The Roots of Our Town
Seventy-five years ago a group of determined and talented women formed a small garden club that they named Green Fingers. Little did they know it would come to help shape the look and feel of Greenwich
It’s a given—Greenwich is one pretty town. Part of this is due to the sort of thing we walk or drive by everyday and take for granted: hanging baskets of flame-colored begonias on every lamppost, shade trees lining Greenwich Avenue, pocket parks landscaped with pear trees and beds of bright annuals, or even the charmingly designed ferry boat landing, which has just undergone a much-needed face-lift after twenty years. All these delights, and more, are gifts of the Green Fingers Garden Club, which this year marks seventy-five years of conservation, education and a fierce dedication to the enhancement of our public spaces.
“Our mission is threefold,” says current president Betsy Mulcare. “We promote conservation, civic improvement and community service, as well as excellence in the fields of horticulture and flower arrangement.”
Flash back to 1935. Greenwich Avenue was pretty much treeless, the ferry landing was nothing to write home about, and garden club ladies were caricatured by New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson as stout, rigidly corseted and dithery. Enter a dozen energetic young women, fresh from a landscaping course and eager to serve, who discovered to their dismay that the two major garden clubs in Greenwich (Hortulus and the Greenwich Garden Club) were temporarily closed to new members. Spearheaded by Mrs. Danforth “Kitty” Starr and armed with little more than a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and a sense of purpose, the women founded Green Fingers and named it after a poem that poked fun at the inveterate gardener’s eternal—and unattainable—quest for perfection.
Through the Years
On a sticky August morning we met with Betsy Mulcare, Julia Boysen, who handles publicity for the club, and Gaby Hall, past president and the official historian and chronicler of all those good works and good times. Julia brought a meticulously prepared booklet of press releases and clippings, and the back of Gaby’s car was filled with presentation boards of memorable events. (“You can’t forget Beverly Watling!” she exclaims looking at one photo. “Her focus is flower arranging and over and over again we find pictures of her giving workshops, guiding the young.”) Betsy brought, as they all did, memories and enthusiasm for what is clearly a passion. “I love this group of women,” she says. “Everyone willingly participates. I have been involved in many volunteer organizations in town but I find this a true joy.”
“I grew up with Green Fingers,” says Gaby, whose interest in horticulture includes giving workshops on the art of forcing bulbs. “It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.” Gaby is a second-generation president; her mother, Renee Hack, also served a non-repeating two-year term. “After we give two years of our life,” she quips, “our families rebel.”
Green Fingers began humbly, mounting small flower shows (their first was in a barn), and during World War II spaded under the Greenwich Hospital grounds to make a Victory Garden for the patients and staff. In the late 1940s, after two years of begging and negotiating, they received permission to plant trees along the sidewalks of Greenwich Avenue. By 1951 they were firmly established, and admitted to the Garden Club of America after an accreditation process that Betsy Mulcare describes as less rigorous sixty years ago. “It’s become, I think, even more difficult to do than it was then,” she says. “There are currently only 199 GCA clubs in America, so it’s become harder to make the cut. You really have to jump through hoops!”
Reminiscences come easily, in particular stories about Preview of Spring, which the women humorously comment is when husbands come into their own, helping to construct sets and adding to the camaraderie. This spectacular flower show began in 1960 and for decades was held at Christ Church before moving to the First Presbyterian Church (2012 venue to be announced). Initially, the show was intended as a training ground for Green Fingers auxiliary members, who must prove their seriousness and knowledge for two years before becoming full members; currently there are some 154 members, excluding the auxiliary and inactive “emeritus” members.
The show, which has always been free to the public, is a major event in national garden club circles; after the demise of the New York Flower Show, Green Fingers became the only single club to mount an annual show, which since 1993 has been held biennially. “It’s just too much work to do every year,” comments Gaby. “And many of our members are working women.”
Preview of Spring is always held the first week in March, partly, as Julia Boysen puts it, “because of tradition, and partly because a preview of spring is welcome at this time.” The pre-show cocktail party is the principal fundraiser for the club’s many civic projects. “It enables us to do what we do,” she says simply.
Projects and Promises
The women of Green Fingers are not out weeding everyday, unless in their own gardens—after design and implementation civic projects are, for the most part, handed over to Parks and Recreation for ongoing maintenance—but every so often they get down-and-dirty. “We have done some of that,” Betsy says, smiling. Julia interjects, “She’s our first conservation president.”
“That involves doing a number of things with the town,” Betsy explains. “We’re focused on deer management. And,” she sighs, “there are the rabbits. But, mainly, we’ve started an outreach program about our work in the Holly Grove at Greenwich Point, encouraging native plants and getting rid of invasive plants like “mile-a-minute” vine. The issue with invasives is that they take over native plants and can kill your nice little trillium in the woods.”
Julia, also a past president, says her love of gardening dates back to her father’s farm in Virginia. Her favorite Green Fingers project, hands down, was the improvement to Wilbur Peck Court. “I was thrilled,” she says. “There was a stretch of uninteresting land that was not used, and we put in picnic tables and benches so the people who lived there could actually use the land.”
For Betsy and Gaby, their favorite is the third and most recent renovation of the Town Ferry Landing. “It’s a gem in the crown of the town,” states Betsy. First opened with great fanfare in 1981 on NBC’s Today Show—Willard Scott perched on the new fountain with Janie Galbraith, civic chairman, and Green Fingers president Betsy Phelps—after two decades some serious rethinking was needed. Green Fingers got busy, and the latest incarnation includes an elegant bronze aluminum fence to replace the old chain link, and the embankment is now landscaped with low maintenance, drought-resistant hybridized native plants.
“It’s so visible and it’s just lovely,” says Betsy. “I think that’s our signature project because we’ve been back to it three times, and we’ve spent a major amount of money each time. Last year I had friends who went there, and I was embarrassed to tell them that this was a Green Fingers project because it had gotten so shabby. So we decided that this was what we were going to do for our seventy-fifth anniversary.”
On October 2, the Green Fingers Garden Club will celebrate—no doubt in grand style and with much laughter—at their first ever gala dinner, to be held at the Round Hill Club. “We feel very vibrant right now,” says Betsy, “because we have in the past year and a half admitted nineteen new members. That’s wonderful, as the rest of us,” she pauses and then laughs, “mature even further.”