■ BY CATHERINE SHANNON BALLMAN
Everything is coming up asters for the Boca Grande Garden Club this season. The star-shaped aster is the flower for 20th anniversaries, the very event Boca Grande Garden Club members will celebrate Wednesday afternoon, April 4 with a champagne garden party.
In the secret language of flowers, asters represent patience and elegance, wisdom and good fortune, characteristics woven across the Club’s two decades.
Started in the spring of 1997, the Garden Club launched with only eight members. But the archives show they paid their dues, quickly turning a good idea into a real thing. By November of that year, membership had grown like, well, Creeping Charlie to 21 members. Membership has never faltered, attracted by the quality of the programming and the educational offerings.
Nora Lea Reefe and Betty Goddard-Fisher, two of the charter members, remain active in the BGGC 20 years on. Reefe said, “When two friends and I started the Garden Club, we never imagined it would become the incredibly important organization it is in the Boca Grande community. The Club has offered so many talented people a chance to share their knowledge of gardening and floral arranging and to learn from our nationally and internationally known speakers, while at the same time creating close bonds of friendship through field trips and workshops among other smaller group activities. Programs have been fun and entertaining, as well as educational. Over the years, we have participated in many worthwhile community projects that have benefitted the entire island.”
She added, “The Garden Club has been the heart and soul of my life here, even when I have not been on-island.”
Betty Goddard remembered the first time the concept was discussed.
“We sat on a picnic bench at the Community Center, talking about it. I never would have dreamed then that it would have gotten this big. I’m blown away by how it’s taken off.”
She credits the nature of the group.
“We are an open and welcoming club,” said Fisher. “For new people coming down here, it gives them something to be involved with.”
She also pointed out that for Northerners coming to Florida, the sand and the salt and the sea are an entirely different gardening vocabulary, so the Club assists in informing and educating members about their new requirements.
Experts have informed members about the whole world of gardens, from Beatrix Potter’s cozy hilltop gardens in the Lake Country to Jon Carloftis’ dramatic New York City rooftop gardens. Bob Scanlon regaled his audience with tales of the frenetic workshop that is the White House Flower Shop, with their essential assignment of creating beautiful arrangements to enhance our country. Andrea Wulff, the English designer and writer, presented her take on how gardens and gardening shaped America’s Founding Fathers and, thus, our American experience. Herbal medicine gardens, succulent gardens, container gardens, elements of European garden design and, especially popular, the cocktail hour garden are among the panoply of topics.
It was a lecture that attracted now-President Peggy Saewert. Although a long-time gardener, she said, “The BGGC is my first experience in a garden club. I attended one of the lecture meetings and was hooked. The speakers were wonderful, and everyone was so friendly and inviting.”
The Garden Club calendar follows a pattern, much like growing seasons. November begins the season with a presentation by a species expert; this year the topic was orchid ecology and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Dennis Whigham’s quest to locate, preserve and propagate the rarest terrestrial orchids in the eastern United States. December brings two events, a creative workshop for making your own holiday decorations and, just for fun, a Christmas luncheon at The Gasparilla Inn. At the luncheon, members decorate dining tables with sometimes whimsical, sometimes elaborate, often fantastical and always gorgeous creations of their own design.
January typically draws a nationally recognized gardener to speak about their specialty and, often, a hot-off-the-press book available to members.
Noted radio personality and gardener C.L. Fornari was this year’s speaker, adding myth-puncturing humor and tips on how to (gasp) kill groundhogs to members’ repertoire.
January also gets members off the island for field trips to local and regional gardens and natural areas to learn more about Florida’s seven growing zones.
“All the off-island Garden Club field trips sound so enticing, but the ones closer to home can be just as interesting. Earlier this season we went to a fabulous local spot no one even knew existed. Rick Joyce from the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association was a goldmine of information. What a treat!” recalled member Gina McFadden.
“Flower Week” is February’s highlight. During this event, flower designers with national reputations are invited to demonstrate and teach flower design. This year’s designer, Ron Morgan, flattered with huzzahs for Boca Bargains, which is where he shopped for all his containers, and charmed with stories about Rudolf Nureyev.
In March, the Garden Club partners with the local artistic community and hosts “Art in Bloom.” This floral interpretation of fine art has become a community tradition, attracting hundreds of people to its weekend-long show.
Roselle Agles, first vice president and a member since 2015, said, “The BGGC is so special because there is something for everyone. We all love beautiful flowers and gardens, from arranging to planting to learning new things and having lots of fun together. Some members do it all as far as attending everything, while some have favorites like field trips and workshops.”
A much-appreciated benefit of membership is the opportunity to purchase high-quality plant material. Post-presentation, many lecturers have their premium orchids or roses or other plants on hand for sale to members.
Membership is currently sitting at about 300. Membership comes from Boca Grande, Placida, Cape Haze and Englewood. It is reopened in November. If members do not rejoin, those spots are made available to the waiting list. Dues are $60 a year.
The roster is made up of Master Gardeners, women who have worked professionally in garden and flower design businesses, and real pot gardeners – who stick a geranium in a pot and are done with it. The unifying element is a pleasure in gardens and learning how they flourish best.
Looking ahead, President Peggy Saewert and the seven-member Board of Directors, Roselle Agles, Jen Hanna, Alison Henderson, Polley Cunningham, Susan O’Brien and Ginny McCloskey are assessing community projects to allow the Club to more seriously invest in the public life of Boca Grande. Another forward-looking agenda item is to enrich the new website, bocagardenclub.com.
It wouldn’t be a 20th anniversary party without champagne galore and probably some big hats and maybe white gloves, as members get into the spirit of an old-fashioned garden party. And the toasts will be to 20 years of tradition and another 20 years of growth.