By Leslie Germaine
Leslie Germaine is a writer, marketer and SGG volunteer
Ask any Smith-Gilbert Gardens (SGG) employee and they will, without exception, tell you that they would not be able to function without the dedication of its volunteer force and Board members. For so many non-profit and public organizations, budgets are tight and offering top-quality services or experiences requires lots of challenging work behind the scenes. Volunteers are often the people who enable these organizations to thrive, which is true for SGG.
Garden Manager Lisa Bartlett said the SGG volunteer force is “so generous with their time and their energy. Without them we would not have a garden.” Bartlett went on to say that when she joined SGG five years ago there were five volunteers on their roster. Her first thought was, “Oh my gosh! I need to grow this program.” There was plenty of work to go around to maintain the 13-acres of garden spaces. To ensure the best possible experience for visitors… yes, the volunteer force would have to grow.
Through advertising, recruitment, and word-of-mouth, today there are 250 volunteers in the SGG database, with a core group of approximately 30 individuals who give of their time and sweat equity on a regular basis. According to Bartlett, this equates to about 100 work hours per week or 2.5 full-time employees. Let’s put that into context. According to The Independent Sector, an organization that according to their website is “the only national membership organization that brings together a diverse community of changemakers at nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving,” announced in April 2021 that the value of volunteer work is $28.54 per hour. Given this, SGG realizes a benefit of more than $148,000 worth of volunteer time annually.
What makes a person give so generously of their time and talent? The distinction between donating and volunteering is an important one. Writing a check to support causes one believes in is a wonderful way to give back to the community, donating items you no longer use is another way to show support. Neither of these charitable actions requires much time, energy, or engagement. But, to give of your time, talent, knowledge, and energy elevates the level of commitment significantly and often grows into a deeply personal experience.
SGG volunteers each have their own reason for doing so. Elaine Chaney, who volunteers in education, horticulture, vermicompost – a natural fertilizer produced by worm byproducts – and who also leads tours said, “I have a number of organizations I give money to so the thing that is interesting about volunteering here is, it becomes your garden. It’s like shared ownership. We talk about it like it’s our garden.” As a consultant whose clients were mostly environmental and conservation groups, Chaney’s perspective is focused. “Because I think in terms of strategy or ideas, I tend to think about what would be good for the garden. Simply giving money you are not thinking about how you can make it better. There is a shared sense of responsibility and pride. That’s why it is kind of like your garden.”
It is clearly a mutually beneficial relationship between SGG and its volunteers. It is apparent when talking to them that they get at least as much out of their time spent at SGG as the garden gets in return, such as opportunities to learn new things.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
Education plays a predominant role in the SGG experience, for volunteers and visitors. Some volunteers who started by pulling weeds and serving as docents developed a thirst to know more about the garden, its specimen plantings and the birds and animals that are among the inhabitants. This has led some of them to enroll in Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs to broaden their knowledge, earn certifications, and share what they learn with other volunteers, SGG members, and visitors.
Kelly Plaskett, a Master Gardner, Master Naturalist, and birder who volunteers in education programs and provides docent-led tours did not start out as a Master Gardner. In 2017, around the time her son was preparing to graduate from college and move away, Plaskett saw Smith-Gilbert Gardens’ ad in the local free paper recruiting volunteers. It seemed to her like a fulfilling way to spend some of her newfound free time. While volunteering, she heard another one of the SGG docents talk about how to become a Master Gardner and Master Naturalist, which interested her enough to apply and complete the programs. Part of what she enjoys most about her time at SGG is leading tours for children and sharing what she knows with youngsters who may not yet have developed an appreciation for the importance of the natural world.
“That’s one of the reasons I like leading the kid’s tours. I am able to help them with ‘ok you don’t need to be afraid of bees, this is what happens with bees,’ or ‘stay on the path because there are living things here, this is someone’s home,’ you know? Pesticides! I’m trying to talk to them at an early age about that so, yeah, I do feel like I’m helping them because they may not know the importance of trees or the importance of that caterpillar or that bug. Not all bugs are bad,” said Plaskett.
