Rolling Up Their Sleeves
When a committed group of women are willing to get their hands dirty, boy, can they make a difference. We celebrate 100 years of these keepers of the earth
On a hot Wednesday afternoon in mid-July, Kim Gregory, Leslie Lee and Karen Marache are narrating a tour of one of the Greenwich Garden Club’s most recent achievements: a community garden that doubles as an outdoor learning sanctuary at the Armstrong Court Apartments. The garden is part of a three-pronged greening initiative entitled “From Downtown to Backcountry,” which marks the club’s centennial.
Dispersed across Greenwich, the centennial projects—the Armstrong Court garden, the Audubon Center wildflower meadow, and an educational program and restoration of a woodland trail at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich—reflect the club’s for-the-people approach to gardening, its dedication to both horticulture and conservation and to civic enlightenment. (Other centennial events have included a cocktail party, a celebratory dinner, fundraisers like Viewpoint photography show that are held to finance civic projects, and workshops.)
In the organic Armstrong Court garden, Kim Gregory, the club’s passionate promoter, provides a litany of the activities offered to four classes of preschoolers from the local Head Start program: planting, weeding, watching things grow, singing and harvesting.
“Plus there’s the bean tunnel,” she says. A passage built from bamboo trellises on which bean vines are trained, the tunnel is one of the children’s favorite features.
The Greenwich Garden Club was founded in July of 1914 out of “a concern for the disappearance of [the town’s] rural character.” The first meeting took place at Northway, the North Street home of Mrs. William Evans, which featured a long, tree-lined drive. Photographs of the women from that time show the fading flourishes of Victorian style—lace collars, cinched waists and wide-brimmed hats worn at a jaunty angle and decorated with plumes of feathers.
There the women would outline the first projects in a long line of social and environmental improvements that would include canning, knitting and ambulance procurement efforts during World Wars I and II, an anti-billboard beautification campaign, a revolutionary recycling initiative, an eighty-year relationship with Greenwich Hospital, and the conservation of Tod’s Point, among many others. As in any organization that has made a sustained impact on its community, there have been many significant contributors over the years. Here are just a few:
A Family Thing
Karen Marache, current Greenwich Garden Club president and self-proclaimed sunscreen queen, says that in planning its centennial strategy, the club took an inventory of its work over the past 100 years.
“We decided we wanted to demonstrate our commitment to our community, to do something that was tangible, permanent and renewable,” says the woman who joined the club more than fifteen years ago and, as a rookie, won the New Member of the Year Award.
In joining the organization, Karen perpetuated family legacy on both sides. Having learned her way around a trowel growing up in Larchmont where her mother was an active gardener and a Garden Club of Larchmont member, she then married into a family of Greenwich Club gardeners. Among them were her mother-in-law, Nancy Marache, a past president and respected green thumb, and sisters-in-law Eugenie Marache Pavelic and Nina Marache King, also a past president.
Karen says she was profoundly influenced in the fifth grade by a science teacher who cited the work of early environmental activist Rachel Carson. “It’s so important that everyone is aware of what happens in a world of pesticides and the importance of organic gardening,” she says. “Learning all of this is our whole future because all things are connected.”
Before being elected president, Karen sharpened her leadership shears by leading the horticulture, programming, flower-arranging and new member committees.
In addition, she has been involved in the Greenwich Land Trust, for which she chaired the 2004 Go Wild event and the 2013 conservation council. She has chaired and worked on Greenwich Hospital’s Great Chefs. Among her other causes are the Audubon Center in Greenwich, the Garden Education Center and various community gardens.
As for the flower she most admires, there’s no question. “The daffodil,” she says. They’re the first to pop up and smile at you—they make you happy.”
Into the Archives
California native Phyllis Potter, a past president who joined the Greenwich Garden Club in the early ’80s, says her club experience has provided opportunities for both leadership and friendship.
“I had the most fun working with this incredibly interesting and devoted group of women,” she says. “Nobody let me down.”
As chairman of the centennial, she has spent time examining the archives in the production of a club history book that will be sold as a fundraiser this year.
