Since October 1921, the Garden Club of Palo Alto has promoted the planting of trees and gardens at Palo Alto libraries, schools and other public spaces. And now as the group approaches its 100-year anniversary this fall, its membership, made up largely of older women with a passion for plants, have agreed that planting trees, rather than throwing a party, is the best way to celebrate its century of commitment to greenery, said member Susan McDonnell, chair of the club’s centennial committee.
From now until February, club members are sponsoring the planting of 100 trees in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Mountain View. Planting locations include Cubberley Community Center, school offices in Mountain View and at East Palo Alto Charter School, according to Maika Horjus of the nonprofit tree-planting group Canopy, which is partnering with the club for the centennial tree-planting project.
Although the members have changed over the decades, the goal of the club is as clear today as it was 100 years ago: to actively provide leadership and educate the community about gardening by serving local organizations.
This legacy is being carried forward by the organization’s current 220 members, including a number of longtime volunteers now living in retirement communities like Channing House or Vi at Palo Alto.
Garden Club President Ellie Thomas is among those who have been in the club for a decade or more. Thomas said she was welcomed as a “younger member” when she joined 10 years ago, at around age 50 after her oldest child went off to college. Before that, “I was just too busy,” said Thomas, who is a professional garden designer. As a member of the club, she is able to use her skills to contribute to the quality of life within the community.
She’s not the only serious gardener in the club. Becoming a member takes time, patience and dedication. Prospective members of the club must be invited and then sponsored by two current members to join. They must also produce an original four- to five-page paper on some aspect of gardening.
The current membership is a serious hub of expertise and energy for conservation and all things horticultural, locally and beyond.
While all members have some degree of gardening experience, not all volunteer at the same level. Some members like getting their hands dirty in the garden nearly everyday, while others take a more removed interest. The club has multiple committees through which members can volunteer in the community, including doing fundraising and outreach to distributing flowers to local schools and hospitals.
“Everyone’s (interest) is a little different,” Thomas said.
Garden club members actively maintain a victory garden behind Palo Alto’s Museum of American Heritage, carefully replicating those planted by millions of Americans to assist with the war effort during World War II. They’ve spearheaded a local campaign to save the endangered monarch butterfly, propagating and distributing milkweed plants — now growing in 1,500 Peninsula gardens — to serve as way stations in the butterfly’s migration to Mexico. They also produce homemade jams, jellies and other items to sell at their “Holiday Affaire” fundraiser, with proceeds distributed to garden-oriented projects in the community such as the La Mesa Verde Project in San Jose, which allows low-income families to learn the basics of growing and maintaining backyard vegetable gardens. With the grant from the Charitable Trust and Project Funding Committee, lumber, soil, plants, seeds and tools were all donated to the families. Volunteers from the committee also advised families as their backyard vegetable gardens grew.
The group also provides tips, talks and other events aimed at helping those who are interested in honing their gardening skills. Nonmembers, for example, are welcome to participate in the group’s monthly lectures on horticultural topics ranging from “Carbon Sequestration in Hardscape Design” to “Romantic Spring Celebrations: Garden Parties, Weddings and Other Joyous Occasions.”
Longtime member Vicki Sullivan also maintains an exhaustive month-by-month log on backyard gardening on the club’s public website aimed at helping gardeners of all skill levels. Sullivan’s current October to-do list includes what to plant (Swiss chard, kale, bok choi, broccoli, spinach and Chinese cabbage); how to prep fall soil (put down compost and a thin layer of mulch); what plants to fertilize (azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons) and how to lure more monarchs your milkweed bed (add colorful nectar plants).
The group’s roots go back to Mrs. Frederick Wheeler, whose mutual love for gardening and community service inspired her, along with 11 other women, to launch the garden club in October 1921. Over the past 100 years, the group’s membership and reach have continued to grow.
Most notably, the group led spirited lobbying and fundraising campaigns in the 1980s to convert Elizabeth Gamble’s house and grounds at the corner of Embarcadero Road and Waverley Street into a permanent garden open to all. The major competing proposal at the time, backed by the city’s housing commission and half the Planning Commission, would have transformed the Gamble property, which was donated to the city in 1981, into 21 units of low-cost senior housing.
Established in 1985, Gamble Garden Center has no official affiliation to the Garden Club, but the two groups share a similar passion. Thomas estimated that more than half of her members also participate as members and volunteers at Gamble Garden.
The Garden Club of Palo Alto has been all female since a 1924 by-law was added allowing men only as honorary members. Before that, men made up 40% of the membership. Club minutes from the era don’t explain why men were barred, but Thomas guesses it had to do with dissension around a May 1924 flower exhibit and sale, over which the entire planning committee resigned.
Today’s rules do not block men, she said, “but no men are in the club, and since I’ve been a member, no men have applied.”
Racial diversity in membership “has not been something that’s come up, though it may in the future,” Thomas added. Among the horticultural presentations slated for the coming year is one titled “Gender and Race in Landscape Development and Practice.”
For more information about the club or its gardening programs, go to gardenclubofpaloalto.org.