Volunteer Spotlight: Carole Conama

Carole is one of the avid gardeners who make Mears Park a true urban oasis.

How did you get started volunteering in Mears Park?

I reluctantly left my gardens in the northern suburbs when we moved to the city. When we moved, I dug up flowers to give to friends, but I still had some left, so I started planting them in Mears Park. A neighbor connected me with the volunteer coordinator for Friends of Mears Park and encouraged me to take on a garden officially. The next year, I became the volunteer coordinator.

Tell us about your garden plot this year.

This year I created an all-purple Alzheimer’s Garden. It was an idea I had to promote to awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease. My garden is one of the worst spots – lots of sun, not great soil, at the base of a root bound tree – so it takes lots of care. I dug out the soil and replaced it with composted soil to help annuals grow. When other volunteers knew the story about the garden, they were even more willing to help water during this terribly hot summer.

Tell us about the gardening community at Mears Park.

We have really nice people that garden in the park. Everyone is really kind to each other. We have gardeners who have been doing this for twenty years! Most folks are like me, who moved here away from big gardens, but we do also have some first-time gardeners. I know my plants and I encourage them to use perennials to start with. That way something is always blooming without a lot of work. Just fill in with a few annuals until they get the knack for it. We have a new gardener who moved here from Texas, so had to learn about plants that work in our zone and can withstand the winter. I’m a native gardener mostly and rely on what wants to grow here.

Tell us about the rewards and challenges of gardening downtown.

I really enjoy seeing what everyone else is doing with their gardens. It’s so wonderful to have flowers in the middle of the city.

Mears Park is home to wonderful concerts. I always tell my fellow gardeners that people will trample on some part of the gardens – just get used to it. I encourage walkways through gardens so that it’s easier for everyone during the big events. Of course, I have no fear asking folks nicely to move their lawn chairs out of the garden beds.

When COVID hit, things felt really bad. There was a noticeable uptick in crime and nuisance behavior. There was a big problem with all the displaced people who had nowhere to live or to go during the day. 

But the police and city leaders and staff were great. They worked with us. It also makes a difference when volunteers and residents talk to folks going through the park to help them appreciate this beautiful oasis. People are amazed to learn the gardens are all taken care of by volunteers who buy many plants out of their own pockets.

Did you grow up loving parks and gardens?

I grew up in Linden Hills in Minneapolis, which is another great town for parks. I grew up canoeing and fishing. I even canoed from 50th France to Minnehaha Falls once. (I couldn’t get back and I got in trouble, but it was a great trip!)

Now I live by Kaposia Park in South Saint Paul because I love to hike. There are all kinds of beautiful green spaces in the city, but nothing like Saint Paul. I would love to see flowers flourishing down Concord Avenue like we have in Saint Paul. I’m still volunteering at Mears Park because it’s such an amazing asset. Our Parks and Rec team is wonderful. Tony Singerhouse at Natural Resources, who grows annuals for volunteers, is totally fabulous. They really need more resources to maintain these amazing parks and gardens.

Last summer you got to combine your love of parks with theatre. How did that go?

I got to be in Theatre 55’s concert version of the musical Hair at Caponi Art Park, a private park in Eagan. It was a great time – the show wound up being really good. And the audience we had absolutely loved it!

Eagan has large regional parks but not the wonderful neighborhood and pocket park that we enjoy in Saint Paul.

Tell us about your other favorite Saint Paul parks.

I love walking down by the river from Upper Landing all the way to Lower Landing and beyond. You can walk all the way to South Saint Paul from there. Parts of the trail could use more trees and green space. Mounds Park is beautiful with amazing views. Like everyone else, I love Como and walk around there a lot.

Inspired? Volunteer in Saint Paul parks! From Wildlife Monitors to Park and Garden Stewards, there are ways to make a difference that connect you to nature. Learn more