TC’s Friendly Garden Club celebrates 100 years
By Geri Dietze | June 3, 2023
The Friendly Garden Club of Traverse City, with over 50 active members, is still going strong after a century.
The group enjoys an advantageous mix of skill sets: master gardeners trained in the science and art of gardening, enthusiastic novices, self-taught hobbyists, retirees, and professional landscape designers. “There is such a wealth of knowledge in [the] group,” says publicity director Jean Spagnuolo.
You’ll see the work of the Friendly Garden Club (FGC) all across town, and in a moment, we’ll explore their many projects and beautiful public gardens. But first, we know that spring gardening is top of mind, and FGC members want to share that wealth of knowledge with you. Hands-on experience, measured over the seasons, is the best way to develop gardening skills, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few rules we should all live by.
Spagnuolo, once a “novice gardener,” joined the club to expand her skills. “There’s one very important thing that I am still working on [and that’s] the soil,” she says. “You have to [learn to] amend the soil.” Amendments include adjusting soil pH, improving texture with organic matter, and adding appropriate nutrients.
Sandi Clark, the club’s co-president, has been a master gardener for 20 years and an FGC member for five. She says that native oaks—swamp white, red, and bur oaks—are “the most powerful trees you can plant. [They] support the food web, sequester carbon, and support over 900 species of Lepidoptera.” (Butterflies and moths for the uninitiated.)
“I have only one tip for the home gardener,” says Terry Harding, the club’s historian/librarian, a member since 1996, and a former master gardener. “Be mindful of how large a garden you create. The temptation [is] to build big, but as you age, your body may not be able to maintain [it]!”
Susan Snyder, a member since 2013 and the club’s other co-president, has been gardening “forever” and learned at the side of her mother, who grew extensive rose gardens. “Don’t give up,” she advises, and “learn about which plants prefer sun or shade.”
Sue Soderberg joined the FGC upon retirement 20 years ago. “Never stop learning,” she says, “[and] take time to sit down and enjoy your garden. Most gardeners go out to enjoy the garden only to end up weeding, moving plants, et cetera for the next four hours.”
In other words…stop and smell the roses.
Speaking of roses, yellow ones are the official flower of the group, signifying friendship. For many, the sisterhood of the club lasts decades, so it is only fitting that a pair of sisters started it all.
The Barnum sisters, Edna and Annette, were club founders in 1923. They were forward-thinking and serious about their roles; in that first decade, the club beautified Legion Park (today’s Lardie Municipal Park), marched in the Cherry Festival Parade, and took on numerous causes.
They were protesters: No overnight camping in Bryant Park. They were civic leaders with a litter campaign and billboard oversight. And, like serious gardeners everywhere, they were warriors, going to battle against ragweed and tent caterpillars.
Unsurprisingly, the original FGC members were also environmentalists, protecting native plants, trees, and waterways. Even now, the slogan “Plant Michigan, Plant Native” tops the FGC website and illustrates the importance of restoring native plants to the area and adding them to personal gardens.
Native plants are vital to a healthy ecosystem, and the FGC has been promoting native species for years. “We all can invite wildlife, birds, bees, and butterflies into our gardens just by planting a few native plants,” explains Snyder. She cites her favorites: anemone, columbine, cosmos, butterfly weed, aster, blue false indigo, coral bells, goldenrod, milkweed, bleeding hearts, swamp sunflowers, and rudbeckia.
One hundred years later, the Friendly Garden Club of Traverse City maintains the founders’ ethos and carries on in their spirit. (Perhaps the biggest change in all those years is simply the cost of dues, which started at only $1 back in 1923.)
Today, the FGC lists more than 10 major ongoing projects on their website. One of the most recognizable is the Logo Garden, found in downtown Traverse City at the Open Space and seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors and locals each summer.
The theme of the Logo Garden, an annual endeavor since 1987, changes every year. For 2023, the theme is “A Nod to Our Hundred Years,” and shows a bright yellow flower (paying homage to the club’s mascot) on a red background with a white numeral 100. Red and white begonias, Dusty Miller, ageratum, marigolds, zinnias, and parsley—5,500 in all—comprise the design.
A 12-person committee chooses the theme and design, and then creates a planting grid with help from Traverse City Parks and Recreation. Plantings depend mainly on the colors chosen for that year’s particular design, but co-president Sandi Clark indicates that some plants are chosen for their stability. For example, begonias are a good choice, “because they’re tough” and can hold up under a variety of conditions.
Sowing New Seeds
Another huge undertaking is the new Children’s Sensory Garden at The Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park.
“Our club has worked with kids for more than 50 years,” says Spagnuolo, explaining that this installation is indicative of that dedication. “This will be FGC’s Legacy project to the community, with ongoing tours, classes, and learning opportunities,” adds Harding.
At the heart of the project is the opportunity to offer a hands-on experience for the kiddos. This is a learning garden, a chance for children to discover, play, and explore the garden with all five senses.
“The Children’s Sensory Garden will feature all types of plants that are sensory in nature, such as lambs’ ear for touch, lavender for scent, blueberries to eat and taste, vibrant colors throughout the garden for sight, and grasses that move in the wind for sound,” says club member Stephanie Nelsen. “The garden will give children of all ages a place to put their hands in the dirt, feel the texture of plants, and learn about healthy eating and nutrition.”
Construction on the garden began in 2020, and even though it is a work in progress, there are plenty of existing features to make it a fun destination, including the life-sized bronze statue of Colantha, world-champion milk producer cow; Kinderbells, an interactive installation of musical flowers; and a Little Explorer Creek water feature. Summer will bring the amphitheater, corn crib, kaleidoscope, and maze. The garden is wheelchair accessible for all ages and abilities.
The FGC anticipates the project will be completed in 2024. In addition to designing the many gardens and features, the club is also working to amend the soil on the site so that future planting will be successful.
Blooming All Year
The Logo Garden and Children’s Sensory Garden are just the tip of the iceberg for the FGC. They also manage the Giving Garden (a teaching garden for kids where produce is donated to local food banks) and the Blue Star Memorial Garden at The Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park. There are projects in conjunction with Michigan Garden Clubs and National Garden Clubs, educational opportunities and scholarships, and much more.
The Friendly Garden Club also has some big events coming up. First is this year’s Garden Walk, on July 20, which celebrates two anniversaries: the 40th of the garden walk itself and the centennial of the FGC. (Hence the choice of two of Traverse City’s historical neighborhoods, the Boardman and the Central.) Get a good look at some of the city’s most distinctive architecture and beautiful gardens and see special exhibits and demonstrations along the way including bonsai tree and shrub display; plein air painters; ikebana demonstration (Japanese floral arranging); and a tutorial on transitioning container plantings. The Garden Walk is a major fundraiser for the FGC and supports a variety of projects, grants, awards, and initiatives.
Their second big event is the Centennial Celebration, which takes place on Sept. 26 at the Hagerty Center. Join the Friendly Garden Club of Traverse City for a luncheon and a presentation from award-winning floral designer Derek Woodruff. The FGC invites the general public to join them along with current and former club members.
To become a member, make a donation, and for a complete overview of the activities, events, and projects of the Friendly Garden Club of Traverse City, visit thefriendlygardenclub.org.