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December 17, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 17, 2004

Saying it with flowers Saying it with flowers (December 17, 2004)

Palo Alto Garden Club brings cheer all over town

by Mari Sapina-Kerkhove

In the age of high tech and life in the fast lane, Palo Altans may be surprised by an occasional visit from the flower fairy.

For two years now, a handful of women from the Palo Alto Garden Club have taken to dropping off colorful floral arrangements across the community. Be it City Hall, a local library, the VA hospital or the children's hospital, the group is determined to bring a little floral cheer to those who can use it.

The idea for the "community outreach committee" originated from a flower-arranging workshop held by one of the club members in spring 2002.

"We had tea and we just made tons of flower decorations," said Theresa Anderson, the committee's co-chair. "The thanks we got was amazing."

By the following spring the group started delivering monthly flower arrangements to community organizations of their choice. Sometimes the flowers are donated, but often the women pay out of their own pockets. Co-chair Kitzi Marchant said it's their way of giving back to the community.

"It comes from the heart," she said.

In addition to its activity throughout the year, the group now schedules four yearly flower-arranging "blitzes," where they plan to get together with other garden club members to make arrangements on a bigger scale.

Anderson said she is glad she can apply her passion for gardening to a good cause. "I am the happiest when I'm arranging flowers at my house," she said. "It sort of makes my heart sing."

The idea to give back to the community while doing something they love has been at the heart of the Palo Alto Garden Club since its establishment in 1921. The organization started out with a simple luncheon invitation by a Mrs. Frederick Wheeler to 11 women of her choice.

Wheeler wanted to form a garden club that went beyond discussions about blossoms and bulbs. According to the club's historic pamphlet, the organization was to encourage an interest in gardening, contribute to the conservation of natural resources and to assist in the beautification of the community.

While the club's meetings -- since its early days always held on the first Tuesday of each month -- are intended to benefit members with speakers and workshops, the organization has a strong emphasis on community service. In its 83 years of existence the club contributed to numerous landscaping and educational projects in Palo Alto -- from purchasing gardening books for the library to being a driving force in the establishment of the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden Center in 1985.

As for membership, the organization has come a long way from its initial 11 members meeting in private homes. Today the club is at full capacity with 130 members, all of them women. The club doesn't exclude men from membership, said president Karen Fry, but its last male members date back to 1923. According to the club's history pamphlet, an apparent "dissention" in April that year caused all the (19) men to resign and become honorary members.

Since then the Palo Alto Garden club has embraced generations of women. "It's a big span, we have women who are in their 70s and 80s, 40s and 50s, and women who are in their 30s," Fry said.

Regardless of their age difference, she said, they are all united in their love for plants and gardening. "Women like to garden. It's a creative thing, they like to work with their hands," she said.

To Anderson the fact that the club includes women of all ages is a big bonus because it gives her an opportunity to bond with other generations. "It's always nice to hear stories from them," she said. "It's nice to get their perspective on raising children and life in general."

There are also numerous mothers and daughters in the club, such as Kitzi Marchant and her mother Elaine Tanner, who work together on the community outreach committee.

Tanner, whose mother also belonged to a garden club in her hometown of Salt Lake City, joined the Palo Alto organization in 1966 after a friend recommended her.

Today people interested in joining still need the recommendation of a member. New members also are asked to write a paper on a garden topic of their choice -- an established custom for decades. All papers are then filed in the Gamble Garden library.

"I wrote about flowers that would survive surrounding swimming pools with splashing children," Tanner said.

In her 38 years with the organization, she said the gist of what it's all about has always remained the same. "I think the club has had the same basic idea of contributing to people's involvement to their gardens," she said.

To Fry the garden club's longstanding success is due to its clear-cut mission. "It hasn't attempted to be some high-powered organization," she said. "They stayed simple over the years and kept the focus on fun and doing things for people and the community."

The Palo Alto Garden Club funds most of its project through a charitable fund sustained by "Holiday Affaire," a biennial fundraiser.

"It's all hand-made stuff," Fry said about the event. "Wreaths, jams, jellies, cards, painted bottles -- you name it. It's a good place to go for Christmas presents."

The event, which usually takes place the first week in December, raised about $25,000 last year. It sponsored projects at Palo Alto's Community Association for Rehabilitation, East Palo Alto Charter School, and El Carmelo Elementary School among others.

Ideas for projects have to be submitted in writing by a club member, and the board then votes on which ones to accept.

There is no "Holiday Affaire" scheduled this year, but members are already rolling up their sleeves for next year's event. "We're getting a head start this year," Fry said, adding that members are beginning to come up with ideas for crafts and setting up respective workshops.

Most members find these sessions to be a unique experience. "I think in these workshops it's a lot of fun when you get to work with other people and do good things," Fry said. "It's a lot of camaraderie."

While the club funds most of its endeavors with proceeds from "Holiday Affaire," individual members don't shy away from taking on a side project of their own every now and then.

A landscaping project at Jordan Middle School is a recent example. In cooperation with the school district and the Jordan PTA, Anne Anderson, a club member and parent at the school, recruited three of her fellow garden club members to create a new entrance area.

Debby Ruskin, Laurie Callaway and Connie Lefkowits, all professional garden designers, began by laying out the lawn and planting beds with spray paint. Then shrubs and plants that are both attractive and sturdy enough for children were planted. An Eagle Scout built some benches for the area.

"It's really updated the appearance of the school," said Suzanne Solomon, Jordan's principal. "It's opened everything up; it's very colorful."

Solomon said when she first joined the school three years ago, she noticed how tired and outdated the area looked. Now Japanese maple trees and a lawn surrounded by coral carpet roses and star jasmine make for a polished look. An Eagle Scout made four benches that were added to the area and now students regularly wait for their rides home there, while parents appreciate the new look, Solomon said.

Working together, be it embellishing Palo Alto's surroundings, delivering flower arrangements or making Christmas stockings, has been a bonding experience for many of the women in the club.

"Friendship has been very important," Tanner said. "I have made some of my closest friends through the garden club. Their activities are very important to me."


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