Volunteers with ‘green’ fingers work in gardens of earthly delights

Seniors’ Week is upon us and we are celebrating the wonderful contribution of Victorian seniors who volunteer in roles around Victoria. Some seniors have been volunteering for years, helping in many facets of the not for profit sector. Gerard Mansour, Commissioner for Senior Victorians often advocates for seniors to be active in retirement for good health and social inclusion.

It’s amazing how dedicated volunteers can be in their roles. Enjoying their work and the camaraderie it brings, some stay ‘onboard’ at their chosen organisations for years, gradually climbing a volunteer career path.

Volunteer Rosemary Cotter typifies this profile. Blessed with ‘green fingers’, keen commitment and a strong sense of community, she began gardening with Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Her volunteering evolved from volunteer gardening with the Friends into a new role as a volunteer Garden Ambassador and then on to being a volunteer Guide at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria where she wears her red jacket and badge proudly.

Rosemary’s background


Originally from the UK, throughout her life Rosemary developed a love of gardening and music. She studied science including botany at Nottingham University and has always had her own garden in which to ‘experiment’ and further her interest in exotic plants.

She graduated in animal physiology and worked in laboratories in North Wales before migrating to Australia in 1972, arriving the day Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party gained power with its catch phrase of ‘It’s Time!’ Rosemary didn’t waste much time. She found a job working on a cancer project.  Then she moved into scientific reference work at RMIT. She even qualified as a librarian so that she had the research skills and could then bridge the two worlds seamlessly. But gardening was her main interest and Australian trees and plants soon threw up many dilemmas to overcome.

Gardening in the antipodes

‘My first garden in Australia was in Williamstown and my challenge was an enormous gum tree I inherited that took all the moisture from the ground. But when I moved to Croydon we had a very large garden. I remember the local nursery promoted native plants and Austraflora was just beginning,’ she told me when we met on a cold, wet and misty weekday at the Gardens’ Visitors’ Centre. In the background there were a myriad of birds chirping and a family admiring an owl in a tree.

Rosemary began learning about Australian native plants, flora and gardening. As with most gardening there were some hits and some misses. Some plants grew some didn’t but she persevered, learning more about our native plants and the best conditions for them.

Her accrued knowledge of the origins of plants, their hemisphere, cultural uses, medicinal values, history and how they each have their own story to tell, foreshadowed the volunteer guiding work she was to do in the years to come at the Melbourne Gardens.

Retirement and becoming a Helping Hand with Friends of the Gardens

In 2007, shortly before she retired from her working career, she sat at home pondering what she might do in retirement. A very active person, Rosemary didn’t see this life stage as ‘the end’ but a new opportunity with free time to be useful.

‘I had music and I had gardening and wondered where I might volunteer my time. Working in the Royal Botanic Gardens was high on my list,’ said Rosemary.

She ‘sat on the fence’ about volunteering and then, a year later in 2008, she received a mental jolt.  She saw that the Friends of the Gardens were advertising for volunteers to become ‘Helping Hands.’ How could she resist? It was time to put her ‘green’ fingers to further use and give a helping hand.

Her volunteering with Friends of the Gardens was fortnightly and involved hands-on gardening at one of the gate lodges inside the Royal Botanic Gardens. Here she found more than doing the volunteer work she enjoyed but also a sense of community. It was also the people, the camaraderie with her fellow volunteers, that was her motivation to continue. In fact, she still continues her Friends volunteer garden work now on a monthly basis.

‘Volunteering with the Friends we were working in a team and got to know each other and formed a group so there wasn’t any reason to give it up!’ said Rosemary.

rbg-gatesBeing a Royal Botanic Gardens Garden Ambassador

‘I’ve always wanted to volunteer here at the Royal Botanic Gardens but the intake for volunteering roles at the Royal Botanic Gardens itself only occurs every few years and I didn’t know how long I might have to wait for an opening,’ she lamented.

