A Tale of Two Garden Clubs

The Nantucket Garden Club and the Garden Club of Palm Beach: “Both have a high level of intensity and involvement, in a very short period of time. Both do much for their communities.”

by Marion Laffey Fox

When Gretchen Riley heads to Nantucket from Philadelphia each summer, her diary is filled with reminders of responsibilities associated with membership in the Nantucket Garden Club. The respected Garden Club of America floral design and horticulture judge has been an active member of the club since 2006. ‘’I am actually a member of four garden clubs, but thoroughly enjoy all the remarkable things the Nantucket club is able to accomplish in such a short season of eight weeks a year.” Stressing that the “hard work is very fulfilling,” Riley says, “we annually give back over $60,000 to the community in scholarships and grants.”

The accomplishments of hundreds of garden clubs across the country are nothing short of astonishing—there are 200 affiliated clubs with 18,000 participants under the umbrella of the Garden Club of America alone—whose projects involve beautification, conservation, preservation, scholarships, or something unique to a specific location. But within that overview, the feats of two “seasonal” clubs merit special applause. The Nantucket Garden Club, in GCA’s Zone 1, is in full swing from May through August. The Garden Club of Palm Beach, in Zone VIII, operates from December to May.

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An old-fashioned assortment of summer flowers and fruit is transformed into beguiling arrangements for a festive outdoor porch party on Nantucket. Credit: Mary Pressly

On Nantucket, the group of 123 dedicated women cares so deeply about the island they spend an inordinate amount of time tending to its multifaceted needs. Of the entire membership, only around 20 live there year-round, yet when most members are back home, on-islanders cheerfully tackle tasks such as refreshing seasonal plantings in the Main Street fountain and decorating a holiday tree for the Festival of Trees at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum. They also deal with details involved in the Annual Daffodil Show that celebrates spring every April.

 

Founded in 1953 by a small group of summer residents who were interested in gardening and preservation of Nantucket’s unique wildflowers, the club would prove to be a bonanza for the storied island. By the end of the 1954 season, the fledging group planted attractive trees and shrubs around an austere nursing home for aged and indigent island residents. The modest but heartfelt gift of $1,350 was such a resounding community-wide success, members voted to landscape seven barren acres around the newly-completed Nantucket Cottage Hospital. The ambitious project softened the site, cheered patients and solidified the presence of the club. “Since our inception, plants, flowers and horticulture contributed to the beauty of Nantucket and always support conservation initiatives that protect the island’s fragile historic environment,” says president Gail McRobie.

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Mary Pressly, arriving at the Preview Party, was awarded Best in Show for Botanical Arts and several creative awards. She also designed the centerpiece for the Garden Club of Palm Beach biennial 2019 GCA Flower Show. Credit: Mary Pressly

This dedication begins with a year of provisional membership during which new candidates are expected to take on maintenance of certain projects and attend mandatory meetings. Carrie Griffith of Newtown, PA, is one of six current “provisionals.” “Although we have summered here 25 years, I look forward to serving in this capacity, to learn the ropes of the club and do whatever needs doing,” she says. These responsibilities and learning opportunities ensure that members become versed in the history, lore and vagaries of this windswept outpost 25 miles off the Massachusetts coast, where gardeners face unique weather challenges including salt spray and erosion, strong prevailing winds, cool summer temperatures, and Gulf Stream-warmed winters.

The meetings also create a useful forum for reportage of 21 committees that focus on multiple island projects, such as the Annual House & Garden Tour, always held in the first week of August, which attracted over 1,500 visitors in 2018. Since it funds most of their projects, it is monumentally important to scholarship funding. The latter includes five to six $5,000 scholarships to Nantucket High School graduates for advanced study in horticulture, landscaping, environmental studies or conservation. In addition, there is a lengthy list of grants that benefit island nonprofits, as well as the biannual Flower Show, annual Community Daffodil Show and biannual Art with Blooms Gallery Walk.

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A moss-covered Volkswagen Beetle greeted attendees at the 2015 Hort Couture:

A GCA Flower Show presented by The Garden Club of Palm Beach at The Society of the Four Arts. Credit: Mary Pressly

One of its most visible recent projects involved landscaping of Sankaty Head Light after its famous move in 2007. “The lighthouse has been a revered beacon on Nantucket since 1850, and was the brightest light in New England,” says McRobie, “so when it was in danger of falling into the sea because of relentless erosion, the Sconset Trust acquired it from the U.S. Coast Guard and moved it 405 feet northwest of its original location to safer ground.” When landscaping for the new but barren site was addressed, the Nantucket Garden Club jumped in, allotting $50,000 over two years to the project. Today, the iconic red-and-white-and-black lighthouse remains a stalwart symbol of the island, but now is charmingly framed by appropriately natural native scrub oaks, underplanted with hardy shrubs and plants. In spring, the site is alive with more than 11,000 yellow, orange, pink and white dancing daffodils, including a new species named “Sankaty Light.”

