St. Paul Garden Club Continues to Grow and Thrive in Metro

St. Paul Garden Club members have donated time and resources to countless community projects.
Blooming Where They Are Planted Left to right; Catherine Nicholson, Marge Hols and Colleen FitzPatrick of the St. Paul Garden Club.

Every spring without fail, hundreds of vibrant green hosta leaves emerge from the cool soil of Saint Paul’s Rice Park. What may seem like an annual rite of springtime passage to most is actually the result of a labor of love by the women of the St. Paul Garden Club.

Members of the St. Paul Garden Club (SPGC) planted the original Rice Park garden--1,700 tulip bulbs-- in 1927, when the club was founded. Since then, the club has been instrumental in numerous projects, all focused on beautifying Saint Paul and its surrounding communities.

“The foundation of the club was a group of women who were wealthy and committed to community service and art through the appreciation of nature,” says Catherine Nicholson, a club member since 1990 and a past president. “We have always stood for community service, learning and sharing [your] vision.”

The founders were a small group of women, mostly wives of Saint Paul’s leading businessmen. The idea for the club sprouted from their interest in horticulture and art, and today has grown to more than 100 members. Membership in the all-female club is by invitation only. The mission of the club is to promote the joy of gardening and knowledge of horticulture, and to restore and protect the environment, encourage civic planting and beautification, and gather frequently to share information. Members of the club meet monthly to hear a keynote speaker and attend a luncheon.

“We gather to enjoy an association of other women with similar interests,” says Marge Hols, a member of the club since 2002. “The club has stayed a vital, active organization that has its fingers in a lot of projects. Each generation, each decade has brought its own things.”

The list of community projects partially or completed supported by the club is lengthy. Some of its more notable projects include supporting the Green Plant therapy program for Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, covering the cost of seeds and supplies for the Urban Roots youth education program, annual donations to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and support of the Friends of Swede Hollow neighborhood group. The club has also handed out other grants and scholarships, contributing more than $500,000 to various organizations since 1981.

In 2014, the club launched a major fundraising effort for the revitalization of Saint Paul’s Rice Park. Colleen FitzPatrick, a SPGC member since 2007 and co-chairwoman of the Rice Park Revitalization Committee, says the Rice Park project had been needed for some time.

“Rice Park is such a jewel and has never complained with the nonstop, 24/7 treading,” she says. “It’s time to give back.”

With FitzPatrick’s help, the SPGC raised $46,000 to help reimburse the park department for the planning process involved in the park’s revitalization. Updates to the park include lighting and safety improvements, more gardens and an enlarged central space for activities and gatherings. (Read more about the renovation project in the May issue of Saint Paul Magazine).

“Rice Park has been the club’s baby,” FitzPatrick says. “The founding members would be so proud to know that, all these years later, we’re still doing this and carrying it on. We’re all thrilled and happy to give back to the community.”

National Spotlight

The initial decision for the SPGC to invest in upgrading Rice Park came out of its upcoming role as co-host of the 2016 Garden Club of America annual meeting, in partnership with the Lake Minnetonka Garden Club. The meeting, which is May 20-23 at the Depot Renaissance Hotel in Minneapolis, will include a tour of Rice Park. The theme of the annual meeting is “Journey to the Heartland,” and the conference will feature a variety of speakers, tours of area gardens and landmarks, and a flower show that is free and open to the public. The last time the annual meeting was held in Minnesota was 1976.

“The convention will really showcase the arts and culture that the Twin Cities has to offer,” FitzPatrick says.

The SPGC was accepted into the Garden Club of America (GCA) in 1933, an affiliation that helped the club flourish. Charlotte Ordway, wife of John G. Ordway Sr., was president of the club at the time of GCA acceptance. Charlotte Ordway’s future daughter-in-law, Marge Ordway, was also one of the club’s presidents and the longest-standing member, at 55 years, before she died in 2013.

“You had to apply to become a member [of the GCA]. Charlotte saw it as really important to be part of the Garden Club of America,” Hols says.

