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Dig In : Volunteers Get to Know All the Dirt Working in O.C.'s Gardens


Fullerton Arboretum needs a few good gardeners. So do UCI Arboretum, Sherman Gardens, the Environmental Nature Center, the Niguel Botanical Preserve and the Hortense Miller Garden.

These Orange County public gardens are feeling the pinch of the recession every bit as much as businesses. Like commercial enterprises, they, too, have had to cut back on staff and work twice as hard to attract customers. Though most public gardens do not charge entrance fees, all increasingly rely on plant and gift shop sales and other profit-generating activities to compensate for declining donations.

Public gardens, however, have one big advantage: volunteers. Unpaid assistants keep their garden gates open, say these institutions.

Rick Montenegro, assistant director of the Fullerton Arboretum, is emphatic about volunteers' importance. "Bottom line, we couldn't get along without them," he says. "I can't stress that enough. We couldn't do what we do without them. We need them."'

Volunteers at the gardens say they receive more than gratitude in exchange for their unpaid services.

For some, the experience is akin to going to gardening school. There are things to be learned by experienced gardeners looking for larger landscapes and for beginning or dormant gardeners looking for some dirt to sink their hands into.

For others, being in the atmosphere of a garden is a reward of its own.


"A botanical garden is a good place to find out what a happy plant looks like, an unhappy plant looks like and what makes the difference," says Jane Whitefield, nursery technician at the Fullerton Arboretum. "Novice gardeners could learn a lot here."

Volunteers are exposed to a range of gardening basics, according to Laura Donahue, volunteer coordinator at the UCI Arboretum.

"Tasks are different every week, so you learn a lot of things--propagating, potting, transplanting, grooming and general garden care," she says. "Though our plants are specialized (endangered South African species), the techniques apply to any garden situation."

Gardeners of some experience can gain more detailed knowledge, volunteers say.

Geraldine Mabey of Laguna Hills, who donates a few hours to UCI Arboretum every week, describes herself as "already a keen gardener," but says she is learning new skills.

"I'm learning about propagating," she says. "Other than watching my mother stick a geranium cutting in the ground now and then, I knew nothing about it. It's fascinating."

For those interested in plants from a more academic point of view, docent training offers an education in botany. At the Hortense Miller Garden, Fullerton Arboretum, Environmental Nature Center and Sherman Gardens, volunteers are given academic instruction in six- to 12-week programs before undertaking guide duties. There are also opportunities for continuing education.


For those who like having a flower bed filled with plants their friends have never even heard of, working in a public garden can provide exposure to the cutting edge in plant development.

Fullerton Arboretum, for instance--which has a very solid propagation program and generates significant revenues from its plant sales--is always on the lookout for new species that will be well-suited to this climate and area landscaping needs.

"These are plants you won't find at commercial nurseries," Whitefield says. "We look for the unusual. We specialize in drought-tolerant species, plants for difficult places--like steep hills--and we propagate a lot of natives."

When it comes to knowledge of bulbs, volunteers at UCI Arboretum are able to stay ahead of the pack. Spraxis, Ixia and Watsonia are becoming increasingly well-recognized as good spring bulbs for Southern California gardens, but there are dozens of other less-known South African bulbs (some extinct in the wild) that are equally suitable locally. Helping propagate these bulbs lets volunteers learn more about them.

With any luck UCI Arboretum will also soon be propagating South African herbaceous plants.

"I have seeds from some fabulous South African perennials that have great landscaping potential for Southern California," says Brad Carter, arboretum curator.

Carter would like to find a qualified volunteer to lead a program focusing on them.


And, on a more social note, where better than an arboretum to find a friend who goes to amusement parks to see the plants?

"When my horticulture friends and I go to Disneyland, we ooh and ah over the plants, not the rides," Donahue admits. "It drives other people crazy."

Not every volunteer is quite so plant-obsessed, but people who enjoy working in public gardens do tend to be an earthy, unpretentious, nurturing lot, according to Anna Pistole of Newport Beach, a longtime volunteer at Sherman Gardens.

"I didn't know a soul when I moved here from Arcadia 13 years ago," she says, "but I've made some wonderful friends through Sherman Gardens. It's a warm, friendly place, and camaraderie develops naturally."

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