It’s a Thursday morning last fall, and Donna Watterson and her six friends are harvesting their last Cubano, jalapeno, and sweet peppers at the Hilltop Highland Youth Park. The group, brought together through their shared interest in canoeing, has been volunteering weekly at Grow. They have worked at Highland Youth Garden for the past four years. The group usually gathers early in the morning at the Griggs Reservoir Boathouse and then heads to the garden to plant seeds, pull weeds and harvest crops. In fact, these women are part of a growing number of park volunteers across the city.
“We pick a little, we talk a little, we spend some time outdoors, we get some exercise, we help a good cause and we go to lunch at the West Side Restaurant [Tommy’s, Johnny’s or BrewDog] Volunteer Lynn Olson says during a volunteer session in late October:
A third volunteer in the group, Susan Doody, first learned about Highland Youth Park when she was taking a class with former park board chair Lisa Hobson. DeWoody had been sharing with Hobson that she wanted to register for a plot of land in the Wallace Community Garden but she was not a resident of Grandview, which is required. Hobson replied, “I know where you can park” and invited her to join Highland.
“You learn a lot about gardening,” says Tony Sigi, a fourth volunteer. The group recalled what they learned about a pumpkin loofah in the garden this fall. “We all assumed this squishy thing came from the ocean,” DeWoody says. “We didn’t know it was grown on a vine.”
Community gardens to volunteer at: Franklin Park Conservatory, Dawes Arboretum and more
Besides learning, the friends take great pleasure in supporting the garden’s mission to teach children about growing up and eating healthy food.
“I love watching kids eat tomatoes,” DeWoody says, recalling the day a group of students sat in a circle with a spit bucket (in case they didn’t like something) in the middle. As the tomato pot passed, the first young man did not take one. Then, after several others had tried them, the first tried them in the second pass.
“I love the positive power of peer pressure,” DeWoody says with a smile.
Charlie Richardson, the garden’s lead gardener, welcomes volunteer support.
“Not only do they come back every year, they bring in friends,” she says. Other Thursday morning team volunteers include Mary Drenen and Vicki Hammond.
“We are experts at weeding,” DeWoody says. “This is our strong suit.”
And Richardson couldn’t be happier. “I’d be worried about the weeds, and then they all showed up,” she says. Besides this Thursday group, the park has 125 annual volunteers, including 40 Core Volunteers and several regular groups, including Besa, that connect people with local charities.
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Across Central Ohio, park volunteers find stress relief, learn new skills and gain satisfaction in supporting a cause. At Franklin Park Conservatory, dozens of volunteers help plant the bulbs each fall, then return in May to dig the bulbs after a spring show. As an advantage, they take home used bulbs to plant in their own gardens. Other early morning volunteers work in the conservatory’s tropical, desert and mountain biomes alongside expert horticulturists to help water, prune and clean before visitors arrive. More volunteers help with educational programs and events.
At the OSU extension in Franklin County, Associate Professor and Educator Mike Hogan heads the county’s master gardener program and reports 435 active volunteers and 80 projects, making it the largest in the state. To become a master gardener, volunteers complete an 80-hour training program and then finish a 50-hour volunteer training alternating between different garden projects across the county. These gardens may be the Highland Youth Garden, the heritage gardens of the Governor’s Residence, and The Ohio State University’s Waterman Farm. While the class of 2022 filled up, Hogan took names for the waiting list.
Master gardener Dennis Fields completed her training in 2016 and discovered Highland Youth Garden while doing her training rotation.
“I love the idea of teaching kids where food comes from,” said this dedicated volunteer who rides the bus to the park and comes dressed in all kinds of weather.
“I love being outdoors,” she says, adding that her contracts as a mail carrier trained her to spend time outside.
Hogan says, “Denise has a passion for helping people and improving her community, and we just love her for it. She is always willing to help with whatever needs to be done.”
Other popular volunteer programs at the park include Chadwick Arboretum, Dawes Arboretum, Inniswood Gardens Metro Park, and Columbus Park of Roses. See below for more details.
Chadwick Arboretum, Ohio State University
Take tours, maintain gardens, organize the annual sale of plants, observe wildlife and document garden stocks. Apply to chadwickarboretum.osu.edu.
Columbus Commons Gardens, Downtown
Participate in planting and caring for gardens. Submit your application at fpconservatory.org.
Kelton House Museum and Garden, Downtown
Help care for the gardens at this historic property. Submit your application at keltonhouse.com.
Dawes Arboretum, Newark
Plant trees, update plant records, maintain gardens, observe wildlife, and support educational programming and guided tours. Apply at dawesarb.org or email Volunteers@dawesarb.org. Volunteers get membership (after 40 hours of work), get an invitation to preview the factory sale (after 60 hours), and gain admission to other programs and social gatherings.
Franklin Park Conservatory, near downtown
Supporting exhibitions, looking after outdoor or indoor gardens, educating guests and working with youth. Submit an application at fpconservatory.org or email Volunteer@fpconservatory.com. Get a free membership for working 100 hours or more.
Gardens at Gantz Farm, Grove City
Assisting with herbal programs, conducting tours and planning events. Learn more through
Columbus’ Growing Coalition
Discover volunteer opportunities at over 60 community parks across the city. Learn more at columbusgcgc.org and FacebookTheGCGC or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Highland Youth Park, Hilltop
Help grow food, build hardwoods, run a market stall, create backyard family gardens and teach young people about gardening. Apply online at highlandyouthgarden.org.
Huntington Park, German Village
Join the group of Deadheaders that tend to the 450-foot-tall picnic parks in Schiller Park. Learn more at the German Village Association (614-221-8888 or
Inniswood Metro Gardens, Westerville
Participate in a four-week spring training program and assist with park maintenance, lead tours, and support educational programs and events. Inniswood also offers a junior volunteer program for ages 11-17. Apply for everyone at inniswood.org or call the volunteer coordinator at 614-895-6226.
Principal Gardener Volunteers at Ohio State University
Answer public questions regarding gardening, hold plant clinics, organize garden activities for youth, seniors and the disabled, and support community gardens, display gardens and community beautification projects. Learn more at mastergardener.osu.edu or call extension offices for local programs in Franklin, Madison, Union, Delaware, Fairfield and Lick counties.
Columbus Park in Roses, Clintonville
Care of the 12,000 rose garden, perennial gardens and herb gardens. To apply, send an email to Volunteers@parkofroses.org.
Topiary garden, city center
Join volunteer events like Mulch Madness, Plant the Park and Weed Eves. Apply to columbus.gov.
This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.