As pandemic continues, more seniors rediscover gardening as a way to get outside

Envision the archetypal genteel ladies garden club: white gloves and lace; finger sandwiches; possibly a cocktail or two. Polite socializing and gossip interspersed with—yes—some talk about yard and garden matters.

If that’s your image of a gardening society, then take it to the compost heap. Garden clubs are a different breed today. While many remain mostly female institutions with a large representation of seniors, their focus has shifted toward environmental awareness, conservation and eco-friendly gardening. Beautification projects remain a mainstay, but there’s more emphasis on a variety of other community improvements, community engagement and education.

In addition, more and more senior gardeners volunteer at botanical facilities and work in community gardens. A number have become certified master gardeners, teaching the art and science of nurturing plants to a much wider audience.

“Hell yeah, gardening is growing in popularity among seniors,” said an enthusiastic Annie Offen, the president of the Cherokee Garden Club in Atlanta, which dates from 1928.  “It has been for a long time, but now COVID has everybody at home and the people I have talked to through the garden club have rediscovered their yards.”

The COVID pandemic has changed much for the clubs. Lectures and workshops have been cancelled or moved online. Field trips and garden tours have been shut down. Planting projects and fundraisers have been scaled back in scope and number.

Still, Offen doesn’t think the heightened interest she sees in gardening will decline once the pandemic subsides. People of all ages, she said, have zeroed in on nature’s rich bounty of flora.  A survey of her club members last summer found that two-thirds of the respondents still wanted active involvement, whether in-person or online.

Women, she said, have a tendency to gravitate to the club after the age of 45, when they have raised their children and more able to fulfill the not-inconsiderable investment in time required of membership. “Sixty-five and over is kind of ideal,” she said. “Our most active group ranges from 65 to 75.”

Roswell Garden Club members Dorothy Juzdan, left, and Sherron Lawson

That doesn’t surprise Lisa Ethridge, the president of the Roswell Garden Club and a North Fulton Master Gardener. The Atlanta region, she said, has particularly strong roots in gardening organizations. The first garden club in the country was formed in 1891 in Athens, Georgia.

Today, the American Hydrangea Society makes its home in Atlanta. The Athens-based Garden Club of Georgia claims it has nearly 400 individual clubs in its organization.

Ethridge said that initial group and its spinoffs—“cuttings,” maybe?—encouraged growing “anything from a cabbage to a chrysanthemum” plus a regard for civic beauty and protection of native trees and wildflowers.

“I think that was a misconception from the very beginning, “ Ethridge  said. “The women in the original club aimed to benefit the community.”

Ethridge said her club’s 2021 footprint ranges from planting and maintaining vegetable and butterfly gardens at city historic landmarks to patriotic endeavors as they partnered with the city to improve the War Memorial at Roswell City Hall to weighing in on environmental concerns affecting the state at the Gold Dome. There’s also a strong emphasis on education.

Across town, The Garden Hills Garden Club doesn’t stop with tending and improving the plants on the neighborhood’s streets by planting bulbs and liriope.  Their fundraisers reach out into the community, with members collecting money for local projects such as replacing the playground at a local elementary school. President Courtney Nickels said the group also focuses on park cleanup and has many members who’ve been active since its inception in the 1970s.

The Cherokee Garden Club also is active in fundraising and then turns around and gives grants that can run into the thousands of dollars for environmental and beautification efforts, Offen said. Trees Atlanta and a refugee-tended garden in the Clarkston area have been among the recipients.

Members of the Garden Hills Garden Club assemble mailbox decorations.

“We have a 91-year-old who is very active, “ said Ethridge. “She is in charge of one of our initiatives involving Meals On Wheels,” where small decorations and gifts are placed on meal trays are delivered during holidays.

You’ll also find retirees digging in the dirt and handling a broad range of other chores among volunteers at facilities such as the Atlanta Botanical Garden. “Our volunteer of the year last year was 82,” said Raleigh Wasser, the Atlanta institution’s horticulture manager.

Wasser said that with more time available to volunteer, seniors bring decades of gardening knowledge and sometimes science backgrounds to the work. They handle a broad range of duties: leaf-raking, general cleanup, weeding, watering, deadheading plants and light pruning.

She and others say that gardening groups also are increasingly focused on vegetable gardening instead of ornamental horticulture. “People are more interested in growing their own food now. It may harken back to how people of older generations grew up where the grocery store wasn’t the main source of food,” Wasser said.

Melissa Mattee Murphy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, sees the same dynamic at work and thinks a practical consideration might be involved with civil unrest and resultant fears about the supply chain leading some to stock up on seeds and fertilizer and till the earth.

And there’s the nostalgia aspect as well.

Murphy comments that “They’ll say, ‘Grandma used to grow rattlesnake beans and I want to do the same thing.’ It’s a creative endeavor. It helps channel their energies and keeps them moving and engaged at a time when we’re all trapped inside. It gives them a sense of connection that’s really motivating to them.”

She said another factor perhaps heightening involvement is that year-round gardening is possible in metro Atlanta as long as some cold-weather precautions are taken.Warm summers and relatively mild winters yield everything from tomatoes to beans and peas to both summer and cool-season staples as collards and kale. And don’t forget the perennials that can lend color and beauty 12 months a year.

As her agency puts together programs at senior centers, she finds that while a large number of the participants enjoyed gardening at mom or grandma’s knee, many also have gardened throughout their lives “and there is a small percentage that have never given it a go, and they want to try it. “

Her advice for those wanting to nurture emerging shoots? “Everybody starts with tomatoes. They are easy to grow and can be grown in a smaller space like a container, “said Murphy.  She notes that may be an important consideration for seniors in a limited space or perhaps in some kind of care center.

Walter Reeves, host of a gardening show on WSB radio says a good many seniors drop out of the hobby both because of that change in living circumstances and because of physical limitations. He’s an advocate of kneeling benches and pads and other specialized tools that can help them.

“Find a plant you can’t kill and plant it,” he said. Lenten Rose and Daylilies are  ideal for those putting a toe in the … um, dirt. He also said that small tomatoes are hardier than the big beefsteak tomatoes that a lot of folks want to grow.

Garden clubs locally provide plenty of help for both the novice and more experienced folks.

They gather certified master gardeners and others for presentations on workshops on vegetable gardening, ornamental horticulture, and landscaping. Presentations on eco-friendly gardening have become much more common in recent years, with an emphasis on eliminating invasive plants and promoting native species. And they take field trips to see others’ gardens.

And there is, of course, the social aspect. Garden clubs can feed and fertilize their human members as much the plants they grow. They offer a place to meet the neighbors and form new friendships.

“Yes, we do the gardening and that’s part of the mission, promoting the beauty of our neighborhood,” Ethridge said, “but it’s also about the community of women that are part of the club, and the social aspect as well.

“If someone is ill or needs some sunshine, “Ethridge said, “the outpouring of basic support is awesome.”

The New York-based Garden Club of America, a national umbrella organization for clubs in Atlanta and elsewhere, spells out its members’ mission on its website: “Garden. Create. Advocate.”

 

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.