Membership in The Garden Club of North Carolina doesn’t require a tea dress or an etiquette course, but a pair of gloves and a strong work ethic are recommended.
As the meeting begins inside the Durham Hilton, Judy Barnes places a leopard-spotted hat on her white hair and motions to the timekeeper, who calls to order The Garden Club of North Carolina with the honk of an “ooga” horn.
Barnes, who has since stepped down after her two-year presidency, compliments the hostesses, whose own pieces of flamboyant head wear stand out in the 100-member audience. There’s an American flag hat, a frilly pillbox, a striped derby.
She mentions that a Cheshire cat will be circulating around their gathering, and probably a character dressed as Alice in Wonderland. Then Barnes launches into her report on a recent garden symposium she attended.
“I learned a lot about cacti and succulents,” she says, “and then I promptly went out and sat on one.”
This garden club is no old ladies’ tea party. They have crazy hats and mascots running around as reminders not to take themselves too seriously.
The club’s 6,616 members form a sort of horticultural congress, each coming from a district with its own distinct flora — from the yellow violets of the Blue Ridge to the dotted horsemint of the Outer Banks.
And to serve here, you have to bring enthusiasm, excitement to make the world worth watching, and a belief that life is gorgeous and fun.
“We’re not white gloves and tea sets,” Barnes says. “I once showed up in rabbit ears. Whether it’s a witch’s hat or frog’s eyes, it’s brought a fun atmosphere. And after the meeting, you go to the bar and have a glass of wine.”
A beautiful place
Since 1925, the garden club has been an umbrella group for all the green-thumb goings-on across North Carolina. At the first meeting, representatives from five smaller clubs made up the roll call: Asheville, Raleigh, High Point, Reidsville, and Winston-Salem. Now that number tops 250, and every member is a volunteer. The club counts 38 youth clubs in its ranks, a number thought to be the highest in the country. At a meeting, you hear stories like the one about a girl scout from Union County who wrote a seven-page proposal for an outdoor reading garden at her local elementary school.
The garden club has divisions in all 100 counties, where thousands of members spend their Saturdays planting bulbs around town welcome signs, local libraries, and nursing homes.
At the state meeting in Durham, the work of all those members is read out loud: The Blue Ridge Garden Club of Boone placed pink petunias around the front entrance of Watauga Cancer Center; the Greenleaf Garden Club made 35 Christmas trees for local nursing homes and wounded veterans; the Rocky Mount Garden Club taught local kids how to grow vegetables and raise bees.
“It’s not my grandmother’s boring garden club,” says Shirley Dromms, corresponding secretary.
On any weekend, you find these members in a dozen community centers scattered around the state giving free lectures on gardening projects.
Ask them why they spend free time practicing garden therapy at the nursing home in Rich Square or planting flowers behind the police station in Monroe, and they’re puzzled that you even asked.
“I’m an outdoors person,” Barnes says. “Not that my garden looks good, [but] I’m personally afraid that the world is changing and it won’t be the beautiful place that it is.”
‘Gosh, your state is pretty’
As the state’s garden overseers, the club has three main functions.
For one, they give scholarships: $15,888 in the fiscal year that ended in June. This fall, they awarded $3,255 each to six students at North Carolina State University.
When you buy the garden club’s desk calendar, you’re not just enjoying its pictures, you’re also guaranteeing that another generation will have the chance to tend those plants.
Second, the club judges the state’s highway beautification project, giving honors to the region that best dresses up the off-ramps and shoulders. Each year, they sort through the pictures of oxeye daisies on U.S. Highway 158, the lance-leaf coreopsis on U.S. Highway 117, and the dame’s rocket on U.S. Highway 221.
“I go to national meetings, and people say, ‘Gosh, your state is pretty to go through,’ ” Barnes says.
The garden club’s reach extends much further: putting up Blue Star Memorial markers to recognize veterans, sponsoring a wildflower of the year with the N.C. Botanical Garden, making as much noise as an apolitical nonprofit can about how many feet of trees billboard companies can cut from the roadside.
“We can’t officially join the fray,” Dromms says. “[We] just point out and make aware.”
But the third function is the one most people see and enjoy: the trio of public gardens the club maintains. Two of them stand like bookends at the eastern and western corners of North Carolina: the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo and the Daniel Boone Native Gardens in Boone.
But the members feel a special pull for the third garden: the Martha Franck Fragrance Garden in Raleigh. Built to serve the blind students at The Governor Morehead School, the garden is meant to be smelled and touched. The garden demonstrates that flowers aren’t simply decorations to drop in the ground and water, to display like lawn ornaments.
Flowers are performers showing off the richness of the earth, playing their parts through sweet smells and soft petals. They’re playful and sometimes a little showy — not unlike a garden club president in a leopard-spotted hat.
The Garden Club of North Carolina
J.C. Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Road
Raleigh, N.C. 27606
Josh Shaffer is an award-winning writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh. His most recent story for Our State was “A Forgotten Star” (December 2012).