Women Who Dig It: Garden Clubs

“As the garden grows, so grows the gardener” —Unknown

It’s time to change your perception of the garden club and the type of woman who belongs to one.

“We are not a white-gloved tea and crumpets club,” asserts Nancy Challenger, member of the Winnetka Garden Club since 2006. “We are a working club and definitely not afraid to get our hands dirty.”

For decades, garden clubs have attracted women dedicated to their communities and committed to sowing a better world. Today, through their affiliation with the Garden Club of America (GCA), these local garden clubs are actively engaged with national conservation projects that have included creating inner city gardens and preserving national parks, as well as fundraising for organizations like the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Locally, each club is involved in community outreach—everything from working with local schools and children’s groups, to hosting a symposium on global warming, to the restoration of gardens within and beyond their own communities. Members are expected to be active participants in fundraising and working in the gardens. Some women join because they want to learn more about horticulture, others are passionate about conservation or seek a creative outlet.

“We all join for different reasons,” explains Mary Bradford-White of the Garden Club of Barrington. “Every woman brings her own strengths and perspective, yet each of us is willing to commit the sweat equity to make our communities beautiful.”

Fellow Barrington member Peg Olsen has shared her passion for gardening with her whole family, and they have dug in together to transform the family’s 15-acre property. Most important to Peg is the privilege of opening her gardens to charitable events, including the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program this June.

Few relish digging in the dirt more than Sue Carlson of the Garden Club of Evanston. A Master Gardener, Sue has donated time and materials to designing and building several gardens at the Frank Govern Memorial Golf Course in Evanston, and serves as chairman of the Shakespeare Garden at Northwestern, which the Garden Club of Evanston sponsors and maintains.

Whether their passion is photography, horticulture, conservation or design, each of these ladies shares an appreciation for the solidarity offered by her garden club. “I’ve been blown away by the caliber, caring and accomplishments of my fellow members,” says Lenore Macdonald, who joined the Garden Club of Kenilworth two years ago. “The rewards come from creative challenges, building untapped skill sets and, truly, watching myself and our gardens grow.”

As Carlson reminds us, gardening—like life—presents infinite surprises and endless rewards.

Six Chicago area garden clubs affiliated with the Garden Club of America will present the competitive flower show, Show of Summer, with the theme “Botanica” on June 11 and 12 at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Show of Summer is one of only eight major flower shows in the country presented by GCA, with the goal to educate visitors about horticulture, flower arranging and conservation. The local clubs include The Garden Club of Barrington, Garden Club of Evanston, Garden Guild of Winnetka, Kenilworth Garden Club, Lake Forest Garden Club and Winnetka Garden Club.