Making A Difference

Though co-organizing the annual meeting is a great undertaking, the club maintains its dedication to funding community projects. The SPGC’s main fundraiser is the annual Holiday Tea Dance, held in December at the Prom Center in Oakdale. The event includes a buffet, music, dancing and children’s entertainment. The club typically raises approximately $20,000, all of which goes toward grants for public gardens, environmental projects on public land, and school gardens.

“We often focus on supporting underprivileged areas,” Nicholson says. “These women are making a difference. It’s so much fun to work with people who work so hard and love their community.”

Proposals for community projects can be brought up both by club members and the public. The SPGC reviews proposals in the fall and looks closely at how to allocate grant dollars based on current allocations and projects that fit within the club’s guidelines.

“There are a lot of little pocket parks and projects that are in need of funding, help and labor,” FitzPatrick says. “It would be noticed if the St. Paul Garden Club was not around.”

The club also sponsors a public flower show every two to three years. The shows are organized according to rigorous GCA rules and have been held at major venues in the metro, including the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota History Center, where the last show was held in 2012. The theme of the 2012 show was “The Way We Were” and showcased entries with a historical bent. Judges are brought in from around the country to select winners and hand out awards.

In 2013, the SPGC published a book on its history, Rooted and Growing: A History of the Saint Paul Garden Club 1927-2013. Hols says working on the book was one of her most memorable club projects.

“I was the editor, but it was written by more than 40 women,” she says about the book, which is arranged according to the key elements of the club’s mission statement. Hols was also the gardening columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for 10 years.

It’s clear that the members of the SPGC hold one thing in common: a deep sense of pride.

“I’m really proud of all of it, especially the mark we have made in the community,” FitzPatrick says. “Even if just a little bit, we’ve created a better place for people to live and enjoy. We’re just women. Everyone gets right into the dirt.”

Advice and Favorites from Local Garden Experts
Master gardener recommends planting in seasonal layers.

Honing the craft of gardening is a lifelong practice. Just ask Marge Hols, a long-standing St. Paul Garden Club member and master gardener.
“I recommend starting small and planting in drifts,” Hols says. “Don’t fall for everything in the garden center. It really is trial and error.”

Hols designed her home garden as a seasonal progression with many perennial plants that bloom throughout the year. She has a particular fondness for flowering shrubs and has filled her yard with them in the order of their seasonal appearance: magnolia, azalea, spirea, ninebark and hydrangea. Other favorites include lady’s mantle, catmint and shrub roses.

“Just about every blooming shrub is somewhere in this yard. I plant in layers so that it always looks good,” she says. “Things are not allowed to stay if they aren’t working out. I’m ruthless!”

Hols also loves to propagate her own plants using grow lights in her basement. The conservatory attached to the back of her St. Paul home contains more than 100 plants, many of which are grown from her cuttings.

Colleen FitzPatrick says she enjoys extraordinary plants that attract pollinators to her yard.

“Angelica gigas has such a dramatic, sculptural look to it. Plus the bees love it,” she says. “Cimicifuga is also a magnet for the bees. It has lovely fragrance and makes a statement in the garden, too.”

FitzPatrick’s other favorites include snakeroot, angelonia and peonies.

“The peonies remind me of my mother and her mother,” she says. “They are sidewalk stoppers for sure and for most, recall fond memories.”

Both women also spoke of a love of wildflowers. “My favorites are Virginia bluebells, bloodroot and hepatica,” Hols says. “I used to take hikes in the woods with my mother to find wildflowers. She was very much into nature. I was just raised that way.”

Hols advises amateur gardeners to get ideas for their own yards by visiting public gardens or even from experts in the area.

“You can save a lot of time by getting someone knowledgeable to give some advice first,” she says. “I started out with a garden with lots of spring blooms but nothing else so I visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to see what’s blooming year-round.”

For a list of public gardens in Minnesota, visit the website here.