ES Internship at the Native Plant Society Demonstration Garden

Justine Pope, Spring 2006

Background:

I approached Laura Maier early this semester at a volunteer fair, where she was advertising for the Native Plant Society. I had attended a lecture put on by the Walla Walla chapter of the Native Plant Society last spring, and was really struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of its members. I wanted to find a way to do an internship in some way connected to the WWNPS. One of her volunteer projects was working at their demonstration garden, located at the Blue Mountain Humane Society. Work there would include general upkeep: weeding, watering, posting signs with plant descriptions. To turn this work from basic volunteer hours into an internship, I added a component of updating the plant beds and creating a plan for a native plant garden that someone could replicate. I also hoped to do outreach, coordinating a weeding day or organizing a visit from a classroom to the garden to raise awareness about it. Additionally, I wanted to learn more about how the Native Plant Society functioned, attending meetings and lectures they put on. In short, I wanted to find a combination of physical work (in the garden) with an educational component (learning about native plants) and also increase my knowledge of a local organization by partaking in NPS events. My stated goals and objectives were:

- work in the Native Plant Society demonstration garden at the Blue Mountain Humane Society (BMHS)
- learn more about native plants and their growth characteristics
- update bed maps showing current plant configuration in the demonstration garden
- increase awareness of the existence of the BMHS native plant garden

The Native Plant Society started planning for their demonstration garden in 2001, and planted trees (paid by the Rotary Club) in the grassy lot where the BMHS was to be built. Lacking enough funds, the humane society building stayed unfinished for the rest of the year. “We just hoped they would finish it,” Laura told me. In 2002, the structure was completed and beds were started in the early spring of 2003. Plants were obtained through salvages (with permits), donated, or bought from nurseries. Native plants are ideal because they are drought-tolerant, have low water needs, don’t require the use of pesticides, and work consistently with the ecosystems here. As Laura told me, “Native plants have a good relationship with nature, the bugs and native birds. The crops grown in Walla Walla are not native, and it is hard to find native plants in the city. We want to show an alternate way to garden.” The humane society cannot afford a landscaper, and the garden is a service to them and to the volunteers walking dogs outside. “When I come to garden, the workers say, ‘Oh here comes the ladies who make it pretty for us!’” Laura told me. The goal of the NPS is to provide an opportunity to see this biodiversity to the public. In the fall of 2004, the group decided to take on more landscaping, planting buffalo grass – a hardy plant with low-water needs – and expanding their plantings around the back of the building.

STARTING TO WORK:

My first week, I met with Laura Maier (a member of the WWNPS since 1999) and Betsy Kaiser, also a member and a USFS employee. The demonstration garden did not exactly fit what I had been envisioning; it looked to me like some scraggly dividers in the parking lot. I had been expecting a larger area, or more consolidated bed space. We spent the day picking up tumbleweeds and debris, and after just on afternoon of work it looked much better. I continued to meet with Laura each week at the demonstration garden, where we weeded, pruned, transplanted, or cleaned out beds, watching them progress into early spring blooms. At the beginning of the semester, it was hard to identify the plants because not much was growing, but as the season progressed we were able to compare the bed maps with what was actually there and work on filling in gaps.

I attended the monthly NPS meetings and guest speakers, and was most interested with Beth Thiel’s presentation from the Blue Mountain Land Trust. Catherin Hovanic’s speech about invasive and noxious weeds was a little long for me to take, but I enjoyed talking with her and her husband afterwards. At the presentations and meetings I liked observing the other NPS members and what activities they had done: field trips, starting a library of botany books at the Walla Walla Community College, discussing the need to educate people about the natural beauty of native plants.

RESULTS AND DOWNFALLS:

The demonstration garden beds ended up being my main focus of the internship, and as a measurable result I will say that they look beautiful! Laura and I are not the only ones who spend time working there, I am not asserting we are responsible for their growth, but it has been nice to be a part of and watch the change. When Catherine Hovanic (from the state chapter of the NPS) was visiting, she was very impressed with the garden. Last Thursday, a sign was installed that Laura had commissioned by a local artist, which reads “Native Plant Demonstration Garden.” Since most people I talked to were unaware that the demonstration garden existed at the humane society, I think this will be extremely helpful in bringing attention to its existence.

I learned a lot from this internship, which ended up taking a different course than I originally thought it would. While I did not do outreach like I originally thought, it has been a valuable learning experience for me. I am building up basic skills and knowledge about gardening. I have learned a lot from Laura, enjoy attending Walla Walla Native Plant Society meetings and interacting with other members. There is not a huge interest at Whitman concerning native plant issues, although Whitman volunteers I talked to at the Humane Society were pleased to learn that the beds were all native plants.

Although my internship did result in being a personal, valuable experience for me, I am somewhat disappointed that I didn’t do the outreach I originally wanted to. But, without building up the skills and knowledge I have been able to start building on this semester, I don’t think I would have made a particularly effective or informed active coordinator of events. And, since we have not completely finished going through all the plant beds and I am having some difficulties with the computer program, my updated bed maps are not yet done.

I am staying in Walla Walla this summer, though, and am committed to spending more time with the demonstration garden and the Native Plant Society. I will produce a more detailed guide on how to start a native plant garden and would like to distribute it to those places that already expressed interest (WWCC, the Whitman Mission, the Audubon Society), and even try to combine it with an outreach table at the farmer’s market. Since I have spent this semester learning about the garden, I will extend my information into active outreach this summer.


REFLECTIONS AND ADVICE:

If someone else were to continue this internship, I could see them taking it in two different directions. If they already had gardening knowledge and experience, they could make it more outreach-oriented and really try to coordinate events with the garden and/or the native plant society. If (like me) they didn’t know much about gardening, they could use it as a learning experience. Laura Maier is a amazingly knowledgable, and would be extremely supportive in either direction. Since this is a pretty individual experience, you will get out as much as you put into it. I would recommend this internship to someone who is enthusiastic and self-motivated.

I don’t really consider my internship to be over, since I will be continuing to work throughout the summer, but for the closing of this report I will say that I have learned much more about gardening, and am especially interested in the use of native plants. I feel lucky to have been around Laura Maier, who is just a lovely, interesting, and fascinating individual. While working, she would tell me about the plants, offer gardening tips, or answer questions I had about the garden or the Native Plant Society. I learned about topics from pruning to salvaging plants to invasive species. We also discussed NPS field trips or other issues she was organizing for, most recently meeting with a timber company and the Blue Mountain Land Trust regarding a land swap near the Waitsburg water intake. Laura commissioned a circular bench from Walla Walla High School, ordered a bed sign from the Penitentiary, and has applied for a grant to get a shed.

What I also take from this experience is the strength and commitment of devoted senior citizens as environmental stewards and activists. Laura told me, “Most of us are retired and have the time to do this, to be so involved.”