How one Garden Club is Changing with the Times

“Takoma Hort” dedicates new garden in honor of its centennial.

Who’s old enough to have belonged to a garden club back when they were known as cliques for privileged white women? (The Savannah Garden Club made famous in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil comes to mind – the boozy lunches, the expelling of members for getting divorced.)

For years I was active in one of the oldest garden clubs in the U.S. – Maryland’s Takoma Horticultural Club, established in 1916. I used to claim that it may even be THE oldest in the country, though according to Wiki,  that title goes to a club in Athens, Ga, established in 1891. Oops.

Curious about today’s garden clubs and how they may be changing, I asked the gang at “Takoma Hort” how that club has changed because at 101 and counting, it’s continues to thrive.

Out with Flower Shows

The club’s origin story is unusual among garden clubs, as it was started by men, mostly hort geeks who worked at a nearby plant research center.  But women were soon allowed in and the focus expanded to include flower shows, which were elaborate, with 100+ categories, certified judges, and the need for 20+ volunteers. The shows were largely abandoned long ago, and now I only hear of the flower shows put on by plant societies.

New and Continuing Activities

The club’s speaker-based meetings are still popular, but the topics have changed in recent years. Now the big draws are talks that cover food-growing and eco-friendly gardening.

Open Gardens have replaced garden tours, which are more labor-intensive events. Open Gardens are easy because just one member’s garden is open to drop-ins on a Friday night in season. I’m told these social and learning events are very popular, and benefit the club by attracting neighbors and even members of other garden clubs, resulting in new members for Takoma Hort. Membership Chair Carole Galati tells me they’re “great for club PR and show how much fun gardeners can have!”

More social events include a summer picnic and a potluck dinner in winter.

Regular plant swaps are extremely popular, and the activity I miss most since letting my membership lapse. Members go home with free plants and tips on growing them.

Free garden consultations, where experienced gardeners in the club visit a member’s garden to offer suggestions, are an obvious benefit to joining.

July 4 Parade

Marching in the town’s July 4 Parade is back, after a lapse, and gets the attention of the whole community.

I’m told that the jury’s still out on field trips, an event the club has tried lately. They’re a lot of work to organize and so far, the turnout has been low. But they haven’t given up – they’re planning a family-oriented trip in 2018 to the local Audobon Society, something that may attract younger gardeners with kids.

Selling bulbs at the Takoma Park Street Fair

Clearly the most labor-intensive of the club’s yearly activities is the buying and selling of massive quantities of bulbs. It was originally done as a money-saving project (through buying in bulk) but today the savings aren’t so great, yet the project continues because, I’m told, “It’s a tradition and people look forward to it.”

Communicating Differently

Printed newsletters were abandoned at least 10 years ago to save on money and volunteer time, and almost all members had access to computers by then anyway. (Monthly newsletters are now sent out by email and posted to the website.)  Around the same time the club launched its website and started its popular Yahoo group, enabling members to get advice from each other, offer their extra plants, pass on gardening news, and more.  The club has recently created a group on Facebook, where it’s so easy to share images of plants and gardens.

Dues Still Low

Remarkably, club dues are still just $12 a year – a bargain by any measure. That’s the paltry price to participate in all club activities, though speaker meetings are open to nonmembers.

One big improvement in the club’s finances, enabling it to keep the dues that low, is the decision to leave the local federation of garden clubs, which charges clubs $8 per member/per year to be part of the federation. Get that? Takoma Hort had to pass along 2/3 of its dues income to the federation, with little to no benefit. Years ago the club needed the federation to provide judges for its flower shows, but get this – the judges had to be served lunch, specifically on real china, and generally treated like the society ladies they considered themselves.

Takoma Hort happily said good riddance to that nasty bit of garden club tradition.


  1. I’m active in the Federated Garden Clubs here in western NY, and I feel it has both benefits and downsides. It hasn’t changed enough with the times, in my opinion. That’s one reason why in my section, we’ve dropped from over 100 + clubs when I joined 20 years ago to about 40 now. The oldest ladies are the ones who run things, and they haven’t gotten out of the mold of half a century ago, when you put the kids on the bus in the morning and had all day to do as you pleased. They don’t get that life is radically different now. Flower shows aren’t nearly as elaborate as they once were – the judges are served a lunch, but no good china, etc. Things have been streamlined considerably. I disagree that you get nothing for your dues – you get access to info about programs and speakers appearing in the area, things like that, that you probably wouldn’t hear about otherwise. I agree that field trips seem to be more trouble than they’re worth; attendance is always very low. In recent years we’ve tried to put more emphasis on horticulture and less on design, which seems to help pull in new members. My club now has a Facebook page, and using social media and other technology also attracts more people.

  2. It’s great that this club meets in the evening after work hours. Sadly some of the clubs in VA still meet in the middle of the weekday, probably a reason why there is no “young blood” in these clubs.

    • Linus, to be honest, I don’t think the time of day has much to do with it. In my section of Federated Garden Clubs, many clubs have tried having Saturday morning meetings, evening meetings – people just don’t show, and I really believe that it’s the same thing that’s affecting many organizations. People just don’t want to commit to anything because they might get a better offer. I’m sorry to be so cynical, but that’s how it looks to me.

  3. There is a garden club I know of where most of the well heeled ladies don’t know much about gardening and there is a waiting list of years to get into it. It reminds me of a sorority. Off-putting.

    I once made a presentation to another garden club to ask for help for our neighborhood public elementary school habitat garden which I created. They offered no help but pleaded for my membership. I joined but was bored by the flower shows and tea sandwiches so I quit. Would rather be in my boots and ratty garden clothes digging in the soil.

  4. I’m so jealous. My local garden club still does the flower shows and is clearly run “old school.” I’d rather be able to show up in my yoga pants and learn about soil, best practices for the environment and plant swaps!

  5. Don’t those privileged women fund/promote a lot of garden restoration work? I know the Garden Club of Virginia restores many historic properties both big and small and offers grants & fellowships for restoring Virginia state parks. I suspect this might not be possible if the folks raising the money didn’t run in wealthy circles. I do like the idea of having low-key garden clubs as an alternative, though.

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