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Bloom country: Mississippi garden clubs celebrate decades of serving their communities and get set to host a national convention.

For those e of us not actively involved in garden clubs, the idea may conjure up images of quaint little ladies growing a few flowers or volunteering to pull weeds in the community flower bed. But the idea that garden clubs contribute to our communities in small, insignificant ways is as archaic as the belief that clubs exist simply so members have an excuse to wear white gloves and fancy hats.

Mississippi is home to some 160 garden clubs, according to Melanie Gousset, president of the Garden Clubs of Mississippi, Inc. These organizations have changed dramatically since the 1950s, when most garden clubs' primary focus was on flower shows. Garden clubs today, Gousset said, are service organizations involved in serious projects such as historic preservation and community education. The Garden Clubs of Mississippi, Inc. works to provide scholarships in forestry, horticulture, and landscape architecture, while also maintaining a 12-acre nature preserve in Gulfport and the state headquarters in Greenwood. And the state's long garden club tradition has led to its selection as host site of this year's National Garden Clubs Convention.

Mississippi is full of garden clubs worthy of recognition; however, the clubs of Tupelo and Brandon both recently celebrated special milestones that we can all appreciate.

The Tupelo Garden Club, which numbers some 55 members, is an enterprising group whose work can be described as persistent and inspiring. The current president is Mrs. Marion Hill. In 1984, this organization recognized that older homes in the area were becoming scarce and offered to restore the 1903 superintendent's home on the grounds of the Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery. Thus began a project that continues today. The residence is on the National Register of Historic Places, and after years of being in disrepair, it has been restored to its former glory as a picture-perfect Victorian home complete with wrap-around porch and turret. The nearby gazebo, built from oak trees the city was forced to fell, matches the home in style and character. The home is surrounded by several gardens with themes such as herbs, roses, and butterflies, all of which the Tupelo Garden Club created and maintains. Of special interest is "Grandmother's Garden," which contains older plants such as quince, spirea, lilies, and cannas that fit the time period of the home. Along with an annual flower show, the club rents the home and grounds for weddings and other occasions to raise funds for their projects.

In 2002, the Tupelo Garden Club and the community celebrated the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Fish Hatchery with festivities including a visit from U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. Alice Rogers, a 20-year member and past club president, painted a picture of a club that is involved in more activities than I have room to mention. The club is actively involved in tree plantings, school gardens, and civic gardening projects such as the recent renovation of the Lee County Courthouse Arboretum. Club members recently formed a group calls Friends of the Fish Hatchery and hope to establish an environmental education facility on the hatchery grounds soon.

The Brandon Garden Club is another inspiring example of a group that has strong roots yet is growing like a young weed. Current president Sandra Morris has the unique honor of learning from the experience of an active charter member, Mrs. John C. (Janet) McLaurin. The club, organized in January 1952 by Mrs. Gilbreath Neal, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and honored McLaurin for her years of service. The event was held at the historic home known as The Cedars, owned by Robert and Rosemary Morrow, and featured the theme, "Gazing back through our years...God's goodness...and a gracious lady." Using fruit and flowers, the club created five themed gardens under tents: water, butterfly, flower, vegetable, and bird. A tiered anniversary cake and memorabilia room drew guests inside the home.

Gayle Scott, who co-chaired the event with Jan Harrell, said the club's primary goal today is still to enhance the beauty and preserve the history of Brandon. The club's 59 active members work closely with the city and recently purchased urns and benches for the Brandon Courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. They also work with Habitat for Humanity on landscaping projects, provide a scholarship to a landscape management student at Hinds Community College, and organize home garden tours. Funds are allocated to projects such as the club's efforts to add area homes to the historic register. The club is also working with the Brandon Historical Society to create a new city park. With all of this activity, charter member McLaurin still maintains a rose garden at her own home and continues to mentor and inspire the other members. When asked how the club has rewarded her most, McLaurin said, "Friendship is the immediate response, and the opportunity to see and seek beauty."

Most garden club members discover their club through friends or neighbors. If you don't know a garden club member and are interested in joining, a local Chamber of Commerce or state extension agency is a good place to start. Other good sources are websites or conventions. The State Convention was held in April in Tupelo on the grounds of the fish hatchery. This month, Mississippi is proud to host the 74th annual National Garden Clubs Convention from May 17-21 at the Beau Rivage resort in Biloxi. This year's theme is "Celebrate Southern Style." Gay Austin, convention chair and herself a 17-year garden club member, said Mississippi was chosen to host the convention three years ago and has been planning the event ever since. One advantage for Mississippi is that the state has a facility like Beau Rivage that is able to accommodate a large crowd like the 1,000-1,200 attendees expected at the convention, Austin said. Nonmembers are welcome to attend and can participate in most activities. For more details, see the National Garden Clubs website at www.gardenclub.org or the Garden Clubs of Mississippi site at www.gardenclubsms.org.
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Author:Mayer, Karen Ott
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:1004
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