RICHMOND -- A Virginia garden -- there is romance in the very words.

-- From "Follow the Green Arrow," a published history of the Garden Club of Virginia

Last year, in a move that surely scandalized some of its sister clubs, the Fairfax County chapter of the Garden Club of Virginia abolished the "blackball" that old-timers had periodically dropped on lesser mortals vying for membership in the group.

"Most of the members were what we called 'old Fairfax,' very tradition-oriented," said Jane Holden, the incoming president of the all-white, all-female Garden Club of Fairfax. Now, though, "we're trying to get out of that," she added.

Still going strong at 67 and changing a bit from within, the statewide garden club is a quintessentially Virginian organization, a network of 3,600 women bound together by twin passions for horticulture and the state's rich antebellum history. The male titans of politics and commerce can keep their exclusive Commonwealth Club, that bastion of Old Virginia in the heart of this city; their wives will always have the Garden Club, whose headquarters here in a nearby mansion are flanked by, what else, majestic magnolia trees.

"They're a prestige club," said Donald H. Parker, a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects who served as a consultant to the group's ambitious and expensive renovation of several gardens at the University of Virginia.

In an era when many of their contemporaries struggled for equal rights and other causes, the women in the garden club's 45 chapters have waged a far more genteel, but no less successful, campaign to nurture the green spaces of Virginia.

By any yardstick they have succeeded, raising and spending more than $3 million to restore and preserve dozens of historic properties between Washington and the North Carolina border.

In 1986, the Garden Club of America, which does not count Virginia's statewide club among its members, awarded its historic preservation citation to the group for its "dedication to restoring the gardens of Virginia's historic edifices."

Some of those projects have been grand, such as the backbreaking labors in the huge garden at Gunston Hall in Fairfax County, while others have been as simple as sprucing up the areas around the "Welcome to Virginia" signs along interstate highways.

"We give them actually all the credit for reminding us to be responsive about protecting the environment," said Boyd B. Cassell, an environmental planner with the state Department of Transportation who has dealt with the club's representatives for a number of years.

Cassell said the state, working in conjunction with the garden club, recently wrapped up a five-year beautification program at the entrances to Virginia along Interstates 64, 81, 85 and 95 -- about a dozen sites in all.

The garden club donated $6,000 to buy flowering dogwood, crab apple and evergreen trees and ground cover, and the state provided the equipment and labor for the plantings, Cassell said.

"They really have been very important to our landscaping through the years," Cassell said of the club. "They're very professional. We always welcome working with them."

The main source of the club's considerable revenue is Historic Garden Week, the home tour that member clubs host every year, usually in late April. Money raised during the week -- clubs typically charge $10 a head for a full day of house-and-garden touring -- goes to Richmond, where club leaders earmark it for long- and short-term projects.

In 1985, for instance, the state club used $6,000 in tour proceeds to bestow the coveted Commonwealth Award on the Fairfax chapter for its plan to landscape the Northern Virginia Training Center on Braddock Road. The award was made after the local club presented a plan to transform the bare grounds around the center, said club President Jane Holden.

"Gardening is the lifeblood of many people, and as well as being a learning experience, we're a social outlet for many of the women," Holden said. "For instance, we've had lovely, old-fashioned lunches, always done beautifully -- nothing done with paper plates or anything like that -- but with china, silver, wine."

The Fairfax club has begun reaching out to younger and working women (Holden's two daughters, ages 30 and 31, are members), and so has the sister club in Alexandria. "Young people {in the club} get to see the results of their work, and learn that gardening is not a one-shot-only thing," said Pat Gage, who recently stepped down as the Alexandria president after serving a two-year term.

"It's especially true here in the Northern Virginia area, unlike farther south where it's a more restful existence," Gage added. "The garden club has changed. Unlike the stereotype of old ladies who had a comfortable life, many of our members have part-time or full-time jobs."

Carol Williams, a 40-year-old Fairfax County native who is cochairing the 1988 garden week there, said she joined for "the fellowship and because I'm interested in learning about landscape design, gardening and flower arranging."

"Knowing that type of thing enriches your life," said Williams, who lives in the Fairfax City home her father moved into in 1918. "The little old lady who joined to drink sherry, have lunch and nod off -- that image is being phased out.

"We're looking for new blood."