Category Archives: plants

Volunteering at Public Gardens in Washington DC

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.

U.S. Botanic Gardens’ production greenhouses

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.

A well-known volunteer giving a lecture at USBG

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.

Smithsonian Gardens

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.

Volunteer at Smithsonian Gardens event
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian 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.

Volunteer in the Smithsonian’s Ripley Garden
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens

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.

Volunteers cleaning seed at USNA
Photo courtesy of USNA

“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 planting in the USNA’s Fern Valley Meadow
Photo courtesy of USNA

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.

Volunteer pruning in the Asian collection
Photo courtesy of USNA

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.

Volunteer cleaning up in USNA’s Azalea collection
Photo courtesy of USNA

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!

Before You Buy That Plant, Answer Five Basic Questions

My teenage son introduced me to the phrase “talk to the hand.” Although “talk to the hand because the face ain’t listening” is clearly another way of saying be quiet (nagging mom), I, as a gardener, immediately thought of the five basic criteria for buying plants. A finger for each question! What a concept! This will make it easier for new gardeners to figure out what to buy or what to do after they have bought plants for their garden.

When shopping for plants, there are five basic questions to ask before you make a purchase. This is the very basic information you need in order to make a wise decision and to determine the best location in the garden for the optimal survival rate. Raise a finger and ask:

  • What is the plant’s environmental requirements? What is its preference for light, water, and temperature? This will tell you immediately if you have a place for it in your garden. Does it need full sun, or morning sun and afternoon shade, or shade all day? Does it need to be watered often, or can it take dry spells? Does it prefer the cool spring weather or must it be planted after the average last frost date?
  • What is its life cycle? Is it an annual, perennial, biennial, or tropical plant? In other words how much plant life will you get for your money? Many plant tags will phrase this in terms of the hardiness zone. A tag that says zone 4-9 means that it will survive our winters since we are in zone 6-7. A tag that says zone 10-11 probably means it is a tropical plant that will die with first frost.
  • What is its function in the garden? Is it going to serve as a groundcover, will it provide spring flowers, or will it have bright fall foliage?
  • What will be the ultimate size? If it only gets a foot tall, you probably have the space. If it grows into a tree, ask yourself if you have space in a few years.
  • What color is it? This is a placement issue. Know the color of the flower, fruit, and leaves in all seasons so you can plant it in a place where it won’t clash with other plants or your house.

You should have five fingers up by now. Much of this information should be on the plant tag but if there is no tag, ask nursery staff or look it up in a book or on the internet.

This isn’t to say you can ask more questions or there are not more criteria that are relevant to your area and your needs. For example, if you live in a deer infested area, you would want deer resistant plants. Make that your sixth question and look at your palm. Or you have small children who play outside in the garden and you want non-poisonous, child friendly plants you can make that your palm. But these are more specific to you and could change if you move or if your children grow up.

As the plant establishes itself and thrives in the garden, eventually you will learn additional information, such as fertilizing and pruning. These are maintenance questions. This could be the other hand, like a second tier of information. But for now, when you are considering planting peppers and peppermint together, in your garden, talk to the hand!

Marimo: “Houseplant” for the New Generation

one small Marimo to take home, with googly eyes attached

Usually when I see or hear of something three times in a row, it peaks my interest. Recently I had seen images of Marimo on Facebook – green, moss-like balls in water. Last week, City Planter, a local plant business, was selling them at the Philadelphia Flower Show in water-filled plastic pouches. I did not buy one but I thought it would be a great gift for my kids as they move into college dorms this fall. This week, I received an e-mail from The Sill announcing they have Marimo as a “houseplant” in stock again.

Marimo are balls made up of green algae (Aegagropila linnaei). The algae is a filamentous form where the filaments grow out from the center in many directions. The rolling nature of the water in the lakes in which they are found mold the algae into spheres. This filamentous algae is found only in a few lakes, one of which is Lake Akan in Japan. Marimo is the Japanese word for the balls.

