Garden Muse
by: Courtesy of Leach Botanical Garden, Volunteer George Taylor works on the trails at Leach Botanical Garden.

During the years I've volunteered at a botanic garden, for a garden club and several garden societies. I've also been lucky enough to have many volunteers help me in my own home garden.

Even though giving and receiving on both sides of the fence have been wonderful, I experienced a lot more satisfaction on the giving end. How could that be?

Jonah Lehrer, author of 'How We Decide,' tells us the results of scientific experiments about generosity.

'But here's the lovely secret of altruism: it feels good. The brain is designed so that acts of charity are pleasurable; being nice to others makes us feel nice,' he writes.

Dan Baker, Ph.D. comes to a similar conclusion in What Happy People Know.

'Altruism has been called the great paradox: When you give something to someone else, you're the one who feels best. Giving is getting.' He is so sure of this that he treated a patient experiencing severe anxiety and depression by sending him off to volunteer at a pediatric cancer ward. It was the first step in the man's path to recovery.

True confession - I started out volunteering for selfish reasons. I wanted to learn about unusual plants and connect with experts who could teach me. The rewards were way beyond an education; I became part of a garden community, and eventually was able to pass along my knowledge and mentor new gardeners.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many garden clubs, societies and botanic gardens. If you ask them why they do it, you'll discover they get as much as they give.

'If you volunteer, it's a chance to learn as well as to help,' says Gordon Taylor, who volunteers at Leach Botanical Garden ( in Southeast Portland. He's been at it for four years, ever since his wife started raving about former head gardener Scotty Fairchild and the garden. He signed up for a tour, and was sold on volunteering.

'The best thing about it all is that it's never boring or consistent. You never know what you're going to do until you get there,' says Taylor. Volunteers show up to help in the garden every Tuesday at 9 a.m., with a core of seven or eight regulars. The majority are over 60 and retired, and some are younger, like interns from Clackamas Community College who come to learn about pruning and planting trees. Some of the younger volunteers come to gain experience and hope to make connections for future jobs.

There are many opportunities to help - selling in the gift shop, greeting visitors at the reception desk, guiding garden tours, collecting seeds, and of course maintaining the garden. Taylor has especially learned a lot about pruning, trail building, and plants.

'I really enjoy winter-flowering Mahonia-it's starting to bloom now, and the hummingbirds love it,' he says. He first saw it at Leach under the Doug fir canopy, and got one for his 50th birthday.

Volunteers also help with fund raising events, like the December holiday festival, when all kinds of greens are sold.

'We cut greens from people's private houses, some belonging to volunteers and some from friends of the garden-massive amounts of holly, redwood, cedar, pine and noble fir. It's really fun! The whole volunteer staff comes together for that event, making swags, centerpieces, and baking cookies,' Taylor says.

Coming soon is the Portland Home and Garden Show ( from Feb. 24 to 28 at the Portland Expo Center. Volunteers from Leach host the big plant sale at that event, sharing their expertise with shoppers, running the registers and carrying out the plants.

Leach Botanical Garden's own plant sale on Saturday April 17 at Floyd Light Middle School also needs many hands to propagate cuttings, pot up plants, and transplant small starts as they grow up. Preparing for this event begins in February in the greenhouse.

'In summer we have the English teas - on July 16 and 17 there will be four seatings a day, with volunteers preparing gourmet tea sandwiches, serving the food and clearing away,' Taylor says.

Reservations can be made starting May 1 for the popular event by calling Jean, 503-771-2486.

Dozens of garden groups can use your help: public gardens, like the Portland Japanese Garden, Portland Classical Chinese Garden, The Rose Garden, the Oregon Garden; nonprofits like Growing Gardens, the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, Friends of Trees, and Oregon Food Bank's Learning Gardens.

Pick one that sounds like fun, and open the door to a new adventure in 2010.

You can reach Barbara at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Coming Events

• Volunteer Tree Planting, Saturday Jan. 23, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., 10600 N.E. Holman St., Portland. Plant trees with Friends of Trees along the I-205 corridor. Friends of Trees will provide morning refreshments, gloves, tools, and all necessary guidance. Please wear sturdy shoes and dress for the weather. For more information. contact Andy Meeks at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-282-8846 ext 24. For more planting events and dates, visit .

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