A common trait among the volunteers is a desire to continually expand their personal knowledge, and then share what they know with SGG visitors young and old – and with each other. Shared knowledge flows in all directions. One of the benefits of volunteering is the opportunities to learn from one another. Bartlett said, “We teach our volunteers, and we go on field trips, I help them with their own lawns and gardens. I am always trying to teach. I learn just as much from them as they learn from me, and I want this to always be fun for them and make them know that they are not just weeders. I want them to feel like this is an enriching and empowering experience.” That approach seems to be working. The knowledge gained through volunteering and interacting with the SGG’s staff offers a value that expands beyond the garden’s boundaries. Chaney agrees saying, “There is the learning potential. Lisa and Patsy [Kuipers] know so much, and you learn so much about what you might want to do in your own garden.” Kuipers said it is “a giant learning lab for me. Because even as much as I have walked this garden, there will be times when I am walking it and I’ll be, like, ‘I have never seen that before, what is that?’ Or there’ll be something that I don’t know what it is, so I’ll ask Lisa, or I’ll look it up, so it gives me the opportunity to continue to learn.”
They share what they learn – and grow – in their own gardens. Sharing plants with one another is not unusual. One of the volunteers had plants spreading in her yard and was willing to share. Chaney recalls, “I have some plants in my yard that I got from a fellow volunteer. They were spreading in her yard, so I went to dig up some of the plants to put in my own yard.”
Any gardener who has grown a cutting from a friend or dug something up from someone else’s garden understands this kind of shared gardening experience. It is a more personal, meaningful experience than growing store-bought plants. The camaraderie, shared knowledge, and shared plants have contributed to the deeper relationships developed among the SGG volunteers and the longevity of their participation as volunteers.
VOLUNTEERS ARE ROOTED
The SGG volunteers return year after year even after a short, forced hiatus due to COVID they still come back. Among the core group of volunteers, the average tenure is just over seven years and Lisa Bartlett would like to see that longevity to continue.
The volunteers who consistently return are the ones who have developed a personal attachment to the physical spaces, the people, or the philosophy.
“I didn’t realize how important it was going to be to me,” said Plasket. “And then, coming back over the years I have developed friendships here. We all enjoy seeing each other and it matters that we are here for one another.” She went on to say, “We may only see each other once a week but we connect and learn from each other, talk about family, know what’s going in each other’s lives.”
Others have personal connections to specific plants and places around the garden. Patsy Kuipers, whose husband was a horticulturist, is kept close to Patsy’s heart in the garden. After her husband passed away Kuipers was left with a garden that she learned to maintain to honor his memory. She was inspired to improve her horticultural knowledge and enrolled in Chattahoochee Technical Institute’s program to earn her Master Gardener and Master Naturalist designations. Six months later her first grandchild, Joshua, was born. She says he became her “plant study buddy.” Kuipers had to complete an internship for her field of study, which she did at SGG. She became a volunteer in 2012 and has remained active at SGG ever since. She and her now three grandchildren spend a good amount of time enjoying the garden together. Her deepest personal connection is near the Koi Pond where she donated and planted a Japanese maple tree in memory of her late husband.
Although SGG has a loyal and reliable volunteer base, there is always room for more. Increasing the numbers and improving the diversity of the volunteers are aspirations according to Bartlett and some of the volunteers. As Elaine Chaney puts it, “the current group of volunteers look painfully alike.” National statistics of who volunteers, show that women volunteer at much higher rates than do men. In fact, women volunteer at a rate of 59% of the population and men at 35% according to the job search website ZIPPIA, which conducts independent employment research. Bartlett says the breakdown skews even higher toward women at SGG with approximately 70% women to 30% men. Smith-Gilbert Gardens is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion and would like to see that commitment reflected in their volunteer force. That said, when Bartlett was asked what she looks for in a volunteer her response was simple, “anyone who has a love for living things.”
Bartlett welcomes “anybody who would love to work among nature and loves living things – plants and animals – if you want to be a part of something special and to take care of that special place then we are looking for you,” said Bartlett. There will always be a need for volunteers. However, there is an immediate need for “folks who do what we call the ‘mow and blow’ work, but we don’t have anybody to do that, so we need volunteers for jobs like that. Nobody is applying for those jobs right now, so the volunteers are even more important,” said Bartlett. When asked why the volunteers stay year after year she said, “They love this garden. They have seen the garden go through its changes. They have taken ownership of it; they are proud of what they do here. What they maintain here is special and they know they are both a part of the history and part of the future. They know they are part of something special.”
SUPPORTING THE CONSERVATION AND EDUCATION MISSION
Part of what makes SGG so special are the changes taking place and the long-term focus on conservation, sustainability, and education. Whether the volunteers are long-timers or new, whether they are Master Gardeners or doing the demanding work of weeding, hauling, planting, or working in the gift shop, there is shared support of SGG’s philosophy. For example, when Lisa Bartlett joined SGG as Garden Manager they were still applying dangerous chemicals to the plants. Eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides was an important goal that she achieved. Some of the volunteers remember when people would wear hazmat suits to spray the roses.
