Volunteers at: Dubuque Arboretum
and Botanical Gardens.
Favorite plant to grow: “I don’t have a favorite, but something I’ve learned a lot about are dahlias. They look so unglamorous when you dig them up. They’re this ugly brown, shriveled-up tuber. But they are a gorgeous flower, and they get really tall in the summertime. By September, some of them are taller than I am!”
Gardening advice: “Gardening is so trial and error. It’s hard to say there are any hard and fast rules. My rule of thumb: If it’s brown, cut it off; if it’s green, leave it alone.”
Her story: As a child, Kennie Harris was always curious about growing flowers. But it wasn’t until a trip to the local farmers market in her early 40s when she decided to give perennial gardening a try.
“I bought a coreopsis plant,” said Harris, of Peosta, Iowa. “And it came back the next year, and I didn’t know that was possible. Since then, I’ve been trying to get a lot of things to come back. They don’t always, but it’s fun.”
Harris continues to “learn by doing” — maintaining perennial beds just outside her kitchen window, where she can watch the constantly changing view. She has some of the same plants she began with.
It was her experiences in these garden beds that led her to begin volunteering at the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in 2011 after she totally was retired. Harris is one of an impressive 340 regular volunteers who work the equivalent of 16 paid staff — helping to care for the gardens, lawns and buildings.
Harris enjoys helping grow the arboretum’s more than 5,000 annual flowers. During peak gardening times, she will spend up to four hours per day there, checking on the annuals in the greenhouse and helping prepare the garden beds. When possible, Harris enjoys bringing helpers along — her grandchildren enjoy spending time at the arboretum as well.
Each year, Harris looks forward to one time in particular: Planting, which usually happens around the third week of May.
“You don’t have to worry about them in the greenhouse anymore,” she said. “It is very satisfying to feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
Once the flowers are in the ground, Harris and others continue to check on them and weed the garden beds as needed. She also cares for a flower bed of dahlias that she adopted with a friend.
“I feel like you can make a difference, which is important for volunteers,” Harris said. “And I’m just one of many volunteers at the arboretum.”
Volunteers at: Dubuque Rescue Mission Garden.
Favorite plant to grow: “I really love to grow the lettuce. It’s fun because it grows so quick, and we get to use it right in the kitchen.”
Gardening advice: “Just breathe. When I’m planting, it can be overwhelming. But when you allow yourself to breathe and slow down and really appreciate what you’re doing — which is bringing life to the earth — it’s so cool. I’m way more appreciative when the plants do grow and more able to accept defeat when something didn’t go right. You learn to accept both lovingly.”
Her story: When she started at Loras College, Allegra Johnson set out to become a social worker in juvenile detention centers.
Then she worked at an urban farm in Kansas City, Mo. It was the summer before her senior year, and Johnson found herself growing food to give away to those experiencing homelessness and poverty.
It was her first introduction to gardening, and she was hooked.
Now Johnson is completing her senior practicum at the Dubuque Rescue Mission and its garden, and she plans to volunteer for a year at a Seattle community garden upon graduation.
“I never thought I would love gardening, and it’s been great,” she said. “I’ve done a 360 from wanting to be in a concrete building to really loving being outside. But it’s so cool how they’re connected. Gardening offers restorative justice practices in its own way.”
The Dubuque Rescue Mission Garden is about a block from the shelter in downtown Dubuque. The garden — which grows herbs, fruits, vegetables and pollinator-friendly flowers — helps support the mission’s meal program, which serves about 200 to 250 people daily.
Johnson spends about three days per week there, joining a rotating number of community members who work in the garden. She helps start seeds, maintain the greenhouse and prepare plant beds. Men from the mission also work in the garden — benefiting from the therapeutic effects of being in touch with the land while gaining practical skills, Johnson said.
It’s been therapeutic for Johnson as well, helping her become more connected to the present moment.
“It is very peaceful. It’s a way to really step away from the quick pace of life and experience something that’s slower paced,” she said. “It takes a lot of patience to garden and takes a lot of time and love and energy. It’s been a wonderful way for me to relax and do something productive but also something that’s really fun. And you get to see the fruits of your labor, literally.”
Emily Kittle is a former Telegraph Herald reporter and is a freelance writer from Madison, Wis.