When you picture a community’s Garden Club that has been around for an awfully long time, what image comes to mind? Society matrons in prissy frocks sipping tea in their conservatories, chatting about who ought to be excluded? The New Paltz Garden Club may have resembled something like that, way back in its founding days; but it’s a whole different entity now, 75 years into its existence. Its members make a point of becoming well-informed about contemporary sustainability issues such as climate change and the importance of planting pollinator gardens, and it’s a great community resource for any resident who wants to learn more about home horticulture.
“We’re a working club, and we’re very welcoming to everyone. We currently have members ranging in age from their 30s to their 80s,” says Shelly Ottens, who has been involved with the group for more than three decades, served as president for six years and vice president for nine years before that. “Most of my best friends I met at the Garden Club. We’re very friendly and nice people.”
Some new recruits discover the Club through its outreach at local events, such as the Ulster County Fair, Elting Library Fair and various church fairs. At the New Paltz Reformed Church’s recent Applestock event, for example, a Garden Club volunteer sat at a table teaching passersby how to deadhead marigolds and zinnias and dry the blossoms for winter display. The Club’s Plant Swap & Sale, traditionally set up each spring and fall at the corner of Main Street and Joalyn Road, is another big draw (and a primary fundraiser for the organization).
For Ottens, the urgent motivation to join the Garden Club back in the early 1990s was the desire to clean up a downtown eyesore: a plot of neglected land by the Mobil station at the corner of Main and North Chestnut Streets. “It was a mess of weeds, and there were unsavory people sleeping in there,” she recalls. “I thought it should be a garden.” Ottens spearheaded the committee that cleared and planted the parcel and still maintains it to this day.
“The big chestnut tree that is in there — I planted that,” she adds, explaining that she felt “horrified” when the magnificent horse chestnut tree in front of the building that is now Lola’s was felled to widen the intersection of Routes 299, 208 and 32 North. “I took one of the chestnuts from that tree and grew it. When it got big enough, I planted it in that garden.”
Beautifying a community by establishing gardens for public enjoyment is a time-honored role of a Garden Club, but it’s a long-term commitment, and can’t happen just anywhere. “You need a water source; we always have to think about that,” notes the Club’s current president, Margaret McDowell. A neighboring business that’s willing to let volunteers hook up a hose at regular intervals is key to keeping these flowering spaces healthy over time.
For many years, the Club had a water source available at the Thruway Exit 18 toll plaza, making it possible for new arrivals to New Paltz to be greeted by tubs full of cheerful blooms that “stayed fresh from May through October,” McDowell says, with flowers donated by Wallkill View Farms. Unfortunately, “We had to remove them when the Thruway went toll-less.”
The answer to a question often seen on local social media these days, “Whatever happened to the flowerpots hanging from utility poles along Main Street?” falls outside the Garden Club’s purview. Those planters were maintained prior to the pandemic by the Village of New Paltz Beautification Committee, with water supplied by a rolling cart with an extendable spigot. “The Club would be behind any effort to restore that,” notes McDowell.
One place where water is still made regularly available is the small patch surrounding a magnolia tree outside the Trailways Bus Terminal at Main and Prospect Street. “There was a lot of trash, because it’s a busy spot,” McDowell says. So, about five years ago, the Garden Club decided to take it on, cleaning up the mess and planting bulbs and annuals.
To keep up the places they’ve adopted, Garden Club members split into teams of two, signing up for two-week shifts to maintain the plantings throughout the season. But there’s plenty of play interspersed with the work and the exchange of knowledge, seedlings and cuttings. “We have a good time together,” says Ottens.
Field trips happen regularly when the world isn’t on lockdown; a tour of the show gardens and greenhouses at Mohonk Mountain House is an annual treat, and the group often goes farther afield, to such alluring destinations as Innisfree Gardens in Millbrook, Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
Many of these activities, including the field trips, are open to non-members; in fact, potential members are asked to attend at least two before signing up. Meetings occur monthly at the Reformed Church, on the third Monday of the month, and are just now coming back to in-person gatherings after more than a year of virtual chats. The November meeting is traditionally a hands-on crafts workshop; this year’s project will be “making a garden gnome out of greens,” according to Ottens. Celebrating the group’s 75th anniversary will be the theme of a members-only party at Novella’s in early December.
Yes, there’s still some emphasis on the aesthetics of flower-arranging, although the focus of Club activities has changed radically over 75 years. There will be flower shows again, and perhaps even some competitions, once the world gets back to a state of normalcy with regard to social gatherings. But, says Ottens, “You don’t have to be an expert gardener by any means, if you’re interested in learning.” Workshops and presentations by the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s master gardeners are regular offerings, and members continually exchange tips on a less formal basis. Organic gardening, composting, waste reduction, how to support bees and butterflies are all topics of group interest. Clearly, the Garden Club isn’t just for little old rich ladies anymore.
To learn more about the New Paltz Garden Club, including how to join, visit www.newpaltzgardenclub.org or www.facebook.com/New-Paltz-Garden-Club-247648935291851 or contact Kathy Rivera at (845) 256-9490.