by Sarah Rossbach

Home improvement begins with the wisdom of the crowd.

By Sarah Rossbach

I’m standing precariously on a small, beautifully landscaped but overgrown traffic island, allergies raging, clippers in hand, debating whether to deadhead a browned Montauk daisy or leave it to feed the birds in winter. Cars are whizzing by, sometimes inches from my fellow gardeners, who are raking dried leaves. You have every right to wonder: Why do we— accomplished women of a certain age—risk our health and lives, and subject ourselves to the stiff backs and unpaid toils of weeding and pruning local mini-parks? 

A dirty pick-up truck slows down and a man with a beard leans out the window and shouts. Is it something vulgar? No. He merely yells above the traffic din, “You make our town more beautiful!” He adds with a smile, “When you’re done, my place could use your help!” 

That’s all we, members of our local garden club, need… knowing that we’re appreciated and making a difference in our community.

I wasn’t always this civic-minded. My friend Andrea reminds me that 15 years ago she asked me if I wanted to join and my answer was an adamant No! Yet here I am, a member in good standing, watering and weeding public gardens, propagating plants from cuttings and seeds, entering flower shows, butchering a blooming peony “tree” (it’s really a shrub) to create a dazzling floral design. What happened? How did I go from blissfully forgetting to attend meetings—and receiving stern warnings—to planting and nurturing flowers months (and sometimes years) ahead to enter a statewide flower show?

Pick your answer: Garden club (a) saved my life; (b) ate

my life; (c) enriched my life; (d) all of the above.

Bingo. Yes, (d) is correct.

As a writer and consultant with limited free time, I scrupulously avoid committing to book clubs, tennis teams, bridge games and girls’ nights out. Yet, step-by-step, I became captivated by nearly all disciplines of my garden club as well as the camaraderie of working and lunching with members of all ages. Some members joke that their enjoyment and enthusiasm of their garden clubs is “drinking the Kool-Aid,” but that metaphor implies that they are unwitting victims. I’m no victim; I’m more of an addict, a horti-holic seeking the next horticultural high. There. I said it. Don’t even try to cure me. 

The addiction starts slowly. Funny things happen when you join a garden club. First it’s the mild stuff. You get a craving for the informative, often amusing, lectures on beneficial bugs, composting, historic gardens, holiday floral arrangements. Then a planting workshop might start you hankering for propagating herbs, lettuces and annual flowers. And before you know it, you have an overwhelming desire to get into more hardcore pursuits, the headier cultivation arts, such as starting a new plant or two from cuttings. I knew I was hooked when I requested a grow light for Christmas to propagate plants during winter’s dark months. And then, in spring, there’s no resisting the sensual pleasures of viewing your garden’s kaleidoscopic colors and experiencing the scents of the aromatic herbs, flowers and fruits of your labors. Others are lured in by a floral design workshop and demonstration and, voila, creativity blossoms: Discovering you can create masterpiece after masterpiece with plant material that you’ve grown in your garden is pretty heady stuff. Or you might catch the conservation bug as one friend—a former climate-change denier—did. Now she is an ardent environmental activist. Score one for saving our planet!

Garden club membership can be dizzying. You find you’re accomplishing feats way out of your wheelhouse. I got elbowed into applying for a grant to partner with a local national park to remove invasive species and replace them with native plants and shrubs. Score another for horticulture, civics and conservation all rolled into one! Actually it’s been an enjoyable and rewarding project for all involved, including our garden club, the park seasonal workers, the local high school and, we hope, the Boy and Girl Scouts in the future. 

Home Games

As I age, inanimate physical objects mean less to me. On my birthday, don’t send a dozen cut roses. Drop off, instead, transplanted peonies or a pond lotus. Nothing symbolizes enduring friendship and love like a beautiful perennial that I can plant and enjoy year after year. Even when the garden is dormant, I still have bulbs and the joy and sense of satisfaction I get from the moment a fragrant blossom opens on a paperwhite, or a stunning exotic flower appears on an amaryllis stalk.

 Which is why, in the dozen-plus years I have been a garden club member, I have come to regard this association as a very special kind of “home improvement.” Between horticulture lectures and helpful advice from my fellow members, my garden is more varied and natural appearing. And now I pay attention to whether a plant will attract or feed a bee or butterfly, important crop pollinators. So now milkweed, salvia and beebalm are ensconced among my flowerbeds. I love to bring in greens in winter and flowers the rest of the year to arrange in my own unique way for dinner parties for all to enjoy. There is one complaint from my husband: it’s the pots, trowels, bags of soil that fill my office/potting shed with the promise of warmer, greener days to come.

I admit I am an enabler, luring my friends to join my garden club with genuine enthusiasm. Garden clubs are down-to-earth. One novice noted that few garden club members sport fingernail polish What’s the point? It will only chip with repotting. And a garden club can be life-changing in unexpected ways. I’ve known a few shrinking violets and wallflowers who have personally blossomed from the exposure to all that garden clubs have to offer.

As winter grinds on, it’s actually a good time to survey the garden club scene in your area. If you are interested in joining a garden club, there are a few different gardening organizations—all wonderful. It’s worth shopping around to see where you would best fit and enjoy the programs and club members. Choosing any club is a win-win and attending an open-to-the-public meeting is an excellent way to start. Whatever club you join, you will come to appreciate the art and science of nurturing a garden…and cultivate a whole new world of knowledge, skills and friends. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarah Rossbach has written for EDGE on a wide range of topics. She is a member of the Rumson Garden Club.