The Day – Gardens give way to meadows in East Lyme

East Lyme – The Garden Club’s manicured and lovingly arranged flowerbeds are giving way to a wild range of native plants as the 72-year-old organization hands over control to a new generation of horticulturalists.

The East Lyme Garden Club disbanded at the end of 2021 by unanimous vote of the six members who had aged and become more tired as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They donated the majority of their savings to Pollinator Pathway East Lyme through a $4,000 donation to the grassroots organization started last summer by resident Marjorie Meekhoff.

Now the work in the three public gardens maintained over all these years by the Garden Club will focus less on making them attractive to humans and more on attracting pollinators – including bees, butterflies and hummingbirds – which are declining due to development and pesticides.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, some scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of pollinators. Pollinators depend on native plants as a source of food and a place to live.

Meekhoff said his group will leave many of the original Garden Club plantings but gradually incorporate native species to attract important insects.

Jean Hamilton, president of the gardening club for 17 years, said it had become difficult for the few remaining members to tend to the gardens of the library, the seniors’ center and the historic Thomas Lee house and museum. . “We had to pay people to do the weeding that we used to do ourselves,” she said.

Efforts to recruit new members have not worked, Hamilton says: failing to change the time of the monthly meeting, failing to appoint volunteer publicity coordinators, and failing to solicit new members at the popular May fundraiser. Club Mart on the Saturday before Mother’s Day.

Roberta Levandoski, a member of the Garden Club since 1975, said there were 47 members at the time. “It was a very busy and active group,” she said. “But a lot of women weren’t working. And a lot of women were married to professional men and didn’t have to work.” She was a night nurse herself, so the monthly 10 a.m. meetings that catered to the housewife also suited her schedule.

Hamilton said the club’s traditional bent could be seen in the list of past presidents printed in the annual programme. For decades it was largely dominated by women who referred to themselves by their husband’s surname, starting with Mrs John Carstens in 1950 – until the new president added herself to the list as Mrs. Jean Hamilton in 2004.

Levandoski jokingly called it a revolution. Hamilton admitted with a laugh that change was slow to come to the Garden Club.

As well as tending the gardens, Hamilton said the members were responsible for growing at least 20 plants for the popular May Mart sale which served as the sole annual fundraiser. Monthly speakers informed members on issues ranging from different types of gardens to flowers, herbs and deer repellents. Lunches in members’ gardens or dinners at their homes were popular social outlets.

Hamilton said she moved to East Lyme from New Jersey in 1999 “and didn’t know how to garden with all those rocks”. So she joined the club and soon saw members showing up in her yard to show her what to do.

“The best thing I ever did when I moved to East Lyme was to join the Garden Club,” she said. “I’m so sad that we can’t go on anymore.”

Now the Pollinator Pathway East Lyme volunteers will pick up where the Garden Club left off. That means focusing on native plants that pollinators need to survive, including milkweed for monarch butterflies on the brink of extinction.

Members have begun testing different methods at their first experimental station in the roundabout on Industrial Park Road, which signs identify as a pollination pathway restoration area.

Efforts include introducing native plants, pulling out non-native grasses like sagebrush, and allowing the grass to grow. She said the public works department stopped mowing the area at her request. Department of Public Works Director Joe Bragaw said the arrangement will continue as long as there are no visibility issues with tall grass and plantings.

Meekhoff said she saw for herself — and filmed in her excitement — a monarch butterfly and a large golden digger wasp drawn to the industrial park roundabout by native plants.

Pollinator Pathway East Lyme, which began in August with $700 in donations to pay for seeds to plant a 2-acre field near the Giving Garden on Church Lane, has since incorporated as a non-profit recognized by the federal government. Meekhoff said the goal revolves around conservation, education and education by promoting pollinator-friendly habitats on public and private lands.

“It’s the little things that run our world,” Meekhoff said. “If we don’t have these bugs, life as we know it won’t be the same. We won’t have blueberries, peaches or fresh tomatoes.”

The multi-state Pollinator Pathway project was born in Wilton in 2016 based on the ecological philosophy of Oregon-based artist Sarah Bergmann. Since then, more than 70 chapters have sprung up across the state. According to the organization’s website, the program has expanded throughout the Northeast and into Oregon as well as Ontario, Canada.

Both Meekhoff and Hamilton acknowledged that native gardens were different from the traditional Garden Club variety.

Meekhoff said there were complaints from residents that the industrial park roundabout looked “messy” in its relatively wild state. That’s when she put up the signs identifying it as a food court to help with the group’s goal of educating the public about pollinators.

Hamilton says getting pollinators back will depend on educating people about the issue and helping reframe their expectations of what a garden should look like. It’s a natural progression, she said: “The garden club got people excited about gardening, planting and flowers. And now we go to the next level, which is Pollinator Pathway.

The way Hamilton described it, being an environmentally conscious gardener isn’t always pretty.

“It’s hard work and it’s not always pinks and yellows,” she said. “Sometimes it’s brown, and it has to be brown because something is going to live on it.”

This means that the Garden Club’s focus on assembling bouquets for the library or delivering baskets to the homebound elderly for Mother’s Day and Christmas will deviate.

“We may not have flower arrangements anymore – like we don’t have male names – but we have bees and butterflies alive,” Hamilton said.

e.regan@theday.com


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