Laura and Bill Buck are ardent supporters of Sankaty Light, as well as countless island initiatives. They have been coming here since the late 1980s, when they first stepped on Nantucket’s shores. “We had never been here before, and were captivated by everything, including its whaling history, rose-covered cottages, historic preservation and conservation ethos,” says Laura. Today, her spectacular organic cottage garden has become a stellar example of “responsible horticulture.”

Mary Randolph Ballinger feels fortunate to be a member of both the Nantucket and Palm Beach clubs. She says “the two clubs are similar in that they are seasonal island clubs that have a high level of intensity and involvement, in a very short period of time, such as popular house tours, and spectacular flower shows. Both clubs have some similar and different geographical issues, such as erosion, climate change and sea level rise. Currently, island ecology is a big concern for us, and we have invited speakers on risks to butterflies and bees, on harbor health and cleanliness, shellfish protection measures and other challenges for plants and fauna.”

The Garden Club of Palm Beach was founded on March 28, 1928, during a gathering of 15 women at the residence of Mrs. John S. Phipps. Mrs. Frederick E. Guest is credited with the original idea of organizing it, and the meeting was attended by famous residents such as Mrs. Edward T. Stotesbury, Mrs Barclay Warburton and Mrs. Marion S. Wyeth. Like its sister club almost 1,500 miles north, its mission focused on horticulture, the environment, conservation and civic improvement.

Palm Beach Garden Club member Ginny Parker strides into the O’Keefe Gallery at the Society of the Four Arts to refresh her arrangement in the Gold Leaf Flower Show in 2019, a day after it won the Class 2 Blue Ribbon. Credit: Gretchen Riley

The enthusiastic group plunged into ambitious tasks from its inception. In January 1929, after severe hurricane damage to the Lake Trail was assessed, minutes from the March 22 meeting state: “The Garden Club members realize that they must shoulder some Civic responsibility and are keenly interested in the betterment of both the Trail and Royal Palm Way as a start in that direction.” During that year, membership was increased to 43, and the club’s first Flower Show was staged. More importantly, the grandiose idea of creating an overall Town Plan was adopted and the firm of Bennett, Parsons and Frost of Chicago was hired to create it. Resolute members contributed over $10,000 to cover the expenses of the plan which was completed in 1930 and presented to the Town of Palm Beach.”

Throughout the 1930s the young club made enormous strides. In 1931, it was admitted to membership in The Garden Club of America and in 1935, after a remarkably successful Flower Show, the club was able to finance the planting of three blocks of Royal Palm Way with Royal Palm trees. In 1938, it contributed to construction of The Four Arts building, then designed and planted demonstration gardens, intended to show newcomers to the area how a small space could become an attractive garden in the humid, semitropical climate.

During ensuing years, The Garden Club of Palm Beach became an increasingly powerful voice. In the elegant walkways and fountains of the gardens of the Society of the Four Arts, patroness Edith Robb Dixon’s generosity created spectacular gardens around the Fitz Eugene Dixon Education Building, and Mr. and Mrs. William Pannill underwrote the Pannill Pavilion, considered the crown jewel of the overall garden design.

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A block from the ocean, a vertical garden of 11 different species and over 10,000 plants has become a visual horticultural triumph, covering a once blank wall on the Saks Fifth Avenue store on Palm Beach’s famous Worth Avenue.

Today the club thrives and consistently gives back to the town in especially powerful ways because one of its members attends town meetings to determine important issues to which it might lend a hand. In 2010, this involvement translated into two highly visible road beautification projects: the lyrical garden at the Southern Oasis Traffic Circle, with plants that serve as an example of species that thrive in this particular climate. A few minutes away eight Kaleidoscope Flower Beds on Royal Poinciana Way depict the advantage of xeriscape landscaping. The following year, the club was a major funder of the Living Wall, a vertical garden on Saks Fifth Avenue store, that was part of the 2011 Worth Avenue Restoration Project.

Although both clubs radiate selfless enthusiasm for their particular islands, everyone is in agreement that whether they adore cottage gardens abloom with purple hydrangeas and pink climbing roses, or regal palms above exotic orchids, their collective work is so successful because it fosters companionship, camaraderie and lasting friendships. 

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Bill and Laura Buck’s seaside garden is an example of responsible horticulture where bountiful borders and window boxes wordlessly illustrate the advantages of green gardening.

Credit: Kindra Clineff