Sunday, March 9, 2014

Share Your Time and Talent with a Commnity or Public Rose Garden

If you are looking for a fun, productive, and different way to spend part of your vacation, consider volunteering at a botanical garden.  Most publicly funded gardens are short of funds and staff and many will welcome the assistance of experienced gardeners who have time to lend a hand.

For the past two years, Steve and I have volunteered for three days at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Cranford Rose Garden assisting Sara Owens to prepare the garden for "Rose Night".  It's a joy and a labor of love to be able to work among the roses. Best of all, as members of the BBG, we get to attend the members only event and listen to the other patrons enthusiastic comments about the garden. 

During our volunteer stint this past summer, I had an amazing experience.  I was sitting on my garden stool hunched over a shrub rose that needed some serious deadheading when I heard beautiful, melodic chanting behind me.  I turned around to find seven people standing in a semi-circle around me, bowing and chanting.  The one man who spoke English explained that they were tourists from mainland China who were visiting the garden that day and they were singing a song of praise for everyone who was working in the garden to make it so beautiful.  They so warmed my heart!

Sarah Owens, Curator, Cranford Rose Garden
How to volunteer:

First, get to know the garden.  We visited the Cranford several times and I attended a class that the rose curator, Sara Owens was teaching, before we offered to volunteer our time there.

Become a member.  Community and public gardens rely on donations and membership fees to cover their operating costs.

Early in the year, well before the rose gardens will be waking up (we live in New England and our roses are still under more than a foot of snow!), send a letter of introduction to the rose curator (or other garden manager if your interest lies outside the rose garden), explain your experience and credentials (are you a rosarian or master gardener; how many roses do you grow in your own garden), and your willingness to volunteer.  When we first began communicating with Sara, we sent photographs of our rose garden; some things speak for themselves.  At that time, we had more than 230 roses with every rose group represented.

Ask what you might possibly do to help and when in the gardening season help is needed.   Be prepared to be flexible.  Your volunteer time will be most appreciated if you can be there at a time that meets their most pressing needs.  We knew months in advance that she needed help preparing the garden for Rose Night so we committed to the days that she said she needed help.  We arranged for vacation time and made reservations at a hotel near the garden.  Do not expect your travel and lodging to be reimbursed. If they could afford it, they would hire more staff.  Consider it a gift from the heart for the privilege of being allowed to assist. 

Deadheading along the edge of one of the main central beds.
Bring your favorite pruners and prepare to thoroughly enjoy yourself.  We bring sharp snips for detail work as well as good quality by-pass pruners and a weeding tool.  Dress in layers and wear a hat.  Don't forget sunscreen and bottled water. 

Follow all of the rose curator's instructions to the letter.  Regardless of how much training and experience you may have, every rose "expert" has their own way of doing things and while you are in their garden, you need to adapt what you do to their way.  The rose curator is the expert and the boss.  He or she has priorities and a plan for what has to be accomplished in a given time frame and they generally have their own preferred way of doing certain things. 

My husband likes to prune and deadhead.  I like to weed and rake out the beds.  He hates the clean-up.  To me, a bed isn't "finished" until the debris has been cleaned out, the last weed pulled (with a weeder, so you get the root),  and the mulch raked.  Even if it isn't the job you really wanted to be doing, whatever you are assigned to do is the most important thing that needs to be done at that moment.  We've trimmed grassy borders and wayward perennials, weeded, raked, pruned, and learned different and better ways of doing things.  And honestly, we've enjoyed every minute of it.

Gauntlets are standard gardening attire.
Every time we volunteer, we stroll with her along our assigned bed and show her where and how we would make a cut.  Most of the time it's exactly what she would do.  But if she is preparing the garden for a major public event, she may want you to leave blooms you would ordinarily cut in your own yard  so that the beds are full of color. 

Most of the time, we don't touch the old garden roses, not even to deadhead them, since she wants them to develop hips for color and visual interest later in the summer.  In that regard, you really need to know your roses.

This year she asked me to gently prune and shape one of the old garden gals that was growing on one of the many pillars in the garden.  I was honored that she trusted me with this delicate task.

The rose curator may also have procedures for doing things that are different from what you're used to doing at home.  At the Cranford, for examples, the staff does not walk into the beds to tend to the roses in the middle of the large beds.  Long boards are laid down on the beds to stand on so the mulch doesn't get packed down.  It did take some getting used to, especially for me, since my balance is so poor, but it's a practice we took home to our own garden.

