Volunteers: Keeping the Garden Alive
Did you know that the SFBGS has over 500 volunteers who donate over 2,000 hours of work each month to keep our Garden growing?
In the Nursery, volunteers propagate plants of every variety for sales or for use in the Garden, while other volunteers provide tours for children or the public, and still other volunteers assist with the bookstore or monthly plant sales.
Read more about our Nursery Volunteers…
Heart & Soul: Behind the Scenes at the Nursery
by Mary Ellen Hannibal, The Leaflet, Winter '09
It’s 12:30 on a Wednesday, and things have (momentarily) quieted at the nursery. Approximately 12 volunteers have gathered around an informal table for lunch, sharing some communal potato chips, and digging into a tray of chocolate cake provided by Margaret Paulekas. "We always have a few volunteers in their nineties," says Don Mahoney, and Margaret is in this category. She commutes to the Garden twice a week from Pittsburgh, and on Wednesdays, she always brings the most amazing chocolate cake. As most of us know, Don is Curator of Horticulture at SFBG; the title doesn’t begin to express his role. For the 70-plus volunteers who spend one or two days a week helping propagate and nurture the Garden's plant life, he is the ideal manager and a guiding light. At the lunch table, it doesn't take long for the conversation level to work back up to a pitch - Don is hosting a potluck at his home on the coming weekend, just following a Saturday plant sale. Having regaled his volunteers with many a tale regarding his menagerie of pets, including several giant tortoises, people are looking forward to greeting them in person to say nothing of viewing Don's own home garden.
All the volunteers at SFBG have stories to tell, how they came to the Garden, what they do here, and why they love plants. Nani Fitzpatrick has been volunteering twice a week for two years and oversees the propagation of ferns. A former modern-dancer, her "aha" moment with plants came when she was working at a preschool and brought a magnolia plant home. "At that time I was the kind of person who says, 'good luck, plant,' and keeps her fingers crossed. But we had our floors sanded and the magnolia was covered in dust. I felt sorry for it, so I watered it and rinsed it off. The next day, one of the buds bloomed. It sounds obvious but the experience forged a connection for me between gardening and plants.” She hasn’t looked back since. Nani describes how gardening “opens doors to beauty, and it feels so good—the experience unfolds as you’re growing them.” Cultivating from spores, Nani and Margery Edgren, another volunteer Nani credits with a magic touch, nurture the rich frond-life of ferns from its very inception. That sounds like touching the magic of life at its pulse.
That most of the volunteers at SFBG are motivated by greenery is evident; so is the easy, enjoyable camaraderie among so many. Monica Martin and Boo Whitridge share a casual rapport as they oversee native plant propagation. "We do a lot from cuttings," Boo explains. "You cut below a node, from new growth that is semi-hard. We want healthy tip cuttings. We use a root hormone and plant the cutting in an absorbent material until it roots." Boo explains that they also gather seeds from the Garden itself, and from other gardens as well. "Some you put in the fridge for a while and others get the warm water treatment. Then there are those you plunk in the soil, and they just grow!" As the gardening public becomes more aware of sustainability issues, interest in native plants has greatly magnified in the ten years Boo has been volunteering.
"This is one of the best places in the world. We're all here to learn and to promote plants. What could be better?
- Patsy Kobe
Boo is aided and abetted by Monica Martin, who for four years has straddled various areas of life at the SFBG. She's co-chair of the annual plant sale, sometimes works with perennials, and is also a member of the board. "I moved to San Francisco from Marin," says Monica, of her eventual conversion to a stalwart Garden-lover, "and I didn't know what would grow in my shady garden. A friend suggested I volunteer here, and learn." While many nursery volunteers are in fact experts in their field, donating their time from a deep connection to all things green, there are also many stories like Monica's. They begin: "I wanted to learn, so I volunteered."
Just chatting with a random sampling of SFBG nursery volunteers is enough to motivate anyone to put on some coveralls and pick up a trowel. "I spent my career talking," Monica says. "I wanted to 'do' in my retirement. I love getting my hands in the dirt. I love watching the plant grow." Patsy Kobe, who has been leading the perennials charge for almost 20 years, puts it this way: "I love it all."
Patsy deserves special credit with Pat Wipf for assiduous tending of the Zellerbach Garden, along with staff gardeners, of course— right now, they are lucky enough to be working alongside Bob
Fiorello. "The Zellerbach got started with original funding in the sixties," explains Patsy. "Jenny Zellerbach picked the plants, and wanted a successional display." Although unique among the SFBG's various gardens, a continuous show of beautiful blooms, of course, is what many botanic gardens in the U.S. are all about. By 2000, the garden wasn't looking so hot. The Zellerbach family donated funds to revive it, and Patsy and Pat set about restoring some of Jenny's original intentions—an emphasis on pastel blossoms, for example—and enhancing the inevitable fallow periods of the year with various shrubs and trees that look good no matter the season. "It's been a fascinating educational project," says Patsy. Propagating perennials is a matter of seeds, cuttings, and divisions. "To propagate from the gardens is part of our mission," she explains. Along with the multiform efforts of all the volunteers, her work is partly directed to providing wares for the monthly plant sales that raise necessary funds to keep the Garden going.
"One wonderful thing about working here is that you can really find your niche," Patsy remarks, and this sentiment is echoed by many other volunteers. Credit devolves back to Don Mahoney. "When people come in, we work on finding the best place for them. What will they love doing, and how can we best serve the Garden. Sometimes we move people around before they get settled. other times, they are clear from the beginning what they want to do, and we let them."
All around the nursery, an amazingly vibrant and gorgeous Garden grows. These volunteers make it happen. Perhaps it is an inevitable association, but it would seem that Don grows people as well as he grows plants.