Mainers who don’t get enough gardening at home to supply their need for playing with plants can get their fill by volunteering at public gardens – usually nonprofits.

Some people do their volunteer gardening through garden clubs – most of which do some work to beautify the communities where they are based. Other talented and committed people find a public garden they want to support. Rather than – or in addition to – donating money, they give their time and talents.

The idea for this column came when my wife, Nancy, as president of the Cape Elizabeth Garden Club, received an email from Barbara Luke saying the Tate House in Portland was looking for volunteer gardeners. The Tate gardens – which include plants English settlers would have grown in Colonial times as well as some native plants – were tended by a professional until about 15 years ago, which is when a group of volunteers took over.

“That group has gotten diminished and older – we’re all getting into our 70s – and we need some new blood and new ideas,” Luke, who volunteers at the garden herself, said when I called her to discuss the volunteer opportunities.

Luke says three or four new people have joined the volunteers since she sent out her emailed plea for help to garden clubs and elsewhere, including two recent graduates of the Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener program, but that they could still use more assistance.

Some volunteers work together. Others, who aren’t available when most of the others volunteer, come when they can, Luke said.

When people tour the historic building, she said, they often wander the gardens, too, and ask questions of the gardeners – so she hopes some of the new volunteers learn from the long-time workers and can carry on their knowledge and skills.

Although Tate House was the genesis for this column, many other gardens around Maine make use of donated, unpaid labor.

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay has more than 300 volunteers, though only about 10 percent of the volunteers work directly with the horticultural department, according to Volunteer Coordinator Melissa Glasgow.

“Those who do gardening are trained, never work alone and are paired up with a horticulturist for whatever task they are doing,” she said.

Other volunteers help with mailings, conduct tours, drive carts for visitors, sort and untangle lights so professionals can put them up before the popular Gardens Aglow event each year around Christmas time and do other non-gardening tasks.

The butterfly house, which opened for the first time earlier this month, will require even more volunteers. A docent must be in the house at all times, and many of the docents will be volunteers. Butterfly house shifts last two hours.

Glasgow said the staff has tallied all the hours that volunteers work, and calculated that it would take four or five full-time staffers to accomplish the same.

McLaughlin Garden & Homestead in South Paris also makes good use of volunteers. Director Donna Anderson said a core of about 25 volunteers spend 20 hours or more working each year, often with horticulturist Kristin Perry. In addition, members of the Foothills Garden Club, which is affiliated with McLaughlin, work in the gardens.

Special events, such as a Fairy House program (July 8) and McLaughlin’s annual Gardens Illuminated (July 14), when the gardens are lighted by candles and moonlight, require more help from volunteers. But the most labor-intensive event, Anderson said, is the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular (Oct. 19-20), in which 600 carved, lighted pumpkins are displayed around the garden. “With the picking, cleaning and carving, and then moving all of those jack-o’-lanterns, it’s intense,” Anderson said. “It seems like it takes all winter to recover from that.”

The Fort Williams Park Foundation, which is creating and maintaining an arboretum at the Cape Elizabeth park, has about 125 volunteers.

Volunteer coordinator Kim Koehler said the biggest single-day need is for the annual Cape Elizabeth Garden Tour, which will be held on July 14 this year; volunteers act as docents and parking attendants. As a thank-you, each volunteer gets a free ticket for the tour.

The arboretum also has an adopt-a-plot program, in which people agree to weed a section of the garden for a year – although most keep the same plot for many years. About 50 people participate in the adopt-a-plot program. (Full disclosure: Your garden columnist joined the Fort Williams Foundation board of directors last year and soon after took over the job of coordinating Adopt-a-Plot, so should you want to adopt one yourself, you know whom to call.

Historic New England has six properties in Maine: Hamilton House and the Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, Sayward-Wheeler House in York Harbor, Marrett House in Standish, and Castle Tucker and the Nickels-Sortwell House in Wiscasset.

The Hamilton House holds “Weeding Wednesdays” from 10 a.m. to noon the second Wednesday of every month from May to October.

So far I’ve been explaining how the organizations benefit from volunteers. But what do the volunteers get out of it?

First, the satisfaction of assisting a group or project that they support. Next, it’s a way to spend time with other people who share similar interests. Beyond these, volunteers often learn new skills that they can then use in their own gardens. For instance, the Fort Williams Foundation and the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust sought volunteers on consecutive days last December to band trees in order to protect them from the winter moth. Many of the volunteers said they helped out in part so they could learn how to protect the trees on their own property.

If none of the opportunities I’ve described in this column work for you, create your own opportunity. If when you register your car, say, or get a book at the library, you notice the Town Hall or library gardens are in sad shape, you don’t have to ignore that.

Walk in and ask if you could spend some time weeding. I bet your help would not be refused.


TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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