It's a Saturday morning on Brisbane's northside and a small group of women are hard at work among the peaceful trees of Chermside Hills Reserve, pulling out invasive weeds by the handful.
The Little Cabbage Tree Creek Bushcare Group is one of about 160 volunteer bushcare groups run Brisbane City Council dotted around the city, keeping Brisbane's native reserves and parks healthy.
Serenaded by king parrots, wrens and kookaburras, and watched covertly by the odd wallaby, these volunteers have spent years patiently digging out weeds and caring for the reserve.
Over the decades that coordinator Patricia Geue has been volunteering at Chermside Hills Reserve, she has seen the group dwindle to just two people.
Now, it's on the up once more, with six volunteers turning up on Saturday.
"We've got to plant what's native to the area, and most of what we're doing is weeding … when people were building there was a lot of rubbish dumped and people still dump a bit of rubbish," she said.
"Some of those introduced plants grow like you would not believe."
The group meets every fourth Saturday at Chermside Hills, working for two hours in a labour of love to fight an endless battle against invasive species while nurturing vulnerable natives.
Benefits 'better than a nursing home'
Two other long-term volunteers are Val Struthers and Lesley Watson. Both volunteer for several bushcare groups around the area, and have seen the long-term results of their efforts in reams of weed-filled creeks being transformed into clear, fresh bushland.
"The group drifted right down to just Trish and me, and we were coming regularly but we saved some plants which had been planted by the council, I believe — we were pulling water from the creek," Ms Struthers said.
"Then came a big flood and washed half of them out. We keep saying it's not gardening, it's just maintenance."
For Ms Struthers, the benefits of volunteering are clear.
"I figure it's better than a nursing home," she said.
"First of all it was better than volunteering in a nursing home — now, it's better than living in one.
"Having friends and having conversations, especially when you live alone. You need to get out and speak to people, otherwise you might as well just pop off, which I've got no intention of doing in the near future."
Volunteer group grows by 10 per cent
Research from Volunteering Australia shows broad mental health benefits are gained by even short amounts of volunteering, including improved mental wellbeing, improved self-esteem, and strong benefits in mental health recovery.
Ms Watson agrees, saying the mental health benefits of both volunteering and being outside in the bush once a month are powerful.
"It's without a doubt the most satisfying thing going, doing this weeding," she said.
"Anybody who has got any problems should be weeding. I love it."
Brisbane environment, parks and sustainability chair Tracy Davis said the Habitat Brisbane volunteers had played an important role in restoring and rehabilitating areas affected by the February floods.
"In 2021, Habitat Brisbane volunteers cared for nearly 590 hectares of key waterways and bushland areas across the city and planted more than 72,500 plants. Their efforts are estimated to contribute $2.25 million annually to our city," Cr Davis said.
"Habitat Brisbane began in 1990 and now has more than 5,800 active volunteers, which has grown by 10 per cent over the past five years.
"Along with a passion for caring for our natural habitat, people love participating in the program because it builds a strong sense of community, ownership, pride and achievement within their local area."
Floods provide upside to weeding
Down by the creek bank, volunteer Lu Ponton is planting native blue flax lily (Dianella caerulea), propagated from her own native garden at home.
"I walk here quite often. I saw the sign up there … for the bushcare group, so I joined and it was great," she said.
"I'm an environmentalist, so I'm a bit conscious about this. I'm concerned about the environment changing and the devastating degradation of the environment."
While Ms Ponton is planting lilies, her fellow volunteer Chloe Parker is crouched beside an old fallen tree pulling out snakeweed, a clumping weed with long roots and stems of blue flowers.
One constant problem is garden escapees; plants sold at hardware stores and nurseries across Brisbane that are dumped or thrown out, quickly embedding themselves in bushland reserves.
And for the volunteers it can be disheartening to see months of hard work undone by wild weather, with recent torrents of water dumping fresh armies of invasive plants on carefully weeded creek banks.
But it's not always bad news.
"One of the silver linings [of the recent floods], although small, is that the weeds are very easy to get out at the moment, which is very nice because some of them can grow really big with really long roots," Ms Parker said.
She's looking forward to a project planting native casuarinas and banksias for yellow-tail black cockatoos who regularly visit the reserve, their piercing screeches an unexpected delight. They're one of more than 100 bird species that make the reserve their home.
"It's really important to protect and treasure these sites, because they're so unique and precious," Ms Parker said.
"At the end of the two hours you can look back and you can see exactly what you've done. I think that's what's so rewarding about volunteering."