Gardener in Search of Volunteer Gig


This shouldn’t be a hard thing to do – finding somewhere to volunteer my services in the Metro DC area.  I’m hoping to put my knowledge of gardening to some good purpose, do it with other people, and be active without doing grunt labor.  The search begins.

Master Gardener programs are probably the top choice among gardeners with time to spare and the will to volunteer, and – hold your angry comments – I think they’re great, at least the programs I’m familiar with in Maryland and Virginia.  But when I look at the actual projects that my local group is involved with, none of them really appeals to me.  I may change my mind but for now, the search continues.casey trees nursery

Asking around among my gardener friends who are retired, I heard great things about volunteering with a particular woody plants expert employed by the National Arboretum but whose research facility is even closer to me, in College Park, MD.  The purpose of the facility is to grow trees and shrubs for conservation purposes – a great cause, and it’s favorite plant group!  So I visited, hit it off with the expert, who was eager to put my  pruning skills to use, and looked forward to my first day on the “job.”  That first day wasn’t a terrible summer day by local standards – humid but with temperatures in the low ’80s – but still, I arrived at 8 a.m., as early as possible.  I was taken to the growing fields with its row after row of trees and shrubs, given a full complement of pruning tools and an intern to work with, and I got to work.

Now I do love to prune, but it turned out this pruning task would be nothing like what I’d ever done before, because aesthetics were of no importance whatsoever.  The only thing that matters in this fields is keeping the plants alive, and pruning is only needed to keep branches away from the paths so the large lawn mowers could pass by.  But I was game.

Three hours later I was dripping in sweat and so tired I felt sick.  My hands were red and aching.  I begged off the fourth hour I’d promised and came home to shower and bed, waking shortly to feel itching all over my body.

Considering that I recetram_tourntly sold my beloved house and garden to escape the drudgery of maintaining it all and moved to a townhouse with a manageable-sized garden, I can’t help but wonder about this volunteer gig:  What was I thinking?

So I confessed my mistake to the nice people at the Arboretum, who suggested I become a tour guide at the Arboretum itself, and I’ll be getting trained to do that soon.  Walking and talking to visitors?  MUCH better idea.  Or I could be talking to visitors while touring the acreage on a tram – even better!  I’ll report back.

But that’s not until fall, so I kept looking, googling for other outdoor volunteer jobs in the DC area and found one – as a roving docent on the National Mall. Not exactly gardening-related, but hey, I could be directing people to the Smithsonian gardens and nearby US Botanic Gardens.  And I’d always gotten a kick out of chatting with tourists.

So I apply, and during my interview with two sweet Park Rangers I find out that that roving job is just one of lots I could choose on the Mall – including working at my favorite memorial, and the favorite of most DC-area gardeners – the FDR!!  (Here’s my post about how lively the FDR Memorial is.)  And oh, would I mind also working occasionally at the Jefferson Memorial?  That world-famous gardener?

So this week I reported for “work,” suited up in the official volunteer shirt and cap, and headed for the FDR, where my first task was have this photo taken, and I find out this is a “slow” memorial.  So with two rangers there and two summer interns, no volunteers are actually needed.  At least on a weekday.  Waaaaah.  So I wander over to the Jefferson, where there are plentIMG_2964y of visitors, but they were visiting from Korea and wouldn’t be needing me or any other English-speaker to tell them about the monument.  I’m told that the Jefferson is yet another low-visitorship spot, so it doesn’t really need me, except during the Cherry Blossom Festival, when it’s so crowded around the Tidal Basin that some of the volunteers choose to stay home until things get back to normal.

So, where ARE volunteers needed because there are actual visitors?  Mostly two spots – the WWII Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  Not gardens – wars!  But I determined to keep an open mind and I met up with the dedicated volunteers at the WWII Memorial, but hearing them explain the details of the memorial confirmed that this isn’t the memorial for me.  Classical in style, and lots of “symbols of victory.”


There is one regular event there that I heard is so moving, it touches the hearts of even the most anti-war types – when groups of WWII veterans arrive, after being flown here to see the memorial by a terrific nonprofit organization. Here’s a photo of one such event by my photographer friend Steve Brown, who published a book about the memorial.  I can’t talk Battle of the Bulge with them but I can help in other ways, so I’ll give it a try.

vietnam memorial

Finally, I strolled over to the most popular memorial in town – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which honors not war itself but veterans.  And while not really garden-like, it’s definitely a landscapeVVM rubbing flickr-001-type treatment, much more to my liking, and it attracts mainly visitors from my generation and their kids.  We may have been on opposite sides of a very divided nation at the time, but there’s been lots of healing since then, something this famous “Wall” has contributed to.

