How the Dunbar Garden Club aced the pandemic

Jutta Zeisler (President) & Midge Oke (Past President)
of the Dunbar Garden Club

By Carol Volkart, DRA Newsletter Editor

The COVID pandemic blighted many things, but not the Dunbar Garden Club. A year and a half after swiftly changing its practices to keep members safe, it’s flourishing, with even more members than in pre-pandemic times.

“We haven’t let COVID stop us from doing things,” says Midge Oke, who led the club through an imaginative rethink of all its activities in the first year of her two-year presidency.

Monthly meetings, usually held in the Dunbar Community Centre, switched to Zoom, with attendance about the same as for pre- COVID gatherings. Tours of members’ gardens went ahead, but were timed, with limited numbers and strict social distancing. Two annual plant sales were arranged by phone and email, with earnings only slightly below usual. The knowledgeable member who runs the “show bench” – discussing plant material contributed by members – now does it by PowerPoint at the monthly Zoom meetings. And the club’s newsletter, full of photos, tips and event information, continues to arrive in members’ email inboxes every month.

All of which – plus a general wave of interest in gardening sparked by the pandemic – has boosted club membership from the usual 85 to 90 people to more than 100. Monthly meeting attendance is the same as in pre- COVID days, at close to 60.

There was a downside to the changes, of course. Gone were the end-of-meeting chats over tea that were a highlight for many: “It was a good time to mingle and we’re missing that,” says Oke. Nor could there be the usual friendly celebrations marking annual highlights like plant sales or garden tours.

Oke says Zoom will never be as good as in-person events, but given that most club members were very restricted during COVID because of their age, “being able to see each other [online] was very positive.” And garden tours, even limited to a few at a time, meant “we could at last see our friends face-to-face across the garden.”

Some aspects of the forced changes were positive. Because speakers didn’t have to attend in person, they could be recruited from further afield. Zoom meetings were more accessible to those who don’t like to drive at night or in bad weather. Speakers’ presentations were recorded, so members who didn’t attend the meetings could watch them when they wanted. The Zoom format made dropping in easy, encouraging a growth of temporary members.

These positives may prompt the club to attempt to offer combined Zoom and regular meetings in the future, says Oke, although it may be a technological challenge, so no definite decisions have been made. In the meantime, the fourth wave of the pandemic means this fall’s meetings will continue on Zoom until at least November.

As for why the club flourished instead of withering during the pandemic, there’s a clue in Oke’s description of what she hoped to accomplish as president – namely, to “maintain it as the open, welcoming, inclusive, friendly place that it is.”

She sees the club as a forum for sharing ideas, solving problems and learning about new plants and gardening practices, but more importantly, as a place for making friendships based on common interests. Unlike many garden clubs, which focus on specific plants or interests, the Dunbar club is a general-interest one, making it more diverse and open to all interests and levels of expertise. And because it’s locally based, members tend to live close to each other, fostering a sense of community.

Openness and helpfulness are part of the club’s ethos: When members tour each other’s gardens, there are no judgments, Oke says. “Everybody has different conditions and every garden is a work in progress.” When there are difficulties, as COVID proved, people pitch in. The plant-sale coordinator, for example, took offers and requests for plants by phone and email, then picked up and delivered them. And when the new president Jutta Zeisler takes over this fall, she won’t be on her own, Oke promises. “COVID reinforced that the executive is very strong and ready to help cope with difficult situations. There is always support.”

Inspired by home gardens her parents created in England, Oke has cultivated her own in Dunbar for decades. She believes in the importance of gardens to the larger community. Beautiful, well-maintained gardens inspire people’s respect and pride in the place they live, she says. And after 34 years as a member of a club that encourages such gardens, Oke is pleased that in spite of COVID, it’s still going strong.

The Dunbar Garden Club meets the last Tuesday of every month (except for June, July, August and December). Please visit our calendar for further details.