Giving Gardens: How to Recruit & Retain Volunteers

by Gordon Clark, Coordinator, Vermont Victory Gardens

We know as individual gardeners how hard it can be to find time to tend our garden plots. What does it take to get people to give their time to tend giving gardens – where they are growing food for someone else, specifically people in need? I asked this question of several of the busiest and most successful giving gardens in Vermont.

The need for fresh food continues to be great – everyone reports that all food donated, or left at community food stands, is gratefully and eagerly taken. Yet at the same time, getting volunteers to help grow the food has become even more challenging in some ways, as people’s schedules and priorities are changing while we emerge from pandemic restrictions.

Nonetheless, the feedback from these gardens on recruiting and retaining volunteers was impressive and consistent. It falls under a few broad categories:

Spread the word – talk to everyone! 

Successful giving gardens use every available avenue to promote their work and recruit volunteers: newspapers, emails, phone trees, websites, social media, and especially Front Porch Forum – FPF is an invaluable resource in small towns across our state.  Another garden recruited most of their original volunteer crew through the UVM Extension Master Gardener listserv.

Just as important, coordinators and leaders in these gardens talk to EVERYONE. It’s not just about social media and email lists. Helen Fields of Stamford Seed Savers described how a couple on bicycles passed their garden while they were building a new shed. She told the couple what they were doing, and it turns out the guy was a carpenter – and he parked his bike and helped them finish the shed! You never know who can help you until you ask them.

Partnering with other local organizations also helps. The Mad River Valley Victory Garden partnered with VT “Everyone Eats,” where restaurants use local ingredients to make meals for those in need, and were sure to mention their garden (and the need for volunteers) whenever they were in front of the public. Others do the same while staffing booths at the local farmers market.

Develop personal relationships 

While you may want many volunteers, you still recruit and retain them “one person at a time.”

Make sure there is someone to greet volunteers when they arrive, and to work with them at the garden. Get to know them. People need to have a good experience while they are volunteering. Several gardens also mentioned deliberately soliciting opinions from the volunteers – more democracy in the garden is good, and people like to know they are valued for more than weed-pulling.

Share information and responsibilities 

Keep information flowing. Signage in the garden is really important – people are more likely to pull that weed when they know what it is. Likewise with tools – volunteers are more likely to use them, and enjoy it, when they’ve been taught how.

Divying up specific responsibilities can also help: Susan Adams at the Deborah Lawson Library Garden noted they even have titles for different roles, such as the “Compost Queen” and “Dead Head Queen.” (Note: not a follower of the Grateful Dead!)

Regularly share successes, and thank people 

One of the big advantages of volunteering in a giving garden is that you are sharing in a good deed. Make sure people hear it, often. Make sure everyone knows the local organizations or people who are receiving the food.  (The Rawson Library Garden invites people to add their own extra produce when deliveries are made.)

Dottie Sundquist at the Gardens at Yellow Barn Farm, in Arlington, shared the excitement of their new 250 foot water line with her community – no more drought worries here! – and sends personal thank you notes to the garden volunteers with pictures of the harvest. How old school cool is that?

Build community 

Many of the individual practices listed above can be included under the general rubric of “building community” – and the number of additional activities and events these gardens hold to do just that is impressive:

Community Seed Swaps. Garden camps. Educational workshops. Little Seed Libraries. Community teas. Readings in the garden by local authors. The Barton Community Giving Garden even applied for (and received!) a grant to build a small amphitheater at their garden.

All of these and more are great ways to build community and bring people into your  garden – and they’re all happening right now at giving gardens across Vermont! And if they can do it, so can you!

For more information on giving gardens, or to become part of the Vermont Victory Garden network, contact Gordon Clark at

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