Tending the Garden

Tending the Garden

“Boisterous” isn’t a word that comes to mind when I think of a high tea service, but that was the vibe at the Morris Cove Garden Club’s 100th anniversary celebration on May 22. Held at The Estate, a new luxury event space that had previously been the manor home of New Haven’s Townshend family for more than two centuries, this tea party welcomed nearly 60 guests—20 or so club members and their invitees, all women.

The two rooms holding the sit-down service were a bit snug for the turnout, but this only enhanced the lively camaraderie. With the exception of The Estate’s tablecloths and napkins, all the food and accoutrements were provided by club members themselves: teapots, cups, plates and more drawn from their private collections. Louise Simeone, a member for 25 years, assembled all of the chicken and tuna salad finger sandwiches with her husband, as well as bringing scones and cookies from Southbury Baking Company. Egg salad sandwiches, prepared by Janice Markey, were the gluten-free alternative.

Other treats including mini cherry cheesecakes, lemon tarts and cream puffs were abundant enough to save leftovers for the staff at Morris Cove’s Lighthouse Fire Station, where the garden club holds most of its monthly meetings. In addition to food, each tea table featured arrangements of live flowers in vintage sugar bowls created by Markey and fellow members Joanne Durand and Kelly Blejwas. Doreen Larson-Oboyski created a large special arrangement for the dining table, while floral designs featured in The Estate’s other first-floor rooms were the work of Jennifer Haddon.

Among the afternoon festivities were live music—including a song written by former club member and local historian Doris “Deb” Townshend, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 98—and a talk by Margaret Ottenbreit, 87, who joined the club in 1972. Currently, anyone can join who is interested in horticulture, willing to pay the annual dues ($30) and, in Ottenbreit’s words, “still breathing.” Back when she was a new member, there was much more vetting going on. “We had a lot of ladies age 65 and up who were very rigid, very frightening to new members,” she says, adding that early in her membership the club actually followed the 18th-century tradition of using black and white balls to vote on the approval of new participants. Any candidate earning a “black ball” from a voter was out.

Though the club ultimately discontinued that process, procedures remained pretty formal for a time. Anne Brandt, its current treasurer and a member for 40 years, notes that even though she was an accomplished gardener when she joined, club representatives were sent to assess her private gardens before her membership was approved. “I know they used to wear white gloves at meetings, but I think that had passed by the time I joined,” she says. “But those were still pretty fancy events, with silver tea services and such.” As Ottenbreit puts it, “The byword was elegance.”

Club-sponsored flower shows were also common over the years and initially held in the upstairs ballroom of the Cove’s 18th-century Pardee-Morris House. “Those used to scare the death out of newer participants because the senior members were very competitive,” Ottenbreit recalls. Though there haven’t been any such shows since the pandemic, the records I saw of relatively recent events indicated that they still uphold some pretty strict rules and standards. For a 2009 show titled “Down by the Sea,” participants were charged to submit designs in one or more thematic divisions—“Sailing the Ocean Blue,” “Red Sky at Night,” “Rainbow on the Horizon” and “Sunny Picnic at the Beach”—and judged not only on the conformance, artistic conception, expression and distinction of their designs but also the “culture perfection,” condition, distinction and proper identification of the horticultural specimens used.

These days, the club’s goals lean more toward enlightenment than competition. Co-president Carla Farrell still marvels at the Philadelphia Flower Show the group attended in February 2020, which featured a walk-in butterfly exhibit, fairy gardens, waterfalls made with PVC pipes and an elaborate white floral display meant to represent Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown. “The whole event was just exhilarating,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘We could do this,’ but of course you’d need the right location and special tools.”

Others have been similarly awed by road trips to the New York Botanical Gardens and the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center in Providence, R.I., but they’ve also gained inspiration from sources closer to home, such as Hartford’s Elizabeth Park Rose Gardens and Litchfield’s White Flower Farm. Workshops on subjects from landscaping to soil preparation have been augmented by a robust speaker program, which has welcomed experts including landscape designer Leslie Martino from Northford’s Natureworks Horticultural Services, whose presentation on utilizing outdoor plants in Christmas decorations was a big hit. “She taught us about elements you normally wouldn’t think of twice in creating arrangements,” Louise Simeone says.

The club has always maintained a public service mission. At the tea, members shared their memories of the public projects they’ve participated in: helping grammar school students in Newhallville learn to plant and arrange sunflowers, creating a bird-laden Christmas tree for a Gentiva Hospice fundraiser in Branford, planting four cherry trees across from St. Bernadette Church in New Haven. In 2022, the club joined with Fort Nathan Hale Restoration Projects Inc. in arranging for a Blue Star Memorial Marker to be placed at the entrance to Fort Nathan Hale, an accomplishment that earned key planner Janice Markey an award from the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut.

The club’s most consistent project has been planting and maintaining the flower bed at the base of Morris Cove’s Pardee Seawall Park, traditionally composed of tulips, daffodils and cornflowers. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to give it a different look,” says Carla Farrell. “We’ve been talking about putting in plants that are natural to the area, not invasive.” Keeping the garden going has proved to be a vaguely Herculean task given that there’s no water system at the park. “We just put gallons of water in our cars and lug them down there.”

In honor of this anniversary, the Morris Cove Garden Club’s latest official community act was to plant 100 new daffodil bulbs throughout the Cove. Nothing is keeping it from reaching another 100 years except the fact that, as in the old days, many of the members are age 65 and up. Anyone who’s “still breathing” is invited to join and bring new life to its legacy.

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1, featuring golden columbine in bloom at the club’s Pardee Seawall flower patch, photographed by Dan Mims. Images 2-4—featuring, respectively, a group of tea party attendees; one of the tea rooms before service; and Janice Markey with the Blue Star Memorial marker she helped secure at Fort Hale Park—provided courtesy of Carla Farrell.

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