Garden Guides Return
Katherine Patton still carries sheets of handouts from a tour she was going to lead on March 14, 2020. She remembers that day vividly. “To me, that was the day normal life ended,” Patton explains. “So coming back has just been really, really emotionally moving.”
After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s volunteer guides returned this spring, along with the public seasonal highlights tours they lead. Garden Guides, who are an integral part of the visitor experience, serve as Garden ambassadors—they are a bridge between visitors and the plants, history, and stories of Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
As part of their specialized training, guides participate in regularly scheduled “refreshers” led by the Interpretation team, which keep guides updated on blooming plants, botany lessons, and changes or additions to the Garden. Over the past two years, these were held on Zoom.
At the first in-person refresher in almost 25 months, guides were led on a tour of the Garden by manager of interpretation Romi Ige and director of interpretation and exhibitions Kate Fermoile. Winding through the serpentine paths of the Woodland Garden, guides took notes on the garden’s design and plant palette. But beneath the canopy of oaks and hornbeams, they also took in the sounds of birds overhead and the scent of almost imperceptible flowers of sweet box. This was the Garden felt and heard—a tactile experience for the guides that cannot be achieved through the screen.
For Patton, who has been volunteering with the Garden for 32 years, being back at the Garden has been meaningful. “Zoom is good,” Patton says. “But there’s something about being with people, and in this space.”
Manager of volunteers Jeanine Poggioli has seen the effect that the return of on-site tours has had on this community of guides. “It’s been great not only to see people face to face,” Poggioli says, “but to see how everybody reacts to seeing everybody else. It’s been an emotional time for a lot of people.”
The patience and understanding from the guides during an uncertain time has stuck with Poggioli. She made sure to reach out to volunteers during the hiatus, not just to check in, but to express appreciation and say: “Thank you for hanging onto this roller coaster ride with us.”
A stroll through Brooklyn Botanic Garden can become an especially enriching experience alongside a Garden Guide, each of whom comes with different interests and stories to share. For Patton, these tours are about connecting visitors to nature, and offering new perspectives. At the very least, she hopes visitors will pick up on something they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed—the heart-shaped leaves of a tree, or the subtle changes through the seasons.
For Maria Ramos, who has been volunteering in the Discovery Garden for nine years, being a part of the Garden in this way has offered both community and a deep sense of place. At BBG, “there’s something more,” Ramos says. “The difference with this place, and the guides here, is their passion.”