Volunteer Profile: Volunteer Return Story

Teams are back in the garden

Group by group, volunteers are returning to the Garden and the Conservatory. They bring with them their customary expertise, dedication and energy — plus the increased patience and flexibility we have all had to learn, during these two long years. Since pandemic uncertainty is still with us (just watch any newscast), all these skills are put to regular use.

Take the Seed Collectors, for example. A good half-dozen team volunteers are walking the Garden grounds, this Tuesday morning. They scrutinize the beds, touch plants of interest, discuss what they see, record their findings, and collect ripe seeds for later processing in the drying rack.

The work and the easy conversation are all pre-pandemic normal. Jan Wegman calls some rock cress (Aubrieta) his “nemesis,” because its tiny seeds are hard to find and must be captured at exactly the right moment. Chin-Fung Kuo Wan secures an envelope of fluffy anemone (Pulsatilla vulgaris) seed heads. Thilde Grose, a 20-year Garden volunteer, carries the journal whose entries already span years. Gwen Coleman and Jan examine a native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) and agree the seeds are not yet ripe.

“It was a cold, wet winter,” explains Thilde. “Many plants died, and others are late in setting their seeds.” This, plus the knock-on effect of scant volunteer presence over the last few years, means plants aren’t always where the team remembers them. Parks staff have moved clumps of fisherman’s rod (Dierama trichorhizum) from a pathway intersection to a less vulnerable location, and sharp-eyed Seed Collectors search the old site, full of other plantings, for any remnants. They are properly gleeful when Thilde runs her fingers up one tall leaf whose slender shape gives the plant its nickname.

There are other changes to the routine as well. Sub-groups used to visit specific, separate locations; now the whole team walks the Garden together. They used to operate out of the old Education building in the Garden, now they ferry seeds from their drying racks in the Magnolia Room to the Volunteer Lounge for cleaning.

So things are the same and things are not the same — and that’s true for other volunteer teams as well. Tuesday afternoon, Rosalind Breckner reflects on the impact of the long absence of Garden Host volunteers. “Staff became accustomed to answering visitors’ questions themselves, not referring them to us, and even though we are now back, it is only one volunteer at the desk not two, and we will be seasonal, not year-round.” This may make for less interaction with visitors, but the value of the interaction is unchanged. With a dozen years of volunteer experience behind her, Rosalind counters the “Where should I go?” question with questions of her own: “What do you enjoy? What mood are you in?” This leads to discussion, some just-right suggestions, and happy visitors.

Tuesday Walking Guide Sheila Welock notes tour group composition has changed: mostly local people, and the rest largely from elsewhere in Canada, not other countries. Whatever their origin, says Tuesday Walk Captain Tresa Horney, visitors are “overwhelmingly” glad to have tours again available — but sometimes (perhaps frazzled by years of pandemic) a bit more demanding than they used to be. This can affect cart drivers, dealing with people discovering the two-visitor limit per cart. Yet, here too, dedication and experience pay off. Debo Sangha wins over a twosome with cheerful friendliness, and Bruno Boyle celebrates the fact that all the carts are now fully serviced and running well, after their long lay-off: “I can concentrate on the tour itself, taking people the usual route plus anywhere else that’s particularly good-looking at the moment.”

It’s a very 2022 story, isn’t it? Our old pleasures are in a new context, so we’re embracing them with an innovative mix of old and new responses.

Written by Penny Williams, Volunteer Writer