The Cambridge Plant & Garden Club:
A History of Civic Engagement
The Cambridge Plant & Garden Club is proud to be the oldest women’s garden club in America. The club’s roots go to January 1889, when a group of women, friends and neighbors, joined together to form the Plant Club. Perhaps because they were as serious about the midwinter bloom of their indoor plants as they were about their gardens, the club’s initial focus was horticultural, with much showing and sharing of plants, trading tips on plant care, and visiting each other’s gardens at their biweekly meetings. Speakers included the club’s own members as well as Harvard and Wellesley, great plantsmen of the Arnold Arboretum (including Charles Sprague Sargent), practitioners of the new “landscape architecture,” and plant explorers, visiting men and women, who shared reports of botanical travels, near and far. The club did not rent meeting space, so membership was limited to a number that could be comfortably accommodated in the members’ homes.
The Plant Club members’ passion for plants led them to be early conservationists. In the early 1900s, they were early subscribers to the predecessor of the New England Wild Flower Society. At the same time, the club became interested in civic outreach, the first effort being a 1911 bulb planting at the still-operating Margaret Fuller House in East Cambridge. In the early 1930s, the club embarked on a more extensive planting project on the Cambridge Common, a site that had been left in shabby condition after the World War I, when it was filled with Navy barracks. The club’s effort began with tree planting, and a native shrub border was added in sections over more than 20 years. The club’s work on the Common was done in partnership with the City’s Department of Public Works – the beginning of a relationship that continues to the present.
Interest in the club’s work grew, but membership in the Plant Club with a limited by its bylaws, so a sister club, the Cambridge Garden Club, was founded in 1938. Over the decades, the shared interests of the two clubs led to joint programs and projects. The Cambridge Community Center and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education were among early endeavors. A first attempt at advocacy – an effort to save riparian marshland known as Hell’s Half Acre (actually 36 acres) as conservation land failed when Greenough Boulevard was constructed. The lessons learned set the stage for future successes, including the campaign to save sycamores on Memorial Drive from a road-widening project.
The club is a member of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts and the Garden Club of America as well as the GCA’s Boston Committee. These affiliations have enriched the club by connecting us to gardeners and conservationists in nearby towns and across the country. Still, the glue that binds the club’s members is an interest and affection for Cambridge—and a commitment to making our city a greener, healthier and more sustainable environment.
The Plant Club and Garden Club Merge
In the early 1960s, the Plant Club and the Garden Club embarked together on an enormous conservation project at the Fresh Pond Reservation. The effort was nothing less than the reclamation of the pond at Black’s Nook – a once-bucolic setting on the north side of the Reservation that was not only neglected, but had come to be used as a local dumping spot. (Given its proximity to Concord Avenue, the City dumped brush and others disposed of items including old cars refrigerators.) The work of dredging the pond and replanting the surrounding area was accomplished in partnership with the DPW. The experience galvanized the members of both clubs—as organizers, workers, and fundraisers (a club fund for tree planting was created)—and so the two clubs merged to create the Cambridge Plant & Garden Club.
CP&GC’s commitment to Fresh Pond – the largest open space in Cambridge – continues. The club is proud to have provided funds for plantings at many sites around the Reservation, and are just as proud of the time and energy that club members have given to advocating for the care and improvement of the Reservation. In the mid-1970s, club members began to press for a Reservation master plan. The women sustained this effort for 25 years until a master plan for the Reservation was adopted by the City in 2000. Club members continue to sit on the Fresh Pond Advisory Committee and have been engaged in helping the city to realize the multi-phase, multi-year master plan.
Currently, the club is working with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to support the renovation of the Lowell Memorial Park at Fresh Pond Parkway. Encouraged by CP&GC’s interest, DCR has completed a cultural landscape assessment of the site and is working to renovate the brick wall that defines two borders of the greenspace. The club is supporting DCR’s transformation and remediation of parkland along Greenough Boulevard, and rehabilitation of the remaining eight acres of Charles River marshland, Hell’s Half Acre. Looking to the future, the club hopes to undertake more initiatives with the DCR, which owns many acres of Cambridge land along its parkways.
Club Connections to Other Gardeners
Members contribute considerable energy to one of the oldest and important horticultural institutions in Cambridge, the Mount Auburn Cemetery and to one of its newest, CitySprouts, a gardening initiative that has created schoolyard gardens at every elementary schools in Cambridge. Members work with other gardeners to contribute guidance, expertise and hands-on maintenance to many well-established sites in Cambridge including Lower Longfellow Park, Raymond Park and the garden at Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters
The club is proud that one of its members founded the Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that has played a major role in improving – transforming – the parklands on both sides of the Charles.
Beyond Cambridge, the club is a member of Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts, The Garden Club of America, and the Boston Committee of the GCA – organizations that connect the CP&GC with garden clubs throughout the state and the country. These affiliations and others have enriched and inspired CP&GC and connect us to gardeners and conservationists in nearby towns and across the country. Still, the glue that binds the club’s members is an interest and affection for Cambridge—and a commitment to making our city a greener, healthier and more sustainable environment.
Club Connections to Other Organizations
Organizations with which the club has membership affiliation, or are supported by club donations or work-in-kind by members: