Volunteers power annual light show
On November 22, one million lights illuminated the night at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden thanks to 300 volunteers who have worked for the past year to make the Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights happen.
The annual event is a six-week holiday extravaganza of lights, botanical decorations, model trains, Santa sightings, music, crafts, dinners, a fire pit, s’mores, hot chocolate and more. The 50-acre garden’s shrubs, plants, trees, walls and buildings take on a magical quality. Appropriately, this year’s theme is “Magic in the Air.”
It takes a year (really years) of preparation to stage the 43-day festival.
Among other tasks, volunteers must collect and dry flowers for botanical decorations. In summertime, they gather in the cool basement of Ginter’s Kelly Education Center to organize 57 miles of light strands.
They create the festival’s sculptures of fireflies, pigs, kites, butterflies, birds, unicorns and spaceships that “fly” across the gardens, wrapping them in thousands of lights.
During the event, they staff 18 to 25 shifts each night. And even when the festival ends on January 6, they’ll continue working to organize and store every light string in crates.
“We would not be able to have the GardenFest of Lights as we know it without the volunteers,” said Beth Monroe, the garden’s director of public relations and marketing. “Volunteers are the backbone of this place.”
A historic property
Located in Lakeside, the property now occupied by Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was once owned by Patrick Henry.
In 1895, Richmond businessman Lewis Ginter, purchased nine acres. His niece acquired several adjacent parcels, and her heir bequeathed the land to the city of Richmond in 1968.
A hardy group of citizens worked together to open the 50-acre garden to the public in 1982.
Today, 675 active volunteers work throughout all of Ginter Gardens’ departments, including the shop, office and gardens.
They plant, propagate and groom plants, do weeding and mulching, greet visitors, lead tours, hand out materials, answer questions, make gift shop sales, set up and take down chairs and tables, conduct plant sales and even do bookkeeping.
One of them, Betty Duncan, not only greets people entering the Conservatory’s butterfly exhibit but prevents them from accidentally walking out with a butterfly on their sleeve.
She also watches people’s feet to protect exotic butterflies like the New Guinea birdwing or the banded peacock from being stepped on.
By helping out, Duncan said, “I feel like I’m contributing, [and] I meet people from all over.” And, as she pointed out, her workplace is beautiful. “It’s a lovely place, so positive. It’s a happy place.”
Heather Veneziano, staff coordinator, notes that volunteers, most of whom are over age 50, “love it because it gives them a chance to walk and see nature.”
Looking out for science
At least 20 volunteers known as “citizen scientists” collect data in the gardens weekly. One group makes weather observations and measures precipitation.
In the outdoor gardens, volunteer Pat Tashjian counts honeybees and bumblebees and studies their behavior, flight patterns and which flowers they visit and when. Her surveys are part of a pollinator phenology project, recording nature’s timing.
“I count bees because their presence on the earth is critical to the health and well-being of the planet,” Tashjian said. “The more we learn about our interconnectedness, the greater the chance we will survive in respect and harmony with all life.”
Tashjian is part of a 10-member team that is collecting data and sending observations to Nature’s Notebook, a program of the National Phenology Network. This data could eventually provide insights into our changing climate.
In August, the volunteer program won a $100,000 environmental education grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help volunteers reduce stormwater runoff pollution and create water-friendly landscapes.
The program involves best management practices and restoration steps like planting native plants, removing invasive plants, correcting soil gradation and installing rain gardens.
Volunteer give, but get even more
Ginter’s volunteers mostly include retirees: healthcare professionals, teachers, educators, corporate managers, retailers, housewives and househusbands.
The manager of volunteers, Karen Clowers, is grateful for her team.
“Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden has the best volunteers in the world,” she said. “The hours they provide us yearly are equivalent to 25 full-time employees. Volunteers give the most valuable gift of all — the gift of their time.”
Elaine Loomis, age 80, volunteers at the garden up to 20 hours a week. A volunteer at Ginter since 2011, she grew up on a Maryland farm and doesn’t mind dirty fingernails.
“This is what I’m about,” she said. Now living in an 800-square-foot city condominium, she delights in “her” 50 acres at Ginter. “I’m so thankful for this place,” she said. “I was here 15 minutes and started volunteering.”
Retired librarian Harriett Coalter volunteers at Ginter because she enjoys the interaction with people and “being in a beautiful place,” she said.
In addition to giving tours of the gardens, she works in the gift shop. To do so, Coalter had to learn what the shop carries and how to use the cash register. “I want to use my brain…[This] keeps me strong. I gain knowledge and can be with friends.”
“I’m here because I believe in the mission of the organization,” she added. We’re the front face of the garden.”
Loomis has a theory about why volunteering at Ginter is the perfect occupation for retirees. “The spirit around here is wonderful.”
Ginter has weekly, bi-weekly and monthly opportunities for volunteers, and expects a minimum of 24 hours of volunteering a year. Volunteers do not need gardening expertise. Shifts can be arranged to fit volunteers’ schedules. For details, visit lewisginter.org/support/volunteer.
The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is open year-round, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving Day and December 24 and 25.
Regular daily admission, as well as admission for the GardenFest of Lights, is $13 for adults ($11 for those 55 and older), $8 for children (free if under 3). The GardenFest of Lights is running nightly from 5 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 6, 2020. For more information, visit lewisginter.org.