At the Wall I found a job I can imagine doing and maybe, as one volunteer told me happens to everyone, getting addicted to.  Here I would be finding the names of visitors’ loved ones on the Wall, and helping them take rubbings of the name – or in the case of names requiring a ladder to reach, actually taking the rubbing.  I’d be talking about the Wall, of course – the designer, the materials, etc. – but this place is mainly about the people who are remembered on it.

So maybe the Wall is my new home away from home – at least until I figure out how to scrounge up some visitors to listen to me talk about the FDR memorial and its world-famous landscape architect designer (finally chose after designs by exalted architects were rejected).  At least for now, my adventures in volunteering will take me outside the world of gardening, and maybe that’s a good thing.

So, any volunteers out there?  I want to hear all about it.

Photo credit for volunteer at the Wall.


  1. My mother after moving into a condo, she has started volunteering at the church garden. But she does do the grunt work. Most of the jobs are grunt work unfortunately.

  2. I’ve often thought about talking to the local Meals on Wheels volunteers to find out where there are seniors in the community with yards that need some TLC–watering, weeding, pruning, etc., tasks that are beyond their ability to do anymore. There might be some interesting gardens to work in this way, and those seniors might even have some knowledge to share from their years of gardening. Someday I hope to have time to do this!

  3. You may have to start your own project! I’ve done that a few times. Look around and figure out what needs to be done that’s not getting done, or what information needs to be spread, or what area needs gardens or expert gardening knowledge.

    Around here, several public libraries have started hosting seed banks, where people can trade seeds. Often, a seed co. provides initial inventory. School gardens may need watering/planning help in the summer.

    Community gardens may need help (though usually what they need is grunt labor). If they’re organized enough, they may need help harvesting from plots of people who are on vacation or taking harvested food to food banks. (Aren’t you already a member of a community garden? Ask around at the garden — I’ve found community gardeners are a pretty good resource.)

    The DC area has tons of nonprofits. Do any of them appeal to you? National Wildlife Fed. has backyard habitat programs, for one. Dumbarton Oaks? The herb garden at the cathedral?

    If there are any big gardening events such as tours or fairs, often the organizers work year-round to make it happen. That could be an option if you don’t mind attending committee meetings. If you’d rather be outdoors, the tours may need help scouting locations and interviewing gardeners. (Or start your own garden tour!)

    You could be like Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon and hang out your own shingle: “Gardening Advice, 5 cents” (or do the digital version). Find out if any community groups are looking for a knowledgeable person to work on gardening-related projects. Or if your area has one of those volunteer-blitz organizations, find out if they need a gardening advisor.

    One of the community gardens I belong to is on church land. It’s run by volunteers and its main purpose is to donate food to food closets. Ten of us lease plots, though, which covers the watering expense for the whole garden. I’ve noticed that the volunteers do small tasks, such as watering one day a week, as well as harvesting as needed or growing seedlings.

  4. I have been volunteering at the Matthaei Botanical Garden in Ann Arbor, Michigan for about 6 years and I totally love it. I started with the native plant initiative and have been working with that area ever since. We collect seed in the fall from different areas of the garden and the associated Arboretum on the UM Campus. We clean it, stratify it, mix it with dirt (or not) and so on. In the winter we plant seed in trays, we transplant to pots and later plant seedlings outside and weed and the cycle goes on. I have learned so much about native plants since starting this effort. My fellow volunteers are great folks and we have a good time working together.

  5. Be careful about starting your own project, Susan. I did that with our local farmers market thinking other folks would take it and run with it. Little did I know how many hours I would and still do put in. The Vietnam Memorial is such a moving place. I think you will really get into it. But if not, I can’t wait to hear about what you settle into.

  6. Are you familiar with Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, VA? They have a Master Gardener program, as well as a group called Friends of Green Spring. You can volunteer in either capacity. Your might lead docent tours of the garden, which was designed by Beatrix Ferrand, teach pre-designed school field trip programs, get your hands dirty in one of the 22 demonstration gardens with other volunteers and staff horticulturalists, give a talk on any garden issue of your choice, reach to local schools to start a garden, work on power point presentations or posters that other speakers can use, give advice at a farmers market… The opportunities are too many to list, but there is truly something for everyone.

