Spreading the Claremont gardening gospel

For Susan Schenk of Sustainable Claremont, Winston Churchill’s advice that “success is going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm” is also the key to cultivating a green thumb and successful garden.

“It gives you the chance to try something new,” the plant-savvy Claremonter explained Wednesday afternoon sitting in her lush backyard garden, the product of her successes and failures over the past several decades.

Ms. Schenk embraces that philosophy with the founding of the Claremont Garden Club, looking to bring Claremont gardeners of varied interests together in an effort to expand their botanic horizons. The club will meet for the first time this Wednesday, September 12 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Pilgrim Place’s Napier Building, 660 Avery Rd.

“I hope people see it as a fun way to tap into the local expertise in a social setting,” Ms. Schenk said. “It’s a way to share and stay connected while making our community more beautiful at the same time.”

Creating a Claremont garden club has been a goal of Ms. Schenk’s since she first set up residency in the city 30 years ago. Moving to town in the early 1980s, Ms. Schenk was eager to continue her garden club social outings, but found the City of Trees, ironically, without such an outlet. Without the means to find a solid group of people interested in the idea, she was left to her own planting.

Despite the lengthy time span, Ms. Schenk didn’t give up on her garden club concept and through involvement with Sustainable Claremont over the past several years, she has finally found a team of people willing to help her take the leap.

“It’s difficult to find others willing to get a club started and stay committed to assure that it continues,” Ms. Schenk said. “We have finally been able to find that core group.”

The club’s monthly meetings will be casual meet-ups where members can share tips, socialize and swap seeds. Ms. Schenk is eager to share her abundant crop of rosemary at the first chance she gets.

“I have more than enough to cook with,” she laughed. “I’d be thrilled to find someone to take some.”

In addition to swapping herbs, cuttings and seedlings, Ms. Schenk anticipates gleaning insight from other local gardeners. She is particularly anxious to figure out new ways to handle the squirrels feasting on her fruit trees.

Though the group is still in its infancy, and open to change, the club’s board envisions including a series of speakers and field trips as a part of their activities. The first meeting jumps right into this plan with a talk on designing waterwise residential gardens by noted author and landscape architect Robert Perry. Despite what might be implied by the topic, the garden club looks for a wide variety of membership. Ornamental garden, vegetable patch and everything in between, the garden club is geared toward all types of green thumbs.

“All are welcome, no matter what type of gardening speaks to them,” Ms. Schenk said. “It’s a good way to connect people with information on how to work with all types of plants in order to sustain a beautiful garden.”

Ms. Schenk finds her own gardening style hard to categorize. As a professor at the Claremont Colleges constantly working out her course curriculum or busy teaching at the Bernard Field Station, it’s all about plants that are able to handle her busy schedule.

“They have to be able to deal with a lot of benign neglect,” she admits.

She waters when she finds the time and prunes when a particular plant threatens to take over.  It’s her solace outside of her usually busy schedule. “I get to relax in my garden. There is no rush. If it doesn’t get done today, it gets done tomorrow.”

The appearance, however, is anything but characteristic of neglect; an ocean of greenery thrives behind her shady Indian Hill home. Her backyard botanic garden has become a sanctuary of sorts for plants of all kinds—potted items given to her by students or left behind after a class, green mementos from her various travels, and other varieties that have popped up seemingly out of nowhere, but are welcome all the same. Her favorites remain the vines that have snaked around her patio arbor and along her back wall.

Ms. Schenk first developed her green thumb tending to the family vegetable garden as a young girl. Carrots and radishes were a staple among the pickings, and she recalls eagerly pulling them up the first chance she got to check if the crop was ready. Her garden knowledge expanded after a neighbor, whose landscape was filled with succulents and cacti, gave her a plant of her own to take home.

“When I left [home] years later, there were hundreds of different succulents and plants,” Ms. Schenk recalled, later admitting, “I felt a special connection.”

As she went on to college and post-graduate studies, her love for plants turned into a living as she pursued a career in botany. She didn’t always have the most plush quarters, but she always found space for her plants. Even in her third-story flat in London, a plethora of perennials could be found nestled on her balcony and a 4-foot avocado tree beside her front door.

Ms. Schenk first became immersed in gardening clubs following her transplant from her small quarters in London to a home in the English countryside, allowing her to once again own and manage a proper gardenscape. In the Great Shelford Horticultural Society, Ms. Schenk found an outlet to share her own knowledge base as well as learn answers to her inquiries. After many years without a garden of her own, it was a chance for her to share her successes.

She hopes to channel the same spirit in Claremont while recognizing that there is no real way to predict the outcome for her still-fledgling society. She hopes the Claremont Garden Club is an idea that latches on.

“Gardeners are optimistic,” she said.  

For more on the Claremont Garden Club, visit www.sustainableclaremont.org.              Questions about the club may be sent to       gardenclub@sustainableclaremont.org.

—Beth Hartnett



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