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A small army of volunteers helps maintain Charlotte’s public gardens

The next time you sigh over the thought of raking, mowing or weeding your own little plot of ground, consider the task of Tim Turton and his horticulture team with the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department.

They maintain the county’s public green spaces – 2 million square feet of mulched flowerbeds and various planting areas, give or take a few acres. And that’s after the county’s May 2010 budget cuts, which reduced the horticulture staff from 20 to six.

Enter a dedicated corps of volunteers who work under the supervision of Turton, maintenance and operations supervisor for P&R’s horticulture team. Since the staff cutbacks, these volunteers have logged an average of 3,000 hours a year assisting in mulching, pulling weeds, installing bedding plants, edging, trimming bushes and cleaning up trash in the county’s major parks, pocket parks and greenways.

Volunteers haven’t solved all his personnel problems, Turton says, but they’ve definitely been a godsend. “We’re not poor-man-crying-the-blues,” he explains, “but this arrangement (with supervised volunteers) definitely works for us.

“We can’t have volunteers simply show up in a park with trowels and a couple of flats of pansies,” he said. “Because these are public lands, we have a duty to make sure things are done the correct way. There’s a system in place that allows us to focus their energies on projects that have priority at the moment.”

‘Our front yard’

Look at Fourth Ward Park at Poplar and Sixth streets, for example. Since spring 2011, a group of six to eight volunteers from the neighborhood meet monthly to clean up the park, which organizer Ann Prock calls “our front yard.” “We’re really blessed to have this wonderful green space,” Prock says, “and it’s a resource the community wants to protect. The residents around here have assumed some ownership of this space.”

Working with Turton and his professional team, the group takes on the usual duties of maintenance, such as weeding, planting annuals and cleaning up trash. The homeowners’ association, Friends of Fourth Ward, also kicks in funds when projects for the park require it.

A group of employees from Carolinas HealthCare System have also become invested in the area outside their own “front yard” along Kings Drive – Little Sugar Creek Greenway. As part of the hospital system’s corporate healthy environment initiative, about 30 volunteers each contribute about 10 hours a month to keep the county-owned property along Little Sugar Creek tidy and litter-free.

“We adopted this space for the benefit of our visitors and employees,” explains Sharon Washam, manager of corporate community benefits. “It’s all about creating a healthy environment for the greater Charlotte community,” she says of the greenway and parallel sidewalk running from St. Mary’s Chapel on Fourth Street all the way to Freedom Park.

Even before the county’s cutbacks, Dilworth Rotary Club was engaged as volunteer gardeners. Taking the lead from one of its late members, Dr. Clyde Horstmann, the club partnered with the county to design a corner of Latta Park at Dilworth Road West. Dedicated in Horstmann’s memory in 2002, the Dilworth neighborhood garden is still maintained by the club under Turton’s guidance.

“We complement what the county does,” said Rotary project coordinator David Hodgkins. “If money is needed for upkeep of the space, like an irrigation system, we raise it, and then club members step in with sweat equity.”

Planting an ozone garden

Another community gardening initiative involving volunteers was spearheaded by the nonprofit Clean Air Carolina, which advocates for cleaner air quality. In September, Clean Air Carolina’s Mary Stauble recruited 20 volunteers from corporate sponsor Mercedes Financial Services in Fort Mill, S.C., to install an ozone garden at Mecklenburg County’s McDowell Nature Preserve on Lake Wylie.

Ozone gardens are designed to demonstrate poor air quality with plants that react to high levels of ozone.

The Master Gardener Program, comprising 120 specialized volunteers certified by the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, is another key resource for the community’s public as well as private green spaces. For the county in particular, these gardening specialists install and manage the Extension Service’s demonstration gardens at Independence Park, located at Hawthorne Street near Presbyterian Hospital, and at Freedom Park off East Boulevard.

Nelson McCaskill, director of the Mecklenburg County Extension Office, explains, “These gardens serve an educational purpose because we use native plants that are labeled, so ‘layman’ gardeners can get ideas for their own yards.” That includes raised-bed vegetable gardens.

The volunteer Master Gardeners devoted 700 hours in the demonstration gardens from January through September this year, McCaskill said.

Tim Turton’s team also collaborates with such groups as Hands On Charlotte, a nonprofit volunteer service organization, for specific projects as needed, and Trees Charlotte, a public-private initiative dedicated to preserving the city’s tree canopy by planting 15,000 trees annually.

Turton believes the need for extra hands will be ongoing. For instance, volunteers recently helped install a memorial garden at Park Road Park for the victims of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. And with the county budget in recovery and new landscape projects on the way, he sees new opportunities for volunteers opening up, especially in the north and south regions of the county.

“Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have good reason to be proud of the way our green spaces are maintained,” he says. “I’d love to see more small groups of volunteers join this partnership.”

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