A Blooming Success

Chances are you’ve noticed signs brightening up our roadsides this week advertising the May 7th Easton Garden Mart.  We’ve missed out on this fun town tradition for the past two years, but the ladies have been busy for months preparing for their return this coming Saturday at the Firehouse Green.  Beginning at 9 am, club members will be on hand selling perennials cultivated from their own local gardens along with seasonal annuals and organic, pollinator-friendly herbs.  A master gardener and master composter will be available for consultation and baked goods will be sold.  All proceeds benefit the Club’s local community programs and projects.

Easton Garden Club Members with sign, 1981. From left to right, Gladys Mengel, president with Mary Fran Jarrold, Elisabeth Breslav and Mary Gerald.

So just how long has this annual Spring tradition been around?  Turns out, the ladies of the Easton Garden Club have been selling plants and food for fundraising since its earliest years after its founding in 1938.  Ladies’ horticultural clubs in the late 19th century would often host exchange days where members could share seeds, bulbs, and cuttings.  By the 20th century, these swaps were seen as a viable means of generating income.  The National Council of State Garden Clubs, founded in 1929, encouraged women to cultivate their civic activism through their gardening and community landscaping. Public plant sales enabled them to raise the funds needed to beautify public spaces and promote educational programs for their communities.

The earliest mention of an Easton Garden Club plant sale appears in their archives in 1942 when “the annual sale” is mentioned with all the proceeds going towards supporting the Easton boys and girls in the service.  The theme was the victory garden as the war needs of our country permeated into every household with newspaper slogans reading “Food Gardens for Defense.”  It is not surprising that bean, beet, cabbage, carrot, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, turnips, squash, and Swiss chard were some of the popular seedlings sold.  In fact, educational classes for children and adults were hosted by the Club and they supervised two junior and senior community gardens providing supplemental food for many of our residents during those difficult years.

June Symphony Spring Flower Show, June 21, 1951. Notice both a plant sale and a thrift sale were included. Mrs. Norman K. Parsells with Mrs. Charles W. Bitzer’s winning floral arrangement.

After World War II, sales shifted towards perennials, annuals, and house plants rather than seedlings for food crops.  In alternate years rather than just selling plants, the club would often sell tickets to public flower shows and house tours where plants and prepared food could also be purchased. Running from 75 cents to $1.10 per adult admission in the 1950’s, these shows enabled club members to raise money while demonstrating their creativity through floral arrangements. The events were particularly successful because they attracted visitors from the greater Fairfield County and even across the state. As family-fun gatherings, they included children’s floral competitions and even poster contests.

Left: Peter Clark of Sport Hill Parkway entering his arrangement of daisies and roses for the floral contest, 1951. Right: Garden Club members giving out awards for poster contest winners. From left to right, Mrs. Bellamy Partridge-that is Helen Partridge, one of our early town historians serving as co-chair of the flower show, Newell Bishop, Nancy Buckout and Mrs. Harold Bechtel, Club president, 1951.

The money raised by the Garden club was used to beautify our cemeteries and to support the local swimming association and town library. It was also used to install benches in public spaces, landscape around the schools and playgrounds and to plant trees along our roadways. Interestingly, the date for this plant sale varied.  While it frequently coincided with Mother’s Day, it was just as often held in June. In 1956, Ray Quigley, the noted artist who lived in town, designed, and illustrated the Garden Club’s brochure for their June 13th event.  The pamphlet includes what may be the only known example of a Ray Quigley map of Easton!

Centuries of Flowers, the Easton Garden Club, June 13, 1956. Design and illustration by Ray Quigley. Notice the bridge out on Valley Road that was washed out in August the previous year after back to back hurricanes caused the infamous Flood of 1955.

Throughout subsequent decades, the Garden Club worked in tandem with many of the non-profit organizations in Easton.  Often partnering with the Lion’s Club, the Historical Society and even local churches, the ladies began to host and co-sponsor several plant sales every year.  There was the spring plant and food sale, a summer strawberry festival, a September plant sale for mums and houseplants, a bulb sale and of course, rounding out the year was the poinsettia and Christmas wreath sale. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?

Garden Club members posing at the plant sale in 1975.

