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MINNEAPOLIS — You don’t have to have gray hair to join a garden club, but you probably have a few silver strands if you belong to one.
The average age of a garden club member is “about 75 … maybe a little older,” said Rene Lynch, president of the Federated Garden Clubs of Minnesota (FGCM).
It wasn’t always that way.
In 1955, the year the FGCM was formed, the typical garden club member was a woman in her late 20s or early 30s, according to Lynch.
It was the golden age for garden clubs, and groups sprouted like weeds around the Twin Cities. World War II was over, the GIs had come home and were buying houses in developing first-ring suburbs.
Their wives, eager to beautify their landscape and make friends in their new neighborhoods, joined local garden clubs.
“Women were at home. That’s how it got started in Minnesota,” said Lynch. “Each community had dozens of clubs.”
Today, some of those clubs are still around, but most have fewer members than they used to. Women are less likely to be home in the cul-de-sac all day long — and more likely to be rushing home from a job to whip up a quickie meal before dashing off to a baseball game.
“Young moms are so busy,” noted Liz Genovese, a retired preschool teacher in Edina who joined her neighborhood garden club about five years ago. “They’re working full-time or at least part-time. It’s not the same pace.”
People who do find time for gardening are less likely to join a club, now that garden-related websites are just a Google click away. “There’s lots of ways people get information now that they didn’t have available to them then,” Lynch said.
Many clubs have remained vital with a core of committed gardeners. But some once-vibrant clubs no longer exist.
Lynch estimates clubs have been disappearing for the past 10 years. And each lost club represents a lifetime of garden know-how that could have been shared.
“There’s this wonderful accumulated knowledge of all these people who have been gardening for 50 years,” she said. Virtual garden instruction can’t compare with “putting your actual hands in the dirt and having someone show you how to do something.”
The clubs that are thriving are those that are adapting to changing lifestyles — and garden trends. Some are committing themselves to current hot-button issues, such as protecting pollinators by planting native habitat. Others are actively recruiting new members outside their traditional demographic base.
“Garden clubs in the future aren’t going to exist like they exist today,” Lynch said. The ritual of holding regular club meetings, for example, will probably have to change. “Young people don’t want another meeting. They get enough of that at work. With technology, officers will meet online and text back and forth.”
Here’s a look at how three longtime Twin Cities garden clubs have evolved over the decades:
Diggers, a group with members in Robbinsdale and Plymouth, is one of the oldest garden clubs in the Twin Cities, dating back to the early 1940s during Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II Victory Garden initiative.
While most local garden clubs are dealing with declining membership, Diggers defies the trend. “They’ve increased membership regularly, possibly the only club that has,” said Lynch.
What’s their secret? “One person, with a special personality,” Lynch said. “She’s definitely a factor.”
“She” is Irene Johnson of Robbinsdale. Johnson joined Diggers about six years ago, after attending its annual flower show and seeing a sign promoting the club. She owned a large piece of land and wanted to learn about gardening and landscaping. “I knew very little,” she said.
At the time she joined, the club had only about six members. “It used to be a very vibrant club, but as people became older, the club had dwindled,” Johnson said.
Soon after she joined, she was given the job of publicity. So she started distributing fliers all over town, to promote the club and its events. “I’d go to events and pass ‘em out. I walked blocks, and put ‘em in doors,” she said. “If the people were outside, I talked to them. I got to meet a lot of people.”
Some of them decided to give the club a try, and the new energy they brought created a ripple effect. Diggers’ membership is now more than 80 people. “My goal was to get all ages — and some men — and we accomplished it,” Johnson said.
New members have brought different gardening interests, and Diggers tries to accommodate them. “We have a lot more people who live in townhomes and apartments, and they’re interested in smaller-scale alternatives, such as fairy gardens and container gardens,” Johnson said.
In addition to an annual flower show, plant sale and holiday gala, Diggers also hosts seminars and field trips and helped restore the garden at the historic Robbinsdale library.
“It was a lot of work to get things turned around,” Johnson said. “But now people are literally coming to us, to join.”
Greening the community
Back in the 1950s, garden clubs in Edina sprouted by neighborhood, with catchy names that combined nearby streets. (“Kelodale” for Kellogg and Wooddale Avenues; “Winahbar” for Windsor, Cahill and Barry). But you didn’t have to live in the neighborhood to join its club.
