One of the best parts of volunteering at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is that Foster Vincent gets to do something he truly enjoys -- gardening.
Vincent, a 73-year-old Payson resident who was recently honored for his service by the Arizona State Parks Department, is chief caretaker of the pear, apricot and apple trees; the blackberry bushes; and the bridge's vineyards. The park's blackberries are a local phenomenon.
"They're growing all along the canyon walls down by the waterfall, and we allow the visitors to pick them," park ranger Cathe Descheemaker said. "They're all set right now, but when they ripen depends on the monsoons. During a good monsoon season, we have more than any of us can pick."
Vincent has been volunteering at the bridge since 1995, but the blackberry bushes are from the Goodfellow family stock and date to the 1890s. Some of the fruit trees also go back to the very earliest days when David Gowan lived at the bridge.
"At least a couple of the apple trees have been there from the beginning," Vincent said. "You can tell from the way they were planted because they were placed alongside one of the little creeks they created."
One of the original apricot trees, planted in 1879 by David Gowan, is still listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for most fruit harvested in one year -- 100 bushels in 1931.
"It's descendants are still here, and they're huge," Descheemaker said. "They're in full bloom and they're really pretty."
The secret to keeping old fruit trees, bushes and vines producing is in the pruning, according to Vincent.
"When I first started in '95, the trees probably hadn't been pruned in 40 to 50 years," he said. "I had to learn to aggressively cut the extra wood out of them so the roots weren't just strapping themselves growing new wood as opposed to blooming and producing fruit."
Vincent's father taught him how to cut back grapevines so they produce each year, but the blackberry bushes were a new experience.
"Through experimentation, we found that cutting them way back every three to four years and letting them come back off the old roots makes them very strong," he said. "If you get water to them, they produce new growth that's very heavy on bearing fruit."
Vincent volunteers at the bridge on Mondays and Wednesdays, which leaves him time for some personal gardening.
"I do as much gardening as you can here," he said, "in 5x8s filled with black dirt from my compost pile."
The bridge is always in need of volunteers, and Vincent highly recommends the experience.
"It's outdoor work, and for me it's a way to relax," he said. "It's also a way of doing good for other people, and there's a major satisfaction in that."
Both this year and last, parks officials have talked of closing the bridge because of budget cutbacks. Vincent takes exception.
"It upsets me," he said, "because it seems to me they could find a solution. A lot of it's typical bureaucratic talk."
While pruning is the key to successful fruit crops, it's not something Vincent recommends when it comes to staffing the bridge.
"The park itself is so understaffed with permanent people," he said. "They do have a couple of seasonals out there this year, but they're way understaffed. The volunteers are picking up a lot of the slack and that's good."
"Right now, we're looking for help in the gift shop and for park ambassadors," Descheemaker said. "Those two areas are crucial."
For more information on volunteer opportunities, call the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park at 476-4202.
The Arizona State Parks Board is also seeking recreational, historic preservation and environmental enthusiasts from all Arizona counties to serve in an advisory capacity.
"Currently, there are 10 openings for three advisory boards, including the Arizona State Committee on Trails, the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and the Off-Highway Vehicle Advisory Group," parks public information officer Ellen Bilbrey said.
For more information on the committees or to receive an application go to www.azstateparks.com or call (602) 542-4174.