CrrriticMinistry Of Controversy

Dying on the Vine? Part II

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Road trip to Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery and quite a Gingko.

Guest Rant by Scott Beuerlein, who insists the end is not nigh. Gardeners join together.

One of my very favorite quotes came from a supervisor I had many years ago in what seems like a previous life. He said: “It’s not that I want to be an asshole, it’s just that I don’t mind it very much.” The most honest thing I think I’ve ever heard anyone say.

So picture this. You’re young. You’ve got a spouse. You both work. Two kids. Homework. Soccer. Swimming. Band. Two cars and a house. Somewhere in the cracks you find an interest in gardening, but you know little about it. You think joining a garden club or a plant society might help you along. Plus, you can use an occasional fun night out. So you go to a meeting. It’s in some church basement. After an hour of a treasurer’s report, old business, new business, and one codger arguing with another codger over some stupid little detail in the minutes, you eat cake off a paper plate balanced on your knee and drink a Dixie cup of Hi-C. Driving home, how do you feel? Like maybe the only reason you’d go back is to satisfy some morbid incredulity of just how badly your time had been wasted?

The geeks are welcomed to an event.

Now, I don’t want to be an asshole, but I feel the need to state that it isn’t just the internet and Xboxes that are to blame for the aging and dwindling memberships of many of these groups.

About ten years ago a few Hort friends and I formed a group called Tree Geeks. Roughly once a month we tour a garden, have dinner, and drink a few beers. In the colder months, we have to get a little more creative, but the main thing is we have no minutes, no bylaws, and—for God’s sake—no damned Roberts Rules of Order! It’s loose, it’s fun, and, most of all, it’s extremely popular. To keep things manageable, we’ve become a (semi) secret society. Every member wants to invite new members, but we just can’t. We’ve got well over 100 on the email list now. Average age is somewhere around 45.

The magic of sharing plants with others.

No serious horticulturist would ever argue that Garden Clubs and Plant Societies are not repositories—sanctuaries even—of tremendous horticultural knowledge. They contain some of the most committed, experienced, and knowledgeable gardeners in the world. As such, they are extremely and indeed increasingly valuable, and, yes, they’re dying off—literally—one member at a time. H.G. Wells said, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” Garden clubs and plant societies need to get out of their ruts. Actually, some may need to find entirely different paths. Bold strokes. Make the meetings fun. Get them out of rooms and into gardens. Focus on plants. Include humor and beer. Move all the business to email or blow it the hell up. Establish a social media presence. Acknowledge that times have changed, reach out to young people, and respect the fact that they need concentrated rewards. A lot has to happen (learning, fun, engagement) in a short amount of time to make it conscionable for them to break away from all their other commitments.

The fun factor.

Likewise, young horticulturists and gardeners need to join and support these important groups and take on leadership positions. Usher them away from “the way they’ve always done it” and into a future with a future. And, if necessary, throw out the killjoy codgers who only come to argue. Some people might not mind being assholes, but few people actually want to hang out with them.


Scott is a Horticulturist at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, working primarily on educational symposiums, trialing, and outreach. He is Chair of the Taking Root tree planting initiative and President of the Cincinnati Flower Growers Association. His home garden, after four years of editing, is only now recovering from years of crazed collecting and over-planting.

Posted by

Scott Beuerlein

on December 29, 2016 at 7:39 am, in the category Guest Rants, Ministry of Controversy, What’s Happening.


  1. Scott, you are correct about many of the garden clubs. In my area, they’re still run by the ladies who formed the over half a century ago, and they don’t seem to understand that women don’t have the entire day to themselves from 8 until 3. They’ve become social clubs, and anyone who wants more out of it has to break away from the umbrella organization, which further weakens things. When I joined the Federated Garden Clubs 20 years ago, there were about 150 clubs in our district alone! Now I think we’re down to about 40. However, there is plenty of blame to go around. I have also noticed that the younger people seem to be allergic to commitment. Most of the clubs are run by about 6 people, who do everything because you can’t rely on the majority to show up once a month for 2 hours. Nobody wants to miss out on what they may deem as a better offer. It’s a big reason for the decline in, not just garden clubs and plant societies, but most organizations these days.

