Chris Keller is sitting at a table in the living room of his leafy Garrett Park home. His dog is sprawled under the grand piano, faintly snoring, and the stillness inside is in stark contrast to the scene outside, where a gale is whipping the dogwood and maple branches back and forth.
Keller, 75, seems oblivious to the windstorm; he is sipping an iced tea and thinking about the quiet demise of a Washington institution that began as the Men’s Garden Club of Montgomery County in 1946.
It once had close to 200 members, important men in the affairs of the capital city, but now with a dwindling membership and no quorum, it is like an ancient and barely surviving oak, hollow and mostly branchless. Such a specimen might be spared the ax for the sake of posterity, but there is no such reprieve for the garden club, which was re-formed in 2006 as the co-ed Metropolitan Washington Garden Club. The last meeting was held months ago. It has fallen to Keller, as the club’s president, to disburse its remaining funds and turn out the lights. “Being the last officer standing, I have something akin to survivor’s guilt,” he said.
The demise of the club marks the end of an era in the metropolis — a small, unnoticed thing, perhaps, except its passing seems to signal the end, too, of a fading social fabric that came to define life in Washington after World War II.
The club was created by a handful of men in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area at a time when the sexes were less socially integrated and most garden clubs were for women. But it was not simply an excuse for guys to gather to drink whiskey and smoke cigars; the founders were serious gardeners and tilled Victory Gardens during the war. Afterward, a club offered a way to hone their gardening skills, grow the latest ornamental offerings and generally support the cause of home gardening in a period of massive suburban expansion.
Many were from the ranks of government, including the Departments of State and Justice, and journalists with major news organizations. It is comforting to think the monthly gatherings in a succession of church halls were perhaps like Keller’s sitting room — a quiet space as the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Watergate, etc., whipped around outside.
At the meetings, members would stand up and commend a favorite garden tool or divulge a crazy way of deterring browsing deer.
The club was noteworthy for a number of unusual aspects, including a very readable monthly newsletter written by the journalist members who called it the Saturday Leaning Post, a play on the once mighty Saturday Evening Post. A host of members and guest experts wrote and published several editions of a practical guide called “Successful Gardening in the Greater Washington Area,” the last edition of which published in 1990. A friend and club member told me later that it sold so well the club was at a loss to know what to do with the income.
One of its most popular offerings was its spring bulb program. The club contracted with a wholesale Dutch bulb distributor to get bulk quantities of daffodils, tulips and specialty bulbs at discounted prices. They arrived early one fall Saturday at the county fairgrounds, and members were there to pick up their orders, some numbering in the thousands of bulbs. For a bunch of middle-aged and older gardeners, this was the equivalent of Santa arriving on his sleigh, even if the boxes sentenced them to long November weekends on their knees, bulb planting. This seemed a normal autumn ritual. Today, Keller looks out his windows and sees landscape companies arrive in their trucks and trailers to do all the yard work in the neighborhood.
Opening the doors to female members could not stave off the decline. The average age, once relatively young, crept up with every passing year. Betty Walters joined after the club admitted women; her husband, Frederick, was already a member. The couple lives in the Glen Park neighborhood of Montgomery County. “It wasn’t the Me Too movement that closed it down,” she said. “We’re in our 80s; we didn’t want to drive down to Bethesda at night.”
Lloyd Welch Pogue, a charter member who would live to be 103, sent in his check long after he could attend meetings. “It was the most beautiful handwriting,” Keller said.
In recent years, the club would continue to attract leading lights in the gardening world for illustrated talks, but the audience size shrank from about 50 to 15, Keller said. “You would go to a lot of effort to get the speaker,” he said. The meager audience “took the edge off a bit.”
A Californian, he came to Washington in 1969 and moved to Garrett Park in 1980 to raise his family. He is a retired lawyer who worked for the Federal Trade Commission. His house and garden are full of clues to a life in gardening. The entrance porch is decorated with potted clivias springing into flower. By the driveway, divided perennials sit in black plastic pots awaiting new permanent homes. A mature upright Japanese maple started life as a seedling growing in the Chevy Chase garden of the famous American botanist David Fairchild. Keller’s son, Robert, brought it home as a tiny sprout in a plastic cup. Robert was about 4 years old at the time. He is now 41.
Behind the maple grows the tree of a connoisseur, a weeping Cercidiphyllum japonicum.
The reasons for the club’s decline are complicated and tie into evolving generational social dynamics in play even before the Internet came along. Keller notes that Washington’s high-priced housing market requires double income earners. The demands of contemporary child-rearing and the pressures of the modern workplace make club membership tough. Some members were in it for the bulbs and had planted enough. Exploding populations of deer have made gardening almost impossible in parts of suburban Maryland. We won’t even mention the rabbits.
“I think the whole nature of gardening is being affected by a lot of things,” Keller said.
Keller was drawn to the club by the arrival of an unsolicited invitation to join AARP when he turned 50. “It said, ‘Welcome to your golden years,’ or something like that, which just depressed me immensely. My wife said, ‘Why don’t you go to the club,’ and when I arrived I was welcomed as the gardening kid.”