Volunteers at Highland Youth Garden in the Hilltop Get Outdoors and Support a Good Cause
At home in nature, hundreds of people around the city contribute hours to Central Ohio’s public spaces.
It’s a Thursday morning last fall and Dona Watterson and her six friends are harvesting the season’s last Cubano, jalapeno and bell peppers at Highland Youth Garden in the Hilltop. The group, which met through their shared interest in rowing, has been volunteering weekly in the world of growing. They have worked at Highland Youth Garden for the past four years. The group typically meets for an early morning row at Griggs Reservoir Boathouse then heads to the garden to plant seeds, pull weeds and harvest produce. In fact, these women are part of a growing number of garden volunteers citywide.
“We pick a little, talk a little, spend time outdoors, get some exercise, help a good cause and go to lunch at a West Side restaurant [Tommy’s, Johnny’s or BrewDog] that we might not visit otherwise,” says fellow volunteer Lynne Olson during a late October volunteer session.
A third volunteer in the group, Suzanne DeWoody, first learned about Highland Youth Garden when she was taking a class with the garden’s past board president Lisa Hobson. DeWoody was sharing with Hobson that she wanted to sign up for a plot at Wallace Community Garden but wasn’t a Grandview resident, which was required. Hobson responded, “I know where you can garden” and invited her to join in at the Highland site.
“You learn a lot about gardening,” says Toni Seghi, a fourth volunteer. The group recalled learning about the garden’s loofa gourds this fall. “We all assumed this spongy thing came from the ocean,” says DeWoody. “We didn’t know it grew on a vine.”
Community Gardens to Volunteer At: Franklin Park Conservatory, Dawes Arboretum and more
Besides learning, the friends take satisfaction in supporting the garden’s mission to teach kids about growing and eating healthy food.
“I love watching the kids eat tomatoes,” says DeWoody, remembering the day when a group of students sat in a circle with a spit bucket (in case they didn’t like something) in the middle. As the bowl of tomatoes passed, the first youth didn’t take one. Then, after several others tried them, the first one tried it on the second pass.
“I love the positive power of peer pressure,” says DeWoody, grinning.
Charlie Richardson, the garden’s lead gardener, welcomes the volunteer support.
“Not only do they come back every year, but they bring friends,” she says. Other volunteers on this Thursday morning team include Mary Drennen and Vicki Hammond.
“We are expert weeders,” says DeWoody. “That’s our strong suit.”
And Richardson couldn’t be happier. “I’ll have weed anxiety, then they all show up,” she says. Besides this Thursday group, the garden has 125 volunteers annually, including 40 core volunteers and several regular groups, including Besa, that connect people with local charities.
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Throughout Central Ohio, garden volunteers are finding stress relief, learning new skills and gaining satisfaction in supporting a cause. At Franklin Park Conservatory, dozens of volunteers help plant bulbs each fall, then return in May to dig bulbs after the spring show. As a perk, they take the secondhand bulbs home to plant in their own gardens. Other volunteers work early mornings in the conservatory’s tropical, desert and mountain biomes alongside expert horticulturists to help water, prune and clean before visitors arrive. Even more volunteers help with educational programs and events.
At 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 then finish a 50-hour volunteer internship rotating among various garden projects throughout the county. Those gardens might be the Highland Youth Garden, the Heritage Gardens at the Governor’s Residence and OSU’s Waterman Farm. While the 2022 class is full, Hogan is taking names for a waiting list.
Master gardener Denise Fields completed her training in 2016 and discovered Highland Youth Garden as she performed her internship rotation.
“I love the idea of teaching kids where food comes from,” says this dedicated volunteer who rides the bus to the garden and comes dressed for all types of weather.
“I like being outdoors,” she says, adding that her decades as a postal carrier trained her for time outside.
“Denise has a passion for helping people and improving her community,” says Hogan, “and we just love her for that. She is always willing to help out with whatever needs to be done.”
Other popular garden volunteer programs include Chadwick Arboretum, Dawes Arboretum, Inniswood Gardens Metro Park and Columbus Park of Roses. See below for more details.
Where to volunteer at gardens in Columbus
Chadwick Arboretum, Ohio State University
Give tours, maintain gardens, organize the annual plant sale, monitor wildlife and document garden inventory. Apply at chadwickarboretum.osu.edu.
Columbus Commons Gardens, Downtown
Join in the planting and care of the gardens. Apply at fpconservatory.org.
Kelton House Museum & Garden, Downtown
Help tend the gardens at this historic property. Apply at keltonhouse.com.
Dawes Arboretum, Newark
Plant trees, update plant records, maintain gardens, monitor wildlife, support education programming and guide tours. Apply at dawesarb.org or email email@example.com. Volunteers earn a membership (after 40 hours of work), get an invitation to the plant sale preview (after 60 hours), and get admittance to other programs and social gatherings.
Franklin Park Conservatory, near Downtown
Support exhibits, tend outdoor or indoor gardens, teach guests and work with youth. Apply at fpconservatory.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Earn a free membership for working 100 hours or more.
Gardens at Gantz Farm, Grove City
Assist with herb programs, conduct tours and plan events. Learn more at
Greater Columbus Growing Coalition
Discover volunteer opportunities at over 60 community gardens throughout the city. Learn more at columbusgcgc.org and Facebook @TheGCGC or email email@example.com.
Highland Youth Garden, Hilltop
Help grow food, build hardscapes, manage the market stand, install backyard family gardens and teach youth about gardening. Apply online at highlandyouthgarden.org.
Huntington Garden, German Village
Join the Deadheaders group that tends to the 450-foot promenade gardens at Schiller Park. Learn more at the German Village Society (614-221-8888 or
Inniswood Metro Gardens, Westerville
Participate in a four-week spring training program and help maintain gardens, lead tours and support educational programs and events. Inniswood also offers a junior volunteer program for ages 11–17. Apply for all at inniswood.org or call the volunteer coordinator at 614-895-6226.
OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteers
Answer the public’s garden questions, conduct plant clinics, organize garden activities for youth, seniors and disabled persons, and support community gardens, demonstration 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 Licking counties.
Columbus Park of Roses, Clintonville
Tend the garden’s 12,000 roses, perennial gardens and herb gardens. To apply, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Topiary Park, Downtown
Join volunteer events such as Mulch Madness, Plant the Park and Weed Eves. Apply at columbus.gov.
This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.