Community Pride Blossoms in McHenry Garden Club

Meet a vibrant group of gardeners who see beauty in their community in all sorts of ways, through education and public landscapes to hospice visits.

The McHenry Garden Club, in a joint effort with the City of McHenry, completed the landscaping of the “Welcome to McHenry” sign on Route 120, east of town. Pictured (L-R): Pat Gorniak, Superintendent, McHenry Downtown Maintenance Division; Dorothy Kowalczyk; Jean Schiller; Pat Schaefer; and Barbara Patterson, McHenry Garden Club committee members. (McHenry Garden Club photo)

In 2004, McHenry resident Marita Sension decided that this community of about 27,000, 50 miles northwest of Chicago, needed its own garden club. “I was in Woodstock, admiring the beautiful trees, and was invited to join the garden club there,” she says. “Then, as I looked around McHenry, I noticed so many gorgeous gardens and wondered why there was no garden club here.”

She organized a free floral seminar in January 2004, and the 12 attendees formed the club immediately. Sension solicited more members with a notice in the local paper, and the resulting group has become a dynamo for community service.

“There was such enthusiasm in that first group, and it keeps growing,” says Sension. “Right away, we started looking for civic programs we could do.” The group’s first project was to plant a tree in Fox Ridge Park in 2004.

“I wanted to get involved with people who enjoy the same things I do, and the programs looked so interesting,” says Jeanne Smith, who joined about four years ago. “But I had no idea of the number of projects and causes the club champions. Everyone is so enthusiastic. We’re getting more of the community involved.”

Among ongoing endeavors: educational programs for children at the local library; monthly flower arrangements for local hospice patients; plantings and upkeep on the library grounds; city beautification; two annual scholarships; city-wide garden-of-the-month awards; and two major fundraisers each year to help finance it all.

Their meetings are highlighted with the diverse programs that first drew in Smith, and visitors are welcome to attend. “Some rain barrel folks talked about water quality and conservation one month, and we learned all about composting and worms at another meeting,” she says. “The topics are always so entertaining and different.”

Marita Sension (McHenry Garden Club photo)
These events are planned by Mary Napolitano, 1st vice president and Programs chair. “The members have diverse interests, so I try to get a variety of guest speakers,” says Napolitano. “Last year, we hosted a local beekeeper, a representative from the Glunz winery, a man who raises orchids, and local fiber artists who raise angora rabbits and showed how to turn raw wool into finished fiber.”

Members learn from each other, also. Jane Thomas, a Library Programs committee member, demonstrated at one meeting how to nip off fading blooms on mums and root them. The group also takes members-only, behind-the-scenes tours to places like the Chicago Botanic Garden, organic farms and vineyards.

The club meets every third Thursday at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in McHenry. The 25 members range in age from mid 30s to 80s, and they have a whopping 10 active committees, including Publicity, Library Programs and Membership, to City of McHenry Beautification, Scholarships and Fundraising. All members, including officers, participate in at least one committee in some way, and many are involved in other civic organizations.

“I grew up in McHenry and spent about 30 years away from here,” says Pat Schafer, a former museum curator who heads up the club’s Basket Committee, serves on its Fundraising and Beautification committees and sits on the city’s Landmark Commission. “Now that I’ve returned, I want to give back.”

Schafer’s interest in history has influenced the garden club. For the fourth consecutive year, members will help to plant the vegetable garden at McHenry’s historic Petersen Farm, a 159-year-old homestead spanning three generations of family ownership. It was purchased by the City of McHenry in 2002, when the last Petersen passed away, and is being restored as a living history museum that showcases pioneer farm life. Garden club members this year will also help to landscape and plant flowers around the farmhouse.

“We initially got involved to help to draw awareness to the farm as an attraction,” says Jean Schiller, club president. “This year, we’re putting flowers around the house that the Petersens would have planted in the 19th century – hollyhocks, black-eyed Susans, maybe a crabapple tree.”

