When Garden Clubs Took Root

New Orleanians have come to expect a lot of exterior decoration around town – blooming plants year-round, sheltering oaks, attractive shrubbery. Public spaces, parks, museums, historic houses and squares are all part of the green wonderland found in this part of Louisiana. Granted, nature contributes a lot, and there’s some public funding involved. But, if you really want to know why so many places in this city are blessed with beautiful plants and trees – say thank you to garden clubs!

Garden clubs are revitalizing City Park and its Botanical Gardens, teaching local school children the importance of growing fresh vegetables, spreading the word about conservation and ecology and continuing long-term projects that enrich the city by beautifying our environment.

Since the founding of the city, New Orleanians have been proud of their gardens. Forming clubs to foster this interest seemed a natural thing to do. In 1895, the New Orleans Horticultural Society had a chrysanthemum show and, in 1919, R. S. Cocks, a botanist on the Tulane faculty, founded the New Orleans Garden Society, whose name continues today. With a goal of making New Orleans “the Garden City of the country,” the society’s objectives included helping gardeners identify plants, encouraging school children’s interest in gardens, beautifying schools, playgrounds and the city parks and distributing flowers to hospitals. One well-known Garden Society member was the late Marta Lamar (Mrs. Lucius Lamar) who hosted a gardening show on WYES-TV. Today, board member Jeanne Bruno (Mrs. Victor Bruno) notes that, while the house on Prytania Street that was their headquarters has long been sold, the group meets monthly at Longue Vue House & Gardens and has an annual Halloween fundraiser luncheon and style show to support projects throughout the community. The New Orleans Garden Society originally had both men and women as members but, like most of today’s garden clubs, it is now a female enterprise.

In the beginning of the 20th century the garden club movement in the U.S. got into full swing. Two national organizations of garden clubs were organized. National Garden Clubs Inc. was founded in 1929 and this federation includes state garden clubs and their member clubs. Louisiana’s state federation dates from 1934 and includes 104 garden clubs around the state. New Orleanian Betty Bagert (Mrs. Donald Bagert) serves on the national board of the NGC, and proudly noted that the Louisiana group celebrates its 75th anniversary this month. It is this state group that sponsors the “Cleanest City” contest each year for Louisiana communities, and this group is also in charge of the “Live Oak Society,” in which older oak trees can be measured and honored for their age. City Park, with 250 such trees, holds the largest grove of mature live oaks in the country, Bagert says.

The other national group is the Garden Club of America, founded in 1923. Two longtime Uptown garden clubs – the New Orleans Town Gardeners (founded in the 1950s) and the New Orleans Garden Study Club (dating from the 1930s) – are both affiliated with the Garden Club of America. The GCA, besides extending the knowledge of its gardening members, has as its purpose “to restore, improve and protect” the environment with educational programs and environmental action and to support civic improvement. In the recent past, Louisiana garden clubs in Monroe and Shreveport have also become GCA member clubs.

Garden club members arrive via many routes. Bagert had taken a class in ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arranging) while her late husband was stationed in Okinawa. When they returned to New Orleans and moved to the lakefront in the 1950s, he heard a neighbor talking of forming a garden club and recommended his wife. Today, she is a member of the Lakeview Botany Guild, one of 13 NGC member clubs in the New Orleans area.

Garden club members often inherited the trait. Rose Monroe (Mrs. J. Rayburn Monroe) recalled that her “mother was a really good gardener.” Admitting that her favorite flower is still her namesake rose (“they grow so well here”), Monroe still belongs to both local GCA clubs, and has served as a GCA director on the national level.

Membership in a particular garden club runs in some families. Adelaide Benjamin (Mrs. Edward Benjamin) was president of the Town Gardeners, as was her late mother, Mary Wisdom (Mrs. William B. Wisdom.) GCA members can request to tour other member’s gardens, and Benjamin recalled that her mother’s bromeliads often attracted out-of-town visitors. Deborah Carroll Conery (Mrs. William P. Conery, III) remembers well when her late mother Dot Carroll (Mrs. Walter Carroll) was an active member of the Garden Study Club. Conery would serve the club as president.

Garden club members can attest to changing gardening habits over the years. Conery commented that her mother and her friends “all nurtured these small camellia plants, and they would not cut a bloom with a long stem, they had flat bowls in which they floated the camellia blossoms.” Current practice is to cut a longer stem for the flower, using the cut to prune the plant. As often happens with garden club members, Conery’s interest in gardening led her to horticulture. “I did go back to school to learn the binomial system and to be able to identify plants,” she said.

All of the city’s garden clubs participate in beautifying public spaces – and all of them are especially active in restoring City Park. The Garden Study Club has “Art in Bloom” – an event in which garden clubs generally participate – as its major civic fund-raiser with the New Orleans Museum of Art. The group has a joint project with the Town Gardeners around the Popps Bandstand area. There is also national GCA support for post-Hurricane Katrina park renovation.

The Botanical Gardens receive support from both GCA and NGC clubs. Betty Bagert has been particularly active in City Park endeavors and is especially proud of the volunteer donations that replanted the rose garden, garden club support of the Mr. Bingle wreath decorating contest that’s part of Celebration in the Oaks, City Park’s major fundraising event, and the Fall Scarecrow contest.

Garden clubs can spread the word to the next generation, too. Karen Giger (Mrs. Lawrence Eustis) noted that the Town Gardeners “Prop-A-Gator” garden project for public schools led to today’s “Edible Classroom” at Samuel Green Charter School, where kids learn to grow and eat healthy foods, and learn healthy habits on their school’s campus. Garden clubs today are also ecology-focused, and recycling reminders are on clubs’ agendas along with flower arranging, judging classes and horticultural discussions.

Another way of spreading knowledge is the Town Gardener’s Garden Library collection at the Southeastern Architectural Archives at the Tulane University Library.

With all that fundraising, a garden club member is also, as Conery describes herself, “a dirt gardener.” That is one trait club members all share. Although she doesn’t currently have a garden and lawn in New Orleans, Garden Study Club member Virginia McIlhenny (Mrs. Edmund McIlhenny) mentions that while she evacuated for Hurricane Gustav last summer, the two sweet potatoes on her counter sprouted vines. “One is in bloom right now,” she says proudly.

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