Better than a desk job

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“Washington internship” conjures up images of clean-cut youngsters in crisp button-downs, answering phones and making copies in busy Capitol Hill offices. But at the National Arboretum, those words mean rolling up your sleeves and getting down and dirty. Literally.

“I like helping to provide a green space in D.C.,” said National Arboretum intern Gwen Bagley as she sat inside the administration building for a moment, relieved to be out of the heat. “It”s a lot better than working at a desk,” said the 23-year-old Southern Maryland native.

The arboretum, at 3501 New York Ave. NE, isa 446-acre preserve of trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses transplanted to the District from across the country. At the facility, which is part of the National Park Service, interns spend their days in the sunshine, learning what it takes to plant, nourish, grow and keep healthy an amazing array of flora.

Officials offer internships to a select handful — there are four this summer — who are groomed to grow and design gardens as well as educate and assist the more than 500,000 visitors who pass through each year.

Miss Bagley, who has worked at an organic garden in Southern Maryland for the past three years, irrigates, weeds and handles the daily maintenance for a collection in the arboretum that features native plants of the District — a collection known as “Fern Valley.”

“A sad thing about gardening is that you kill a lot of stuff while weeding” out invasive species she said, her hands dirty from cleaning out her collection of plants since 7 in the morning.

The youngest intern, Lauren Griesneisen, 20, a junior at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, is responsible for the “Introduction Garden” — a sampling of plants that visiting gardeners can view and consider adding to their own collections.

“I worked behind a desk last summer,” said Miss Griesneisen, who worked at her school’s herbarium, which she likened to a dead plant library. “But then I took a biology course last year and really liked it.

“This summer I have been able to see the practical ways I can apply what I’ve learned in my classes,” she said.

Kim Zitnick, 23, and also an alumna of St. Mary’s College, has worked with Miss Bagley at Even’ Star Organic Farm for the past year. She takes care of the growing collection of conifers, plants that reproduce with cones instead of flowers.

“More work goes into it than people think,” she said, naming particulars like coordinating plant colors and making sure neighboring plants get along with one another as some of what she’s learned over the summer.

“It’s instant gratification,” Miss Zitnick said with a smile. “You instantly see improvements when you’re finished. It’s great.”

The arboretum, established in 1927 by an act of Congress, has several entrances and more than nine miles of roadways winding through its gardens and forests.

A staff of 99, with help from more than 100 volunteers, maintains the plants (and more than a few fish, too).

Each of the interns interviewed hopes to land a job at the arboretum, but they all expect the experience to help no matter where they end up.

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