Perennial Gathering

When some Main Line green thumbs got together to trade plantings from their gardens, they also exchanged advice, recipes and a lot of laughs

As the earth turns to face the sun and the first warm days of spring begin to summon dormant plants from their winter sleep, Cindy Burrows’ backyard transforms from a quiet, ice-encased landscape to an enchanted secret garden. More than 100

As the earth turns to face the sun and the first warm days of spring begin to summon dormant plants from their winter sleep, Cindy Burrows’ backyard transforms from a quiet, ice-encased landscape to an enchanted secret garden. More than 100 different roses will bloom here this season: ‘Ballerina’ roses, hybrid tea roses and ‘Peace’ roses. Interspersed among them are slightly out-of-place but welcome strangers — hyacinth, tulips and daffodils that worked their way into Burrows’ floral landscape at a fete she co-hosted with her good friend Katherine Bennett last fall.

“When fall comes and you want to divide your perennials, you don’t really necessarily want more daylilies or more of whatever it is that you’ve got,” says Bennett, owner of Katherine’s Gardens in Devon. “You want a variety of things.” The party invitations went out with instructions for each guest to dig into their gardens and bring a plant that they’d like to pass on. Everyone would leave with twice as much as they brought, plenty of new flowering gems to grace their own gardens. “All our perennials grow and multiply by themselves,” says Bennett. She thought of the soiree as a way to do what gardeners enjoy most: Share the rewards of their hard work with fellow gardeners.

On Burrows’ wide expanse of green lawn, under a sky that became less and less overcast as the day wore on, members of Philadelphia’s Four Counties Garden Club gathered to admire the rosebushes, reconnect after the busy summer and share advice — and plants.

Party in the Garden

Guests arrive casually, trickling in one by one. They walk up Burrows’ driveway, each wearing a relaxed smile and carrying a different offering. There is coleus, Creeping Jenny, salvia, begonias and hyacinth bulbs, among others.­ Burrows welcomes them all with a warm hug and instructions to “Just set them over there,” as she points to a growing number of mismatched pots and planters on the driveway in front of her barn-turned-two-car-garage. With its white clapboard and hunter green barn doors covered in clematis and climbing roses, it is just as charming as the rest of Burrows’ house, a delightful 1930s farmhouse.

As the party begins to pick up speed, Burrows darts about, a little ball of warm energy as she flits from group to group, catching up with her visitors and yet never forgetting to slip back into the kitchen for a fresh tray of pastries for everyone to nibble on. Bennett and a few other members discuss the best way to deal with stubborn weeds, enjoying the chance to compare notes before lunch.

Founded in 1922, the Four Counties Garden Club now has close to 60 members, most of whom have been gardeners for decades. “These are women who have their hands in the dirt and are very talented,” says Burrows, their current president. Not only do they have their own beautifully landscaped homes to show for it, but many of them are judges and prizewinners at the Philadelphia Flower Show each year. They are also involved in everything from decorating Philadelphia’s Kearsley Retirement Community at Christmas to their ongoing work at Fairmount Park, where they maintain the grounds of the Mount Pleasant house.

Tea and Thyme

Soon the rest of the ladies arrive and attention turns toward a beautiful spread set up beneath a hunter green awning on Burrows’ stone patio. Despite the morning rain, Burrows and Bennett have made the table pretty with a simple bouquet of bright sunflowers, flickering votive candles and food so fresh it could have come directly from the garden.

Tiny, floral-shaped tea sandwiches are filled with everything from tomato and basil to watercress with an herbed
cream cheese. “I did flower shapes because of the garden theme,” says Patti Dunlap, owner of Jack Francis Catering in Conshohocken. The bite-sized food is perfect for the light mood, and the women chatter away as they enjoy chicken-salad-filled cream puffs, miniature Italian hoagies and strawberries dipped in powdered sugar.

Spurred on by the theme of the party, the friends sip fresh mint iced tea and share how thoughts and memories of loved ones and old friendships grow in their gardens, interwoven between the roots of the plants and their own hearts. “I think one of my most cherished memories I have in my gardening experiences is sharing plants with friends,” says Bennett.

The women all have someone they think of when they look at their gardens. For Bennett, it is her mother, who brought the Iris reticulata in her garden­ all the way from San Francisco. Renate Brookins remembers a neighbor who gave her the pink lilies of the valley that now color her garden every spring. Cheryl Barrett will always remember how the gift of some Japanese iris she had in her garden for more than 20 years came back to her full circle: She thought it was gone forever when she recently moved to Malvern, but years earlier, she had given some to her cleaning lady. “She dug hers up and gave me some of my original iris,” says Barrett. “So now I have them again, which is really nice.”

Raindrops and Roses

After lunch, the women walk through Burrows’ gardens, delighted to meander among the many roses. Snippets of conversation drift over the lawn, the lyrics to a tune of ice cubes clinking against glasses of mint iced tea and laughter. Every so often a woman stoops to finger a delicate leaf or inhale the sweet scent of a rose.

Burrows fields questions about the names of particular roses, where she acquired them and how long they have graced her garden. “Every last one of them is different,” she says. “It’s a labor of love, really.” She tends to them all, putting in at least seven to nine hours each week during the growing season. “I sort of lose myself in it,” she says. She has been known to go outside once her children are asleep and water her flower beds, a glass of wine in hand. “I’ve turned the spotlights on and worked until midnight. Digging in the dirt and watching things grow is such a relaxing thing.”

Bennett has also found solace in her garden: “You’re so absorbed with your hands and getting something accomplished that all your other worries sort of go by the wayside for awhile,” she says, “It’s something you do because it’s a passion. It’s not anything you do because you have to do it.”

Gifts from the Garden

When it’s time to get down to business, the women gather on the driveway, forming a lively circle around the many perennials that are looking for homes. They peruse the selection like a group of fashionistas at a trunk show, arching their necks to get a better look of this plant or that pot, asking questions about sun and shade and water.

Diana Braddom, a gardener for almost 30 years, breaks off a leaf from an herb basket that she’s brought to give away and holds it to her nose. “Smell that. Doesn’t that smell good? That’s chives.” There is basil, lemon thyme, oregano — everything a good chef might need to spice a homemade dish. And it smells wonderful, all of it; especially to Kerry Barrett, a self-proclaimed non-gardener who has tagged along with her mother just to be close to all that is green and growing. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a garden. But I sort of miss being around it because I’ve grown up with it,” says Kerry, who happily accepts the herb basket, hoping that tending to it might slowly turn her own thumbs green.

Brookins’ perennial begonia catches the eye of Braddom, who gasps with surprise that one exists. “I’ve never heard of one,” she says, her face full of wonder.

“It flowers in the fall,” says Brookins. “Put your name on it.”

The exchange goes on as the afternoon dwindles away, until someone finally checks a watch and realizes they’ve spent most of the day chatting over plants and herbs and when they’ll next meet. Burrows pulls them back onto the stone patio for one last surprise: a mason jar packed with an assortment of hyacinth, daffodil and tulip bulbs, each with a scripted name tag and garnished with a sprig of eucalyptus to take as a parting gift.

New plants tucked safely into their backseats, the guests depart. Their new seedlings will take root and grow stronger and more plentiful in their gardens, a perpetual reminder of this day they spent together, a seed started from friendship. “It’s the way gardeners share,” says Bennett. “It’s a piece of their background and a piece of something that they nurtured. Then they pass it on to the next person that will nurture it. It’s not that they gave it up, they didn’t give it away. They just shared.”