Botan­i­cal gar­den digs its vol­un­teers who get hands dirty

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - CALIFORNIA - By Lau­ren Hernán­dez Lau­ren Hernán­dez is a San Fran­cisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: lau­ren.her­nan­dez@ sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @Lau­renPorFa­vor

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.

Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

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.

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