“I’m not stepping in that,” says the high school student with attitude to her teacher as her friend shakes her head sullenly in agreement. They don’t want to wade into the tangle of weeds and native plants lining the fence outside the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens. I roll my eyes (to myself ) and gingerly step through the thicket as they linger on the outskirts of the garden. Barely a minute later, I happen to glance down to see an enormous black spider with a big yellow back sunning itself on my shin.
Suddenly the defiant teens seem very wise as I shriek and jump around trying to shake it off. I try to regain my composure—and dignity—as I retreat to the periphery with them to continue my weeding.
I’m volunteering a Wednesday morning of my holiday in Maui for the Weed & Pot club, a group dedicated to beautifying and maintaining the garden. Volunteering at the Royal Botanical Gardens near where I live in Ontario entailed an interview, but at this garden, I was allowed to just show up at the designated time. Generally, it’s a fairly regular collection of adults who volunteer, but the students are here today as part of a school program called “winterim.”
After doing a little Googling before my trip, I discovered that there are several places one can volunteer their time while visiting Maui. I liked the idea of being able to add volunteering to my itinerary without a huge time commitment—there was so much to explore.
The club spends one hour weeding and one potting. My weeding supervisor, a young gentleman by the name of Kaulana, helps me differentiate between the weeds and the plants—the vegetation here is so different from home. He shows me Chinese violet, an invasive species that seems to be the equivalent of the dog-strangling vine plaguing gardens at home, so with the bucket, gloves and garden knife I’ve been provided, I focus on pulling that out without any further spider encounters.
I then head down to the potting area and start rooting akia cuttings with a lovely, self-assured student named Rachel. We chat away about her plans for the future as we companionably work away at our station.
Afterwards, I take the garden’s audio tour to learn more about the indigenous plants that are grown throughout the property. The focus here at Maui Nui, a six(ish)-acre former former zoo, is native plants. The collection features coastal native plants from Maui and the surrounding Hawaiian Islands, as well as plants brought by early Polynesian settlers. It happens to be the first botanical garden with Hawaiian endemic plants.
I enjoy the rest of my morning getting to know more about the flora—some species were familiar, but as tropical houseplants back home.
Volunteering, even for a short amount of time, can foster a greater appreciation of the place you are visiting and put you in touch with locals who can add depth and knowledge to your experience. They may even recommend some local attractions or restaurants that you were unaware of. For me, gardening is a stress release. I love the sense of tranquility and calm that gardening brings to my busy life. Scary spider aside, I was able to spend a peaceful morning doing something familiar in an unfamiliar place. And it proved to be a highlight of my trip.
A benevolence benefit
My husband and I stayed in Makawao at the Hale Ho’okipa Inn, a historic, plantation-era home with the most amazing assortment of fresh fruit served at breakfast—much of it grown on the property. While I was there, I learned that the inn provides a discount to guests who volunteer on Maui.
Volunteering on land and at sea
Volunteer vacations are great, but if you only have a few hours or a couple of days to spare during a holiday, you can seek out brief, but satisfying, opportunities, like my stint at Maui Nui Botanical Gardens. One woman I met from Washington state spends the winter on Maui and enjoys volunteering each week at the garden.
These sites include a range of volunteer organizations, from animal and marine sanctuaries to watershed conservation—and, of course, gardening: