Ministry of Controversy, What's Happening

Dying on the Vine? Part I


2015 Baltimore Perennial Plant Association (PPA) symposium. (L-R): Ed Snodgrass, Mary Vaananen, Georg Uebelhart, Allen Bush and Mary Anne Thornton.

2015 Baltimore Perennial Plant Association (PPA) symposium. (L-R): Ed Snodgrass, Mary Vaananen, Georg Uebelhart, Allen Bush and Mary Anne Thornton.


This is the first of a two-part series on the decline of plant societies and garden clubs. Tomorrow, Scott Beuerlein explains how to dig out of the hole.


Many of us who garden, and who benefit from garden group gatherings, have kept quiet about the decline of plant society and garden club memberships. We don’t like to talk about our sense of loss. We feel the same as we did when our teenagers came home two hours late after curfew. We scolded the kids to little avail and kept quiet about it with others. We didn’t want the neighbors across the street to call Child Protective Services.

2006 PPA at Expo Flora Montréal.

2006 PPA at Expo Flora Montréal.

It’s hard to predict what will happen to most of these plant groups in ten years. Maybe gardeners will cloister again behind a monastery wall, sow seeds and preserve plant species. After all, the Gingko, extinct in the wild, was preserved near Asian temples.

The Guardian recently published an article, Are Plant Societies on the Verge of Extinction? This exposed what many of us knew already but were afraid to admit.

2004 New York PPA with Janet Draper and Simple.

2004 New York PPA with Janet Draper and Simple.

I am a member of at least ten plant-related organizations. Of these, I am most invested in the Perennial Plant Association (PPA). Being in the perennial business, I have been going to their annual meetings since they started, over 35 years ago.

I can’t attend every plant society or garden club meeting, of course. I have discontinued membership in a handful of groups. More are likely to follow as I edge toward 70.

But I’m sad that these societies and clubs are finding it hard to maintain their equilibrium. I love the quarterlies, seed exchanges and especially the one-on-one, real-time, in-person camaraderie when gardeners gather.

2004 New York PPA with Karen Skoglund.

2004 New York PPA with Karen Skoglund.

In depth, if you want to take it to the Rocky Mountain tree line and back down to Tierra del Fuego? Look to the North American Rock Garden Society.

I’m happy at home. Kentucky Native Plant Society is a favorite, even though I am only remotely involved. I have not been to any Wildflower Weekends, but I value their information. I never pass up their Facebook posts: lots of beautiful trilliums, wild gingers and lady’s slippers.

2007 Columbus, OH PPA with Wolfgang Oehme and Carol Oppenheimer.

2007 Columbus, OH PPA with Wolfgang Oehme and Carol Oppenheimer.

I am still holding my breath that more millennials will pick up their hoes. The time may not be quite ripe. We’re having difficulty attracting young professional horticulturists, according to the Adrian Higgins of the Washington Post:

Social media, with its many frivolous temptations, has altered the playing field for plant societies and garden clubs. I scroll through a lot of cuddly baby pictures on Facebook before I get to anything closely related to plants and gardens. Still, there is digital garden good out there.

2008 Philadelphia PPA at Simple's previous space in time. The nighttime is the right time.

2008 Philadelphia PPA at Simple’s previous space in time. The nighttime is the right time.

Here are few sites worth checking out.

I love Plant Idents on Facebook. This Stump the Chumps for plant geeks almost always unearths someone in the plant universe who knows the plant, however obscure. There’s even a separate Plant Idents 101 for basic identification.

I like Instagram for occasional, great photos of gardens and plant combinations.

2012 Boston PPA with Janet Draper and David Sanford at Tower Hill.

2012 Boston PPA with Janet Draper and David Sanford at Tower Hill.

I follow very few blogs (who has the time?) but I seldom miss Prairie Break. Panayoti Kelaidis is brilliant, prolific and down to earth. I also like Native Plant Podcast hosted by John Magee and Mike Berkley. Keep a cold beer handy. And don’t miss Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden Podcast. This is where you’ll find “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.” And for curated garden videos, look no further. The Garden Rant’s own Susan Harris finds the best Good Gardening Videos.

