The Hilltop Arboretum’s big fall plant sale is over, but that doesn’t mean the work is.
The arboretum’s eclectic, year-round volunteer crew, known affectionately as the Hodge Podge — “they do a little bit of this, and a little bit of that,” said Executive Director Peggy Coates — barely skips a beat before they start all over again.
In fact, it’s a great time to start volunteering, for all those who may be interested in either putting their plant knowledge to good use or learning more about gardening.
Made up of about a dozen or so members who float in and out as time allows, the Hodge Podgers meet from 9 a.m. to noon every Wednesday, doing a variety of tasks from sorting, propagating, planting, fertilizing, trimming and spraying plants, to making plant labels and other various office tasks required for their fundraising efforts.
“It’s a pretty big operation, taking care of all those plants,” Coates said, adding that there were 5,000 plants in their inventory as of the start of the plant sale.
Hodge Podge Volunteer Coordinator Pam Sulzer recently sat at a large table in the center of the arboretum’s main office sorting through a long list of volunteers — nearly 100 in all — lined up for the weekend.
As she assigned volunteers to tasks on paper Oct. 1 — their final meeting before the sale — the rest of the Hodge Podge darted in and out of the rain, making sure all the plants were in their proper places with proper name tags.
Most of their plants come from the backyards of members of the Friends of Hilltop Arboretum, and friends of those friends.
“If anybody has a plant that’s spread too much, or they dig up their garden, clean out their greenhouse, that’s where a lot of our inventory comes from,” Sulzer said.
Sometimes it’s plants, sometimes it’s pots.
Sometimes they use the pots to create “pot people” — human-shaped sculptures made almost entirely of stacked terra cotta pots, with, of course, a spiky ornamental plant, or sometimes moss, for hair.
They also create garden crafts, usually some type of wind chime or crafty plant holder, to offer for sale along with the plants.
This year’s offering will be a series of wire envelopes held together with twine edges that hold air plants or succulents in their pouches.
The group is busy even with the planting taken out of the equation, Sulzer said.
But then, the plants are largely the point, and they get plenty of those.
It’s not unusual for a random pile of bulbs to greet them outside the arboretum when they arrive.
“People just come drop things off,” Sulzer said. “Sometimes there’s a note with them, telling us what they are, and sometimes nothing.”
“We take everything, we sell everything when we have it,” she said. “Trees, monkey grass, moss. Anything but sago palms,” Sulzer laughed. “No more sagos!” comes a chorus from the rest of the Podge as they come in and out of the building, soaked with rain. The infamously spiky plants cause their fair share of Hodge Podge injuries.
The dedicated bunch loses no opportunity to turn their expertise into operating funds for the nonprofit arboretum. They have historically ended every meeting with a potluck buffet lunch, and they’ve compiled a collection of their favorite potluck selections into a cookbook, “Passalong Recipes From the Podge,” which is also available at the arboretum’s giftshop.
Sulzer is a master gardener, as are many of the volunteers.
“We have to do 40 hours of volunteer work per year to keep our master gardener certification,” Sulzer said. “There’s an expert here on pretty much everything. I’ve learned a lot from this group.”
They share a love for gardening — and food — and always have a great time, she said. It becomes an extended family.
As for Coates, she’s always been impressed by the dedication of the arboretum’s community support, and the Hodge Podge is near the top of that list.
“Their fundraisers contribute $30,000 annually to the operating budget,” Coates said, but their commitment to the arboretum runs much deeper.
As a group dedicated to preserving and passing on botanical treasures, Coates said, the group is a wealth of plant knowledge that is accessible to anyone who cares to ask.