Sanitize your tools!  Before we packed our garden tools for the trip to New York, we sanitized everything.  You don't want to bring a garden pest from home.  Likewise, when we were working in the botanic garden, we sanitized our pruners frequently and before moving from bed to bed.  And when we got home, I repeated the cleaning.

We each have garden totes that open into low seats with places for tools and gloves along the sides and underneath the seat where there is a handy place to store extra gloves, bottles of water, and sunscreen.  They have handy straps for toting them around. We only brought what we knew we would absolutely need for the job and everything was washed with soap and water and sanitized with bleach.  Even our gardening aprons, shoes and gloves were cleaned before and after the trip.

Learn as you go.  If you see something different or unusual, ask a question.  Our time in the rose garden was both rewarding and educational for us and for many of the garden visitors as well. 

The photograph at right shows a split in a cane, something we had seen in our own garden last spring and which I was coming across quite frequently in the Cranford.  I had no idea what caused it and had been concerned about it.   I showed it to Sarah and she reassured me that it was simply the effect of all the rain that we had been having.  I was relieved to know that I didn't have something attacking my own roses. It had indeed been an unusually we spring.  And it certainly had not affected the rose's ability to bloom.

Many visitors stopped to ask us questions, often such simple things as how to prune a particular kind of rose, or what would be a good rose for their garden near the beach or in the shade.  It took only a few seconds to demonstrate the typical angled cut and explain how spring pruning is done.  And we made sure to explain the difference in how to plant roses in the Northeast compared to how they are planted in warmer climates.  Others wanted to know where in the garden they could find a particular rose.  This is where our knowledge of the garden and how it's laid out came in handy.   Most of the time, we were asked questions we could easily answer but when we couldn't, we could point them in Sarah's direction. 

One thing I did learn -- the love of roses is contagious and many people who insisted they couldn't grow roses as beautiful as the ones in the rose garden were pleasantly surprised when we reassured them that if they chose the correct shrub for their yard, indeed they could. 

The pink rose behind me on the right is Abraham Darby.
Our volunteer work culminated with Rose Night, an annual evening with music, dancing, and picnicking allowed on the esplanade next to the rose garden.  It's one of the rare times during the year that garden visitors are allowed to have food in the garden itself.  Guests are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner and wear fancy hats. 

Sarah asked us to dress in period attire as we have done in the past.  This year, we dressed in the era in which the garden was actually opened.  Steve wore his seersucker suit and boater and I wore what was commonly known as "summer whites" with lace gloves, lace trimmed saddle shoes, a picture hat, and fan.

The Cranford Rose Garden opened in 1928.  Funded with a generous gift from Walter V. Cranford the year before, the garden was designed by landscape architect Harold Caparn and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's horticulturist Montague Free. 

Many of the original rose shrubs are still growing in the garden today. The garden is home to over 5,000 rose bushes and over 1,500 unique varieties.

The blooms in the rose garden peaked the day before Rose Night.  Could anything have been more perfect!
The rose arches and reflecting pool.
Throughout the garden, perennials such as this catmint are paired with roses.  I love the effect of the catmint so much, I've incorporated into many of our own rose beds.
Stunning roses in every color filled every corner of the garden.  The garden was the most beautiful we had ever seen it.
Sarah was stunning in her colorful outfit but after a full day of working to get the garden ready, she couldn't just relax and enjoy the evening.  She spent most of the evening in the main garden, accepting visitor compliments and answering visitor's questions, and then served as a judge for the "best hat" contest..  This was also an opportunity for us to help.  The garden was full of visitors with questions and Steve and I were able to answer queries about the identify of some of the perennials planted among the roses as well as direct them to a particular rose they asked for.
With Sarah and her mother, who volunteered with us in the beds as well. It was a pleasure to work with them both.
Live music added so much to the event.  People were dancing all through the esplanade.
Every year, the esplanade is lined with tables dressed with (what else) rose pink table cloths that are shared by some of the visitors while others picnic on blankets on the vast lawn.  The garden staff sell "rosetinis"... specially made martinis with rose petals floating in them.  Hats are encourage, but each year we see an increasing number of attendees dressed in period attire as well. Such fun!
The weather was perfect and the esplanade was sitting room only.
We were so happy to see another couple dressed in the attire of the 1920's and enjoying rosetinis.
The number of young children and young adults in attendance was phenomenal. 
This was the third "Rose Night" I've attended.  You can read about the other events and see more photographs of this magnificent garden at the links below.

This was a wonderful course taught in the rose garden by Sarah Owens in 2011

Rose Night 2011

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