2014 Cincinnati PPA with Laura Deeter and Denise Adams.

2014 Cincinnati PPA with Laura Deeter and Denise Adams.

Do you have a favorite social media-gathering place for gardening? Is it a fun diversion, or do you really learn and meet people?

However provocative it is, social media doesn’t bestow the tent revival come-to-Jesus excitement that a gathering of passionate gardeners can generate in person.

2016 Minneapolis PPA goes to dinner at Tangletown Farm.

2016 Minneapolis PPA goes to dinner at Tangletown Farm.

Next July I am going to the 35th annual symposium of the Perennial Plant Association in Denver, Colorado. There are more great gardens, nurseries, “Coloradical!” plantspeople and enthusiasm here than anywhere on earth. Plus the Rocky Mountains are filled with summer wildflowers.

Coloradicals—Pat Hayward, Mike Bone and Diane Reavis—make the pitch for the 2017 Denver PPA symposium.

Coloradicals—Pat Hayward, Mike Bone and Diane Reavis—make the pitch for the 2017 Denver PPA symposium.

There’s nothing digital that compares to walking through a beautiful garden or along a mountain trail.

I wouldn’t miss this fun week for anything.

Posted by on December 28, 2016 at 7:38 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy, What's Happening.
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16 responses to “Dying on the Vine? Part I”

  1. Allen Bush Allen Bush says:

    Thanks to all of you who responded!

    My piece did expose my generational bias. Although I spend more than my fair share of time on the internet, I prefer meeting gardeners in person. We all seem to agree that this is a good thing, but if blogs bring people together, this can only be good.

    Panayoti Kelaidis had an interesting retrospective on his blog today. He looked back over the years at gatherings of the North American Rock Garden Society.

    I loved seeing PK’s photos. There were the Fosters, Harold Epstein and the Ingwersens. They were my mentors. They may never have known it, but they took time with a young greenhorn.

    I am forever grateful.

    I am trying to live their example. I love the company of young gardeners. Rose worries that I am boring them senseless. She might be right.

    I am confident that a younger generation will lead the way toward beautiful and sustainable gardens.

  2. Matt Mattus says:

    Allen – I can’t say that I disagree with much of what you have written here – the future of the ‘plant society’ is something I often lament about both on my blog as well as in talks, but maybe we are looking at this in the wrong way. Thinking ‘big-picture’ here: perspective is different when we view ‘social groups’ over time. While many plant societies began forming in the late Victorian Era (mostly all male, mind-you), they matured in the early 20th Century (the same goes for most Horticultural Societies as well). Post war, after a brief boom or resurgence, these societies or social groups evolved into a different type of groups (1960 – 1980). By the the late 1990’s most began losing members (either through aging, or more likely, the Internet). So while the physical ‘group’ has changed, the numbers on social media have grown, and perhaps expanded the audience. How many of us have spent hours searching for images and content about an unusual plant on Google? How many of us have experienced the thrill of winning a rare bulb on eBay? I could go on, but I think I just inspired myself to write a post about this in greater detail, but I think you get my point – in a world facing such ‘progressive’ realities such as driverless cars and ‘work from home’, maybe we are just in a transitional period. In some ways, there are more younger people involved in gardening – flower farms, Plant Club meet-ups at night clubs, blogs and DIY – Look – we all thought film and feature movies were going to go away not that long ago when DVD’s and digital film came along, but movie theaters are bigger than ever – we all thought that cook books were going to die when the internet started recipie sites, and when Border’s and Barnes and Noble came (and went), but Amazon sells more cookbooks with gorgeous photos than most any other type of book. Maybe things are just being redefined. A gardening book may peak out at around 5000 copies world wide, but some of our gardening blogs get 75,000 hits a month. Facebook groups exist for very specific plants (trillium, hepatica, etc) with global members who share images, seed and ideas. All of this may cause folks to grumble, but – once one reads a magazine with an article about Trillium in it, it more often goes in the trash or on the bookshelf never to be seen again, then is it revisited. We are all curious people, and demand the most current and best experience when we engage with what we love – so in many ways, this is all about the experience. What plant societies need to do, if they want to survive is to change the experience they offer. We hold dinner parties for our New England Primula society at our house with greenhouse tours – we have to turn people away twice a year. I began a dahlia society last year with a gourmet lunch and we had 35 people show up for our first meeting. No slide show, no treasurers report – no Hi C. Our NARGS Annual Meeting in Steamboat Springs was a destination – sold out, and many new members under 30 attended because we offered hikes, a cool location and many interesting speakers.

