Garden Club of Palo Alto celebrates 85 years of community service

There was no momentous party Tuesday at the 85th birthday celebration of the Garden Club of Palo Alto. No conga lines, no oversized cake adorned with candles. Instead, club members celebrated by reflecting quietly on the club's 85-year history of growing things in the Palo Alto community.

"It's an incredible club," President Joan Jack said, citing a long list of achievements to help spread the joy of gardening.

For 85 years, the club has contributed grants and garden-related projects to dozens of nonprofit organizations, schools and foundations, Jack said. It played a particularly important role in establishing the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden Center in the early 1980s, she said.

Recent contributions were grants totaling $18,800 to four local organizations in 2006. Members developed raised garden beds for preschoolers at the Community Association for Rehabilitation (C.A.R.) -- an organization that supports people with developmental and other disabilities -- and at Senior Day Health. The club also donated money to the Canopy tree-preservation organization and supported Gamble Garden as it restored its wisteria garden.

  Gail L., a p reschooler, waters the plants in the new raised garden bed at C.A.R. Milestones Preschool, made possible by a grant from the Garden Club of Palo Alto.  Photo by Veronica Weber.

Gail L., a preschooler, waters the plants in the new raised garden bed at C.A.R. Milestones Preschool, made possible by a grant from the Garden Club of Palo Alto. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Publicity spokesperson Shirley Finfrock said that the monthly meetings are what she enjoys most about the club. "They always have an outside speaker on some horticulture or outside topic," she said. At the birthday celebration, David Lewis spoke about saving the San Francisco Bay.

Members are currently focusing on creating products to sell at the club's biennial Holiday Affaire later this year. In 2005, the one-day sale brought in $37,000, enough to more than cover every donation the club made in 2006, Jack said. The event requires months of preparation, and club members host home workshops to create crafts, wreaths, edibles and flower arrangements.

"It's great fun," Jack said, referring to the workshops responsible for giving the Holiday Affaire life. "It's like a big quilting bee, and a great way to meet new members."

The club has 123 active members, all women. The club doesn't prohibit men as members, but there have been none since 1923. Those interested in joining still need the invitation of a member.

Club members often spend time at the Gamble Garden Center, Finfrock said, as volunteers or just to enjoy the scenery.

"There's a big cross-over between the members of the Garden Club and the members of Gamble Garden," she said.

Jack agreed. "A lot of people volunteer there because of their love of gardens," she said. The club takes in new members every year, usually through friends who show a passion for gardening.

"There are women through their late-30s up to the mid-80s," Finfrock said of members' diversity in age. "It's quite a span."

In a "Community Outreach" program launched in 2002, members deliver flower arrangements to hospitals, libraries, nursing homes and many other establishments in the Palo Alto area.

"Community outreach taught two groups of kids at Children's Health Council how to make floral arrangements. They loved it," Jack said.

Community service has been a central principle of the Garden Club since its inaugural meeting in 1921, when a Mrs. Frederick Wheeler hosted a luncheon for 11 garden-savvy women of her choice. Her intent was to be an outlet for exchanging garden and artistic ideas and to improve Palo Alto.

Garden Club's contributions

The Palo Garden Club cites a variety of contributions it has made to educate, beautify and support garden-related projects in Palo Alto and the surrounding community. Profits from the Holiday Affaire held every two years provide the funds for these grants.

1940s -- Made plantings for military installations in the area.

1950s -- Funded the hiring of a landscape architect to create the master plan for the grounds of the new Palo Alto city hall.

1960s -- Helped landscape the YWCA. Planted trees at the Palo Alto duck pond.

1970s -- Funded the Palo Alto Grove in Big Basin State Park. Printed tree identification maps.

1980s -- Played a major role in the development of the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden Center by donating plants and materials, researching similar garden centers, preparing and presenting city proposals, and developing a financial and administrative plan. Pledged $25,000 to the Gamble Garden Foundation at the start of development.

1990s -- Aided in the beautification of the Lucie Stern Courtyard. Donated to Habitat for Humanity's Bay Oaks project.

2000s -- Donated gardening grants to several local schools: Walter Hays Elementary, Belle Haven, El Carmelo Elementary, East Palo Alto Charter School and Palo Alto High School.

2005-2006 -- Donated to Community Association for Rehabilitation, Senior Day Health, Canopy: Trees for Palo Alto, Gamble Garden Center, Jordan Middle School and the Museum of American Heritage.

Published in the Palo Alto Weekly: