The aroma of sweet flowers and plants captivates the senses as butterflies flutter through the Butterfly Garden at the Sarasota Garden Club located at 1132 Blvd. of the Arts. It’s easy to clear the mind in this place of serenity and beauty.
Sarasota Garden Club members prune, trim and maintain the botanical gardens on the grounds every Friday morning. Women chatter about their week as they get their hands dirty in the morning warmth of the Florida sun. But, the botanical garden is only one of many ways club members beautify and contribute to their community.
The club has changed throughout the years, but its core mission to beautify and contribute to Sarasota has remained the same. The 17 founding members organized the Founders Circle with Mable Ringling as president. The Sarasota Garden Club had many circles. Circles were like committees, or sub groups. As an example, women who were interested in palm trees would be in the Palm Circle. By fall 1928 the club was holding regular meetings with 27 members, including a few men.
“I think they would be proud of how it looks now and of the members who work so hard to make it and keep it,” says current President Jewell Emswiller.
They participated in projects such as organizing flower shows to raise funds; they celebrated Arbor Day; and they helped beautify Spanish Point. The first flower show was held in 1931, in the Indian Beach home of Mrs. Ralph Caples. During the Great Depression, members kept the streets of Sarasota beautiful, despite the poverty at the time. In 1937, they worked alongside the Works Progress Administration to develop Bayfront Park and the Municipal Auditorium. In 1938, the club hosted its first significant flower show at the partly finished Municipal Auditorium. It included professional growers and judges from Bradenton, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and even from as far as New York and Connecticut.
In April 1934 they began to develop the 12-acre Luke Wood Park that stretches between Osprey Avenue and South Washington Boulevard. The park eventually included more than 1,000 trees and plants; a fountain in memory of Ringling; a pair of marble lions next to the fountain; a bird sanctuary; and a 500-foot irrigation well. The construction of U.S. 41 and the Senior Friendship Centers has altered the aesthetics of the park today. The club even had a radio show in 1946, on Sunday afternoons, during which they discussed horticulture and gardening tips.
Members did not have a permanent home from 1927 until 1960. They met in members’ homes and in restaurants, banks and hotels. Community-service groups often hosted club meetings and special events. In 1955, the city of Sarasota gave approval for the construction of a garden club building between Sixth and 10th streets at the south edge of the Civic Center. The location was fitting because members had already provided much of the landscaping for the Civic Center after its creation in the late 1930s. John Crowell designed the Garden Club building in the style of the Sarasota School of Architecture.
Today, as a sign of the times, the Sarasota Garden Club members are more environmentally conscious. Although, the original members did work toward fire control and bird and wildflower protection.
“The world has changed, and so has everything else, including the garden club,” says Emswiller.
The club currently has 166 members, 10 of whom are men.
“We are not our ‘grandmothers’ garden club. We do so much more now,” said Sarasota Mayor Susan Atwell at a recent Sarasota Garden Club fashion show.
There are a multitude of tasks that fill the Sarasota Garden Club’s to-do list these days. It gathers funds for student scholarships; beautifies assisted-living facilities; maintains plants at the Doughboy statue in J.D. Hamel Park; works on the Blue Star Marker on U.S. 41; maintains the Secret Garden at the Ringling Museum grounds; organizes horticulture and design programs for the community; supports the Orange Blossom Community Garden; and presents Civic Beautification Awards for businesses that have done an outstanding job of landscaping and maintaining their grounds. Like the founding members, they continue to beatify their community and promote Florida gardening and floral design.
“It’s the love of gardening and the love of the natural beauty in a garden that brings people together,” says Emswiller.
Olivia Haynes grew up in the concrete jungle of Brooklyn, N.Y., where there was little opportunity to develop her green thumb. Haynes was a teacher for most of her life and has taught all levels, from preschool to high school. She finally got the opportunity to garden when, in 1966, she moved to the suburbs of Virginia. She joined the Sarasota Garden Club in 2000, when she moved to Sarasota. Today she gardens for “the labor of love” and believes it is the key to functional longevity.