  3. Laura says:

    Emily, I believe I am in a very similar situation. I am in my mid-30’s with a young child and would love to network with others with an interest in native and sustainable gardening. I think there is a horticultural society in town that meets at the 55+ club, but I’ve only managed to find one meeting and couldn’t make it as it was a weeknight. I’ve considered starting my own club, but it would be a huge leap for someone as introverted as myself. Blogs and pinterest are the only ways to connect with other gardeners that are available for me right now.

  4. Cortney D says:

    This is a great post, but I think it takes time for people to find their way to gardening. Most Millennials aren’t in the position of having a garden space, let alone the time and (most importantly) spare money to garden.

    I’m a Gen Xer and have just now been able to afford the time and money that gardening generally requires- as well as the space. I did Master Gardener training and I’m a part of our local Garden Club- but all of this has happened for me in the past 5 years and I’m just under 40. I think it is unrealistic to be aiming to get folks in their 20s into Garden Clubs, especially in this economic climate. BUT, I do think they will get there eventually!

    I’ll also say (as someone who has moved extensively) virtual groups are really great for those of us who haven’t settled down yet. Its easier to make and keep bonds within groups that move with you- its hard to get yourself out the door to a meeting with a group when you aren’t sure if you’ll be living in the same area in a year’s time. There is a place for both and it does take a lot of trial and error trying out new in person groups to see if they fit. Having both options is ideal in my opinion!

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    You write, “I follow very few blogs (who has the time?)” — but I think that social media — blogs and Facebook groups — have successfully taken the place of the plant society or ladies-luncheon garden club. I’m a long-time blogger and reader of blogs, and that’s led to many in-person friendships both locally in Austin and around the country thanks to annual meet-ups like the Garden Bloggers Fling.

    So I’m not mourning the loss of garden clubs because I’m in several excellent virtual ones, some of which have become rewarding in-person ones.

  6. lwc says:

    My two-cents… the increasing wealth-gap makes it harder. There are fewer
    “middle-class” millenials with enough income to even purchase homes, let alone
    find time, or money for gardening or join plant societies.

  7. Paul H. Schneider says:

    Allen, I hear your lament. Just turned 75 years young the day after Christmas. I have cut down my society membership to NARGS, American Conifer Soc. & the local Perennial Plant Soc. of Middle Tennessee. Sadly the Bamboo, Palm & Maple societies have been dropped as my years have advanced. I’m very busy in retirement with family, our gardens & my art projects so I don’t attend many conventions except for SE Chapter of the Conifer Soc. I wish I had the time to attend more gatherings as they are the most fun.
    Whenever we have garden tours I do my best to entice folks into joining societies that might interest them. It seems to be a uphill battle as many young folks are unwilling to commit.

  8. Laura Munoz says:

    LOVE those photos!

    I miss being part of a garden club or group. I’m looking for community, and I want to talk with other gardeners in person, not just online.

    Over the last 15 years, I’ve joined a couple of groups/clubs only to drop out.
    When I worked full-time, I was too tired to drive 20 minutes to garden meetings in the evening on a weekday only to get home again after 9:30 pm.

    One club I joined was made of 70+ y/o gardeners who were all lovely women. However, what they didn’t say was they no longer gardened–not one of them–because these women could no longer physically garden. The president was 80 y/o and a very funny lady.

    Later, I joined a local organic garden club. The speakers were interesting, but I felt no real connection to the group. It was a big group, and I rarely saw individual members more than once. The movers and shakers were mostly retired and had different interests than I did (veggies versus ornamental plants).

    I love master gardeners and connect well with most of them, but since I already volunteer a lot, I’m not sure I want to become a master gardener only to volunteer even more.

    I’ve looked to join one of the local garden clubs in the new town I’m in, but was told these women are competitive. I don’t want to compete with anyone, so that doesn’t appeal to me.