With so many ongoing events, it seems the “Garden Mart” was given its current name to distinguish it from all their other sales in 1981.  It was at this time that its date became more firmly set on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend.  While the event had moved around from various locations including member’s homes, church grounds and schoolyards, it was now hosted regularly on the Firehouse Green.

Danny Tressler picking out out a plant at the “Garden Mart” circa 1983.

All proceeds continued to support community projects throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and many of these programs are ongoing today.  This included funding for the Senior Memorial Park, beautification with barrel plantings, landscaping around civic buildings, children’s educational programs and activities, holiday decorations and plants to homebound neighbors.  The ladies even founded a scholarship for Barlow students pursuing horticultural or conservation studies that is still offered to graduating seniors. Many of the Garden Club’s joint efforts also continue.  Members have tended the Historical Society’s Bradley Hubbell Garden on Black Rock Turnpike for two decades now.  In fact, many of the perennials that you can buy at the sale this year have been sourced from the mature plantings growing at that site. 

The garden in bloom at the Historical Society’s Bradley Hubbell House on Black Rock Turnpike.

By the 1990’s, the Club began to focus its attention on their one big Spring Garden Mart rather than multiple sales every year, and there was an increased interest in wildflowers and native species.  Over previous decades, the stars of the early plant sales were certainly ornamentals. Geraniums were the most popular in the 1950’s, followed by impatiens in the 60’s and 70’s. For a time, shasta daisies seemed to be a big hit and begonias in hanging baskets were all the rage in the 1980’s.  While some of these annuals are still sold in the Garden Mart today, other plants are no longer offered as members learned of their damaging role as invasive species.  Periwinkle, pachysandra, and English ivy are still commonly sold in big box stores, but you will not see them at an Easton Garden Club sale.  These species aggressively spread; outcompeting native plants with little to no benefit for local wildlife.

Some of the many smiles captured over the decades of Garden Mart.

It was in the 90’s that the Garden club began offering a greater selection of alternative species suited to Easton. While there had always been a focus on native plants and wetland conservation since the Club’s founding, increased community interest encouraged the women to make these species more readily available for purchase.  They also promoted educational opportunities to help residents better understand our town’s environment by inviting master gardeners to be on hand at their sales. Offering tips and advice about cultivation, soil fertility, insect pests and plant care, this instructive outreach continues today.  Not only can you chat with experts on hand, but you can speak with experienced members of the club.  As Brenda Schultz, Chair of the Garden Mart Committee describes it, they are more than happy to give you the “inside scoop” on plants and practices that work in our specific region.

“Conservation in Aspetuck Valley” Easton Garden Club educational exhibit displayed in the Aspetuck Apple Barn, June, 1960. Standing to adjust signage is William Lyon, in the foreground kneeling is Mrs. Thomas S. Taylor and standing Mrs. Raymond D. Smith.

Customers will tell you that this firsthand advice is a big draw, along with the fact that these are tried and true varieties that thrive here in our hometown. The ladies have grown and dug up phlox, columbine, astilbe, foxglove, yarrow and a variety of sedums just to name a few of the available perennials that are conveniently organized in categories for your selection.  “Ground Covers and Spreaders” “Deer Resistant Woodland,” and “Hostas and Grasses” are just some of the groupings. This year they are adding a couple of new sections. “Early Spring Perennials and Ephemerals” will offer plants such as trillium and bloodroot that can be hard to find in local nurseries.  Even though their blossoms only last a short time, these lovely little plants are an important first food source in spring for our pollinators.  “Annuals that Act like Perennials” will offer a selection of species that are self-seeding. While not native, they are not aggressive spreaders in our climate.  This includes chamomile, larkspur and nigella/love in the midst.

Garden Club members Abby LePage and Lisa Canada at work at the Bradley Hubbell Gardens.

As club historian, I can tell you about two other critically important perennials featured at the Garden Mart rain or shine: joy and comradery.  I know of very few archive collections that have more smiles than the scrapbooks of the Easton Garden Club.  Decades of photos show generations of Easton women having a great time at these sales.  These ladies love what they do. They have taken great pride in beautifying our town and helping their neighbors.   I can only praise their good company and I whole heartedly recommend you head down to their sale this Saturday.  You will feel great knowing that your purchases will support our town and you will leave all the happier for meeting them.

Garden club Members are all smiles despite rainy weather. From left to right; Midge Krisak, Penny Wieser and Christine Linley.
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