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Are plants your passion? Join the garden volunteers at Point Defiance Park

August 4, 2016

It’s still cool, but the bumble bees are already buzzing between the open-faced blossoms when a crew of dedicated volunteers converges on Point Defiance Park’s dahlia garden on a Tuesday morning in July.

Don Filand, straw hat on head, digital camera in hand, arrives first.  He wanders up and down the aisles between the raised beds, snapping shots of the dozens of tall, staked plants, most of which have not yet flowered.

He is soon followed by Ken and Marilyn Walton, arms full: a clipboard, a couple pairs of shears, a giant roll of jute twine, and several 5-gallon, plastic buckets to collect waste.

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A bit later, Noni Morrison, who runs a small flower farm on Vashon Island, joins them. She looks through her bag, realizes she forgot her shears, and borrows Marilyn’s pair.

Within a minute or two, they all focus on the job: making sure each of the dozens of dahlias in this American Dahlia Society trial garden gets the best possible display. Every week, they pull weeds, tie up plants and snip or pluck out unnecessary leaves, buds, stems and spent blossoms.

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For this crew, the satisfaction is in the tall and showy flowers, which are at their best in early August. Each member of this volunteer group grows dahlias at home, and finds joy in sharing the passion and gardening tips with park visitors and others. The comradery that grows in the dahlia garden has parallels elsewhere in Point Defiance Park. In the gardens in particular, similar groups of loyal devotees currently lend their time and energy to the cultivation of roses, rhododendrons, herbs, fuchsias, irises and native plants.

Through its Friends of Point Defiance initiative, Metro Parks Tacoma recruits volunteers like these to ensure that the 760-acre park continues to be a regional treasure. All of the gardens, including the Japanese garden, would benefit from additional assistance. Whether blessed with a green thumb or eager to learn from others who are, all are welcome to contribute.

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The dahlia devotees spend one full morning each week in the beds. Rose enthusiasts remove spent blossoms weekly. Other volunteer gardeners also schedule seasonal work in conjunction with Metro Parks crews.

Marilyn Walton serves as volunteer director of the dahlia trial garden on behalf of the Washington State Dahlia Society. She says it’s been a while since a novice gardener joined her veteran volunteers, but she and the others would welcome the help. “It’s a great way to learn how to grow dahlias,” she said. “Everybody comes here to see the very best.”

Noni, who calls herself a gardening fool, finds the volunteer work inspirational. “I just love dahlias and being around other people who love dahlias. I’ve learned a lot from them.”

It’s also a way to get some exercise.  As soon as he arrives in the garden, Ken drops to his knees, unspools some twine, snips off a length, wraps it around his first plant and ties it close to a stake for support. He plucks off low-hanging leaves, extra buds and spent blossoms, and pulls weeds. After finishing the first, he moves to the next, and so on down the row. Soon, his knees are dark with dirt. Don, busy in an adjacent row, kneels on a rubber cushion, but Ken doesn’t bother. “I just wear out Levis,” the 73-year-old jokes.

Noni doesn’t get on her knees. With fingers, she snaps off extra buds. “The little side ones take away from the main bloom,” she explains. Unless the side buds are removed, the plant may not produce the showiest blossom. “It also gives you a longer stem.”

Every year, the garden tests about 65 new dahlia varieties. “If we didn’t do what we’re doing, the plants wouldn’t reach their potential size,” Don said. Every week, Marilyn checks the plants, offers advice and records her findings on the clipboard.

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On this morning, Don discovers a plant with discolored leaves. He calls Marilyn over and they decide to trim the plant way back, leaving only the best, bright leaves intact. “How about we leave it like it is and see what happens,” Don suggests. Marilyn concurs.

Don, who wears gloves, moves on. He picks up spilled petals from a nearby plant and yanks a weed. Ken continues tying up plants nearby. As the season progresses, the workload shifts. “The tying part is less and less,” Don says. “But the weeding part never ends.”

Find out how to volunteer through Friends of Point Defiance Park

Volunteers are needed in the gardens, on the Park Watch patrol, as ambassadors in the Visitors Center, at Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, at the Point Defiance Marina and in the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

To volunteer, call (253) 305-1088, email volunteerpointd@tacomaparks.com or fill out this form.

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