    Now that I’ve retired, I read a lot of garden blogs to get my garden community “fix”. I wish there were more options.

  9. Tony Spencer says:

    No doubt the whole playing field has shifted with the advent of social media. And it’s opened up frontiers never before possible.

    You seem to be speaking from more of a local (i.e. North American) vantage point, which might be a generational thing. And I suspect the joy of PPA etc. is more about reuniting with a crowd of peers you already know? Both of which are fine.

    These days though, folks like myself are part of a thriving global movement in planting design/garden design that communicates through global networks like Facebook and in particular, some of its groups – like the one I admin called ‘Dutch Dreams’.

    It’s intergenerational and international.

    The group is emblematic of a larger movement in planting design towards naturalistic style garden making and it’s certainly attracting interest and devotees from well beyond the usual suspects and sources. Are we accepted by old-school garden clubs and the like? I’m not sure we are, or that we care.

    But when I’ve had the opportunity to meet virtual garden friends in the flesh at events like the PPA symposiums, it helps us to gather more and more momentum – without the limitations of a traditional society or group.

  10. Marcia says:

    In my opinion, if gardening can offer an individual purpose and not just pleasure, than we can attract people of all ages to gardening. Since up to 80% of all impressions come by means of our sight and the detection of movement is of importance and interest, should we not be able to attract humans to gardening if we make it purposeful and attractive to the eye’s preference for motion?

    For me, this means a focus on wildlife gardening. It’s also the best way to bring children on board. Show them a chickadee baby in a box and they want to know what they eat. Point out a bee with pollen on its legs and they want to know where the pollen comes from.

    As a psychologist recently said, “facts make people think, and feelings make them act.”
    Catch their eyes with a garden of movement, teach them why that movement is important, watch them start to feel and then they’ll get active. Give them a purpose and they may show up at the club.

  11. Tony Spencer says:

    I rather think the whole playing field has shifted with the advent of social media. And it’s opened up frontiers never before possible.

    You seem to be speaking from more of a local (i.e. North American) vantage point, which might be a generational thing, and that’s fine.

    These days though, I’m part of a thriving global movement in planting design/garden design that communicates through global networks like Facebook and in particular, some of its groups – like the one I admin called ‘Dutch Dreams’.

    Starting with 25 people 3 years ago, the 2,500+ members are drawn from all four corners of the earth by a kindred passion for naturalistic planting design as exemplified in public space gardens like the High Line and innumerable designers/gardeners discovering and practicing it on their own.

    It has the feeling of an authentic intergenerational movement. And when I go to events like the PPA in Baltimore, half the fun is meeting up with virtual garden friends for real. The momentum of one spills into the other to create something truly dynamic and if gardening is to survive in the current mediascape, it’s a powerful path to growth.

  12. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    Excellent point about the lack of online presence keeping working folks from connecting. Susan

  13. Jennifer Brennan says:

    I love you for writing this! As president of the board of the PPA, you filled my heart and soul with thanks and pride. So many photos from PPA events, featuring SO MANY wonderful PPA members and friends. I am so proud to say that if you meet a person at a PPA event, you can count on that person to be a friend for life. You always pick up where you left off when you see each other only once a year at the Annual Symposium. I will look forward to seeing you in Colorado in July 2017!
    With my sincere thanks, Jennifer

  14. […] Dying on the Vine? Part I originally appeared on Garden Rant on December 28, 2016. […]

  15. Emily says:

    I’m a working mom with a toddler, so going to meetings doesn’t sound like a great option for me, but I’ve often tried to figure out how to “break in” to the gardening scene without an education in horticulture. I’m a 30 yr old hobby gardener with a big passion for learning about natives and xeric plants here in Colorado, but I often feel that there isn’t much for me to do with this passion except experiment in my own yard and offer advice to friends when asked. For now, I follow a lot of groups on Facebook and listen to podcasts — my favorite is You Bet Your Garden with Mike McGrath.

  16. skr says:

    It may have something to do with Society meetings being during the week at like 7pm or so. I know I find it extremely difficult to make it to my various local meetings because of that. With both husband and wife working these days, the main demographic that can make it to meetings are retirees. Then on top of that you have clubs with minimal social media and web presence so there’s no community for those that can’t make the meetings.