“I find gardening as a de-stresser,” Haynes says. “When I go out into my garden, it feels like I am a million miles away.”
Haynes serves as the vice president and her husband, Robert, serves as the second vice president of the club.
“People have this misconception we are these ladies with little white gloves and big hats, but we are very welcoming, and there are many different aspects of the garden club for everyone,” Haynes says.
Kay Weber has been a gardener since she learned to walk. Her grandmother taught her how to garden on their farm in Loveland, Ohio.
“I was handed a kitchen spoon and weed and was told it is your job to dig up weeds with this spoon,” Weber says smiling.
Her family grew their own food and canned some of what they grew to last the winter months. Weber moved in 1967 to Milford, Ohio. She got married and soon after joined the local garden club, called Lilies of the Valley. Weber stayed with the Lilies of the Valley Garden Club until 2000, when she moved to Sarasota. She became a member of the Sarasota Garden Club in 2001. Sarasota is much larger than Milford, Ohio, a town of 2,000 people, and is the farthest she has ever lived from the town in which she was born. Weber says the members of the Sarasota Garden Club made her feel welcome.
“It’s just instant friendship,” Weber says. She has taught her own children and grandchildren how to garden.
“I do so love hands-on gardening,” Weber says. “It’s becoming a lost art, and that’s why I continue to do it.”
Weber is co-chairwoman of horticultural study and co-chairwoman of the botanical garden at the Sarasota Garden Club.
Sue Angle, Sarasota Garden Club president in 2000, didn’t always have the luxury of being able to garden 365 days of the year. She grew up in Jamestown, N.Y., and remembers planting tomato seeds in January, in pots in her home.
“I had a room filled with tomatoes that would be transferred from pot-to-pot as they got larger until they were ready to plant in May,” Angle says. Her grandfather taught her to garden. Angle moved in 1980, to Sarasota, with her husband, Ray, and joined the Sarasota Garden Club in 1989.
Before moving to Sarasota, Angle worked for a congressman in New York, as well as for the federal government. In April, Angle will become the new president of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs (FFGC) or, as Angle calls it, the “Finest Friends God Created.” She has also served as the second vice president of FFGC and, while doing so, was the chairwoman for Wekiva Youth Camp in Apopka. About 600 third- to eighth-graders come to the camp each summer for six weeks of learning about nature and the importance of protecting the environment. The Sarasota Garden Club sponsors campers each summer. She says being involved is in her nature, and she is proud to be part of the largest volunteer gardening organization in the world.
“To be outside in nature and to be able to enjoy all the beauty of creation, I can’t think of a better thing to do,” Angle says.
May 6, 1927 — The first 17 members of the Sarasota Garden Club forms the Founders Circle in the home of Louise Cummer.
Nov. 22, 1927 — The first official regular meeting is held in the home of Mable Ringling.
1928 — The club organizes circles based upon their interests.
1929 — First Sarasota Garden Club President Mable Ringling dies.
1931 — First flower show is held in the Indian Beach home of Mrs. Ralph Caples.
1933 — The Sarasota Garden Club becomes federated and goes by the name Federated Circles of the Garden Club of Sarasota.
1937 — Members work alongside Works Progress Administration to develop Bayfront Park and the Municipal Auditorium.
1938 — The club hosts its first significant flower show at the partly finished Municipal Auditorium.
1946 — The Sarasota Garden Club hosts a radio show on Sundays, during which they discuss different aspects of horticulture.
1947 — Members change the name to the Sarasota Garden Club.
1955 — The city of Sarasota gives approval for the construction of a garden club building between Sixth and 10th streets.
March 31, 1960 — Women celebrate the dedication of the new Sarasota Garden Club Building.
2006 — Andy Papineau becomes the first male Sarasota Garden Club president.
2007 — The Sarasota Garden Club changes the system of circles to a system of committees.