Dying on the Vine? Part I

Dying on the Vine? Part I
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Allen Bush
on December 28, 2016 at 7:38 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy, What’s Happening.


    • admin
    • 1st January 1970

    Thanks to all of you who responded!

    • admin
    • 10th November 2001

    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.

    • admin
    • 18th August 2004

    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.

    • Cortney D
    • 5th November 2012

    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.

    • admin
    • 9th December 2016

    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.

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