  2. I will also add that many of the clubs in my district have tried to appeal to working people. For a time they tried having the monthly meeting for GC presidents in the evening. Nobody came. They tried Saturdays. Nobody came. This is why I maintain that some of the decline in memberships is because people in general now (and younger people in particular) want to be free to accept a better offer if it comes along. Nobody wants to commit to anything, and I don’t know how to fight that.

  3. Words of wisdom to share with tons of people who are in hort groups that are dangerously close to becoming like all those gardden clubs. Thanks for a terrific post!

  4. The only garden club I have ever belonged to is the Iris Society of Austin. Our meetings begin with a potluck dinner. If I had known about the food, I would have joined much sooner. Business comes after eating, usually doesn’t take very long, and is followed by a program–often involving photos of beautiful irises, although the most recent one was a very interesting guest speaker from the bee society. I didn’t join the group until after retirement, but there are a number of members who are younger; we even have a couple of “youth members,” i.e., children!

  5. I dropped membership in every plant club I belonged to and dropped every subscription for a few years. I found I missed a few, but not many. I like Scott’s ideas – take the “meetings” back into the garden, and include humor and BEER and I think there will be a lot more involvement. (And don’t call them meetings.) Food, too, of course. And take the business OUT of the meetings – great advice. Only the insiders care about the business! Audubon Societies are experiencing the same thing… I swear it’s the smart but humorous speakers who pack the house!

  6. Maybe garden clubs should die on the vine… Several years ago I was asked to speak at a local garden club meeting in a very wealthy neighborhood. There were the typical crushes sandwiches and a few ladies on oxygen. I sat through their business meeting and learned that they had around $200K in the bank (!) and listened to them debate the choices of their holiday gift to the community – a bench for a park. They selected the plastic one. The cheap one.
    I was asked to speak on making holiday wreaths from things from the garden. I brought a bucket of clippings and some wire and a frame and got started only to soon be interrupted by a sourpuss lady who informed me that this group could afford to BUY their decorations… They did not need to MAKE them.
    I thanked her for her insight and reminded her that this was what I was asked to do… Then finished up quickly and left. That was the last time I was willing to speak to a garden club.
    I have spoken since at conferences and symposiums and that is the kind of gathering that I enjoy, but the old fashioned granny-fest is not for anyone with a passion for anything.
    There must be a new prototype somewhere for a dynamic and multimedia way of connecting with plant and design enthusiasts that also has a regular physical meeting opportunity.

  7. The decline is due at least in part to the internet, and I don’t think it has much to do with lack of time or interest. Hundreds of thousands of people are joining plant “clubs” on the internet, especially on Facebook. No dues, no business meetings, no officers or committees. They get instant gratification, 24/7, in the form of pretty pictures, information, camaraderie, growing advice, and locating sources of plants that one used to have to join a plant club or society to find.

  8. Our Garden Club has a great set up that maybe others could use to help bolster attendance and excitement: During the Spring and Summer (and even into Fall) months we go around the area visiting gardens. Some are CSAs, some are member gardens, others are friends or just notable local gardens. Winter is for speakers and more traditional meetings (with food!) and the business items rarely take more than 15 minutes. When there is enough interest they also do trips to regional Flower Shows or a collection of gardens in a different area of the state. The garden tours in warm months is what got us to start attending and what keeps us coming back. It is a great way to break up the monotony of meetings and get gardeners out into gardens, together. Which is always a fantastic experience.

  9. Super gratifying to see all this discussion and many great ideas. Now, let’s get them past ideas and into action! Facebook and other chatrooms are great, and can lead to learning, but it is in face to face encounters that passion experience, and plants really get handed off. Make it happen! Arguably, Horticulture might be at its lowest ebb. Never has the future need for Horticulture been greater. This knowledge must be carried forward. Let’s do it.

  10. It’s not just garden clubs that have declining membership. The fraternal organizations like elks moose and the granddaddy of the all, masons do not attract young members. Girl and Boy Scouts aren’t what they use to be. Civic groups are dying. I remember when JayCees got the first assisted elderly housing in town, built playgrounds. Don’t even know if they exist anymore. Anyone remember the Odd Fellows, Pythians, or Friends of the Forest? All very big clubs at one time.

  11. I think you would enjoy our garden club in Franklin NY. We have no regular meeting schedule, no officers, no minutes. We occasionally get together on a Sat night for a potluck with wine/beer (starting early enough to view the host’s garden) and have a meeting afterwards to discuss any upcoming projects. We have a good time, enough so that the spouses/partners join us most of the time.

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