Marimo grows slowly, just a few millimeters per year. They are long lived in their natural environments, lasting over a hundred years and reaching a foot in diameter. The Marimo balls that are sold as “houseplants” are juveniles, only a few inches in diameter.

Marimo can be kept in glass bowls by themselves or in aquariums. However, some fish such as goldfish eat the balls so check with your pet store first. The balls photosynthesize just like a houseplant and prefer indirect light or aquarium lights. If separated or torn apart, they will not die. However, you may have to hand-mold them into balls again. They cannot be allowed to dry out or they will die.

individual glass container of one Marimo to bring home

In nature, Marimo are spherical because of the lake’s rolling water but in a glass tank they may lose this shape because the water is still. Simply hand roll the Marimo to retain the shape. This also allows other sides to receive light evenly. Because they come from cold lakes, they prefer cool, clean water which means the water in the glass bowl cannot be allowed to heat up (which will happen with sun or direct light) and has to be changed every two weeks.

Theoretically, Marimo balls will outlive you if you treat them right. Not like the goldfish I got for my kids when they were in elementary school. In the fall, as my twins head for college, I will buy them glass bowls of green Marimo balls, the low-maintenance “houseplant” for the next generation.

holding tank of many Marimo for people to purchase individually

All-America Selections: Clancy Potatoes From True Potato Seed

Clancy potatoes, photo courtesy of All-America Selections

Last week, I received seed packets of various All-America Selections (AAS), both National and Regional 2019 winners.  All-America Selections are plants, flowers and edibles, tested for garden performance by a panel of expert judges. The varieties that perform best over all of North America become AAS National Winners and the ones that perform well in certain regions are AAS Regional Winners. This is an independent trialing process to offer gardeners reliable new varieties. AAS has an excellent website devoted to gardeners, detailing each plant with growing instructions and beautiful photos.

All the seed packets that I received look very exciting–I cannot wait to plant them this year in my Virginia garden. However, the one seed package that really was different and new to me was Clancy potato seeds, bred by Bejo Seeds. Not seed potatoes mind you but actual seeds. These seeds are so tiny they are coated to make them easier to handle. Clancy is the first potato from seed that is an AAS winner. Clancy grows to about 3 feet in height with blue flowers and produces rose-blush to red skinned tubers with a white to yellow interior. These round to oblong tubers are about 4-5 inches in length and are good for boiling and mashed potatoes.

True Potato Seed is so small, is coated

Usually potatoes are grown from “seed potatoes” which are either very small tubers or parts of a tuber. These are planted in March in our area and eventually a bushy plant appears that produces more and larger tubers to eat. True seed comes from the resulting fruit of a potato flower. True potato seed (TPS) is resistant to diseases especially viruses and lasts much longer than seed potatoes.

Last year I grew seed potatoes in fabric containers from small tubers but I have never grown potatoes from TPS before. TPS needs to be started indoors under lights about 6 weeks before the average last frost (end of April in Northern Virginia). They are sown with a very thin layer of seed starting mix on top of the seed as light inhibits germination. The surface of the soil must be moist until seedlings poke through and then watering can decrease. After the seedlings have produced four true leaves, the plants can be set outside to harden off. I harden off my plants by putting them on the deck in the daytime when the temperature is about 50 degrees and back inside if frost is predicted or the evenings are too cold. When there is no more danger of frost, the plants can be planted in containers or in the ground. All potato plants need to be “hilled” which is a process of covering the plant with soil as tubers form so the tubers are not exposed to light. The top 6 inches or so of the plant is not covered to allow leaves to continue to photosynthesis. Potatoes require full sun with good drainage and loose soil which is easy to provide in a large container where I can add bags of potting soil. In the summer, the plants must be well watered. Clancy will probably be harvested in mid to late summer.

I am truly looking forward to growing Clancy but I am also looking forward to the other AAS winners such as Big Duck Marigold Gold, Viking Begonia XL Red on Chocolate, Holi Scarlet Zinnia, Melon Orange Silverwave, Pepper Just Sweet, and the many tomatoes cultivars! If you are looking for new plants to try with a seal of approval, look to AAS for flower and vegetable winners.

