Grateful Deadheaders: the group that keeps Meerkerk Gardens rockin

For some people, gardening isn’t fun. It leads to dirty hands and sore joints.

For the dedicated yet playful volunteers who call themselves the Grateful Deadheaders, a group that works to maintain Meerkerk Gardens in Greenbank, grubby paws are a small price to pay for quality time with friends and nature.

It’s even therapeutic.

“Meerkerk Gardens is so special,” said volunteer deadheader Arlee Anderson. “It’s healthy for people to come to places like this for the fresh air and oxygen. Even though I’m volunteering, it’s better than therapy as far as I’m concerned.”

Work done by the Deadheaders goes beyond therapy, it’s crucial to the gardens’ welfare. In fact, the amount of work the volunteers complete is startling. During the past year, the gardens got a significant facelift; graveled trails were laid, others updated and the rhododendrons look as vibrant as ever.

It’s currently peak bloom season, after all.

Meerkerk Gardens is a nonprofit organization on a tight budget without a staff to maintain the 10 acres of display gardens and four miles of nature trails.

Meerkerk has five employees on its payroll, four of whom are part-time workers. Meerkerk employees receive some help from Washington State Extension’s master gardeners, who are required to volunteer there for at least six hours. Not all come back after completing the required volunteer hours.

The Grateful Deadheaders pick up the slack.

“I see the work we do with the volunteers as symbiotic and holistic,” said Garden Manager Frank Simpson. “We couldn’t do all this work without them. They do just about everything at the gardens.”

The Grateful Deadheaders can be found pruning rhododendrons, trimming hedges and weeding at Meerkerk Gardens 9 a.m. to noon every Thursday.

The name, in addition to being an obvious rock band reference, is an homage to a gardening technique that involves removing fading flowers, which encourages plants to grow and maintain their appearance.

To poke fun at the rock-and-roll roots of the name, however, the volunteers often wear tie-died T-shirts.

Many of the volunteers are retirees, some of them master gardeners with Washington State University Extension, but few will describe themselves as “experts.” The group remains open to volunteers of varying skill level, even those looking for a reason to spend time at the lush gardens overlooking Holmes Harbor.

“We come from all walks of life and make up a fun group,” said volunteer Barbara Douglas.

“Our oldest volunteer is in his 80s, and he regularly climbs up trees and uses a chainsaw to clear up branches and brush,” Anderson said. “He’s always here at dawn before any of us come, since he likes to work alone as his hearing isn’t good.

“He always leaves a pot of coffee for us when we come in the mornings.”

It’s evident the volunteers dedicate hours to get dirty partially because it’s a good time. The volunteers are a laid back bunch who frequently exchange jokes, pull each other’s legs and share a passion for gardening.

Anderson said one doesn’t need to be a skilled gardener to fit in, and all are welcome. In fact, she says more help is always welcome since there’s always something to do, regardless of the season.

According to Douglas, it’s perfect for many retirees.

“The most important thing is to make an impact with the garden, but you also get the camaraderie and friendship,” Douglas said. “For retirees, it’s perfect because many of us have time on our hands, and this is the perfect place to make an impact for a nonprofit.”

“It’s a nice way to stay active and fresh in the mind and body.”

Photo by Kyle Jensen / Whidbey News Group — Volunteer Barbara Douglas pulls weeds at Meerkerk. Douglas is also a master gardener with Washington State University Extension.

Photo by Kyle Jensen / Whidbey News Group — Volunteer Barbara Douglas pulls weeds at Meerkerk. Douglas is also a master gardener with Washington State University Extension.