“One of the things I really love about this garden… it has been really fun watching the garden shift to not using chemicals and I talk about that with the children and the adults. We talk about the impact that using pesticides and chemicals have on the garden,” said Chaney. “Lisa has really pushed not using chemicals. Seeing it not simply as a beautiful garden but understanding the biology of it and the sustainability of it. I think that has been a really nice arc and one that is important to me,” she added.
Regarding the more natural approach, Plaskett added that, “This is more of a collector’s garden or a country garden or cottage garden… it’s not perfect, with everything in place – and there is a place for that – but what I like about this, we don’t use pesticides or herbicides and I always tell people about that because that’s very important.”
As the garden grows there are new opportunities to expand the focus on conservation. Bartlett dreams of being able to raise enough funds to build the next building on the SGG property to be a Net Zero Energy Building (NZEB), which produces as much energy as it uses over the course of a year. The concept is in alignment with SGG’s philosophy of conservation. Currently, there are very few of these buildings in the country and they are costly to build; but Bartlett is not deterred and hopes it is not just a pipe dream. If it becomes a reality, then it will be an impactful teaching tool for Smith-Gilbert Gardens to offer the community and the region.
The most valuable teaching tools are the plants and animals. Since the garden stopped using pesticides, they have seen an increase in the bird life nesting in the garden. Plaskett, a birder, said “As volunteers, we all have our areas of interest[s] or expertise. For me, [it’s] talking about the native plants and the birds. I love the birds. I could talk about the birds all day. Before COVID we had a great backyard bird count in February, so we were able to take folks around and notice the birds. It was part of the Citizens Science project where you would actually enter the birds you see into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s [database] for the eBird [project], so that helps keep track of the birds and helps with migration.”
One of the more unusual plants visitors can see is the Voodoo Lily that Kuipers planted. “I look forward to that coming back every year. They are like my babies. There are two of them. And it doesn’t smell good because it is attracting the pollinators that would go to dead meat. I look for them every spring when they start coming back.”
WHAT VOLUNTEERS RECOMMEND YOU SEE
All the volunteers have places and plants in the garden that they’d recommend you see on your next visit to Smith-Gilbert Gardens. There is so much pride in the work they do that wanting to show it off is natural. What may surprise you is that when asked when the best time of year to visit is, none of them immediately said spring. They all agree that there is beauty to discover in every season – the sentiment of true garden lovers!
“I know that a lot of times people come when it is the peak season for flowers or the peak season for colors, but I say you can walk this garden any day of the year and you’re going to find something beautiful,” said Kuipers. “It might be the moss on a chunk of a pine tree…you are going to find something beautiful and that’s why I try to encourage people to slow down and look.”
Chaney’s favorite spot is near the Crevice Garden where visitors will find a large stump that is “nature personified.” She described with affection the mushrooms and ferns that grow on it and the pleasure she finds in using it as a living – and dying—example of the cycle of life. She pointed out that during the late fall early winter months it is the time when you will find all types of seed pods. “This is the wonderful thing about the commitment of the garden being more natural. This time of year, there are all kinds of seed pods, and they are fascinating.”
Each volunteer points to various times of the year and different plants they love, some find it harder to settle on just one thing. “Every year the Pistache tree brings beautiful orange-yellow color, so I look forward to that in the fall,” said Plaskett. “In the spring [there is] the Voodoo Lily that is pollinated by flies and gnats and I am always looking forward to that, and you can miss it if you’re not careful, and the arrival of the hummingbirds, too.”
They all agree there is something interesting to see all year-’round that is of interest, from lichen on the tree to migrating birds. “I could come every week and see something different,” Plaskett added.
The volunteers’ love for Smith-Gilbert Gardens is evident in how they talk about their work. Their individual expertise and passions come together to elevate the Garden’s beauty and its mission. Kelly Plaskett may have said it best when she said, “I think it’s a group effort it is not just one person. There are things that we all do, like Margaret taking care of the hummingbirds, or me monitoring the bluebird boxes. We all have a job so, in that respect, that matters. But I think it is more of a group effort that we are all planting or pruning or the master gardeners planting native plants.” The beautiful results of the volunteers’ collective effort are what visitors should not miss. What does Lisa Bartlett think about the volunteers? “Our volunteers have really stepped up. They do everything. And they believe in the mission. We wouldn’t have a garden without them.”
BECOME A VOLUNTEER
Volunteer Opportunities – Smith-Gilbert Gardens (smithgilbertgardens.com)
BECOME A MEMBER
Become a Member – Smith-Gilbert Gardens (smithgilbertgardens.com)