Various All-America Selections to try this year

Learn to Multiply Your Plants by Divisions and Cuttings

Join me as I demonstrate how to multiply plants through simple techniques that you can do at home. Learn how to take stem cuttings and divide plants to save money and enhance your garden. Take home a starter plant and handout. To register for the “Plants & Design Workshop: Multiply Your Plants” on Saturday, March 30, 9:30 to 11:00 am, call Green Spring Gardens at (703) 642-5173 or register online at https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/parktakes/ using code 586.37E6. Green Spring Gardens, 4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA.

Anise Hyssop: Culinary Herb of the Year

anise hyssop at the National Herb Garden in July

The International Herb Association has named the Agastache genus as the 2019 Herb of the Year. There are about 20 species, all native to North America. Of the agastache plants, anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is the most well-known for culinary uses in Europe and America.

Anise hyssop is an herbaceous perennial hardy to zone 4. It is a short-lived perennial but it self-seeds and spreads a bit by rhizomes. In March, the leaves emerge with a purple hue. As the plant grows the leaves become green (although there is a golden cultivar). A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), the leaves have scalloped edges and look like catnip leaves. Anise hyssop grows a few feet tall and about one foot wide. In the summer, there are small lavender-blue flowers on 4 to 6-inch terminal spikes, creating fuzzy wands. The flowers attract beneficial pollinators, including butterflies and hummingbirds. Because the foliage is so fragrant, deer do not seem interested.

Anise hyssop is a full sun to part shade plant tolerating a wide range of soils in a well-drained site. In addition to its culinary use, anise hyssop is an asset in the garden as an ornamental. It provides contrast to orange and yellow flowers and complements purple foliage plants.

purple foliage of anise hyssop in March

Anise hyssop is harvested for its leaves as well as its flowers. Although the aroma is categorized as anise or licorice, some might say anise with a touch of basil or anise with a touch of tarragon. The most common use of the leaves is tea but you can also add the leaves to lamb or pork dishes, to the milk for making ice cream, sugar syrups and/or sugar syrups for cough drops, cocktails, honey, butter cookies, and sugar to make flavored sugar. The leaves dry well, retaining their taste and fragrance.

Use the flowers as a garnish for desserts, add to a salad, or add to a beverage such as ice tea. The flowers also dry well, retaining their color and aroma.

You can find small plants in the nursery in the spring or you can grow anise hyssop from seed. Sow the seed indoors under lights in order to transplant outside after the last frost or sow outside in the summer. Anise hyssop can also be propagated by root division.

This summer, grow anise hyssop in your garden for beauty as well as flavor.

Volunteering at Washington 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.

U.S. Botanic Gardens’ production greenhouses

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.

A well-known volunteer giving a lecture at USBG

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.

Smithsonian Gardens

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.

Volunteer at Smithsonian Gardens event
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian 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.

Volunteer in the Smithsonian’s Ripley Garden
Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Gardens

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.

Volunteers cleaning seed at USNA
Photo courtesy of USNA

“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 planting in the USNA’s Fern Valley Meadow
Photo courtesy of USNA

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.

Volunteer pruning in the Asian collection
Photo courtesy of USNA

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.

Volunteer cleaning up in USNA’s Azalea collection
Photo courtesy of USNA

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!

Poinsettia Pointers: Before and After the Holidays

Odds are you have a poinsettia in your home for the holidays. In the United States, poinsettias are grown in greenhouses and programmed to bloom in time for Christmas. Try to emulate the bright light and balmy 70 degrees the greenhouse has to offer in your home so your poinsettia will survive the holidays. Keep the soil moist but don’t let the roots sit in water. Make sure the pot has drainage holes. If it is in that decorative foil, either remove foil or cut bottom out of foil so excess water drains out.