Janet Chandler was living in southwest Minneapolis when she joined Kelodale about 40 years ago. “We did not have a garden club” in her neighborhood at the time, she said, and she had friends who lived in Edina.
Chandler wanted to learn more about gardening and expand her plant repertoire. She lived in an older house but many of the gardeners she met at that time had new houses and were looking for ideas for their new landscapes. And “they were community-oriented. They wanted to make the community look nice.”
Over time, neighborhood clubs came together to form the Edina Garden Council, an umbrella organization to tackle bigger-picture projects, such as an annual flower show. “That was something a lot of members were interested in,” said Chandler, who served as the council’s president in 1982.
The council still participates, with Bloomington and Richfield, in the Tri City Flower Show, held in July. But today’s members have many other interests beyond pretty flowers. “I was membership chair a couple years ago, and most members were not that interested in flower arranging,” said Winahbar club member Liz Genovese. “They’re more interested in their own gardens and gardening for the city.”
Much of the civic gardening energy is focused at Arneson Acres, a city park on land donated by a former tree grower. The council meets in the Arneson Acres greenhouse, where its members also tend seedlings, and raise money for park enhancements, such as a fountain and a gazebo. “That park has become a focus, to keep improving it and making it a nice place to visit,” Chandler said.
Council members also have taken the lead in several environmental initiatives, including pollinator preservation, buckthorn removal and recycling.
Genovese’s own garden has evolved similarly, she said. “I have gone from looking for pretty flowers to appreciating native plants,” she said, adding pollinator-friendly natives, such as milkweed and Joe Pye-weed to her landscape. “It’s kind of a journey.”
Garden guys — and gals
Most local garden clubs were formed by and for women. But the Men’s Garden Club of Minneapolis, formed in 1942, was an exception. “We were a refuge for the men,” said longtime member Kent Petterson, owner of Terrace Horticultural Books in St. Paul. “We would get guys who wanted to join a local garden club but were turned down. The women wanted to keep their clubs for women.”
Early members included some big names in local horticultural circles, including Leon Snyder and others who helped establish the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum..
Most garden clubs met during the day, but the Men’s Garden Club met in the evening, over a catered dinner, a tradition that continues, the second Tuesday of each month. “A lot of members come right from work, and they’re hungry,” said president Randi Larson. But sharing a meal together is about more than food. “It’s about fellowship and sociability. You can sit at the table and talk. It doesn’t have to be garden-related.”
The men-only tradition began to shift in the late 1980s, when the Men’s Garden Club of America, with which the local club was affiliated, changed its bylaws to allow women. Soon afterward, Petterson recruited the first female member. Today, the club has 82 members, almost half of whom are female. “The guys were having so much fun, their wives decided they wanted to join.”
One of those wives was president Larson, who joined in 2007; her husband, Larry, has been a member since 2001.
The club’s name, however, didn’t reflect its new membership until about three years ago, when it was rechristened the Men’s and Women’s Garden Club of Minneapolis. “A lot of long-timers were upset about the name change,” she said. Although women were welcome, some felt the tradition of the original name should be preserved. Several gender-neutral names were considered, and finally “and women” was added to the club’s name. “It was a compromise,” Petterson said.
And it was time to acknowledge women’s contributions to the club. “They don’t want to discourage us — we do a lot of the work,” Larson said with a laugh.
That work includes raising thousands of dollars for horticultural scholarships, planting and maintaining the Lyndale Park garden and organizing the club’s annual plant sale and its “Food, Flowers and Photos” exhibit at the Landscape Arboretum in August, where members display their flowers, vegetables, floral arrangements and photography. “It’s a chance to show off what you’ve been growing,” Larson said. The club also hosts a popular garden tour, which returns this year, on June 28, after a four-year hiatus.
Members don’t have to live in Minneapolis; Larson comes in from Minnetonka. “I enjoy the people,” she said. “And we have great activities. I learn things.”
Petterson appreciates the club’s “public focus,” such as the scholarship initiative. And he likes spending time with fellow gardeners. “It’s a really collegial group.”