Garden clubs sow seeds of hope for spring's promise

Frost is on the pumpkin and snow is on the shrubs. Now, whatto do till the first robin sings?

Staring out at a patch of snow sliding down a window you might recall deep green, foliage dappled with warm sunlight, and remember the promising smell of sweetly turned spring earth. If that doesn't do enough to relieve the impatient itch to till terra firma, joining a garden club might help pull you through the season. "What garden clubs and their members have to offer is wonderful," says Laurie Freeman, programs manager at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, meeting site for more than 30 plant societies and community garden clubs. She says these members can become so knowledgeable about their specialty plants that they are often the first sought out when unique questions arise. "Members of the Cactus and Succulent Society, for example, are sure to have devoured the latest information about all aspects of unusual varieties of cactus. They'll know the new hot cultivars," says Ms. Freeman. Local botanic gardens, like Chicago's, are a great way to find the garden clubs serving your area. Community-oriented garden museums often host many of their monthly meetings, opening them to the public in order to assess how suited a club is to a gardener's social and gardening pursuits. Garden clubs can appeal to indoor and outdoor gardeners alike. Not far from the Botanic Gardens, in Glencoe, Ill., Heddi Schellbach has always grown perennials in her Lincolnwood, Ill., yard, and loves gardening well enough to grow perennials and annuals such as cleome, verbena and New Guinea impatiens. She even maintains a few gooseberry and blackberry bushes. But it was her ever-blooming love of orchids that lured her to join her first garden club. "I though I'd learn how to get them to grow and bloom better,'' she recalls. Two orchids grew in Schellbach's home when an intern at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, where Schellbach volunteered, asked her to help the Illinois Orchid Society to plant orchids there. Months later she was treasurer and then secretary. Eventually she was traveling the world, seeking out rare orchids. Sometimes she traveled with fellow club members, sometimes not. But she found enormous commeraderie for her interest. And, oh yes, now she grows a couple hundred orchids in her home. Like many garden club members, she's joined more than one club, because once you see how much learning a garden club accommodates, you just get curiouser and curiouser. Freeman says garden clubs share their specialty through a kind of network mentoring. "One member may have 12 years of experience while another has only four years. If you say, 'I'll never get that to grow,' they'll just put their arms around you and share their cuttings, and their tips. It's educational, but it's also social.'' The sociality of it is what members love. They share their joi d'vivre through garden walks, tours, competitions, formal shows and informal plant swaps between members sharing their expertly cultivated specialties. These activities fan their compatriotic camaraderie. As Schellbach sees it, garden clubs are a way to socialize keen interest in growing anything. She particularly enjoys annual events that facilitate collecting orchid varieties. Several are hosted by professional orchid growers who sell to her and other club members. Her orchid clubs have Christmas parties at a Chicago area professional orchid vendor, and autumn shows that include an orchid festival hosted by a half dozen orchid vendors or more. "It's a great chance for us to buy unusual plants brought in by people from around the world, and there are seminars held by experts," says Schellbach. And most botanic gardens host a menu of specialty plant shows, sponsored by garden clubs and their members and usually offering bulbs, seeds or rare plants for sale to the public. Newsletters relay new and sophisticated gardening techniques, especially attractive to multi-clubbers who don't attend every meeting of every club, but rather turn to the printed monthly issues to learn what's hot in their favorite family of cultivars. Newsletters are also a primary draw to long-distance club members. Several Chicago gardeners relish the monthly newsletter sent out by the Hardy Plant Society, meeting in Pennsylvania. That newsletter, like many others, is packed with news of rare perennials, and how to find and grow them.

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