If you’ve ever enjoyed the roses at the Virginia Corridor, the colorful hanging flower baskets and planters in downtown Modesto or the giant floral clock on K Street, you have an energetic 90-year-old to thank for it all.
That active elder is the Modesto Garden Club, celebrating its 90th anniversary of keeping the city in bloom and maintaining its roots in programs that span the generations, serving elementary school students to seniors living in retirement communities.
The garden club will hold a birthday celebration Thursday during its meeting at the One Church (formerly Bethel Church). The public is invited to the event, which will include a presentation by guest speaker Brett Hall, director of the Arboretum at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a world-class collection of plants from California, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Chile. Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh is scheduled to attend, and past club presidents will be honored. The cost is $10 for nonmembers.
The club boasts about 540 members, President Dan Yockey said. Despite its large membership and community outreach, Yockey believes the group remains one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what the garden club does,” said Yockey, currently in his third year as president. Residents may be aware of the larger contributions, such as the flower clock and the club’s annual Spring Garden Tour, but he feels some other projects fly under the radar. Among those are the work done at elementary schools and senior communities.
Schools can apply annually for $200 grants to have the club set up gardens for students, focusing mainly on kindergarten through third grade. Members return regularly to teach youngsters how to plant, help oversee and maintain the gardens.
“Our kids now are in a generation where they’re all video games – (some have) never seen a garden in the backyard,” Yockey said. “We (older generations) saw how tomatoes were grown, how radishes were grown. They (students) get to go out there and plant them, know how to water them, fertilize them. It’s just a wonderful program.”
The club also annually awards six $1,500 scholarships to students majoring in any one of more than 15 subjects including agriculture, landscape design, forestry, wildlife science and environmental studies.
At the other end of the generational spectrum is the club’s work at senior residential communities. There are 18 retirement centers in the area where the club has set up therapeutic gardens, 3- or 4-foot-square raised flower beds that the residents enjoy and, in some cases, help maintain – something many miss after moving from their homes.
The club sets up planters at a height for those in wheelchairs or who can’t bend down, Yockey said. “Some of them who are old-time gardeners, they just can’t wait to get out there. It’s quite an outlet for them.”
There are two such gardens at Dale Commons. Residents can help water them but mostly just enjoy the view, according to activities director Andrew Coronado.
“I think it’s a taste of home – it gives (residents) a comfort just to see the gardens,” Coronado said.
The club’s reach spreads throughout the community, contributing money, time and labor to several beautification projects. Members planted roses at the base of the Modesto Arch and the club donated $5,000 toward its restoration in 2011, Yockey said. They also helped re-landscape the McHenry Mansion in 2010 when the historic building’s foundation was refurbished.
In 2007, the club planted its Memorial Rose Garden and installed benches at the Orangeburg Avenue entrance to the Virginia Corridor, in honor of deceased club members. In 2003, members added a Victims Garden outside the Stanislaus County Courthouse, dedicated to the region’s crime victims. The Color Modesto project sparked downtown’s hanging baskets and flower clock in 2000.
And then there’s the club office, 622 14th St., where they maintain demonstration gardens – examples of nine garden types: cottage, Asian, formal, heirloom, herb, California cool, shade, foliage and raised, according to the club’s website. Visitors can tour there Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon.
The club was founded Feb. 12, 1924, by Frederick Knorr, a Modesto Junior College agriculture professor, according to a press release. His first goal was to help landscape the new College Avenue campus.
By 1939, members had begun an Arbor Day tree planting and its Spring Garden Tours, provided magnolia trees and benches at Graceada Park, and planted trees at the Municipal Golf Course and downtown’s community Christmas fir tree.
The club remained a relatively small group of women until the 1950s, Yockey said, when its numbers grew to about 400. But membership dwindled and by the early ’80s was down to less than 100.
“Then a lady took over who you couldn’t say ‘no’ to,” he said – Renee Newell, who was president from 1995 to 1999.
Newell would recruit members in a variety of ways, including standing outside Scenic Nursery, where she’d see people carrying out plants and flowers and tell them they needed to join the club, Yockey said. “From then on, it’s been just really, really talented people.”
The club’s biggest fundraiser is its Spring Garden Tour, held every April. Other money comes from $40 annual membership dues.
Yockey said members and guests often are treated to presentations by prestigious speakers at monthly meetings. Last month’s speaker was Michael de Hart, horticulturist and grounds supervisor at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
A representative from Hearst Castle will speak later this year. Last November, Bob Bigham, who has designed floral displays for the White House and the late Princess Diana, spoke. Bigham will return in November, Yockey said.
“There’s no place else you can go to see these people,” he said.
New members always are welcome, Yockey said, planting one more seed for anyone with an interest in gardening, the speakers or just making friends: “Men don’t need to be afraid to join.”
Reach Modesto Bee staff writer Pat Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org.