Garden Club of Niagara members are busy year-round sharing their design skills and love of gardening with the community, but never more so than during the holiday season.
Last summer, when a group of volunteers were puttering under the hot sun in the heritage garden of the McFarland House, members were also meeting to brainstorm and begin their decorating design for the historic building at Christmas.
The awe-inspiring results of their efforts were appreciated by the streams of people who visited McFarland House last weekend on the Rotary Holiday House Tour. This weekend, members of the public will also be able to see the garden club members’ creation of Christmas as a home would have been decorated in the 1800s.
Garden club members Kathy Humphries and Gail Santsche were charged this year with planning a theme for the decorations, and came up with Christmas carols from the 1800s — each of 10 areas decorated at McFarland House was assigned a Christmas carol, and the group of volunteers responsible for that area were given the task of representing the carol in their design.
The club has 67 members, says Humphries, and 27 of them were involved in the decorating of the historic Niagara River Parkway house, which was restored by the Niagara Parks Commission in 1959.
Almost all of the decorations are made from natural materials from scavenges from the gardens of club members, friends and neighbours, to replicate the look of the 1800s, says Humphries, and some visitors over the Christmas season, both during the Rotary House Tour and this weekend, come every year to gather fresh ideas for their own decorating.
You will see no plastic, no bright colours, store-bought Christmas balls, glitz or glitter amongst their decorations — that’s not their mandate.
Dried hydrangeas and roses, painted milkweed pods, pine cones, eucalyptus, silver dollars, Queen Anne’s lace, ivy, cedar, and sedum are just a few of the staples they rely upon in their designs — some are harder than others, says Humphries, but they enjoy the challenge.
“We have fun with it,” says Santsche, “that’s what it’s all about. And it shows the public another way of decorating, keeping things more natural. That seems to be a popular trend these days.”
There are “room-sitters” at the house — garden club members — to answer questions and describe the materials used, and also to talk about the garden club, she says — they can always use new members.
The area they decorated was a bedroom symbolizing the Twelve Days of Christmas. Turning a quilt into 12 squares, they represented each of the 12 days of the song with decorations, meeting over the last six weeks to make their creations at home, so they’d be ready for the three days they have to decorate the McFarland House.
To be prepared for Christmas, some members plan their home gardens to ensure they will have material that can be used in the decorations for McFarland House.
“A lot of us have garages overflowing with materials we save for this time of year,” says Humphries.
The McFarland House isn’t the club’s only Christmas project. Several years ago, they began decorating a private home featured on the Rotary Holiday House Tour.
Barb Bedell was one of a group of eight garden club volunteers given the heritage home of Tom and Kim Elltoft to decorate for last weekend’s tour. Volunteers were given time to go through the house to determine what they’d need, and also a chance to speak to the homeowners to ensure they were onside about the look of the home.
Because of the natural decorations, a heritage home lends itself to their style of decorating, and it’s what they prefer, says Bedell, although they have decorated modern homes that looked amazing. “It’s not over-the-top decorating. This is very different,” she says.
Bedell says she joined the garden club because of a photo she had seen of a home decorated for the Rotary tour, and wanted to be a part of it.
Again, as with McFarland House, some members plant, grow and dry plantings so they will be ready with decorating materials.
She enjoys the educational aspect of the club, with members always teaching and learning from each other.
And she enjoys the opportunity to decorate a house for the holidays.
“We’ll be doing another one next year,” she says.
And it won’t be long before members are meeting to discuss the plantings for the heritage garden, and creating a roster of volunteers to plant and maintain it.
With both seasonal commitments, the garden club is fulfilling a long-standing partnership with the Niagara Parks Commission that has worked well for more than 20 years.
And, just as decorating for Christmas relies on material available in the 1800s, the club looks for herbs and vegetables that would have been found in a typical English garden of the Victorian era, which can be used in the kitchen for items that are found on the Conservatory tearoom menu.
Rebecca Pascoe, curator of McFarland House, says the partnership with the volunteers goes back as far as the garden club itself, which was established in 1995.
A formalized memorandum of understanding was forged between the two in 1998, which allows the club to use the School of Horticulture for its monthly meetings, in return for the work done by the volunteers at McFarland House.
“The garden club plays an important role with its activities not just at McFarland House, but with Niagara Parks as a larger organization,” says Pascoe.
The garden club also funds scholarships each year for Niagara Parks’ School of Horticulture students — three students received bursaries in November.
Members are generous with their time, and their work is very much appreciated, Pascoe says, but more than that, she is grateful for the friendships that have also been forged over the years.
In addition to the partnership with Niagara Parks, garden club members give back to the communities in other ways. One such project is working with cancer patients and their families at the St. Catharines site of the Niagara Health system.
Typically marking holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, club volunteers design a project, provide the materials and hold a workshop for cancer patients, most of them in treatment as out-patients. They can bring a friend or family member, and the outing gives them a positive and enjoyable reason to visit the hospital and socialize with others who are going through a similar experience.
Again, they natural materials to make beautiful arrangements those in attendance can take home with them, after an enjoyable and meaningful afternoon out.
The garden club is already planning events for its 25th anniversary in 2021. It meets the fourth Monday afternoon of the month, although there is no meeting now until January.
For information email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call president Diane Turner at 289-362-1827.