After the holidays, grow it as if it were a houseplant. With luck, you may be able to see colored bracts (the “flowers”) again next year. Keep the plant in bright light and 70 degree temperature. In the spring, cut the stems back about half the length. Keep indoors or put outdoors in the warm summer months. Apply a houseplant fertilizer and make sure the plant does not dry out. In June, transfer into a slightly bigger pot. In September bring the plant back indoors. To induce flowering, give the plant bright light each day and fourteen hours of uninterrupted dark each night beginning in early October (as in cover with a box or put in a closet). Keep the soil moist but stop fertilizing. The color should form on the bracts in six to eight weeks.

Peg’s Picks: My Favorite Gardening Podcasts

Because I am always interested in learning about plants and gardening, I listen to gardening podcasts when I walk in the neighborhood in the evening, weed in the garden, or drive to work.  Although there are many gardening podcasts available on iTunes or Stitcher, these four are my favorites for several reasons. They offer an unusual perspective; they are extremely detailed, providing an in-depth examination of a particular plant or gardening practice; they are seasonally appropriate, focusing on what is currently happen in the environment; and the voices are easy on the ear, especially if you are fighting traffic. It is always a plus if there is a corresponding website with a transcript, summary, or photos of the topic with links to additional resources. There are other podcasts I used to listen to but they are not available anymore and I am sure after I post this there will be new ones that may interest me. The world of gardening podcasts seems to ebb and flow like the tide; it always best to search for them on iTunes or Stitcher. I recommend these four, in alphabetical order, to people interested in learning more about gardening and the environment.

A Way to Garden

Every Monday morning, Margaret Roach broadcasts her public radio show from Robin Hood Radio in CT. She has an insatiable curiosity and researches her guests well in advance of the show. The topics are seasonally appropriate, ranging from gardening chores and plants; the environment; all types of creatures, including birds; and preparing and cooking the harvest. Usually there is a giveaway such as gardening book. Listening to A Way to Garden is like drinking cappuccino during the morning commute, quick and satisfying. Each podcast is 30 minutes long and runs at a fast clip. If I want to delve deeper and learn more, I am comforted in knowing that she has posted a transcript complete with hyperlinks on her website. Margaret Roach is a well-known garden writer and lecturer, has written several books, and used to be the garden editor for Martha Stewart. Although she gardens in New York, her website, awaytogarden.com, is a wealth of gardening information for anyone who gardens in the United States.

Cultivating Place: A Conversation on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden

Jennifer Jewell produces this podcast every Thursday on North State Public Radio. I like to listen to Jennifer’s soothing, relaxing voice as she couch analyzes the people she interviews on her podcast. The range is vast, not simply gardening, but nature in all its forms, including businesses, art, and books. On her website she says she loves gardens, nature, gardeners, and nature lovers. Jennifer gardens with her daughters in California. She has a way of seeing her guest’s role in the natural world, weaving threads to illustrate the path that lead to that person’s purpose in life. Like a languid raft ride down the Mississippi River, each show is one-hour long and Jennifer patiently takes her time pointing out the person’s key impressions in life, points of impact, and choices made. I not only learn more about the person, who may have just published a book I want to read, but I also learn more about myself as a gardener. Jennifer has an excellent website, cultivatingplace.com. She summarizes the podcasts and provides images to complete the audio experience as well as lists an archive of podcasts.

Plantrama: Science, Art and Dinner — It’s All In Your Own Backyard

This podcast is produced by two women who are well-known in the gardening world. C.L. Fornari has published seven gardening books and numerous articles, given lectures across the county, and has talked about gardening on several radio stations. She gardens in Cape Cod, MA. Ellen also has written seven gardening books, is well-known for foraging and creating plant-based cocktails, has taught gardening and given lectures, and lives in New Mexico.

