Green thumbs, hearts of gold. Meet the volunteers that keep Birmingham Botanical Gardens beautiful!


Volunteers are an indispensable resource in fulfilling the Friends’ promise of protecting, nurturing, and sharing the wonders of the Gardens. Photo via Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Similar to most nonprofits, Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens is dependent upon volunteers and the work they do. The Friends honored volunteers this month at their annual Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon.

As Executive Director of the Friends—Tom Underwood—stated, just one person’s decision to volunteer helps build the network of community support that keeps the Gardens thriving.

It Takes a Village to Care for the Gardens

BBG Volunteer
We dig the Gardens, too. Photo via Beth Cunningham for Bham Now

The Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens coordinates the efforts of 1600 volunteers annually. Volunteers help support the mission of the Friends— to protect, nurture, and share the wonders of the Gardens— through everything from educational programming to digging in the Gardens to fundraising.

They also provide needed hands at the Friends’ annual events such as plant sales and Antiques at the Gardens. Volunteers cultivate not only the beautiful flora that visitors love, but also the joy guests feel when they walk the Gardens’ grounds.

“We’re really fortunate to have great Friends who help us accomplish so much here at the Gardens.

Volunteers will always be very important and critical to our success, as we leverage the resources that are available to us.”

Tom Underwood, Executive Director of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Meet the Honorees

Recognition is given to many different groups and individuals during this annual celebration. Check out some of the 2019 highlights!

1. Bob Koons – Plant Person of the Year

Bob first embarked on his volunteer journey with the Friends in January 2017. Photo via Beth Cunningham for Bham Now

Bob began volunteering while working through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Master Gardener class.

Now a key member of the Trees & Shrubs volunteer growing group, Bob has also spent time in Kaul Wildflower Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Abroms Rhododendron Garden, and working on other projects as needed.

2. Norman Geisinger – New Friend Award

Norm especially enjoys speaking with children who pass through, happily answering questions and teaching them about the koi and turtles in Long Life Lake. He is pictured here with Brooke McMinn, Director of Education and Visitor Experience for the Friends. Photo via Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Norm began volunteering for the Friends last spring, focusing his work primarily in the Japanese Garden. Visitors wandering through are likely to find him cleaning up large juniper trees and Japanese black pine.

However, he’s always glad to chat and, as a frequent tour guide, is a fount of valuable knowledge. In September alone, Norm spoke to approximately 800 guests.

3. Linda Grissom – Unsung Hero Award

Linda has been gardening seriously for more than 40 years! Photo via Beth Cunningham for Bham Now

Linda is a longtime volunteer in the Gardens’ Perennials growing group, having spent time in the Gardens’ potting sheds since 2007.

Although she lends her time and talents to many local gardening groups, Linda admits she has a special spot in her heart for the Gardens.

4. Ashlee Uhlar – Bob Wendorf Young Adult Service Award

Ashlee spent time over the summer as a camp counselor at the BBG. Photo via Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Giving back while also juggling commitments of a summer college course at UAB, she volunteered close to 70 hours through the season.

Among Ashlee’s favorite aspects of volunteering were working with the teachers, young people, Volunteer Coordinator Alice Thompson Moore, Education Program Coordinator Ellen Hardy—and of course, spending time in the beautiful setting of the Gardens.

5. Ritsuko Asano – Educator of the Year

Many Tuesdays, you’ll find Ritsuko hard at work alongside other dedicated Japanese Garden volunteers. Photo via Beth Cunningham for Bham Now

Ritsuko has been teaching Chado, “the way of tea,” for about 20 years. She is a retired interpreter for Honda Motor Company’s Japanese transferees and their families, as well as a third-generation tea instructor.

Ritsuko educates the Gardens’ visitors about Japanese tea ceremonies and the cultural significance of the Toshinan, the Gardens’ traditional Japanese teahouse.

6. Virginia Amason and Leigh Haver – Ida C. Burns Volunteers of the Year

During their two-year tenure as Co-Chairs, Amason and Haver helped raise more than $1.2 million for the Friends. Photo via Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens

Passionate about the mission of the Friends, this dynamic duo teamed up twice as Antiques at the Gardens co-chairs to lead a dedicated volunteer committee in raising a collective $1.2 million in 2018 and 2019 through sponsorships, partnerships, and ticket sales.

Virginia began working on the show three years ago, first as a valuable member of the Patrons Committee. Leigh’s involvement with the Gardens has varied over the years. As a Junior League of Birmingham volunteer, she worked shifts at the plant sale and served on the Antiques at the Gardens committee on multiple occasions before co-chairing with Virginia.

7. UAB Honors College – Volunteer Partner of the Year

Amy N. Atkisson and Dean Shannon Blanton, Ph.D. Photo via Beth Cunningham for Bham Now

The Honors College at the University of Alabama at Birmingham has had a volunteer presence at the BBG for five years, with 120 students volunteering in 2019 alone.

Don’t Miss Out on the Place All These Volunteers Love So Much

This Japanese maple at the entrance to the Japenese Gardens was a brilliant red color and so stunning. Photo via Beth Cunningham for Bham Now

The Gardens are known for their beauty in the springtime when everything is blooming and wonderful. However, I’m a personal fan of the Gardens in autumn.

Head out soon to enjoy the colors before they’re gone for the season—and just a reminder, visiting Birmingham Botanical Gardens is always free.

Check out Birmingham Botanical Gardens on Facebook and Instagram to learn more!

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Beth Cunningham
A Birmingham transplant who can usually be found hitting a new hiking trail or restaurant opening when she's not writing stories and snapping photos for Bham Now.
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