Membership fluctuates but remains fairly steady. “We set up a table at the annual McHenry County College Garden Fest in April, and at other similar events, to help recruit,” says Dorothy Kowalczyk, head of the club’s membership committee and its 2nd vice president. “We’ve had as many as 33 in the past, even a man. There are no gender restrictions – we’re all women right now only by chance.”

There are no egos or cliques in the group, either. “Jean [Schiller, president] is very open to new ideas and different ways of doing things,” says Treasurer Judy Walter. “We all become close friends, and we have great fun. We all share a love of gardening, but otherwise, we’re a very diverse group. Each has her own special talents. And everyone is excited about what we do. Even new members jump in and take things on right away.”

It was one of last year’s new members who instigated the hospice program, jointly financed with club funds and member contributions; the ladies take turns putting together the arrangements.

At the club’s two fundraisers, attendees watch as containers are planted and floral arrangements are created by experts from five local nurseries. They may win one as a door prize, if their ticket number is drawn. (McHenry Garden Club photo)
“I was glad we had the funds for it,” says Laura Godek, fundraising chair. “We have two big fundraisers each year – our Container Garden Gala in April, and the Holiday Floral Extravaganza in December.” The group annually sells out the 480-seat venue.

Each April, five local greenhouses participate, setting up work areas onstage and creating eight to 10 garden containers apiece, which are then awarded as door prizes by drawing ticket stubs. Then, in December, five local florists put together floral arrangements, which are given away in the same manner.

“Besides ticket sales, we make money by selling baked goods and gift baskets during the event,” says Godek. “Attendees have the opportunity to purchase tickets and place them in boxes in front of the baskets they like, and then winners are drawn for each.”

“We do 24 baskets, each themed and put together by our basket committee, with items we all buy and donate,” says Schaefer. “It takes about a month to create them all.”

Another proud accomplishment was the beautification of the city’s welcome sign on Route 120 east of McHenry. “We’ve been trying to initiate this for several years,” says Schaefer. Barb Patterson, one of four Master Gardeners in the club (two more are Master Gardener interns) designed the landscaping. Last year, the club presented a formal proposal to McHenry Mayor Sue Low and Assistant Administrator Bill Hobson, offering the (wo)manpower and funds. They won approval, and they and the city went to work.

The result is a sign surrounded by a striking raised bed, edged with boulders and planted with evergreens and perennials. They plan to do the same at McHenry’s three other entrance points.

The garden club recognizes other green-thumbed McHenry residents with its Garden of the Month program. “We drive around town and take notes on unique and pretty gardens,” says Walter. “Once we make our decision, we present the homeowners with an award, take their picture and put it in the paper. They’re tickled pink that someone has noticed their hard work. Some winners join the club.”
Last year, the group upped its two educational scholarships from $1,000 to $1,500 each. “We give one to a high school senior who’s going into a horticulture field, and one to an adult who’s returning to school to study horticultrue or environmental sciences,” says Thomas. “We count on Laura to get us there – she’s the queen of fundraising.”

The group continues to hold new events and find new ways to raise money. “This year, we’re adding a garden walk, on the last Saturday in June,” Godek says.

One goal identified in the group’s mission statement is “to raise awareness of the joys of gardening.” To encourage younger gardeners, the club holds several children’s programs at the library that always include something hands-on. Last year, a presentation about birds ended with the children making pinecone birdfeeders to take home. In the fall, the group gave a presentation about bulbs, and then took the kids outside to plant some around the library.

The club also purchases $350 worth of books for the library each year about gardening, horticulture, nature and the environment. Their programs have brought in one of the librarians as a member, and also are having longer-reaching results that the group may never see. “We had the children plant flower pots for Mother’s Day a few years ago,” says Thomas. “Last year, a mother told me that her son has continued to refill that pot for her every Mother’s Day. She said it’s become a special mother-son ritual.”

Those interested in sharing gardening knowledge, learning new things and improving the community with the McHenry Garden Club can visit for information. ❚