Allen Ferrell grew up on a ranch in Colorado, so he knew his way around back-yard vegetable and flower gardens. But after he settled in Georgia back in 2004, he found that when it came to plants, some things had changed.
“Coming from Colorado, the climate is so different,” the 72-year-old Ferrell said. “I found out [that in Georgia], some things you have to take a machete to.”
Like crepe myrtles, those colorful trees that seem to sprout everywhere and that some local gardeners prune nearly to stumps every spring.
Or consider the difference, he said, in growing impatiens. He’d always liked raising the colorful little flowers. When he lived in Denver, he had to nurture them, replant them every year, fuss over them. Here? They jump out of the ground. “Here, they grow three times the height,” he said. “We were amazed at the beds of impatiens we had.”
Ferrell lives in a Buckhead condominium now, so he does much of his gardening through the Buckhead Men’s Garden Club, a 53-year-old organization that claims 35 members and is based at a greenhouse tucked away on the property of the Atlanta History Center. Ferrell, president of the club, said that back in the 1970s, the group had as many as 140 members. He thinks membership has fallen off because people just don’t have as much time to garden as they used to.
The club has one distinctive feature. “As far as we know, we are the only men’s garden club in Georgia,” he said. “Garden clubs tend to be 95 percent women.”
So why did a men-only garden club sprout in Buckhead? “I honestly don’t know what caused a group of men to band together, other than an interest in gardening,” Ferrell said one recent sunny Saturday morning as he sat among the Knock Out roses, asparagus and other plants club members were growing at the greenhouse. He thought a minute more. “And they probably had very little space to propagate plants.”
Not that members don’t garden at home. Member Wheeler Bryan certainly does. He’s been tending a patch in the backyard of his Buckhead home for 25-plus years, he said. His wife, Anne, complains that his vegetable garden sometimes sprawls into her flower garden.
Bryan, who says he learned gardening when he was growing up in Tifton in south Georgia, now grows tomatoes, squash, eggplants, lots of varieties of peppers and lettuce. He harvests so much that his children kid him that he’s a truck farmer. “My two children, who are now grown, learned to count change by running a vegetable stand in the front yard,” he said. “I would make them [spend half the proceeds to] take us out to dinner. We always went to Wendy’s or Burger King.”
The Bryans dropped by the men’s club greenhouse on this Saturday morning to see what sort of plants the club was offering during one of its periodic fundraising sales. Members who garden at the greenhouse must turn over half their crop to the club. Some vegetables are shared to be eaten. Other plants – begonias, azaleas – are sold to raise money to pay club bills. Anne Bryan bought a begonia.
As he waited for customers to arrive, Cal Crutchfield, who’s 64 and works at Clayton State University, nibbled on dried collard leaves.
He’d grown the greens in a small plot next to the greenhouse and cooked them to roughly the consistency of potato chips. He grows various greens, cabbages, lettuce and others. “I grow sorrel,” he said. “I like to make sorrel and arugula salads because you get the salt and pepper taste from the plants.”
He used to have trouble growing vegetables at home, he said, because his house faces south and his backyard gets too little sun. Now he’s trying some raised beds in his sunny front yard, he said. Still, his cabbages and sorrel are growing alongside the little greenhouse that operates within sight of Buckhead’s high rises. And he enjoys the club’s meetings, where programs range from a talk on lichens to descriptions of gardens that have been established anywhere from South Carolina to England.
“It’s a good way to get out of the house,” Crutchfield said. “We just have a lot of fun and a lot of camaraderie. A lot of us are older and need to do something different.”
And, of course, find a place in the city to tend to their cabbage crop.