Rosemary was always on the lookout for new volunteering opportunities that would allow her to utilise her growing knowledge. Volunteering with the Friends that has over 2,500 members, placed her in the ideal position to keep in the loop about volunteering roles that could arise at the Royal Botanic Gardens.  One day she heard of the newly created volunteer role of Garden Ambassador.

‘In 2010 I applied for and undertook a 12-week training program for the newly created category of Garden Ambassador run by the Royal Botanic Gardens organisation,’ said Rosemary.

Volunteer Garden Ambassadors were to be stationed at mobile information pods located at different points in the Gardens depending on the season. On three days a week, Fridays to Sundays, they were on duty to answer questions from members of the public.

‘Children are attracted by the varied and curiously shaped seed pods as well as the aboriginal artefacts; there are sometimes birds’ nests and the remains of regurgitated pellets from owls,’ said Rosemary.

So there she was, a volunteer Garden Ambassador, being able to answer questions from the public but still a volunteer gardener with the Friends of the Gardens. However, now her true wish was to become a Royal Botanic Gardens volunteer guide. Two years later there was an intake of volunteer guides and Rosemary at last realised her dream of becoming a volunteer guide at the Melbourne Gardens.

volunteer-guides-2Volunteer guide at Royal Botanic Gardens

What she enjoys most about being a volunteer guide is sharing a love and knowledge of plants with local and overseas visitors. The gardens themselves are an oasis of tranquility and calm (but not always when there are classes of school children around she told me!)

As one of a group of sixty guides, she also leads free walks twice a day. These guides also do paid walks as well for organised groups. Rosemary has lots to point out and show visitors as the Gardens are forever changing.

‘Every week there is something different to see in the structure of plants and trees, the landscaping, the loss of leaves, and there’s lots of wildlife in and around the garden…turtles, birds, eels, owls,’ she said enthusiastically.

Volunteering at the Royal Botanic Gardens

Rosemary not only enjoys the outdoorsy atmosphere but also the company of the other volunteers that is a sharing and supportive group of men and women.

‘One of the ongoing attractions for volunteers is that it’s a stimulating environment and we’re always learning new things,’ she said and went on to outline her very busy calendar of activities.

‘To increase our knowledge and keep up to date about developments in the gardens, we have monthly meetings and a monthly thematic ramble.’ She continued, ‘We also have the Australasian Biennial Volunteer Guide conferences and I’ve been to Brisbane, Christchurch and Sydney. Next year will be in Canberra. Usually it’s a week- long conference of lectures, talks and workshops with one day set aside for an excursion.’

Looking back on a joyful volunteering career

Looking back over her five years of volunteer guiding at the Melbourne Gardens, Rosemary shared with me she has her own individual favourite trees. ‘We’re talking 100 acres and more than 6500 trees here and there’s a lot of scope for discovering a favourite plant,’ she said.

She adores hearing the harp being played outside the Terrace Tearooms; loves seeing the flowering of the extremely tall Titan Arum (smelly plant); enjoys sharing the uses of particular plants from other cultures and exchanging knowledge of plants from other cultures for example the Ginkgo Nut!

‘My volunteering gives me the opportunity to meet lots of people, make new friendships and keep learning about the subject that I love. It’s also important for volunteers to pass on their knowledge to the next ‘crop’ of volunteers who want to ‘plant’ and ‘grow’ with the organisation,’ she said.

By Lesley Sharon Rosenthal, volunteer writer for Volunteering Victoria

The Public Programs Volunteers work at the Melbourne Gardens of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria organisation. It has three groups: voluntary guides, children’s garden volunteers and garden ambassadors. They wear a red uniform.

Visit their website

There is also another organisation associated with the Melbourne Gardens and this is The Friends of The RBG. The Friends also
have a range of activities for volunteers.

The Friends group has a wide membership and a large number of different interest groups. They raise money for the gardens through their activities.

Visit their website

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