Gardening club celebrates 50 years

Nancy Johnson calls the jungle-like mass of plants that surrounds her house an "educational garden."

At her Gales Ferry home, thick patches of plant growth are surrounded by tall wire fences - a tactic she says keeps the deer away - and potted plants fill the first third of her driveway. Johnson sometimes invites her fellow Ledyard Garden Club members to follow the narrow, winding paths through her garden to learn about unusual plants and how to deal with difficulties like pests or an overabundance of shade.

Last week, she sat in her garden's gazebo with a garden club friend, a photo album and a pile of documents to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the club, which was started in 1964.

If there's one thing Johnson wants people to know about the Ledyard Garden Club, it's that the organization is open to everyone and promotes a broad range of interests.

"Some people think you can only join a garden club if you're very knowledgeable. On the contrary," said Johnson, a 33-year member, explaining that club members enjoy helping others learn.

Members will occasionally invite others to their garden, as Johnson does, giving less experienced gardeners advice on how to handle certain challenges. Sometimes they will show off certain plants that are new to the trade, said Johnson. She herself collects such unusual species by scouring high-end nurseries, and in her yard you can see plants with seeds eerily similar to porcelain dolls' eyes next to the enormous green leaves of petasites.

And during the once-a-month meetings, members set up swap tables to trade plants, books and gardening implements, allowing others to explore new things.

All but one of the nearly 60 members are female, said Johnson, although many husbands who are reluctant to join nevertheless attend meetings and volunteer to help with events. The group is well known for their annual spring plant sale, during which they bring in a couple thousand dollars that they use to fund community projects. That is a "huge undertaking" that the club plans for all year long, but Johnson and fellow member Joann Pillar said the club does so much more.

Some members are exclusively flower people, others are vegetable gardens, and some are more focused on clearing land of invasive species and replanting native ones.

Although Johnson herself likes, among other things, floral arrangements - she had two in her gazebo and said she used to teach co-workers how to make them during lunch - she said many people have the impression garden clubs are all about showing off pretty flowers, and that's just not true.

"We don't do just foofy-type arrangements," she added. "We are really kind of down-in-the-dirt gardeners."

The garden club has, since 1974, maintained the gardens at the Nathan Lester House. They work with Ledyard High School's Agri-Science program to have students grow vegetables for the plant sale. They provide scholarships to Ledyard students interested in furthering their education in life sciences, distribute holiday wreaths to town buildings, grow produce to donate to the Ledyard Food Pantry and landscape Habitat for Humanity houses.

The club also brings in speakers on topics as varied as its members' interests - beekeeping, trees, mushrooms and birds have all been discussed - and members of the public are allowed to attend free of charge. Sometimes the meetings also include hands-on activities like floral arranging or bonsai care.

Everyone is welcome to attend, whether his or her garden is an 11-acre lot or a tiny bed of petunias, said Johnson.

The club's philosophy is that "every garden is special," she explained. "A garden is a reflection of its owner."

K.CATALFAMO@THEDAY.COM

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