Botanical garden digs its volunteers who get hands dirty
On any given day, dozens of volunteers at the San Francisco Botanical Garden are digging gloved fingers into soil, pulling pesky weeds and laying freshly mulched soil over a layer of cardboard to keep weeds at bay.
Roughly 600 people volunteer at the 55-acre garden each year, half of them regularly winding their way through more than 8,500 different kinds of plants from around the world, tidying up vegetation and growing a green thumb in the process.
“If you’re living in the city, you don’t always have backyards to garden,” said George Longoria, a horticulturalist for the garden’s South Africa and New Zealand collections.
Save an occasional kitchenwindow basil plant, livingroom cactus or tomato pot squeezed onto an impossibly small balcony, Longoria said, most residents living in the city have few opportunities to tend to a sprawling garden.
In 2012, Longoria decided to switch career paths, leaving a 20-year career in retail to volunteer for the botanical garden while taking a college environmental horticulture class.
“Like many volunteers, I wanted to come in and get my hands dirty,” he said. “And it’s not just about the weeding or the mulching. It’s satisfying to feel my hands in the soil and be a part of something.”
Longoria is now a horticulturalist, spending hours working alongside volunteers.
On Saturday, 10 prospective volunteers watched Longoria as he worked with the garden’s Green Team, a drop-in gardening group that helps gardeners maintain the various collections by weeding, mulching and planting.
“Volunteering isn’t just about the work itself, because the work is going to get done regardless,” Longoria said. “It becomes more of a social thing. It’s about seeing the growth in volunteers and watching them become less timid and want to work longer than just three hours at a time.”
Kim KooJoe, 33, of San Francisco was one of the 10 people touring the garden Saturday to learn more about volunteer opportunities.
KooJoe, a city resident for the past 10 years, is a regular at the garden. She has always donated cash when she visits but wanted to do more,
“Originally, I wanted to volunteer for the Children’s Garden, but now I’m thinking of starting in the Green Team to get a lay of the land,” KooJoe said. “After living here for so many years, I feel like I have my roots now and I want to give back to the city and contribute more.”
Chloe Wieland, volunteer services coordinator, said volunteers play an integral role in maintaining the grounds, but more importantly, they establish a sense of community when visitors explore the garden.
Volunteers interact with roughly 10,000 visitors annually at the botanical garden’s interpretive stations in various collections, where volunteers tell visitors more about specific plant life, Wieland said.
For the past 50 years or so, docents, or guides, have led visitors on tours of the grounds, under canopies of towering palms and through the nursery to learn more about plants.
“We couldn’t do a lot of what we do without volunteers,” Wieland said.
Volunteer services coordinator Chloe Wieland (left) leads a group of prospective volunteers on a tour of the botanical garden’s grounds at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.