Not Your Nana’s Garden Club

With service, education, youth programs — and no pearls or white gloves — Tallahassee’s 630-member society has changed with the times

I hesitated to join a garden club circle, worried that it might be a bunch of ladies sitting around in dresses and pearls, gossiping and balancing fragile teacups on their laps with white-gloved hands.

The Tallahassee Garden Club’s Magnolia Circle quickly dispelled this notion. Armed with two containers of earthworms, Junior Gardening Chair Chris Parrish dangled wigglers in front of Gilchrist kindergartners eager to touch and study them. At the Tallahassee Garden Center on Calhoun Street, Marty Quinn and Meg Haisten crawled deep into the azalea beds to yank out kudzu and Virginia creeper. Helen Purvis, Stacie Kornegay and Sharon Montgomery reign as the recycling queens of Tallahassee, capable of turning empty tuna cans and old tennis shoes into artistic floral arrangements. And the juiciest gossip? The first person to tell me about the massive worldwide bee die-off was Nancy Thomas, months before PBS aired its program on the topic.

The 630 members of the Tallahassee Garden Club are serious gardeners and environmentalists. They meet in 27 smaller groups called circles, and many members are certified as Master Gardeners through the Leon County Extension Office.


Environmental Education Leaders and Nonprofit Status

Garden clubs have always been about beautifying our surroundings, but today they are much more than that. Over the past year, the Tallahassee Garden Club has received 501(c)(3) status from the federal government because of the organization’s emphasis on education. Besides free horticultural programs, the club is on the front lines of environmental protection. Members educate the community about invasive plants and improper use of pesticides and fertilizers.

The Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, of which the Tallahassee Garden Club is a member, works to preserve the environment through education of young people. Programs include junior gardening in schools and two summer activities: Wekiva Camp for grades K–8 and the SEEK (Save the Earth’s Environment Through Knowledge) conference for grades 10–12.

“I would like to expand learning opportunities for both our membership and the public, especially youth,” said Tallahassee Garden Club President Jana Walling. “Assisting with Wekiva and SEEK are two of the ways we can accomplish the goal.”

Leon County students wishing to obtain a garden club sponsor for Wekiva or SEEK can call Walling at (850) 656-8236. You don’t need to have a family member in a garden club to obtain a sponsor.


Camp for Tomorrow’s Environmentalists

The Wekiva environmental camp near Apopka in Central Florida offers six one-week sessions. The camp motto is “Campers today, environmental leaders tomorrow.” Organizers vary activities to suit campers’ ages. The youngest, in grades K–2, attend Critter Camp as an introduction to Florida wildlife, while eighth-graders focus on building leadership skills, canoeing and viewing firsthand the importance of Florida’s water systems and the effects that humans have on them.

Nine-year-old Hailey Driggers attended Wekiva in the summer of 2009.

“My absolute favorite part of camp was the night ride,” she said. During the ride, the camp director pulled children around the grounds on a trailer.

“We learned to spot wolf spiders in the pine straw by shining flashlights,” Hailey said. “We found one thiiisssss big,” she added, spreading her hands chestwide. The campers also saw deer, possums, a stray cat, a bear and armadillos on the night ride.

A woman from a bird refuge brought an owl and an eagle for campers to study, and a snake expert brought in reptiles he handled with a long pole. Arts and crafts, swimming, nature hikes, skits and campfires rounded out the experience.

“That was the cleanest, neatest camp I’ve ever seen,” said Hailey’s grandmother, Jane Driggers, who belongs to the Tallahassee Garden Club’s Buttercup Circle.

Another Buttercup member, Pat Sanford, twice attended Wekiva as a counselor, once during the boys’ week. The boys learned to spot and make casts of wild animal tracks and practiced bird calls. They also made leaf and tree rubbings, danced Indian dances with a Native American drummer and followed an endangered gopher turtle to his hole. Sanford’s second trip as a counselor also was fun — her granddaughter Sarah attended with her.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of encouraging our children to attend this wonderful camp,” Sanford said.


SEEKing Knowledge at Wakulla Springs

The SEEK conference is held for four days in July. In 2009, students from all over Florida were housed at Wakulla Springs Lodge.

The Tallahassee Garden Club awarded partial scholarships to six local high school students. Those attending were Cora Atkinson, Summer Chatham, Lea Ellen Kornegay, Emily Hahn, Kristie Hodges and Beth Scheffer.

Lynn Artz, of Iris Garden Club in Wakulla County, organized the state conference.

“We are fortunate to have many highly knowledgeable resources in our area representing diverse interests in environmental science and conservation,” she said.

During the conference, wildlife biologists and educators guided students through hands-on experiences. Other leaders were certified Green Guides, citizen activists or people who work with nonprofit organizations such as Sustainable Big Bend, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Wild Mammal Association, the Wakulla Watershed Coalition and the Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park. All volunteered their time and expertise.

SEEK participants learned about karst hydrogeology, nutrient pollution and springs protection. They canoed the Wakulla River, spotting manatees, gators and anhingas. With guides, the children hiked sinkholes, lakes and the beach to study diverse ecosystems. They handled ocean creatures at the Florida State University Marine Laboratory; calculated their own carbon footprints on computers; took samples of macroinvertebrates — organisms that do not have a backbone and are visible without a microscope — to study water quality; and toured recycling facilities operated by the Marpan company and Leon County.

