In Furor Hortensis

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Within the next ten years the GCA had formed committees devoted to such aims as suppressing billboard advertising and littering along roadsides, protecting national parks, and enforcing ethical standards among seed houses and nurserymen. They further declared themselves committed to preserving historic houses, and to creating a climate for enlightened town planning. They established fellowships and organized educational trips abroad so that members could learn at firsthand how some of the finest gardens in the world were kept. A forthright spokeswoman for the GCA said in 1931, “The Garden Club of America is not a garden club.”

By the time of the GCA’s twenty-fifth anniversary, in 1938, the organization was rolling along confidently, its club affiliates numbering 118, its influence widely felt if not always honored (in humor magazines like The New Yorker garden club women still suffered the same sort of gentle derision as bird watchers and little old ladies in sneakers). GCA members had indeed involved themselves with other conservation groups, with a delegated member sitting in on meetings of such groups as the National Audubon Society and the American Horticultural Society to keep abreast of environmental crises that they, perhaps, had missed. In one instance the crises came uncomfortably close to home; when the Audubon Society alerted them about declining wild bird populations, they issued the following resolution: “ WHEREAS we have been recently informed … that thousands of the feathers of wild birds are being sold in this country to furnish ornaments for millinery … and WHEREAS it is impossible for any but expert ornithologists to distinguish between dyed domestic fowl feathers and wild bird feathers, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That the members … be urged not to wear any feathers or quills … and that they communicate their decisions to … millinery establishments in their towns.”

World War II proved another watershed era for the GCA. As in World War I, members went to work in community victory gardens. They set out in small armies to plant flowers and shrubs around military bases and they created programs of “hortotherapy” by which the hospitalized could be helped back to health through involvement in small-scale gardening proj ects. And when it was all over and they could comfortably concentrate on conservation again, GCA members discovered to their satisfaction that their sometimes lonely crusade for “beautification” and conservation had become a popular movement.

Recent times have brought other changes to the GCA. Though there is still a certain bluestocking aura to the organization, many of its members have jobs in business or the professions. No longer does everyone keep a garden (it was formerly a requirement for membership in most clubs), and even those who do have landscaped grounds are more likely to do the work themselves than employ a gardener. Annual conventions, once posh affairs reached aboard privately hired railroad trains and specially chartered cruise ships, have increasingly become hard-work sessions. “We don’t even have time to play golf,” notes Mrs. Benjamin Belcher, current president of the GCA.

As of 1978 the organization’s roster is up to 182 clubs, with a membership of close to 13,800. Thirty-seven states from Maine to Hawaii are represented. States like Alaska, North and South Dakota, Idaho, and Wyoming have yet to make it into the selective ranks of the GCA, though each of them has garden clubs serious enough to get the welcoming hand of the Federated Garden Clubs of America.

A rundown of GCA locals in any year is likely to yield a bumper crop of good works donated to their communities. A few citations from the Bicentennial year are fair examples. Five member clubs in the vicinity of Morristown, New Jersey, raised $10,000 for planting the grounds around George Washington’s Revolutionary War headquarters in Morristown; to ensure that the setting was as historically correct as possible, some members doggedly researched letters, manuscripts, and old botanical works to discover the probable wild and cultivated plants found in the region circa 1776. Ten GCA clubs in the Philadelphia area raised $34,000 in pump-priming money for four urban projects—the creation of some eighty-four pocket parks in mostly poor neighborhoods; the enhancement of the grounds around twelve historic city churches; the restoration of the grounds, including a physic garden, around the nation’s oldest hospital in Philadelphia; and the development and planting of the gateway area of Tinicum tidal salt marsh and wildlife refuge. The Garden Club of Houston, Texas, installed a greenhouse designed as a facility for vocational and emotional therapy on the grounds of the county center for the retarded. The Shaker Lakes Garden Club of Cleveland raised $75,000 for a professional survey and evaluation of Cleveland’s city parks and, in addition, built as a demonstration project an innovative new playground in one of them.