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WAKE FOREST — No one would fault you for believing Brenda Pate’s garden was part of a state forest.
Dirt trails meander under the shady tree canopy beside her North Main Street home. The trails are separated by massive shrubs of pink azaleas, patches of wild strawberries, lush chrysanthemums, blooming columbines and stalks of purple catnip. Everywhere is alive with natural-looking greenery — even what looks to be grass is just “a collection of weeds that I mow,” Pate said.
It’s also a paradise for any number of songbirds, who feast on mealworms Pate puts out, or bath in the fountains around the property. Their music is a constant companion in the Pate garden.
“I’m trying to plant more things out there that the butterflies and birds like,” Pate said, explaining that she has begun focusing on plants native to the Carolinas, particularly pollinator plants that help bees and other insects. She shuns invasive plants that choke local species.
“You learn that from the bottom up, everything is intertwined and grows together,” added Pate, who is president of the Wake Forest Garden Club. “The non-native plants that we plant here, they are pretty, but they don’t provide the food.”
To her, a garden is a type of nature preserve — a sanctuary for local wildlife that exists in harmony with the habitats around her community. Biodiversity is a key ingredient of that.
As president of the 95-year-old club, Pate said she wants to cultivate a culture of environmental stewardship among the other members. It’s one way that a garden can be more than just a collection of pretty flowers.
One of many ways, in fact. To the Wake Forest Garden Club, gardens can be slices of local history, or a way to grow food and tackle hunger, or sometimes just a tool for bringing people together.
‘This is your heritage’
Next Saturday, May 11, the club will hold its annual fundraiser. This year will feature an “Alice in Wonderland” tea party and a ticketed tour of gardens throughout Wake Forest.
One of those gardens is the Dyer garden, a project two years in the making by Ruth Ann Dyer, who also lives on North Main Street.
“Gardens make our lives more pleasant and richer, whether they are vegetable gardens to nourish our bodies or flowers to nourish our spirits,” said Dyer, a co-coordinator of this year’s tour.
Her garden has a little of both. Around her home, sun is plentiful, and peonies, irises, roses, daffodils and azaleas soak up the rays. She also has a small section in the back where she has grown crops such as lettuce and tomatoes.
But to Dyer, the joy from the plants comes from not just how they look or taste. She says every plant has a story, and in her garden, those stories can be very personal.
Her irises, she said while walking through her garden Tuesday, come from irises her grandmother first planted. The daffodils are traced to flowers her mom — who had also been a member of the Garden Club — bought 60 years ago.
Other plants were gifts from friends, who shared them from their own gardens. A pair of curly willow trees were gifts from one such friend, and her husband, Jim, gave her a number of rose bushes as an anniversary gift. Other flowers came from her family’s farm, which they have owned since the late 1800s.
In that way, Dyer’s plants are keepsakes, in the way a photo album might be to others.
“Flowers survive people,” Dyer said. “This is your heritage. I love family and so many of those family members are no longer here. But their plants are. I like to think someday my grandchildren will remember me with a plant.”
Those flowers — her heritage plants, she called them — remind her that gardening is about connecting to other people, not just connecting to the plants themselves.
“Plants are a way of creating new friendships and nurturing old friendships,” she explained.
Local history, Community service
The Wake Forest Garden Club held its first meeting, presided by Susie Lanneau Powell, in October 1924. It claims to be the longest continuing community service organization in town.
Early projects involved establishing a bird sanctuary at what is now Paschal Golf Club and furnishing the Wake Forest Community House grounds, Pate said.
When Wake Forest University (at the time Wake Forest College) left town in 1956, the oldest building on campus, the Calvin Jones House, was slated to be demolished. It was the Garden Club that came to the rescue, attempted to organize fundraisers to save it, and eventually convinced Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to donate the building.
The club created a nonprofit, Wake Forest College Birthplace Society, to restore and preserve the house, which is now the home of the Wake Forest Historical Museum.
The longstanding relationship between the club and the museum is one reason the club’s major project continue to be to maintain the grounds and gardens around the Calvin Jones House, Pate said.
But that’s not all the club does.
It partners with food banks and has helped educate community groups on gardening practices that help yield crops that can be given to the hungry. They give flowers to seniors in nursing homes. A blog on its website, wfgardenclub.org, aims to be a gardening resource for the community. Club members have also partnered with the town to plant and maintain flowers downtown and along North Main Street.
The club supports the B.W. Wells Association in preserving wildflowers at the Natural Gardens of Rockcliff Farm along the Neuse River.
As president, Pate has begun rewriting the club’s bylaws. In the revisions, she has added language stating the club aims to use water-wise, pollinator-friendly native plants while eschewing invasive specifies, conserving natural resources, and educating the community on responsible gardening.
“I’d like to move in that direction where we’re not a bunch of little old ladies drinking tea meeting once a month and going on our way,” Pate said. “I want to do something important.”
Those projects require funds. The club has begun selling tickets to its fundraisers later this month.
The tea party is ticketed separately from the garden and art tour. Tea party tickets run $20 in advance and allow access to tea, a light lunch with cookies and finger sandwiches, a vintage car show, plant and artists markets and the chance to explore the Wake Forest Historical Museum grounds, where the party will be held.
The museum is at 414 N. Main St. The party is 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on May 11.
The garden tour will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the same day. Tickets are $15.
Ten different gardens will be on the tour. Dyer said she aimed to get a variety of gardens signed up. Gardens include a rose garden, historic garden, monarch butterfly garden, greenhouse, organic vegetable garden, rock garden and the Wake Forest Baptist Church community gardens.
The tour can be explored in any order and at your own pace. Each stop will also feature a local painter, potter or similar artist.
But some would say the gardeners are artists themselves.
“The garden is my pallet,” Dyer said. “It’s my canvas. It is where I create my colors and put them together.”
Tickets are available at wfgardenclub.org or on Facebook. Tickets can be bought in-person at The Cotton Company, Southern Suds or Page 158 Books or on the day of the event at the Historical Museum. Tea Party tickets are $25 at the door.