  7. Good for you, Susan, for looking for ways to share your time and expertise! When I lived in Maryland, I participated in several volunteer tree-planting events with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (, and I also joined a group from the Single Volunteers of DC ( to work in the Arlington House gardens at Arlington National Cemetery. Prior to 2008, I would have enthusiastically seconded P carr’s suggestion to volunteer at the National Cathedral gardens, but the Cathedral has been on my blacklist ever since their management closed the Greenhouse, one of my absolute favorite places. Good luck in finding just the right gig for you!

  8. I wish you lived in St. Louis! I could put you to work at my nonprofit! I’d suggest checking out some local nonprofits that have nothing to do with gardening and seeing if you can help them with their gardens/ front walks etc. What I have in front of my building is several rose bushes and some pots, (and opportunity for more!) enough to keep one person busy a couple hours a week all spring- fall… but I don’t have the staff to keep it as nice as it should. You’d be a life saver for a place like mine!

  9. Hi, Susan! I agree with Brenda above that Green Spring Gardens is a great place to volunteer. We have so many different kinds of opportunities. I like what you are doing, trying many different opportunities to find you like (or want to write about). Put us on your list of places to try. Did you try Smithsonian Gardens?

    • Hi.
      You could mentor garden writers! Oh, wait, you’re already doing that. The Lower Mainland Green Team I volunteer at is a pretty good model, built on the platform. Battling invasives and cleaning up parks. The leader, aptly named Lyda, organizes, oversees, chats with and photographs volunteers and writes letters for the students who need volunteer hours for their resumes. I got the landscaper position for the huge yard surrounding a woman’s shelter, from an ad on Craig’s List. Now I have the big yard I always wanted and a family by proxy, sort of. An audience anyways.

  10. Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy might be what you are looking for. They have a fun volunteer organization going on, volunteer evenings often end with drinks at the Spanish Embassy. And there are lots of trees needing attention and beautification.

  11. I volunteer at the Washington Youth Garden. It is located on the Arboretum grounds but is its own organization. As the name suggests the focus is children. There is plenty of manual labor to be done but there are also field trips to lead and classrooms to volunteer in during the school year. They are bringing nature awareness to the next generation.

  12. It doesn’t involve gardening, but, if interested, I’d be happy to show you the ins and outs of nestbox monitoring for insectivores and you can assist me on the trail at the Ag center in Beltsville. Insectivores are on the decline and it’s satisfying to “grow” birds.

    My real goal is to work with those at BARC to bring back pollinating plants to areas surrounding farm fields. If we can get this going here in the US, than we might be able to halt the decline of pollinators. There’s no better place to begin this than at the largest ag. research center in the world…right at your back door.

    I’m late to the “garden” party, but I’m understanding the importance of certain plants for insects and my birds. If interested, here’s a look at my home garden last week:

    Best wishes to you.


  13. Hey I hate to be the one to tell you, but gardening is grunt work. If they need you it’s to do the work. Most likely their are to many chiefs in the teepee already.

  14. I second the suggestion of Casey Trees – my community is currently working with them to plant trees in the spring around our Community Center and they have been great to work with. They have a Citizen Forester program that I know about since we will be assigned one for our project this winter. They help with tree selection, site selection, community training, and similar tasks.

    Also, are you aware of Arcadia? It is a farm/food non-profit located near Mt Vernon – – and they have a number of volunteer opportunities.

  15. VOLUNTEERS NOT WANTED was a post I did on my blog. Despite the constant whining from directors of community gardens about the huge workload and lack of volunteers inquiries for volunteering go unanswered. Capital District Community Gardens in the Albany NY area is such a bunch of goody two shoe whiners. They set up shop at garden shows and hang a plaque seeking volunteers…….the result no phone calls or contact. I tried three years in a row to volunteer for this bunch of phonies with no luck. They went so far as to be combatitive and downright mean in the local media towards me.

    You see groups like this love to pat themselves on the back for how hard a core group of individuals work and no one ever helps out. The result is when you seek to help you are viewed as a threat to their sanctimonious crying towel circle.

    Their badge of honor is to act burned out, whine to the media about how much work they do etc.

    I have found this to be the case for many garden centered groups throughout Albany and the Hudson Valley. But it is not prone to just garden groups…….

    Civic groups in New York abound with whiners who while saying they would love you to join and help become combative and downright mean when you try to help………………………………….

    So except for my weekly community radio talk show I DO NOT VOLUNTEER ANYMORE.

    The TROLL

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