Gardeners Connect, the largest and one of the oldest gardening groups in the Kansas City area, will turn 60 this year doing the things it always has done: putting on talks and exhibitions designed to bring out the best ideas for gardeners of all ages and interests.
A pillar of the local gardening community, Gardeners Connect is well known for its connection to the trees and its initial project, a garden meeting space in Loose Park. Times have changed since the organization began. But the mission stays the same, said Chuck Robinson, president.
“We’re there to help educate gardeners,” he said. “We’re also there to inspire them, to bring them ideas to think about gardening and nature in uplifting ways.”
The world was a different place when the organization was founded in 1958. At a time when gardening groups were likely to carry a “men’s” or “women’s” label, the Garden Centers Association of Greater Kansas City, as the group was then known, set its sights on building a public space for them.
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The result was the Garden Center Building at Loose Park, which was built with funds from the Ella C. Loose Trust and equipped with a horticulture library and meeting rooms. The group’s presence at the park is also evident in the Stanley R. McLane Arboretum, which it helped establish in 1981 and still supports.
The organization outgrew that space for its events long ago but still holds board meetings there, and other groups use it as well. With over 600 individual members, Gardeners Connect is larger than the extension master gardener groups on either side of the state line, said executive director Brian Chadwick-Robinson.
Even so, the association found it necessary to change its name in 2012 because of changing times, he said. When it was founded, “garden centers” were places gardeners went to meet and learn about horticulture. Large retail garden centers took hold later. When they did, club officials often had to clear up any confusion about whether they represented commercial gardening businesses.
“We bring in speakers from all over the country, and they were always confused about what we were doing,” Chadwick-Robinson said.
Gardeners Connect has been on the lookout for ways to keep current with the ever-changing interests of potential members, he said. In particular, he and Chuck Robinson have noticed more people interested in smaller gardens.
That has something to do with demographics, Chadwick-Robinson said. People who may have worked long hours on big gardens for years are downsizing as they get older. “So you see people wanting to grow vegetables in their front yard or in containers. They’re focusing on smaller areas. It’s not so much ‘I’m trying to fill this space,’ it’s, ‘I’m trying to emulate the things that are important to me,’ ” he said.
It’s not just older gardeners who are interested in compact spaces. Millennials in apartments or condos also look to container and indoor gardening as a way to cope with a lack of space, he said.
Younger gardeners have also shown an interest in carnivorous plants, which can be grown under lights and do not require outdoor space, he said.
Gardeners Connect serves as a clearinghouse for all types of gardening interests, from day lilies to the new carnivorous plants society, Chadwick-Robinson said. It helps those groups publicize their events and also holds a wide range of educational and fundraising events of its own.
For instance, Gardeners Connect has put on programs for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City and the Children’s Place, as well as “tree camps” for youths with the Kansas City parks department.
The nonprofit also has a wide range of events for adults. There’s a free speaker series, an annual garden party, a lily sale called Lilypalooza and occasional field trips to botanical centers.
The every-other-year symposium will be the highlight of this anniversary year. It will begin with a workshop and banquet Feb. 9 and continue with nationally known gardening speakers Feb. 10 at Rockhurst University. Speakers include Kelly Norris, Joe Lamp’l, Tammi Hartung and Carol Davit.
Gardeners Connect will keep changing with the times to meet the widely varying needs of its members, Chadwick-Robinson said. For instance, the speaker series will change its regular meeting time and location this year, from Saturdays to Thursday evenings. That’s a result of a partnership with the Kansas City Public Library, which will provide the meeting space at the Plaza branch.
“We’re always evolving as an organization,” he said. The group also recently started offering sightseeing trips to botanical sites for “people who want to see the gardens but not plan the trip themselves, so they can relax and enjoy it.”
The point is to get gardeners together to learn and swap ideas. People learn that, “you should not necessarily always rely on rules because maybe no one has ever tried that before,” said Chadwick-Robinson. “It’s not the end of the world if you don’t succeed the first time. You just try something different and play with things and enjoy.”
Chuck Robinson agrees. “I look at gardening as a way we deal with nature and we commune with nature. I find a lot of comfort in that part of it.”
Embrace a Greener Garden symposium
This year’s symposium sponsored by Gardeners Connect will feature favorite speakers from the past who have gone on to make it big in the gardening world, executive director Brian Chadwick-Robinson said .
Tammi Hartung’s program on a no-kill way of dealing with pests and critters has generated a lot of interest, he said. Hartung has an organic farm in Colorado Springs.
Also on the docket are TV host Joe Lamp’l, on green gardening to protect the environment; Des Moines Botanical Center director Kelly Norris on planting for the future; and Missouri Prairie Foundation director Carol Davit on prairie plants and pollinators.
The sign-up deadline is Jan. 27 for a discount on tickets. For more information, go to gardensymposium.org.
Here’s the weekend schedule:
Friday, Feb. 9
10 a.m.-noon, workshop with Tammi Hartung at the Loose Park Garden Center, 5200 Pennsylvania Ave.
6:30 p.m.-9 p.m., banquet with Joe Lamp’l as featured speaker; at Lidia’s Kansas City, 101 W. 22nd St.
Saturday, Feb. 10
8:20 a.m.-4 p.m., symposium at Arrupe Hall, Rockhurst University just east of 45th Street and Troost Avenue.