In 1962 I started to get involved in what I call “Organized Horticulture”. At that time there were many civic, religious and horticultural organizations. Every church and temple had a men’s club, woman’s club, single’s club, couple’s club etc. There were Masons, Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows, Eagles. Societies existed for chrysanthemums, rhododendrons, African violets, roses, orchids and several others that I can’t remember. Many localities had a garden club, probably 30 or so in Nassau County alone.
All of these organizations were vibrant, active, energetic groups. The Long Island Chrysanthemum Society limited itself to 125 members and it had a waiting list. Its annual show had 1300 entries and would attract 3500 visitors during its two day run at the State University at Farmingdale. The New York Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society met at a Schraft’s Restaurant on Fifth Ave. in Manhattan and would attract at least 100 people from New Jersey, Conn. and Westchester and Long Island. At one time the NY Chapter of the ARS had 450 members. In one year alone we took in 150 new members from our information booth at the NY Flower Show. All of the local garden clubs had waiting lists for membership. Two that I knew of had a 10-year wait to become a member.
A look now at these organizations is a sobering experience. Everyone is suffering from a lack of interested members. There are still Masons struggling along with limited membership but the Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows and Eagles are basically gone. All of the other groups, if they are still around, are down to 10 to 15% of what they used to be. Also, leaders of these groups all report a general lack of “spark plug” members, those who are right there ready to do or help on any project. Most of the members are long time members who feel that they have done their share in the past and now want to relax and let the younger members do the work.
The problem is that there are no new members. Where has everyone gone? Why are all these organizations not attracting new, young members? There are several reasons. The first is competition from television, especially cable and satellite television, together with rented movies. These make television a remarkable entertainment medium. You don’t even have to go to a Blockbuster Store to rent a movie; they will mail it to you and give you a postage-free envelope in which to return it. The old expression “watching the boob tube” just is not true anymore. There is an infinite amount of very interesting programming available.
If the competition from TV is not enough we have the Internet. There everything is available from information on any subject and correspondence with people to infinite entertainment options. There is also movies on demand, where by putting in a few numbers on your computer, you can immediately watch a movie.
We also have the new life style of young people. Housing is very expensive in the NY City area. In order for young married couples to live here, most of the time both partners must work, and usually, work long hours. Getting home at 6:30 or 7PM to prepare and eat dinner really kills the idea of picking up at 8PM to drive to a Rhododendron , Mum, church or whatever society meeting. And I have not even mentioned interacting with children, which must be done if there are any. Most of these people are simply over worked and have very little spare time for outside activities.
Lastly we have the feeling on the part of young people that horticulture is “so 1930” and “so uncool”. Any gardening work is to be done by hired workers. So very many middle class families now use services to even cut the grass and do garden maintenance work, jobs that, years ago, every home owner considered his or her duty to perform.
Sounds dismal and hopeless doesn’t it. Well its not. We have something to offer these people that is not found elsewhere. People. You. What we must show these people is that rhododendrons are fun, interesting, exciting and most important they can get to develop a whole new circle of friends from all walks of life.
How? First of all we should sponsor and run one hour free information sessions about rhododendron culture at local libraries at least once a quarter. I would be glad to give the presentation. We should start out in the communities closest to Planting Fields, Oyster Bay, Syosset, Locust Valley, Glen Cove, Bayville and then move out from there. Garden clubs in the area of the library could be notified of the upcoming meeting and invited to attend. Publicity for the meeting would be through a poster at the library and notices in the local newspapers. The name and address of each attendee would be taken and an invitation sent to attend the next meeting at which they would be given a small rhododendron, ‘Scintillation’, ‘Parker’s Pink’ something nice and a cultivar different from what they would normally see at Home Depot. We would continue to send out invitations for the ensuing three meetings.
When a visitor attends the first meeting, the President should meet the person before the meeting starts and chat with them to find out where they live and if they are interested in any other plants. The President should also introduce the visitor to several older members and encourage the old members to stick with the visitor and continue in conversation. If the older members are uncomfortable with this they should “pass” the visitor off to other older members. THE VISITOR SHOULD NOT BE LEFT ALONE AT ANY TIME DURING OR AFTER THE MEETING. Everyone should have a nametag with the locality in which they live. This will help everyone remember names.
At the start of the meeting, the President should introduce the visitor saying where they live and if they are interested in other plants. The reason for this is that it gives other members a topic of conversation to start with the visitor after the meeting is over. All of this gives the visitor a sense that everyone is actually interested in them. Very important. During conversation, the new visitor should be asked if they have any rhododendron problems and if so offers to visit their garden to give suggestions should be made by some of the older members.
We should also consider having a half hour beginner’s session before the regular meeting. Each session would go over what should be done for rhododendrons during the coming month. A plant could be given as a reward to those who attend 75% of the beginner’s meetings during the year. Why not have a class at the May show just for beginners with a special award for the best entry in that class.
We must become new member focused; after all they are the future.