“Ultimately, I was made aware of just how easy it is to reduce your waste,” scholarship recipient Kornegay said. “Simple changes in your life, like switching from plastic water bottles, can make big, big differences.”

The slide show on bottled water also impressed fellow student Scheffer.

“It was fascinating to learn what bottle companies do to drain the springs,” she said. “I never realized it was so bad for the environment.”

Artz, of the Iris Garden Club, said she hopes teens leave the conference inspired to live differently and influence their communities.


College Scholarships Offered

Another way garden clubs work to build a better environment is through college scholarships. The Florida Federation of Garden Clubs offers 16 scholarships to Florida residents with a minimum B (3.0 on a 4.0 scale) grade point average who are in need of financial aid and are enrolled full time in a Florida college or university. Scholarships are designated for a variety of studies, including agriculture, butterflies, environmental issues, ecology, horticulture, botany, forestry, marine biology, city planning and landscape design.

Similar scholarships are available through the National Garden Clubs’ Deep South Region. Scholarship inquiries can be addressed to Marie Harrison, Scholarship Chairman, Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, 166 Edge Ave., Valparaiso, FL 32580.


Garden Club Service Projects

The Tallahassee Garden Club also participates in a wide range of community service projects. At Goodwood Plantation, club members weed, propagate heirloom plants and assist with the annual plant sale. They provide funds to enrich Maclay State Park and Gardens and partner with the Florida Department of Transportation to scatter wildflower seeds along highways and trails.

Garden club members also donate funds to Avon Park Correctional Institution’s horticultural program for inmates and provide gardening and flower-arranging activities at nursing homes. In addition, members have created gardens around the HOPE (Housing Opportunities and Personal Empowerment) community in southwestern Tallahassee, which is sponsored by the Big Bend Homeless Coalition. Club members maintain the gardens and provide horticultural programs for HOPE residents.

Garden club members also assist with Habitat for Humanity projects. Leslie Patterson worked at one such houses.

“We bought the plants, dug the holes and put in all the landscaping,” she said.


Plant Exchange and Horticulture Program

When the Tallahassee Garden Club was formed in 1926, one of its earliest programs was the Plant Exchange. In 1931, an ox pulled a wagon from house to house through Tallahassee to facilitate trades of plants.

“If they had something to share, they put it on the wagon and then it went on to the next spot,” said Nell Carlile, who founded the garden club’s Redbud Circle in 1951. At the next home, if the owners saw any plants they wanted, they took them and added their own contributions to the cart.

Today the Plant Exchange is held on the day following circle meetings. Circles meet the third Wednesday of each month, September through May. The Plant Exchange is held the next day, except in December. March 20, April 22 and May 20 are upcoming dates.

Participants begin lining up around 9 a.m. on the patio of the Tallahassee Garden Center at 507 Calhoun St. and the exchange begins a half-hour later. Anyone can come and choose plants to take home. Bringing plants to trade is not a requirement to participate.

Every Plant Exchange is different and full of surprises. The number of participants varies from 40 to 100, and offerings may include anything grown in Tallahassee — red lady salvia, Christmas cactus, ginger, basil, bee balm, purple coneflower, angel wing begonia, fairy rose or zucchini. Members also give away dozens of door prizes, from garden shears to hand-painted flower pots. For fun, they might raffle off a rain barrel.

The Plant Exchange is followed by a horticultural program and more door prizes in the Tallahassee Garden Club auditorium at 10 a.m. Upcoming programs include “Ask the Masters” on March 20, an opportunity to pose questions to Master Gardeners; “Spring in France” on April 22; and “TAPP — Water Management and Personal Pollution” on May 20.

“The exchange and horticultural program is one of the most important projects of the garden club, because the public is invited to come and receive plants and information for free,” Carlile said.


Flower Shows and Luncheons

The Tallahassee Garden Club still sponsors traditional events associated with garden clubs, such as teas and flower shows, but even methods of growing things and arranging flowers have changed in the 59 years since Carlile became a member.

She notes that fewer young women join the garden club because they are working.

“They’re too tired and too busy,” she said.

The biggest change, Carlile added, is that women don’t dress up as much as they used to.

“We wore hats and gloves at our first luncheon in 1968,” she said. “It was a beautiful thing to see 550 women dressed up. We were ladies. Now the women might show up in pants or even their jeans.”

I enjoy watching the 1950s-style glamour on “Mad Men,” but I’m glad the garden club relaxed the dress code. I long ago gave up high heels as the invention of a misogynist. Even if today’s members wear capris rather than pearls and pull on garden gloves rather than dress whites, I don’t think there is a lovelier group of women anywhere than the ladies of the Tallahassee Garden Club.

For more information, contact President Jana Walling at (850) 656-8236 to:
»  Join a garden club circle.
»  Obtain a sponsorship or scholarship to a Wekiva camp or SEEK conference.

Mail tax-deductible donations to:
»  The Tallahassee Garden Club, 507 Calhoun St., Tallahassee, FL 32301
»  You can specify support for specific projects, such as SEEK and Wekiva.


Donna Meredith is a freelance writer, president of the Tallahassee Writers Association and a member of Magnolia Garden Circle. She taught English and journalism for 29 years.

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