She explains that club records show a time as recent as 1960 when members’ addresses did not include house numbers, just street names. “I guess there just weren’t that many houses back then,” she says. “The original members of the club had [primary] addresses on Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue and Sutton Place,” she says. “They came up here on weekends and met on Fridays at 3 p.m.”
When she moved to Greenwich in 1979, it was the magnificent trees that sealed the deal in the purchase of her house. There she could cultivate plants in the style of her father who loved his garden, particularly his prize roses, fruit trees and vegetable garden.
In addition to the Greenwich Garden Club, Phyllis has volunteered at the Garden Education Center where she chaired the May Market. She volunteered at the Audubon in the early ’80s as a guide for schoolchildren and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than twenty years.
In addition to the satisfaction she derives from the people she has met in the club over the years, Leslie Lee appreciates the club’s focus on preserving and restoring the natural environment as well as its civic projects.
“Conservation is very possible on an individual level,” she says while helping to guide the Armstrong Court garden tour. “It is the building block for a national consciousness. Things like this garden give you an opportunity to reach into the community, to reach children and help them reach nature. In an urban society kids, can lose that connection.”
Calling the trellis beans delicious, Leslie, a member since 1993 and a past president who oversaw A Garden Affair, one of the club’s most successful fundraising events, explains, “They’re not like anything you’d have out of a can.”
Leslie, a liaison to the Garden Club of America, where Greenwich is a member of Zone II, has traveled with a contingent from the club to Washington, D.C., several times over the years to emphasize the importance of environmental and conservation awareness to Connecticut’s senators and representatives.
“We are lucky that in Con-necticut our legislators have a strong environmental sensibility,” she says. “In other states it can be a lot tougher.”
Leslie has been recognized for her dedication to the cause many times, having received the 2014 Garden Club of America Zone II Civic Improvement Award; the 2012 Greenwich Green and Clean/Albert E. Betteridge Beautification Award; the 2006 Volunteer Center/Outstanding Leader Award; 2006 Greenwich Garden Club Conservation Award; the 2004 GGC Club Trophy; and the 2004 YWCA Spirit of Greenwich Award.
With a mother who was an avid gardener and early conservationist, she brings the zeal she feels for the club’s mission to numerous local organizations outside of the club, including, among many others, the Selectmen’s Nominations Advisory Committee, the Development Committee of Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, the Round Hill Association, the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, and the Greenwich Land Trust, for which she launched the successful Go Wild event in 2000.
Hope for Conservation
The recipient of the Garden Club of America Member Years of Service Award for her more than fifty years of exemplary contributions in horticulture, conservancy and history, Mary Hope Lewis, known as Hopie, is one of Greenwich Garden Club’s doyennes, though in her shrubbery-tackling jeans and practical gardening shoes she’d likely brush off such a moniker.
Restoring Tod’s Point, an initiative credited to member Helen Kitchel, is one of her most distinct memories in a long and legendary club career, which includes being a prize-winning cultivator of daffodils.
“Today hundreds of people wander the Point in the footsteps of past generations, including the rock where the Indians signed over the land to Winthrop,” says Hopie, who was a relatively new member at the time the conservation effort began. “I learned that all is possible if a person perseveres and is respected by town officials. And it helps to have finances to support the dream.”
A visit to her home reveals the wonder and curiosity about plants, nature and the world in general that has likely fortified the bond among these women over the decades. Her paradise of wild foliage is nestled in a hollow just above a creek where she says she swims every day. As she putters around the perimeter of the house, she holds forth on May apples that surprise her with their hardiness, a yellow azalea that amazes her, and a stalk of one of the flowers she most admires. “In summer my Queen Anne’s lace bursts into tall blooms.” She points to the dark red stain at the center of the flower that is said to be the mark of a finger pricked. Spring, not summer, is her favorite season, however.
“The pale greens [hold] the promise of summer,” she explains. “Daffodils grow and bloom with the lawns greening around them.”
After 100 years, it’s clear that the daffodils are not the only thing the Greenwich Garden Club has helped to bloom.