The Garden Club of Princeton
Rooted in Tradition and Growing with the Times
By Sarah Emily Gilbert
Photography by Benoit Cortet
Like The Garden Club of Princeton’s (GCP) wisteria that grows on Mercer Island, the older the organization gets, the more it blooms. Founded in 1911 by Albertina Taylor Pyne, wife of Moses Taylor Pyne, the GCP’s Charter Members include prominent names such as Mrs. Grover Cleveland, Mrs. Allan Marquand, and Mrs. Bayard Stockton, among others. Preexisting The Garden Club of America (GCA) by two years, the 25 original members prove to be pioneers both as women and gardeners. Come 2016, the GCP has grown to include 86 members and 29 committees, but it continues to be comprised of female leaders.
Ranging from young moms to great-grandmothers, members include a Master Gardener, Monarchist, and published author on topiaries. The Executive Board boasts a Wall Street worker and financial consultant. Other members juggle full or part-time careers, and one is continuing her education in sustainability at the New School in New York City. On committees such as Horticulture, Floral Design, Photography, Civic Projects, Conservation, and Garden History and Design, it’s evident that every member of the GCP has not only a green thumb, but a certain level of expertise in the various facets of gardening.
“Our members certainly have a passion for gardening and the environment, but we are also people who simply love our gardens,” explains current GCP President Deborah Jordan, a Cornell graduate, former prosecuting attorney, and eight-year member of the Garden Club. “It may be horticulture, it may be garden or floral design, but if you scratch us deep enough, we’re artists and crafters at heart. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but we’ll see a pattern of leaves, pine needles, and pine cones on the ground, and while other people would simply walk by, we’ll take a moment to appreciate its natural design.”
According to the GCP website, the Club promotes the knowledge and love of gardening and supports activities initiated by the GCA, of which it is a current and charter member. The organization also works to restore, improve, and protect the quality of the environment and the Princeton community. Their efforts are visible in town year round, but as the spring beckons, the GCP comes forth to hold one of its signature projects, the French Market.
On select Friday mornings in April and May, Mercer Island Park at 4 Mercer Street brims with flowers, plants, and arrangements from the GCP members’ gardens. The proceeds from the market go toward civic projects and like-minded organizations such as the Delaware & Raritan Greenway, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, and Morven. This year, sales from the market will fund the Garden Club’s continued restoration of Mercer Island Park and War Memorial Park.
From hand-cut flowers to modern troughs filled with succulents, Jordan promises a unique assortment of horticulture and botanical-based products at the French Market. “Since the GCP members sell plants and flowers from their own gardens, you’ll likely find more unusual things like Tree Peonies or Lilies of the Valley,” says Jordan. “For example, you can’t find freshly cut Lilies of the Valley in a supermarket. It’s a treasure that only blooms very briefly in the beginning of May. For that short period of time, the French Market will likely have a lot of them, but you won’t see them again or find them anywhere else.”
Home to the French Market, Mercer Island Park, in conjunction with War Memorial Park, symbolizes the changing times and enduring traditions of the GCP. Established in 1914, the French Market originated from the member’s desire to aid French and Belgian war relief during WWI. To raise donations, they sold flowers, eggs, and chickens on the corner by Mercer Street, Nassau Street, and Route 206, where the market exists today. After the war, the members’ husbands worked to create the War Memorial that currently resides at the intersection of Mercer and Nassau Streets.
In the fall of 2015, the organization, in cooperation with the Town of Princeton, undertook the renovation and improvement of War Memorial Park. In keeping with its mission to educate the community on environmentally sound practices, the GCP planted predominately native trees and shrubs like American Hollies, Oakleaf Hydrangea, and Princeton Elms at the site. With the help of the Delaware & Raritan Greenway Native Plant Nursery, they will add native and non-native shrubs and perennials this spring. The GCP’s revitalization of War Memorial Park is rooted in their desire to continue to commemorate the veterans to whom the site is dedicated.
The GCP has also been an active leader in national conservation efforts. In the 1920s, members joined one of the GCA’s first public lobbying groups against billboards on the state highways. The GCP was also active in their parent group’s support for the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other pivotal environmental legislation.
“Historically, New Jersey has been on the forefront of matters in gardening and conservation,” explains Jordan. “We are the Garden State. We have a long history of wonderful gardening including farming, vegetable gardens, and classical formal gardens. However, because we are one of the oldest states, we are also on the forefront of a lot of environmental damage that occurred over the years, so there’s been a lot of leadership state-wide on trying to find best practices for the future and how to remediate environmental hazards.”
The GCP continues to promote environmental awareness and the preservation of natural resources. During 2014 and 2015, the Garden Club supported the creation of the nation’s “Monarch Highway” that facilitated the migration of the Monarch Butterfly, a species that is currently threatened due to the destruction of milkweed, an essential plant for their reproduction. This February, the GCP sent two representatives from their Conservation Committee to the Garden Club of America’s National Affairs and Legislation meeting in Washington, D.C. to help promote the GCA’s stated mission to “restore, improve, and protect the quality of the environment through educational programs and actions in the fields of conservation and civic improvement.”
Along with its beautiful flowers, Princeton seems to produce women who—quite literally —make a name for themselves. Katherine P. Heins, Princeton resident and member of the Stony Brook Garden Club, is the first former President of the Garden Club of America to use her first name in formal documents, rather than her husband’s. While this may have caused a stir among in the 1900s, Heins’s decision is indicative of both the GCA and the GCP’s ability to remain steeped in their rich heritage, while evolving with the times.
The GCP’s ability to morph the old and the new is something that Deborah Jordan personally appreciates. “I so enjoy interacting with the young mothers with young children and the grandmothers and great-grandmothers who I view as role models. I can only hope that I will be as involved, active, knowledgeable, interesting and relevant, as they are when I am their age.”
The GCP is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) corporation. They are accepting donations from the public to support their plantings at War Memorial Park. Persons wishing to make donations may send checks made out to The Garden Club of Princeton to P.O. Box 408, Princeton, New Jersey 08542. Donors should note War Memorial Park in the memo line. Donations are deductible to the extent provided by law.