How the garden clubs grow

Zakkai Mares-Van Praag, 9, and Aitana Mares-Van Praag, 4, colored with markers at the Waltham Garden Club booth at the 26th annual Sheepshearing Festival.
Zakkai Mares-Van Praag, 9, and Aitana Mares-Van Praag, 4, colored with markers at the Waltham Garden Club booth at the 26th annual Sheepshearing Festival. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)

It’s high season for garden clubs, and that means — primarily — ladies in brimmed hats transforming traffic islands, holding plant sales, and doing all manner of interpretive floral arranging. From books to artworks to jewelry, there’s nothing that can’t be matched to a floral ensemble, it seems.

Yes it’s still your grandmother’s garden club – but only sort of. All over the suburbs, garden clubs are also extending an azalea branch to younger members by holding evening meetings for those who work, and mixing up programs and activities to suit a broader range of demographics.

The Holliston Garden Club, for example, has gone “from white glove to work gloves,” said copresident Erin Dowling Porter.


“Traditionally, everybody has this image of people in hats and gloves,” she said. “It’s people with kids and working parents, and, in the past couple of years, there have been a couple of men.”

There are 193 garden clubs in the state with a total of more than 12,200 members, according to the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts, based in Wellesley. But membership is down in recent years because older members are “aging out,” said Heidi Kost-Gross, president of the federation.

“There are no soccer moms, that’s the problem,” she said. “Since all of our daughters have gone to work, we are looking for new members.”

That means getting creative with outreach. The federation is collaborating for the first time with upscale retailer Neiman Marcus to present “Be Jeweled and Blossoms,” a display of floral artists’ interpretations of some of the chain’s fine jewelry. The event runs Thursday through Sunday at the Natick Mall store.

Kost-Gross said all garden clubs must include two priorities in their mission statements: conservation and municipal beautification.

“We are not a playground for ladies who don’t have anything to do,” she said. “We are there to serve the communities.”


Clubs might gain more members if the public knew all that they do, she said.

The federation, which helped win the first redeemable bottle bill in the 1980s, is now advocating for an expanded version that would cover a wider range of container types in an effort to increase recycling, said Kost-Gross.

Members are champion composters, she said, and clubs have eschewed chemical fertilizers and pesticides for about the last eight years.

“We were right in the forefront of the organic movement,” she said.

Municipal beautification has become more challenging as traffic islands multiply and communities try to stretch tax dollars.

“Any time they don’t have funding, they turn to the garden clubs,” said Kost-Gross.

Garden clubs have long reached out to the community by offering college scholarships, but recruiting has expanded in recent years, sometimes subtly so.

Courtney Ogg-Mancuso, at 42 one of the younger members of the Waltham Garden Club, recently started working with high school seniors on floral centerpieces for the prom.

“It gets the kids interested in it, and maybe we’ll get a few garden club members later on,” she said.

The Waltham club holds meetings in the evening to accommodate working members.

In Arlington, there’s a mix of retirees and working professionals, so the 92-member Arlington Garden Club holds meetings during the day and in the evening, said Kathryn Leva, club president.

Fresh off participation in Art in Bloom at the Museum of Fine Arts, Leva will again display her floral artistry by competing in this weekend’s “Be Jeweled and Blossoms” event at Neiman Marcus.


She’s also working on Arlington’s participation in a statewide campaign slated for May 15, “Don’t Just Stand There . . . PLANT SOMETHING!”

The promotional effort is a joint program of the Massachusetts Flower Growers’ Association and the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association. (Go to www.plantsomethingma.org/may15 for details.)

“It’s like tax day for the tax guy,” said Leva. “I have been running nonstop.”

The Arlington Garden Club has a special focus on beautifying traffic islands, with more than 80 plots that are either maintained by members or farmed out to other groups who can help.

“We’ve just gone crazy with civic plantings,” said Leva. “I say we planted the seeds of awareness, and we’ve stimulated knowledge and the love of gardening to everybody we come across.”

According to the federation, one of the state’s fastest growing clubs is in Framingham, with 17 members added in the last two years.

The Framingham Garden Club, which now has 67 members, boosted its numbers through word of mouth and a special initiative to make sure newcomers feel welcome, said president Minal Akkad.

“So many times it happens that the new members just come in, but the old members have a group of their own and they sit with themselves, and don’t mingle with the new members,” she said.

So, Akkad appointed one person to help new members get to know everyone, and she started an orientation class to help newbies learn about everything the club does.


Porter, the Holliston club copresident, said each organization is a little different, depending on its composition.

“A club is only made up of its members,” she said. “We have people who are interested in local conservation and invasive species, for instance. We also have dirt gardeners and people interested in local community farms and agriculture, and people who just like landscaping and perennials.

“It’s not all flower arranging anymore.”

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeLisaKocian.