Dear My Goodness,
I'm told that fall is a good time to work in gardens. I'd like to do some useful outdoor work on the weekends. How do I find out where I'd be needed and what I should know about gardening?
—Karl in Boston
As a former New York City parks gardener, let me assure you that, with advance notice, your help will be accepted with delight at a local parks department. There's no expertise needed; just show up on time, wearing serious shoes and pants you don't mind getting dirty. Oh, and put your cell phone away—no photos until the task is completed. Much of the pleasure of gardening is in the uninterrupted flow of work.
You already know one important fact. Fall is indeed the best time to garden in most of the United States. Too often volunteers for parks or community gardens turn up in April, when the sun has come back and cherry trees and tulips are blooming. The hard work behind that spring show takes place the previous fall. That's where you come in, planting bulbs, spreading last year's composted leaves on the beds, mulching trees and shrubs, raking this year's leaves into a pile to break down and be used next year.
You will get the immediate gratification, so pleasant after this past summer, of being outdoors when it's not unbearably hot. You will also get a taste of the delayed gratification that is the gardener's lot. You probably won't be planting flowers (except the chill-enduring pansies). The flower-related fall job is to plant those spring bulbs. For tulips and all but the earliest daffodils, it will be six months before a couple of leaves appear above the soil and another few weeks before the flowers appear.
Where to start? City parks across the country are generally underfunded and understaffed. In many cities, there are nonprofit groups that support the parks department with money and staff. In your town, Boston, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy works in partnership with the parks department. The Boston Natural Areas Network connects volunteers with outdoor projects involving community gardens, "urban wilds," and natural resources.
The borough of Brooklyn has no emerald necklace—in fact it probably has less green space per capita than most North American cities—but aspiring gardeners in the area can look to Prospect Park's conservancy, which has a volunteer program other park systems envy and copy. There you work to preserve Frederick Law Olmsted's plan. It's like helping to restore a Rembrandt.
Those with budding green thumbs should also consider the botanical gardens near them. Boston has Harvard's historic Arnold Arboretum. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden can use volunteers right at the garden, but it also runs Brooklyn GreenBridge, where staffers could direct you to where help is needed in Brooklyn's community gardens and block associations.
The country's most famous and venerable gardening nonprofit is the Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. New York City is blessed with a young and vigorous group, Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project. Two of the country's great botanic gardens, always seeking volunteers, are further west—the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Denver Botanic Gardens.
If you'd like an unusual pre-Halloween and All-Saints' Day twist to your garden volunteering, think of working in a historic burial ground. Karl, your city has a graveyard restoration project. Brooklyn's Prospect Park has a small Quaker cemetery where Montgomery Clift, among others, is buried. Philadelphia's Fair Hill Burial Ground, where Lucretia Mott is buried, could use workers to pull weeds around the modest Quaker grave stones and mulch the trees and shrubs.
Burial site or playground, jobs can always be found for one willing person who sets up an appointment in advance. What's ideal for the garden supervisor, though, is a small group of friends who come with esprit de corps and a picnic lunch.
Remember that this is the gardener's precious workplace, full of tender living things he or she has nurtured. Try not to step on stuff. Do not complain about picking up trash. In an urban park, a gardener often spends the first hour of his or her workday plucking litter from the flowerbeds.
Remember that plants and trees are living things that must have a few needs met if they're to thrive. Bulbs have to be planted deep enough (the rule of thumb is three times their height), with the roots down and the tips up. Ask the gardener if you're not sure, when planting shrubs or small plants, what's too deep and what's too shallow. When you're spreading mulch, take care not to pile it around the crown of a plant or over the bark of a tree.
Should you come with a Cub Scout troop or your child's class, be sure there is one adult present for every three children. (Perhaps you note here some bitter experience.) Those adults must set an example (no texting or talking on a cell phone) by listening to the gardener's instructions. They must also keep the kids from throwing things at each other (tulip bulbs, worms) or using a hose in an inappropriate manner.
When you've gained some park experience, you might want to consider some more sophisticated tasks. Think about working in a non-Western garden. Many big American cities have Japanese or Chinese gardens. There's a famous one in Portland, Ore., and a hidden treasure on Staten Island, the Chinese Scholar's Garden. In gardens like these, you take in centuries of tradition. But what the 15th-century Chinese garden designer Ji Ching said still applies to gardens planted this season: "The garden is created by the human hand, but should appear as if created by heaven."