Garden Volunteers are Critical Helpers

Discover the importance of volunteering in the Gardens and

Student employee Adrianna Pipe and volunteers Rita Richardson, Penny Munson, and Tom Bolt help with fall cleanup

To get me out of the house and out of my wife’s hair a few hours each week, I signed up to become a Horticulture Gardens volunteer in 2022. Having served as a faculty member for nearly 40 years, including a nearly seven-year stint as Chair of the Department of Horticulture, I developed an appreciation for the gardens, especially during nice weather when I could go out into the gardens and eat my lunch. In November of 2015, I was invited to give a presentation by the North American Fruit Explorers organization at the Chicago Botanic Gardens on “Rootstocks for High Density Fruit Growing in Michigan”. It included my experiences with forming Espalier fruit trees in the presentation. Our commercial fruit growers of today benefit from practices created by estate Espalier gardeners in France in the 15th century. My hosts at CBG gave me a tour of the gardens where I especially appreciated the “island” devoted to a collection of Espalier trained fruit trees. I was astounded to learn that the Chicago Botanic Gardens depends heavily on over 1400 volunteers and a long waiting list of people trying to join. The impressively gated park of 325 acres draws attendance from 9 million people living in the Chicago metropolitan area.

I was inspired by the visit and when I returned to MSU, I approached then gardens director, Art Cameron, about adding a walled Espalier exhibit of pear and apple trees planted in 2016 to our collection. The two trees were added to the 2012 pergola/espalier apple exhibit. We published a guide to benefit the gardens and local gardeners on our Espalier experiences ( Unlike the Chicago Botanic Gardens, MSU Horticultural Gardens are open to the public and accessible to our students and teachers for free. Our staff and department are creative in finding funding opportunities along with donations to generate sufficient money to support the gardens operating budget. Therefore, volunteers are crucial to accomplishing garden tasks with a limited number of staff and student workers.

Over the years, and from a distance, I have seen our group of volunteers who helped the staff with various projects in the gardens. Then, after retiring and joining the group, I developed a new appreciation for their passion, hard-work, and knowledge. There are 15-20 regular volunteers who come each week. I know that the garden staff sincerely appreciate their contributions. The supervising staff who primarily includes Bethany, Brian, Daedre and Dan organize the group and direct their activities. The group works hard within a three-hour work session each week (sometimes two sessions). Work sessions range from planting, hand weeding, mulching, pruning/dead-heading and clearing beds of debris. In the process, the volunteer members learn from our kind and knowledgeable staff. Many volunteers are Master Gardeners who are continuing their horticultural education and gain credits for MG credential for time contributed in their volunteer work. My education in horticulture has been enhanced with learning from the volunteers and staff.

By joining this group, I am proud to say that I have made many new friends. I have commented to our staff many times, how impressed I am of their work ethic and how much gets accomplished each week in the limited time. I am certainly impressed with their overall knowledge in gardening. Having taught horticulture classes (fruit, wine and plant propagation) for nearly 50 years, I can certainly say that our students could learn much from this group of volunteers. I managed to recruit one of my fellow retired faculty members, Eric Hanson, to help each week and he and I have shared our positive impressions of these super garden volunteers. “Sparty-On”!

The most important time in our work sessions is snack time. Each week we take 15 minutes out of the 3 hour session to get recharged and get to know members. Many of the volunteers sign up to bring delectable goodies each week...donuts, cookies, cakes, fruit and veggies. Some of the members are talented bakers and pride themselves in bringing their heavenly goodies each week. Now you know why I come each week.

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