What’s your mental image of a gardener? Do you see gardening as a woman’s hobby? Or is it more of a guy thing?

Truth is, no one seems to know exactly who gardens more, men or women. In fact, the National Gardening Association in Williston, Vt., which tracks national gardening trends, doesn’t even survey gardeners by gender. They survey gardening participation by households, according to NGA Research Director Bruce Butterfield.

If, in an information-driven Internet age, it seems surprising that a reliable ratio of men-to-women gardeners isn’t available, here’s something that may be even more startling. A men-only garden club is still alive and, if not completely well, it has at least survived 85 years, a new millennium and a world of changes in social acceptance after the idea to form it was conceived in 1928. The organization, the Men’s Garden Clubs of America (MGCA), was officially founded in Chicago in 1932.

Membership hit its peak in the 1980s when there were about 10,000 members in 143 clubs in 31 states. But like many volunteer groups, since that high water mark the organization has felt the effects of competition for discretionary household income. While there are still clubs in large cities, suburban areas and towns of every size, especially in middle America, the number of clubs has fallen to 39 in 15 states and membership has dropped to about 2,800.

The drop has occurred even though the group opened its membership to women more than 30 years ago. “In the mid-late 1980s, there was a feeling that a men’s-only club was discriminatory,” said President Jim Bagwell of Spartanburg, S.C. “So we thought the prudent thing to do was to change the by-laws.”

In 1992, MGCA opened its membership to women. It kept part of the original name and became a bit of a mouthful — The Gardeners of America/Men's Garden Clubs of America or TGOA/MGCA. While the group doesn’t track membership by gender, Bagwell estimates that the membership remains about 80 percent male. Several local clubs are still 100-percent male while only a few have mostly female members, he added.

Bagwell places the blame for the sharp drop in membership squarely on economics. “A universal question we hear,” he said, “is what do I get for my annual membership fee?” 

The group’s membership dues are $15 annually for a single member, $23 for a two-person family membership and $200 for an individual lifetime membership. The primary benefit of membership is the bi-monthly newsletter, which contains information about the activities of individual clubs and news from the headquarters, which is located in Johnston, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. For an optional $25 annually, members can get a membership to the American Horticultural Society (AHS), which includes a subscription to the AHS bi-monthly magazine, The American Gardener. In addition to these costs, the local clubs have their own annual dues, which vary.

“The main issue that TGOA/MGCA faces at the moment is maintaining and growing our membership,” said Bagwell. “We are an 85-year-old organization with an aging membership that needs to attract new members to thrive and survive.” Addressing that issue that will be at the top of the agenda at the upcoming annual convention on June 27-29 in Springfield, Ill.

Bagwell believes that there are plenty of potential new members out there. “Gardening of all types, including home landscaping with ornamentals and vegetable growing, continues to be one of the largest-growing hobbies in the United States,” he said. “We as an organization provide help and guidance in that pursuit.” His challenge will be to convince gardeners that a so-last-century idea of men’s-only gardening clubs still has appeal.

One of the ways he plans to do that is to emphasize the timeless importance of service, which he credits for the organization’s longevity. “The clubs and their members look for opportunities to help beautify and enhance communities through service projects,” said Bagwell.

As an example, he pointed out a project in East Cleveland that he’s especially proud of. In that effort, the Gardeners of Greater Cleveland, transformed an empty space behind Carey East, a HUD-assisted nonprofit 15-unit residence for homeless people with disabilities, into a therapeutic and peaceful courtyard garden.

“Educating the public is another key goal and attraction for members,” Bagwell said, noting that various clubs help to establish and maintain community gardens. Yet another appeal for new members, he added, is supporting the group’s scholarship program. The group awards $1,000 scholarships annually to horticulture students based on local club applications. Money from plant sales is used to finance service projects and the scholarship program.

Perhaps, though, the group’s biggest recognition and appreciation of a new generation of gardeners is the Youth Gardening Program, which encourages young people — both boys and girls — to become involved in gardening. If they are successful in doing that, Bagwell believes that the still mostly male organization can find new relevance, and new members, in a diverse 21st century world.

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