in volunteering from our website or they walk in to the Arboretum and ask if there are volunteering opportunities,” said Carole Bordelon, Supervisory Horticulturist and Acting Volunteer and Intern Coordinator. Carole asks interested applicants to complete an online form. She looks at the applicant’s interests while asking staff how many volunteers they can support, and then tries to match the two.
“We have several different types of volunteers but the majority are working outside in the gardens and assisting staff with weeding, pruning, mulching, and planting,” said Carole. “Although the Arboretum is open to the public on the weekends, the staff work during the week so the volunteer positions are only available during the work week. In addition, depending on the collection, the staff horticulturist may want a volunteer to work on a specific day.”Currently, they have about 75 volunteers that come in on a regular basis and work in the various collections. They also have a need for volunteers to work indoors on the herbarium, archives, exhibits, image database, and public programs.
“There are some volunteers who have been here a long time so there is no need for volunteers in that particular garden area but in some areas they need volunteers for the spring/summer months and not the winter. There are some volunteers who work in one collection outside and then on bad weather days, work inside on the herbarium.”
They do require 4-6 hours per week, usually 4 hours. “We set up a schedule and most of volunteers who work outside are asked to come on a specific week day,” said Carole.
Volunteers learn about the plants in the collection and proper techniques, but they also enjoy the ability to meet new people. The Arboretum is a tourist attraction; volunteers may interact with visitors from all over the world. In addition, the USNA staff put on an annual volunteer recognition event where they invite a guest speaker and distribute service awards. Staff arrange outreach field trips to other public gardens and volunteers are encouraged to go to the Smithsonian In-Service Days in the winter months. Similar to the other two, USNA volunteers may attend the HCGWA event. USNA volunteers must complete the background check and fingerprinting.
Friends of the National Arboretum
Although the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) is a non-profit organization, it is important to mention because FONA works in tandem with the USNA and FONA volunteers work on the Arboretum property. People interested in volunteering may find themselves at the Arboretum for one-time events or long-term projects managed through FONA.
To volunteer, applicants need to complete the online form at the FONA website. “Many of our opportunities are seasonal,” explained Melinda Peters, Volunteer Programs Manager. “For example, recruiting for volunteers for the annual Garden Fair and Plant Sale in April will start up later. Our busy time will start at the end of February and into March and that is when I will start contacting applicants.”
To help distinguish between the two, the Arboretum manages volunteers who work in the plant collections or in the Arboretum’s Administrative Building while FONA manages volunteers for annual events such as the Garden Fair and Plant Sale, summer concerts, and Full Moon Hikes and for long-term projects such as the Washington Youth Garden and the Springhouse Run restoration project.
For the past 2 years, volunteers have restored Springhouse Run which is actually two streams that run through the Arboretum and into the Anacostia River, the Springhouse Run and the Hickey Run. The stream has been restored to a more natural flow and volunteers have planted many native plants. The Washington Youth Garden helps DC’s youth learn to garden and volunteer opportunities exist from April to early November, Tuesday and Saturday mornings. The Full Moon Hikes are guided walks around the Arboretum in the evening, under a full moon,which requires volunteers to serve as tour guides. The Garden Fair and Plant Sale is an April weekend where many different types of plants are for sale to the public, either from the Arboretum’s holdings, local garden clubs, or nurseries. This is a purely volunteer-run event at the Arboretum managed through FONA.
Unlike the three federal entities mentioned above, FONA does not require a background security check and fingerprinting except for the Washington Youth Garden volunteers who have to complete a more extensive onboarding process. However, volunteers for one-time events may have to sign a liability form.
There is more flexibility in terms of hours if one volunteers through FONA. Volunteers can work on weekdays, weekends, and in the evenings, depending on the event. Also, corporations that want to or universities that require service hours can work through FONA to complete one-time service activities such as mulching on the Arboretum grounds.
As with all volunteering opportunities, the benefits are socializing, learning, and giving back to the community. “For single events, we provide snacks, tools,and training,” said Melinda. “It is safe to say that food is always involved somehow.” FONA volunteers are invited to an annual volunteer appreciation event and as with the other three entities, volunteers may attend the HCGWA if they meet the required hours. Melinda also explained that the Full Moon Hike leaders receive a stipend because they have to undergo a more rigorous training program and commit to a certain list of guidelines.
To summarize, there are many different opportunities to volunteer with these prestigious organizations, you just have to figure out which is the best match for you in terms of your time, interests, and ability. Some will require digging in the dirt while others will require public speaking. But with all, horticultural experience is not a requirement so do not hesitate if you do not have plant experience. Just show up with enthusiasm and a willing to learn and you will become connected to DC’s horticultural network!
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