As a late-bloomer among the flower children of the 1970's, for a long time I dismissed garden clubs as associations of Establishment rich ladies with time on their hands. I was too quick to judge. While it's true that the first garden clubs that formed in the 1860's in the UK brought together members of the Royal Horticultural Society who employed gardeners, and America's first garden clubs grew out of the women's club movement of the 1920's, many of today's garden clubs really do focus on learning better ways to garden.
Take my group, for example. Founded three years ago, we have no dues or officers, but through the magic of email, the Floyd Wild Gardeners manage to meet once a month to share a meal and talk gardening. Most of the time we meet at each other's homes on Sunday afternoons, or we might meet at a local organic farm or other interesting place, like the Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary.
To say we have varied interests is an understatement. About half are passionate vegetable gardeners, while others are into wildflowers or foraging for edible weeds. But because we share a streak of green, we no sooner get together than conversation starts flowing about gardening.
Our program usually involves a stroll or hike, an ideal setting for consultations about the state of one's beets. We don't get around to discussing personal stuff like car repairs or medical conditions until after the meal.
About the meal. Everyone brings something for an early dinner, including your own plates, cups and forks. Ideally, the sharing dish includes veggies or fruits you grew or gathered yourself. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it helps us sample one another's crops and cooking, and brings table talk back to gardening. Missing a garden club meeting is sad, but missing the meal is a tragedy.
Garden Club Revivals
Many allotment and community garden clubs operate the same way, though they may not call themselves clubs. At my local community garden, whoever wants to share food and garden conversation can show up at noon on Saturdays, and voila! You are part of the group.
In the large, nationally-affiliated garden club organizations, the age of open membership has arrived. Most garden clubs need new members to replace those who have retired from active duty, but don't expect to join a club and sit around sipping tea. Large, well-established garden clubs take on huge community improvement programmes, so the white gloves of yesterday's garden clubbers have been replaced by heavy-duty work gloves. If you happen to own a truck, expect to be recruited by multiple committees.
Yet even the image of the white-gloved, elite garden club member is misleading. A few years I researched the history of Federated Garden Clubs (now National Garden Clubs), in preparation for a speech. Archival photos from bygone club meetings do show mostly well-to-do ladies in flowered hats, but looks can be deceiving. Before there were school lunches, the club in one town made sure that every child in school got milk even if they had no nickel.
Another distributed food to the needy, and many supplied scholarships to the first big generation of college-educated women. The conservation movement also received powerful support from garden clubs in its early days. In the photo at right, North Carolina garden club members discuss how to protect native stands of the venus flytrap, which may have faced extinction in the 1950's without their help.
My little garden club may be the oddest horticultural society ever, but then I live in an odd little town. Being involved in the group opens up my gardening world to include the creativity and hard work of others, though it does cause a constant expansion of my "driveway nursery" – the collection of shared, potted plants waiting to be planted – which is possibly the only disadvantage to getting together with fellow plant lovers once a month.
By Barbara Pleasant