Advice for Grateful Gardening: How to Give Thanks for Valuable Volunteers

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, most people are preoccupied with their holiday preparations. But this past Wednesday, one of the families from Pueblo Vista Magnet School drove down from Calistoga to help me install an information board in the Culinary Garden. This was no small affair. It required digging two post holes two feet deep and then sinking, leveling and securing an 8-foot-tall sign. The entire ordeal took less than two hours, but it was certainly not a job I could not do on my own.

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Those of you who operate school gardens know that often the garden is “off limits” for district groundskeepers and maintenance staff, especially if it requires entering a gated area. In some cases, it may even be a stretch to ask a site custodian to perform a task that will improve safety in the garden, such as replacing a lightbulb on a building adjacent to the garden. One garden teacher I know had to beg for discarded oak leaves to spread as mulch. I won’t go into the politics of why this division of labor exists (at least not today). The point is that school garden coordinators must often rely on volunteer help to get the job done.

As we enter the holiday season, I’d like to take a moment to pause and give thanks for the valuable volunteers in the Pueblo Vista Culinary Garden. I am grateful for so many…

  • …the parents who brought their families to harvest and water the garden over the summer, the families who attended the “Sign Raising” event in August and the parents who come to weed with me on Wednesdays.
  • …the teachers who attend weekend events, after school garden therapy sessions or tend the “Staff Picks” garden bed.
  • ….the administrator who supports new ideas, the advisory board who helps make decisions and the Master Gardeners of Napa County who offer their sound solutions to plant or pest problems.
  • …the naturalists who help me see the beauty and potential in the garden, such as Alex Green from Napa-Solano Audubon Society, who installed a Western Bluebird box to attract nesting pairs.
  • …the students who participate in my Dirt Girls After School Club, give up recess to do small tasks during Recess Gardening Club and the kindergarteners who stand at the gate and beg to be put to work while at Boys & Girls Club.

How do I thank these volunteers? Here are four successful strategies:

  1. Find out what people are good at. Not every volunteer is an expert gardener, but they still have something to offer. Last spring, we handed out free garlic to any family who filled out a Volunteer Interest Form (see image to the right). It was a starting point for building a volunteer base.
  2. Provide explicit direction. Many volunteers are unclear about what to do when they show up. Guidance makes volunteers feel valued and they will be eager to come back and learn more. To make sure the job gets done well, I show them how to do something, I let them work and I tell them how they’re doing.
  3. Always send them with a Thank You. Whether via text message, a picture shout-out on Instagram, or an old-school handwritten note, I make sure I verbalize my gratitude.
  4. Invite them back. When someone tells me they had a good time working in the garden, I make sure I tell them about the next opportunity to be involved and provide specific information about how they can help.

For more insightful suggestions for managing volunteers during the summer months,  download this free resource. However you engage and thank your volunteers, it’s important to remember how important it is to always stay positive and be proactive. With that in mind, consider these three “Never, Ever” guidelines:

  1. Never ever send a helper out of the garden empty handed. I endorse the “Little Red Hen” philosophy. Those who show up to garden should leave with the fruits (herbs and vegetables) of their labor. However big or small the volunteer contribution, share the bounty with them.
  2. Never ever guilt a volunteer to show up. Or, for that matter, for not showing up. If a volunteer makes a verbal commitment to do something for the garden, follow up. If they decided they can’t follow through, acknowledge the offer and move on. Don’t write them off as unreliable or uncommitted. Ask them again in the future.
  3. Never ever make volunteers feel they aren’t needed.  They are, after all, working for free. Volunteers make our jobs easier, so it’s up to us to manage them well. NO MATTER WHAT, remain warm and welcoming.

Not all volunteers will show up the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to install a beautiful sign, but all volunteers are valuable. Remember to engage in grateful gardening this holiday season and give thanks for your school garden volunteers.

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