Garden Clubs Till Fellowship as Well as Flowers
Teacups and talk, not just trowels, bond us
by Valerie Lester
When I first moved to New England and found myself with an acre of land, I felt overwhelmed. Until that time, I had worked on a very small scale. My Scottish grandfather, an ardent gardener, had taught me to till the one flowerbed he allotted me. In it, I planted a tulip, a daffodil, London pride and forget-me-nots. A flowerbed was one thing; a whole acre, another matter entirely.
Panic-stricken, I turned to the local garden club for help, hoping to learn from its members how to improve my soil, how to build a productive compost heap, what zone I lived in and what plants would thrive in that zone. They were due to have a meeting later in the week.
On the appointed day, I walked over in my gardening jeans, only to discover that the meeting was a formal tea. Women in pantsuits, with hairdos and painted fingernails, were drinking from porcelain teacups and catching up on the latest gossip. I looked down at my hands, hid them behind my back and surreptitiously tried to scoop the dirt out from under my nails.
I approached an elder, and asked her tentatively about the pH content of the local soil. “Oh!” she said, straightening a flower in an arrangement on a table strewn with plates of tiny, neatly trimmed sandwiches and slices of cake “We’re not that sort of garden club!”
I took off in disgust and made my way to the library to check out all their organic gardening books. How young and censorious I was then!
It is decades later, and I now live in Annapolis. The moment we moved in, our next-door neighbor popped over and said, You must join the garden club!
Once bitten, twice shy, I turned her down. She persisted. Before I knew it, before I had even attended a meeting, I found myself the treasurer of the Annapolis Roads Garden Club, in spite of my vigorous protests about being math-phobic. I balanced the books for five years, and have now been a member for 17 years. I have been won over by the Annapolis Roads Garden Club.
It takes the place of the sewing circle of yesterday (and today, because sewing circles still thrive in places like Maine) and the Women’s Institutes of Britain. Such groups foster community, have no age barriers and offer support in times of distress. They act as conduits for information, and they usually support a charity or perform good deeds in other ways. I’m happy to say that our group isn’t deeply into hair and nails, although we do admire an attractive teacup.
Annapolis Roads Garden Club is primarily a social club, and we rarely dig in the dirt as a group, but gardening is at the heart of it. We do talk about our yards; we do swap plants and discuss indigenous species; we do have lecturers who come and talk to us about rain gardens and (yay!) composting; and we do have a fine spring plant sale that benefits our own properties and makes money for the charity of our choice.
All the same, a voice in the community will occasionally cry out, The garden club doesn’t move with the times. Why aren’t there more evening meetings? Where are the younger people? What about people who work? These are apt questions, but there is one easy answer: Many of the garden club members are elderly and night driving is a problem.
There are alternatives: the community book clubs always meet in the evening, as does the Mom’s Club (open to anyone who is a mother or who has had a mother), which is an excellent place to swap information about topics such as breast-feeding and babysitters, topics that might not be at the very top of the Garden Club members’ agenda. If you can’t find a group to suit your interests, you can always start one. I’d like to see a play-reading group, a children’s chess group, a travel-and-adventure group, a yoga group and a meditation group in our community.
Groups like these are vital, no matter their function. We are all so dominated by electronics, which keep us tied to our homes. In this Internet age it has become essential to sally forth and see our friends, and to exchange information with living, breathing people. The computer and the television are cold company compared to the bright sight of a friend’s face and a big old hug.
Conviviality is the name of the game, no matter the group. We need it the way plants need the sun.
Valerie Lester is the author of two books Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin and Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens and many gardens, including her secret garden of shade, ferns and giant, blue-green hostas interspersed with white impatience and peace lilies.