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In Furor Hortensis

July 2024
10min read

The Garden Club of America-once the diversion of leisured ladies—is now a vigorous environmental league

The young should be trained to love flowers and take care of the garden shrubberies. Such knowledge and taste are greatly needed in our land,” counseled Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1858. The editors of that genteel monthly went on to note with alarm: “The surface of the United States is undergoing a revolution that must change its appearance and atmosphere. The hand of Industry is everywhere displacing the decorations of Nature, the hand of Art must add new beautifyings or the country will be unsightly as well as unhealthy. Men do the work of Industry,” they reasoned, “women must assist the work of Art. So Fair Girl and Comely Matron, be prepared with your sun-bonnet or straw flat, thick gloves and stout shoes for garden work this spring and remember that you are the guardians of health as well as beauty.”

Godey’s call to action hardly sounds revolutionary today. Women are engaged in amateur gardening by the millions; they spend an estimated $75,000,000 a year on the purchase of seeds alone; their local, state, and national garden clubs, numbering in the thousands, are a substantial force for just the sort of good works Godey’s had in mind—from conserving the nation’s wilds to planting city parks and battling river polluters. But to Victorian Americans even so charming a notion as a comely maiden digging among the delphiniums with a well-gloved hand was a novel, possibly subversive, proposal. Among the upper classes, gardening was considered men’s work, and generally hired men’s work at that. It would take at least another generation before genteel women could proudly call themselves dirt gardeners and more than six decades before a handful of women would dare to exercise “the hand of Art” through a fledgling organization called the Garden Club of America. Though the well-bred ladies who set out to become guardians of our health and beauty never thought of themselves as women’s liberationists, they too were helping to redefine women’s possibilities.

Exactly whose idea it was to organize the first local garden club is unrecorded, but in the last quarter of the nineteenth century there was an explosion of ladies’ clubs of all sorts as upper-class women came face to face with the loneliness and anxieties of their new leisure. Beginning around 1890 local garden clubs could be found in such widely scattered places as Athens, Georgia; South Dartmouth, Massachusetts; and Chicago.

As the clubs were small and exclusive by design—membership by invitation only—two or three groups might form within a community to accommodate everyone. Meetings, held regularly in one another’s parlors and gardens, were a decorous blend of Robert’s Rules of Order, garden gossip, plant exchange, and the reading of poetry—usually of the flowery genre—followed by a “pink tea,” with everything from the cups and napery to the fruit sherbet in shades of pink. In fair weather, a stroll about the grounds to admire the hostess’s garden was de rigueur , although the dainty attire prescribed for such occasions kept close encounters with nature to a minimum. In time, friendly competition among the ladies plus an ever widening choice of available plants, shrubs, and trees combined to stimulate greater variety in gardens than ever had been known in America. But the benefits rarely reached beyond the hedgerows of fine homes. Natural beauty, the ladies noted ruefully, was getting harder and harder to find in cities, around burgeoning factory towns, along roadsides.

Then, in 1913, as a member of the Garden Club of Philadelphia later recalled, “Mrs. J. Willis Martin cast into our midst the bomb which was the idea of uniting in a larger group to increase our usefulness in the cause of good gardening.” Scarcely an incendiary by present-day standards, Mrs. Martin was the forty-nine-year-old wife of a leading Philadelphia lawyer and a pillar of Main Line Philadelphia society; she was, however, a woman of formidable energies with deep yearnings to be something more than a materfamilias, and she fixed on the idea that she and her sister garden clubbers could make a real contribution to their communities by sharing their garden expertise.

Given the swiftness with which her proposal was put into action, Mrs. Martin had found buried in the bosoms of her peers a sincere need to be useful. Within a few weeks the Garden Club of Philadelphia had contacted eleven other clubs interested in community service. At the end of April, 1913, twenty-two representatives met in Philadelphia and drew up plans for a national organization that with careful nurturing they hoped could grow to encompass all parts of the nation.

Everyone agreed in principle that the local clubs must retain a large measure of independence; each would continue to design its own programs, set its own dues, choose its members by whatever criteria seemed fitting (men were not officially excluded; but they were not actively courted, either, and few have become GCA members). The role of the national organization was, as stated in the credo, “To stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening among amateurs, to share the advantages of association through conference and correspondence in this country and abroad; to aid in the protection of native plants and birds; and to encourage civic planting.” The members agreed to keep in touch by means of a newsletter—it would eventually grow into the substantial bimonthly Bulletin —providing progress reports on each club as well as essays and poems on gardening by members, and technical horticultural articles by professionals. Then, after enrolling five more clubs, sharing a convivial banquet, and toasting one and all with fish house punch, the delegates adjourned to carry the good news home.

For all the brave promises and surge in membership over the next several years, the Garden Club of America failed to cast a shadow beyond its own member clubs. There was a large measure of naivete in the ladies’ noble intentions. The masses were not waiting eagerly, after all, to learn of “The Structural Use of Green in Gardens and Grounds,” which was voted the central theme of the first year’s program of enlightenment. Nor did the urban poor or even the middle classes rush to read “Landscape Gardening in Relation to the Placing of the Flower Garden,” which the noted landscape architect W. W. Renwick wrote for the Bulletin . As one critic, herself a member in those early years, recalled a quarter century later, “Garden clubs were still just another pleasant form of social intercourse between chosen, congenial friends.”

