Tempe was a town of 2,600 in October 1936 when Mrs. George Gibson and Mrs. R. J. Hight invited 30 interested gardeners to Mrs. Hight’s garden to form a garden club with the aim of advancing gardening, conservation and beautification in Tempe. Mrs. Charles Wexler became president. Until the 1980s, TGC members identified themselves using their husband’s name. Dues were set at 50 cents. Unlike our current meetings, refreshments were banned until 1949.
They wasted no time having flower shows. The Fall Zinnia Flower Show was started the first year followed by the Flower Fiesta which was held until 1971 except during World War II. Then they took a vacation from flower shows until 1985 and again in 1987 when they orchestrated NGC award -winning flower shows.
Christmas workshops distributed greens and demonstrated creative holiday decorations to the community for 18 years. For 21 years, Guess Birchett opened her yard with its charming wishing well for Community Open Houses to provide the public gardening information. They didn’t forget library patrons as they donated horticultural books to the Tempe Library every year after 1946.
The founders wanted to elevate the petunia as the city flower making Mill Avenue a pathway of petunias and encouraging local residents to plant them. While never forgotten, planting petunias was placed on hold during World War II. Instead they went to William Field, where they planted 2,000 plants including citrus trees and 169 date palms. They even sowed their beloved petunia seeds.
From the beginning, TGC made beautification of Tempe a primary objective. In 1936 they spearheaded the beautification of Moeur Park at the corner of Curry and Mill, which was the second roadside park in America. This park was named for Honor Anderson Moeur, TGC’s first beautification chairman and wife of Governor B.B. Moeur.
During the 1960s and 1970s their attention was focused on Triangle Park, later named Birchett Park for Guess Birchett’s family. TGC was instrumental in keeping this area, located on the curve of Mill and Apache, an open space and providing the initial landscaping. The 250 rose bushes they planted provided a spectacular display for those traveling down Mill Avenue toward Mesa. These have since been replaced with cacti and other plants.
In 1983 TGC led the way to create a memorial for Sarah Birchett, called the Birchett Triangle. This is a companion to Birchett Park.
TGC members were not just gardeners. They had political skills as well. In 1971 they nominated 90-year-old Guess Birchett to be honorary Tempe Centennial Queen and she won.
One project introduced in the 1970s was the popular Yard-of-the-Month program. It began in 1974 and continued until 1980 and was reactivated in 2002. By showcasing beautiful Tempe yards, it hoped to provide inspiration for local gardeners.
Garden therapy became an important goal for TGC. During the 1970s TGC gave live plants to recipients of Meals on Wheels. It extended its garden therapy mission in the 1990s, going to Westchester Care Center to create floral designs with the residents and helping at Grandpa Charlie’s Center to beautify the grounds.
When Kiwanis Park opened in late 1970, they saw an opportunity to plant a memorial grove of flowering pear trees there. Over the next few years trees were also planted at the historic Petersen House and at Harelson, Joyce, Mitchell and Waggoner Parks. (See list in yearbook.)
During the 1980s the club knew how to make money, editing and distributing the NGC award winning The Gardener’s Year calendar and decorating work shirts. These projects provided funds to add a sundial to the library as an early 50th anniversary gift and to spruce up the grounds of the historic Petersen House as well as decorating it for Christmas. Current members continue to tend the flower beds and plant seasonal flowers there. Some of the same crew often deadheads the roses at the Mesa Community College Rose Garden.
In recent years Petersen House became the venue for successful Friendship Teas in 2006, 2008 and 2010 where as many as 90 at each tea arrived donned in their Sunday-best hats and dined on scones and heard gardening tips from Mary Irish, Valley horticultural icon.
The youth were not forgotten. In 1980 TGC orchestrated a one-day session at Arizona State University for 90 high school students to explore alternative energy solutions. The club blazed another trail of youth activities in 1986-1987 when they helped 60 students at Curry Elementary School and 30 students at Gilliland Junior High to successfully plant ranunculus. They also added a junior high school speech contest on ground water with 25 students participating.
Since 1987, TGC has donated $200 yearly to AFGC to aid deserving college students. When AFGC celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2009, Tempe Garden Club received the Golden Spade Award for making donations totaling $1,000 from the club and members in 2007-2009. These contributions went to Mesa Community College for the Mary Leffler Cochran scholarship.
Wildflowers always captured the club’s imagination. In 1989, the club donated money and seeds to plant wildflower beds at the Desert Botanical Garden and received an NGC $500 Operation Wildflower award.. In 1991, TGC helped establish a wildflower garden near Tempe’s Arizona Historical Museum. By landscaping the parking medians at Mesa Community College, TGC received first place and $1,000 from NGC's Operation Wildflower.
Change occurred for the garden club when a new fund raiser replaced The Gardener’s Year calendar as a major source of revenue. Mark November 6, 1993, as the date Jean Besich opened her garage for a plant/yard/bake sale which has been an annual fixture for 19 years. The first sale netted $534 but now makes around $1,000 annually. A big attraction remains Flossie Reeves’ chili that is consumed in quantity.
In the 1990s TGC got help funding several projects. National Garden Club had partnered with Shell Oil Company in the PETALS program which encouraged local civic and environmental programs. From 1993-1999 TGC received $1,750 of these PETALS grants for wildlife habitats at the Rio Salado, garden therapy at Grandpa Charlie’s Garden and printing Gardening Tempe Style, which provided tips on growing in Tempe. (Note: available here as a website page.)
The club took time out to campaign for making the two-tailed swallowtail, Papilio multicaudata, the state butterfly in 2001. Lola White, State Butterfly chairman, led this effort with Juanita Harelson giving aid through her political experience as a 20-year state legislator. There is a video, which won the top NGC Award in 2007 in that category that can be downloaded on www.butterflyquest.net.
Nothing seemed impossible to TGC in 2000. Jeanne Davis came home from Europe with the idea that Tempe needed a pavilion with nearby trees. When the club caught her enthusiasm, they conducted three successful Garden Lover Tours in 2000, 2001 and 2003 to provide much of the funding. In 2004, the club donated $20,000 to the city for the Pavilion at the Tempe Town Lake, which was the largest single donation in the club’s history. Ground breaking was in 2005 followed by the dedication in 2007. In 2012, with the planting of the Tempe Garden Club Centennial Grove of six Palo Verde trees near the Pavilion, Jeanne Davis’s dream became reality.
In 2008 TGC officially joined the 21st century with a website . However, we still like printed yearbooks.
We remembered with excitement that we had reached 75 in October 2011 with a gala party where even Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman provided some of the fun. A photo contest of members’ yards provided the pictures for the 2012-2013 yearbook. : On February 18, 2013, TGC in cooperation with the City of Tempe and the Rio Salado Foundation dedicated the first Blue Star Memorial Marker in Tempe at the west end of Tempe Beach Park.
In 2013-2017 emphasis was placed on a plant sale to fund projects. Excellent programs were a hallmark of these years.
In November 2016, TGC celebrated its 80th anniversary with a well-attended event at the Tempe Historical Museum. Former Tempe Mayor and U.S. Congressman Harry Mitchell spoke about growing up in Tempe and our club’s contribution to beautifying Tempe through the years. As our Anniversary Gift, TGC donated $1,000 to the Tempe Historical Museum.
For more detailed information about the Tempe Garden Club, refer to its 75-year history, Advancing Gardening for 75 Years, written by Mary Cochran.