Many people likely know the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club for its signature event — Blooming Art, an exhibit in which members create floral arrangements inspired by the work of Island artists. But the club is so much more. Celebrating its centennial, the M.V. Garden Club carries on the vision of its founder, Mrs. Agnes Meikleham, that it should be horticulturally and civically driven for the beautification of the towns and in the best interests of conservation, birds, and wildflowers. As the Island’s first conservation organization, Meikleham blazed a trail that set the bar high for activism at a time when activism wasn’t a common word.
Originally approached by a friend to start a garden club in Edgartown, Meikleham insisted that it be Island-wide, and with “the provision that the club is a constructive civic force, and not just an excuse for pink teas and purple feathers.” And indeed, a plethora of information meticulously gathered by club members Ty Johnston, Irene Ziebarth, Susan Hobart, and Donna Arold reveals a fascinating history in the civic arena, far from pink teas and purple feathers.
Just a few highlights include that the year after the club was established in 1924, tent caterpillars were a huge problem across the Island. That challenge began the club’s commitment to the destruction of the insects, as well as the inauguration of its dedication to educating Island schoolchildren about conservation. To address the tent caterpillar infestation, the Garden Club began a nest collection contest, in which students would win 5¢ for every two nests collected. With the students’ ongoing assistance, in 1933, the club eradicated some 18,000 nests. Meikleham considered the Island schoolchildren to be the greatest advocates for the eradication process. And the group broadened its reach when, upon hearing about the contest on the radio, the Maine Garden Club reached out to learn how to implement a similar program.
Meikleham coined the motto for the club, “The Island is our garden,” and led efforts to rid the Vineyard of billboards and unsightly “sore spots” on the roads. In 1927, the club petitioned the highway commission to plant trees alongside the roads during construction. Two years later, the club planted 1,900 feet of gardens at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, thus beginning 12 years of stewardship and maintenance at the property.
Fast-forward to 1948, when Massachusetts planned to purchase the Oak Bluffs-Edgartown beach for public bathing. As a result, State Rep. Joseph A. Sylvia became concerned that the beach would lose its natural beauty under state management by adding concession stands, bathing shacks, and the like. So he invited the president of the M.V. Garden Club and Henry Beetle Hough, editor of the Vineyard Gazette, to appear at the hearing, and successfully got the state to write into the deed the transfer of beach management to the county — and that no buildings would be erected on the beach.
As the decades rolled on, the club continued its civic engagement. In the 1950s, it launched a letter campaign opposing the erection of a TV tower at Nashaquitsa. In the late ’60s, the club advocated for bicycle paths on the Island at the Department of Public Works meetings, and actively opposed a discussion about establishing trailer parks anywhere on the Vineyard.
In the 1980s, the club focused on caring for its home at the Old Mill, beginning with campaigns to raise money to pay for some much-needed improvements to continue hosting its educational programs and meetings. It is the oldest industrial building in West Tisbury.
In the 1990s, the club propagated plants in the Wakeman Center greenhouse for the Arboretum, before Polly Hill Arboretum was fully operational. In the following decade, club members began to facilitate flower-arranging workshops at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center once a month, working with the residents to make bouquets for their rooms and nurses’ stations, a program that continues today. It also designed and planted the garden outside the children’s room of the West Tisbury library’s new building, and assisted in its maintenance during the first year. With an eye toward nurturing future generations, the club initiated a scholarship fund for Vineyard high school students bound for a college major in a field related to horticulture, landscape, environmental studies, farming, or other related areas of study.
In the past few years, just a few of the club’s endeavors have included helping the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in designing, planting, and maintaining the Rose Styron Garden, and several of the museum’s outside urns.
Now in its 100th year, the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club, with more than 200 members, continues to make a difference in the community. Arold, who is in charge of communications, says, “The club is proud of its legacy of protecting and preserving the natural beauty of the Island. Part of our goal is to continue to do so, while providing education and opportunities to be involved with the Island community through horticulture.”
The club’s calendar is already full of upcoming events. Just a sampling includes “CSAs and Their Contribution to the Community,” presented by Rusty Gordon, farm manager at Ghost Island Farm, on Tuesday, March 19. On April 23, Tim Boland, Polly Hill Arboretum executive director, will present “Native American Trees and Shrubs in Your Garden.” “Blooming Art” is slated for June 14 to 16, and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s renowned research librarian, Bow Van Riper, will present “Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club: 100 Years of Conservation and Horticulture” on July 16. The Edgartown Garden Stroll fundraiser will take place on July 25.
There are plenty more plans afoot as part of the club’s anniversary celebration. “So,” Arold urges, “be sure to stay tuned to the news and our website for updates.”
For more information, visit marthasvineyardgardenclub.org.