Mum has been the word, so, this Soirée Spy had to do some digging — and troweling, one might add — to get the scoop on the bouquet of Garden Club of America (GCA) activities recently arranged in our fair city by The Little Rock Garden Club (LRGC) for the prestigious Zone IX annual meeting. (Note for the uninitiated — GCA is divided into zones based on climate. After all, it would be terribly unfair to expect those in the colder northern climes to compete with our abundance of Southern sunshine, wouldn’t it?)
Founded in 1923, the LRGC was the first garden club in Arkansas and is the state’s only GCA member. The club’s exclusive roster includes some of the best and oldest last names in town. (In other words, if you are new to town — or to your money — or live across one of the drawbridges to 72207dom, do not expect an invitation to join any time soon!)
Zone IX of the GCA stretches across the South from the Carolinas to Dallas and from lower Kentucky to New Orleans. Therefore, hosting the annual meeting is about as rare as the jade vine, being named the host club is like receiving the Montine McDaniel Freeman Medal for plant of the year.
There is a brief business meeting while all the ladies are in town, but the multiday event revolves mainly around a series of competitions in horticulture, flower and plant growing and, of course, flower arranging. Winning a highly coveted blue ribbon is the goal, and, needless to say, many of the soft-spoken Southern belles’ veins run chlorophyll green with envy when they do not.
So serious are these competitions that TSA standards in airports are lowered and FAA safety belt rules are violated as members travel here and yonder holding potted plants on their laps and water-picked (tiny vials with rubber caps to hold single stems) fragile blossoms above their heads lest a petal be bruised.
During the competitions, cuttings and blossoms are labeled and presented in a variety of nondescript, water-filled wine and liquor bottles, the long necks of these bottles astutely holding the specimen in rapt attention of those who will judge its perfectness. Garden Club Gals spend months and even years cultivating their entries and agonize over the impending results.
Needless to say, the meeting was long in planning (over two years) and created quite a stir along the terraced views of Allsopp Park, the Palisades and River Ridge because it is also an opportunity for the hosting club members to open their secret garden gates and allow access past their thick hedgerows to Alice in Wonderland-style fêtes and soirées.
The week’s dance card included a luncheon at the Clinton Library with a guest speaker on the topic of sustainability and conservation; another guest, George Shackelford of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, speaking at the Arkansas Arts Center on the topic of Impressionist gardens; followed by another luncheon and a tour of P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain, then a barn dinner. And, of course, the awards dinner, hosted at the Governor’s Mansion! (Even though they are not members, Gov. Asa and Susan Hutchinson were honored with an invite.)
However, the highlight of the week were the dinner parties hosted on the same evening across the Heights in five of the most prestigious and private homes in Little Rock. According to one GCA official, normally this is a buffet dinner for all the attendees in one location — typically, a location with a historic garden or such. So, naturally, this official tells us, they were delightfully stunned to arrive and learn that the group had been divided five ways among five hostesses at the top of the proverbial social heap in Little Rock. The prowess of a dowager empress was required to astutely divide the attendees into correct socially balanced groups of 30, and sources inside the LRGC say it was no small feat to accomplish, but they did it.
No expense was spared, and each hostess gave the utmost attention to even the tiniest of details, with one reportedly rejecting the color of her tulips five times. Sodded lawns were hand picked of ornery weeds, hundreds of fully blooming summer annuals and perennials were freshly planted, and lawn workers’ blowers buzzed all afternoon the day of the dinners. Rare Baccarat bowls and George III silver were removed from dusty shelves and filled to overflowing with cut blossoms not often seen. Rumors have it that one hostess hired the region’s most celebrated event planner, two other hostesses commissioned a local floral legend to appoint their tables, while another, shedding tears, sacrificed the pride and joy of her spring garden — not one peony blossom was spared. The fifth hostess pulled a Nancy Reagan and just said no — to flowers, that is. Her tables were simply adorned with candles, with those in attendance raving that her terrace was “aglow.”
To say that these dinners were good for the local economy as well would be an understatement. Refrigerated trucks bearing loads of fresh flowers from fields as close as Texas and California and as far away as South America and the Hawaiian Islands were said to be in the teens. One Eleven restaurant at the Capital Hotel catered the same menu in all five homes, and one has never seen such fancy green Jell-O. California wines were brought in from one LRGC member’s family vineyards. (Maybe this is the source of all those wine bottles aforementioned? Who knows?) And in order to seat 30 dinner guests, hostesses rented tables, chairs and stunning linens. Six additional place settings of china were purchased as well. I mean, who ever would have thought one would need more than 24? Badgley Mischka (the charming designers who recently graced our humble town with their presence) vintage-inspired rhinestone bracelets were used as napkin rings and left the dinner tables cuffed around almost every delicate wrist. The heavily engraved, handwritten notes of praise and thanks for the dinner parties have reportedly not stopped flowing through the Heights post office yet! “This type of entertaining is not often seen in Little Rock and will not be soon repeated,” is how one local party voyeur aptly put it.
So, while the nursery school adage “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” might apply to the LRGC and its private way of doing things but one thing is very clear: They know how to throw a party, and this Soirée Spy is proud to say their hosting skills reflected well on us all!