IN SOME WAYS, gardening is the perfect antidote to modern life. We spend a lot of time sitting silently in artificially lit rooms, staring at screens, making minute movements to enact incremental changes with often-invisible results. Gardening gets us outside, lifting, bending, moving in space. The rewards are clear and immediate, as anyone who has ever pulled a bunch of ivy out of a tree knows, and our brains take a break from thinking in letters and numbers.
One great thing about volunteer gardening is the number and variety of opportunities. All public gardens, from the Washington Park Arboretum to neighborhood P-patches, need help. They welcome volunteers, often offering flexible time commitments.
For many, gardening is a social activity, too. It certainly is for the folks I meet on a Friday morning at Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, which hosts volunteers on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Today’s volunteers are from the surrounding neighborhood, and they’re all regulars.
They include a group of East African elders, many of whom fled their home countries as refugees. I find them in the on-site kitchen, chopping vegetables from the garden for a lunch they’ll have when their work is done (fellow volunteers can join them for $6, a bargain).
The elders risk becoming isolated as they get older, and this weekly volunteering session is a lifeline for them, says Michael Neguse, Southeast & East African program coordinator for the Seattle Neighborhood Group. He began bringing the elders here years ago, having found that rare place that combines useful work, exercise and socializing. “And then we cook,” Neguse adds with a smile.
In the garden, the elders tackle masses of bindweed that would take over the whole garden if it had its way. The labor is hard, but they dig and rake without complaint. When project manager Laura McGrath points out a wasp nest and suggests they move away, they shrug it off and keep working.
Beyene Gebrezgi sees me plucking a ripe blueberry off a plant the volunteers have rescued from weeds, and joins me. We converse as best we can with language barriers; when I ask how things are going, he smiles and says, “We are good. Work hard.”
A youth group, Rainier Beach Youth Stewards, is tearing out weeds nearby. Young women joke with each other as they figure out whether to avoid a potentially poisonous plant they’ve encountered. “I like working outside and being outside. I like nature,” says Abbi Lindo, one of the participants. “I like the people here, too.”
Omaretta Sharpley, community educator/outreach for the group, says she loves the way the garden gives different generations a way to work together. “The connection between youth and the elders — that’s awesome,” she says as she shows me around the garden’s sections — wetlands, food garden, teaching garden. “It’s a privilege to be able to have this space where people can connect like that.”
In the food garden, Patty Kuntz is trying to unearth recalcitrant beets. She is one of the Friends of Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands, the group that, with the Tilth Alliance, oversees this 11-acre space. She’s volunteered almost since her retirement as a financial adviser five years ago. “It’s as different from my day job as I could get,” she says. “I love the community here … All the ways of getting together and learning about gardening — it’s inspiring.”