World War I interrupted the club members’ reveries. Everyone was called on to do her part and, to drive home that point, however bluntly, the Bulletin reprinted a sarcastic editorial from a May, 1917, issue of the usually restrained New York Times : “This country is rich in women who have much time to themselves and have to kill it, some in … listening to papers on every subject under heaven at women’s clubs.… Give the vote to women? Food for men, women, and children is a little more pressing.… If the inferior and fading sex may dare to make a request of the invincible, won’t the women’s clubs of every name and kind raise ‘garden sass’ multitudinously this year?”

Awkwardly but with good humor the members of the Garden Club of America took off their white gloves and joined the home front in an impressive show of upperclass enthusiasm. Despite protestations from Mrs. Martin that “the world needs beauty now more than ever,” some women cheerfully uprooted their prized perennials to make room for peas and beans. Some who scarcely recognized a carrot or a potato unless it was served in butter sauce on a silver salver planted rows of them. Some studied up on canning and preserving and then went out into their communities to instruct other women in their new-found skills, producing in the effort such “dreary wartime recipes and… culinary atrocities,” said the club historian, as to make husbands weep. And a few members, including the indefatigable Mrs. Martin, signed on as organizers of the Women’s Land Army, a volunteer force of shop clerks and factory girls who were supposed to replace farm hands gone to war. Most significantly for the future, the GCA established its first liaisons with government during the war, its members earning seats on some civilian advisory boards.

When the war ended, members of the GCA, like everyone else, found the world and their own sense of themselves radically changed. The Garden Club of America had grown to some forty-five clubs with many more clamoring to affiliate. Suddenly, everyone seemed to care about gardening—a nationwide furor hortensis had struck, noted Ernestine Abercrombie Goodman, the club’s chronicler. In a gesture both generous and preserving of their own closed ranks, GCA members helped organize other local garden clubs of wider, more democratic membership (”for the grocers’ wives,” as one observer put it rather tartly). In time, these broaderbased clubs federated within their separate states and still later joined together nationally under the umbrella of the Federated Garden Clubs of America, an organization similar in its goals if not in its style to the GCA.

But for the postwar GCA, far more pressing than the issue of orderly growth was the problem of redefining its purpose. Wartime had given members a taste of community involvement that made their prewar goal of exemplifying good taste and good gardening now seem timorous. A positive, even aggressive, approach was proposed by a study committee called to chart the GCA’s future. Enfranchised for the first time, the ladies would actively support conservation, using their votes to change old laws and make new, better ones. They would fight the good fight at home, too, by educating their husbands (“the people who devastate our environment,” said one member, mincing no words about the destructive practices of business and industry). One imagines that dinnertime conversation in some upper-class households became unusually acerbic during this time of redefinition.

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.

All the clubs also contribute through their dues and through special fund-raising drives to a broad range of national conservation projects. Certainly the single largest and most costly rescue effort has been devoted to the Redwood forests of California. Beginning in 1930 the GCA channeled more than $500,000 in special member contributions to the Save-the-Redwoods League for purchase of a redwood grove of some five thousand acres within the Humboldt Redwood Parks System in northern California.

The GCA also has made itself a sort of Dutch aunt to the National Park Service; a National Park Committee created in 1934 is charged with keeping watch over federal legislation concerning the funding, care, and use of parks. One of the committee’s continuing concerns has been the commercialization of such heavily used parks as Yosemite, and it has successfully argued for the preservation of “forever wild” tracts and against high-speed roads through large parts of the national parks system. Highway beautification, water conservation, solar energy, endangered species, the use of certain highly toxic pesticides and herbicides, all are issues sure to draw a GCA delegate to Washington to observe hearings and report back to the membership. Though the Garden Club must be careful not to slip over into the area of lobbying for or against legislation, it can and does produce a huge outpouring of informed and often influential pressure from individual members. The fact that many are married to substantial campaign contributors is not lost on the legislators, nor, to be sure, on the members themselves, who can inundate a “misguided” congressman with several thousand telegrams on a few days notice.

Now sixty-five years old, the GCA is no longer just a forum for ladies to exchange horticultural ideas; members today are also aware that it adds an essential stimulus to their lives. “Sure, it’s social conscience and concern for the world our children will inherit and a lot of other altruistic motives,” says one middle-aged member, “but I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that charity begins right here at home—with me. Through my local club and the GCA, I have an almost limitless opportunity to get involved with real-life things outside my household and even my community. Sometimes my ‘causes’ put me at loggerheads with my husband, but at least he doesn’t have to worry about me going to seed when the pressure of the children eases off. I will have plenty to do and I know I can be useful.”

Obviously the Garden Club of America is having no trouble adjusting to the modern world or finding areas of relevance for itself as an organization or for its members as individuals.

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