For years, the Men's Garden Club of Santa Rosa was a mainstay of the Sonoma County Fair's Hall of Flowers.
Going up against virtually all professional landscapers, nursery owners or floral designers, the intrepid hobbyists year after year threw their best efforts at the project, picking up ribbons but never the brass ring — that coveted Best of Show.
But in 2012, that all changed. The 54-member club — nearly half of whom are women — locked up both the Best of Show and the Exhibitor's Choice awards for their Tahitian-themed garden. Proving that it wasn't just a fluke, they repeated the win last year, making history.
"That had never been done before. No one had ever won it two years in a row," said eight-year club president Chet Wilson, a landscape and interior designer and former nursery owner whose professional skills and design aesthetic are credited with leading the team to the top.
"We all love plants, but you have to have a designer lay out the pattern for the show. You can't just throw a bunch of plants together. You have to have an eye for color and placing the plants," said Penny Calverley, club secretary and, at 56, one of the younger members of a group that trends toward retirees with time to putter in the garden.
For the club, the victory wasn't just a triumph of talent. The $500 in additional prize money means more scholarships for local students of horticulture and agriculture. And service is a big part of what the club is about.
Yes, there are the regular potluck board meetings that are really a chance to look at one another's gardens and maybe come home with a clipping or start of something very cool. And there is the trove of horticultural wisdom in the memories of club members, some of whom have been gardening avidly for decades.
"I'm just a plant lover and plant addict that can't get enough unusual plants," said Calverley, who works in admissions at a Kaiser Permanente medical center. "You can get plants form other members you can't find at nurseries. They're cultivated out of personal gardens, so the plus is you get really unique specimens."
But the Men's Garden Club also has its hands in a number of service projects, from tending the rose garden at Juilliard Park to helping out at Ag Days at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The club last year doled out $11,000 in scholarships to local agriculture and horticulture students, and members regularly work with teens at Elsie Allen High School, teaching them how to propagate.
In the school's big greenhouse, built by ag boosters, club members gather with students every week for a couple of hours. One member will typically meet with kids the day before in the classroom for a 20-minute rundown of the next day's work.
"They're learning how to make cuttings, like where to cut to make a good cutting, how to put it into the root tone and the potting mixture to root it, and then how to water it," Wilson said. "And as it roots, we go through the transplanting process."
These are the plants that eventually make their way into both the Hall of Flowers during summer and the club's annual spring plant sale, this year held on April 11 and 12 at Coddingtown.