Last modified: Wednesday, April 03, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Though it may be the dead of winter, no amount of snow, sleet or freezing rain will thwart some people from venturing out to find warmth and greenery.

More specifically, the Smith College Botanic Garden.

About 15 area residents gathered at the college’s Lyman Plant House Wednesday for an intensive three-day volunteer training program that will prepare them to lead tour groups, design exhibits and run the garden’s reception desk.

“We don’t have the staff to lead tours,” Michael Marcotrigiano, the director of the college’s Botanic Garden, said during a PowerPoint presentation at the training session. “Volunteers do all of that.”

Marcotrigiano and Madelaine Zadik, the garden’s manager of education and outreach, offered participants a swirl of information about the Botanic Garden’s history and operations. The schedule called for the potential volunteers to also learn about topics such as the basics of botany and horticulture, various types of plants in the conservatory, and how to guide greenhouse tours.

“It was a good turnout,” Zadik said in an email interview after the first day’s training session. “Everyone is very enthusiastic about volunteering for us.”

The local volunteers are an integral part of the Botanic Garden’s day-to-day operations, according to Zadik and Marcotrigiano.

“It’s a great place to work; all of our volunteers love it,” Marcotrigiano said. “They make friends and work together.”

Some of the volunteers appeared drawn to the program by more than the opportunity to spend time around plants.

South Hadley resident Marilyn Levine recently retired from a career in oncology and said she is looking for a “second life.”

“The thought of volunteering and working with plants is kind of an extension of what I’ve done my whole life, which is work with human beings to try and make them better,” Levine said. “There’s a real relationship between the plant world and medicine, as it is.”

Another participant, Ashley France of Northampton, said she turned to gardening about 20 years ago at the age of 35, after a bipolar disorder forced her to cut short a career in law.

“It was just about the only thing that didn’t seem insane in the world. I had numerous gardens throughout my process of getting better, which was over the course of two decades,” France said.

When she moved to Northampton, her housing situation didn’t provide her with the space required for a garden, so she decided to volunteer at the Smith Botanic Garden.

“This was an opportunity to continue that sort of healing nature that plants and gardening gives to you, and that small children and the telling of stories also give to you,” she said.

Don Donihue, also a South Hadley resident — and lifelong gardener — said he showed up for the training because he supports the mission of the Botanic Garden and thinks that community education is crucial.

“I think that this whole business of biodiversity, sustainability and conservation is something that we need to get very serious about for the future,” Donihue said. “When you have a plant collection like this, with plants from Asia and all over the world, it’s a pretty good tool for raising the consciousness of the need for diversity and sustainability.”


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