Every Thursday, for 30 minutes, they discuss seasonal topics including what’s for dinner, insider information, eat/drink/grow, product/plant review, and answering questions from listeners. They banter, they do not always agree, but I like hearing the two perspectives. It illustrates that gardening is personal. Although there may be a science-based principle behind a gardening practice, choices are personal and people choose to do what is right for oneself and one’s garden. The podcast is geared for people interested in gardening and eating from the garden although they also talk about houseplants and the full range of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees. The website, plantrama.com, has large images to illustrate the podcast topics. There is no transcript but the website marks the seconds for each new topic during the podcast so you can jump to the different sections. This podcast is a nice snapshot of what is going on in the garden and what you can be planting, harvesting, or cooking during that particular week.

The Native Plant Podcast

The Native Plant Podcast is like sitting in your grandmother’s rocking chair on the wooden stoop of her Appalachian cabin, sipping ice tea and listening to an old-fashioned radio program. Intently (because they use the “real” plant names). John Magee owns Magee Design, a landscape design firm in Middleburg, VA, that specializes in native plants, sustainable landscaping, and eco-friendly designs. Mike Berkley owns GroWild, a Tennessee wholesale native plant nursery. Together they started this podcast, borne of a friendship from attending the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference. Preston Montague, a North Carolina landscape designer also appears on the show. Sometimes the show is the two of them or three of them talking plants and sometimes they interview a person. Although their main interest is native plants, they are not purists to the point of excluding other flora. Each show opens by what they are seeing in the landscape at the time, what is blooming, what is buzzing (it helps to know the botanical names to the plants they mention). I like the way they explain what I too am seeing in the landscape at the same time. They are down to earth and they don’t rush; each show is about one hour. I feel that I am listening to a much slower, deliberate pace (compared to living here in fast paced Washington DC area) and my heart slows down and relaxes. They constantly kid each other and joke and eventually they get around to introducing the guest. Each show ends by opening a bottle of micro brewed beer with an unusual name. The website, nativeplantpodcast.com, has photos but there is no transcript and they do not air year round. However, there are archives on the website.

Spotting Hardy Orchids in Spotsylvania

Years ago I wrote an article for Chesapeake Home magazine on terrestrial orchids that are hardy in the Washington DC metro area. Hardy orchids can be treated like perennials in the garden. They live in the soil instead of hanging from trees and are surprisingly relatively easy to grow. However, hardy orchids are not well known. With the exception of the hardy Chinese orchids (Bletilla), I find it rare to see them in someone’s garden. So imagine my surprise when I spotted Spiranthes cernua var. odorata ‘Chadds Ford’ at Tracy and Bill Blevins home in Spotsylvania, VA. Owner of Plantsmap, Tracy and Bill recently hosted an open house where guests were invited to walk around their personal garden and enjoy refreshments.

Plantsmap is a website community that anyone from the home gardener to professionals managing public landscapes can use to document, organize, map, tag, and share their plants. For many, it is a way of journaling and tracking what they planted with photos and descriptions. Since Tracy and Bill use Plantsmap for their own personal garden, this link is their entry for this particular planting of Spiranthes in their garden.

Spiranthes cernua var. odorata is a fragrant form of lady’s tresses. This hardy orchid is found in the coastal region of southeastern states. The plant prefers moist soil with high organic matter and will slowly form a colony. White flowers appear in the fall and are supposed to smell like vanilla or jasmine.

This particular cultivar, ‘Chadds Ford’, has an interesting history. In the 1960s, Dick Ryan, an orchid enthusiast, discovered this plant in the wild near his hometown in Delaware, just as its habitat was about to be destroyed. The area was slated to be razed to construct homes. Dr. Merlin Brubacker, a plantsman, obtained a division years later and named it ‘Chadds Ford’ after his own hometown in Pennsylvania.

Other hardy orchids include lady’s slippers (Cypripedium), hardy Chinese orchids (Bletilla), grass pink plants (Calopogon), fringed orchids (Platanthera), egret flowers, (Habenaria), and Calanthe. For more information, read Tony Avent’s article on his Plant Delights website, Growing Hardy Orchids by John Tullock, and the Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hardy Perennial Orchids by William D. Mathis. Local native plant societies also may have information. Or search Plantsmap to see if anyone is growing hardy orchids.