ML History: Gladwyne Library’s plant sale blossoms into 60 years of success (2022)

April showers bring May flowers.

Tomorrow those April showers will bring Main Liners a chance to buy some flowers to make the month of May more colorful as well as a chance to plant a tree or two to celebrate Arbor Day.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Gladwyne Library Plant Sale, celebrating “60 Years of Growing for You” Friday, April 30, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturday, May 1, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The library at 363 Righter’s Mill Road will turn into a nursery filled with thousands of annuals, perennials, baskets, planters, vegetables, herbs, shrubs, trees, vines, native plants and garden decor. The plant sale is sponsored by the Gladwyne Library League and is the library’s largest fund-raiser.

In silk and pearls

You might not think of silk print dresses, white pumps and pearls as the typical gardener’s dress but then again this is the Main Line. Six decades ago the women who started the annual plant sale were as dressed up for the plant sale as they were for Sunday tea at the country club.

Fast-forward through the years and today you’ll find the library volunteers dressed in jeans, boots and work gloves as they happily get dirty as they unload trucks of plants, shrubs and flowers and set up the sale on the library grounds.

Throughout its long history, the plant sale has had its share of frustrating and sometimes funny incidents. The event has survived bad weather, heavy winds and rainstorms as well as sewer construction smack in front of the library. Then there was the time when after days of rain, floods literally washed the plants down the library’s sloping driveway. The Gladwyne Fire Company came to the rescue as firefighters helped retrieve the plants and used fire-company tarps to create a roof to help protect the plants and flowers as well as to keep customers dry from the rains.

The first formal Plant Sale Committee was chaired in 1951 by Mrs. J.W. Powell and included 14 members, with most of the women going by their husbands’ names as was the tradition at that time. They included Mrs. Warren Althouse, Mrs. Arthur M. Bremer, Mrs. Ernest Earnest, Mrs. L.R. Gardner, Mrs. Roscoe Rhoads, Mrs. Joseph R. Vetterlein, Mrs. John B. Russell Jr., Mrs. John Hansel, Mrs. John B. Flick, Mrs. H.L. Evans, Mrs. A.H. Rosengarten, Mrs. Thomas Keefer, Miss Nancy Nicoli and Miss Alice Wharterby.

The 1951 sale included a poster contest at Merion Square School, now known as Gladwyne Elementary School, under the direction of Principal Fetter.

While not everyone may recognize all those names, anyone with even the mildest acquaintance with horticulture will surely recognize the name of this supporter of the plant sale – Mrs. Joseph Henry, who founded the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research in Gladwyne. She was a member of the library board and often lent her horticultural knowledge to the sale. Among the offerings at this year’s plant sale is the “William Penn” that was developed by Henry.

Another name well connected with the plant sale is that of Trustee Emeritus Joanna Gabel, wife of J. Griffith of Gladwyne. She worked on the Book and Flowers event that was very popular during the early years of the book sale. The project challenged flower arrangers to pair their skills with book titles.

Campbell tomato plants

When the plant sale started 60 years ago it was quite small: just some local gardeners dropping off surplus plants at the library from their own personal gardens. At that time the plants were free for anyone to enjoy.

Among the first plants offered were tomato plants. But these were not just some red veggies from someone’s back yard. These tomato plants would make great soup, especially since they were donated by Beverly Murphy of Gladwyne, who was president of the library trustees as well as the chairman of the Campbell Soup Company. One spring in the early years of the plant sale Murphy dropped off boxes of extra Campbell plants at the library. “Everyone was welcome to them. Gladwyne plant enthusiasts – and there were many given the area’s farming background – took note, went home and returned with more gems from their own gardens to share and a sale was born,” shares Barbara Lockwood of Bryn Mawr, who has chaired the plant sale for the past 18 years. And this is one volunteer who truly has both a green thumb and a head full of green knowledge. She is a graduate of the horticultural schools at the Barnes Academy in Merion and Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

Among the faithful plant-sale devotees who return to the plant sale yearly is Murphy’s daughter, says Lockwood.

Eventually the plant sale evolved into a fund-raiser for the library, with the help of the Gladwyne Library League that was established a few years after the plant sale started. The Library League was established to “foster closer relations between the Gladwyne Free Library and the residents of Gladwyne. The League’s mission is to promote knowledge of the functions, services, resources and needs of the library and to participate in the development of programs that will enhance and improve those resources and services,” reads a brief history of the league on the library Web site.

The League Board averages 50 active members who are responsible for developing, organizing and running the various programs, activities and fund-raising events that the League sponsors throughout the year. The League sponsors three annual fund-raising events. The largest is the May plant sale; the annual membership drive takes place in September and a fund-raising cocktail party takes place each spring.

In addition to its fund-raising duties, the Library League sponsors the Junior Author Contest, the annual Arts and Crafts Show, the Memorial Day Parade and Block Party, a Fall Get-Together, a Walk through Historic Gladwyne and an annual book-review meeting.

The Library League uses the money raised from the plant sale to help maintain the library’s historic building and grounds, to finance improvements and to help support the library’s extensive book collection and the many programs offered throughout the year for both children and adult library patrons.

Today’s favorite plants

“Quality is the key to the plant sale’s growth throughout the years, ” says Lockwood. “The most popular and enduring annual is the geranium. Hanging baskets and planted containers disappear almost as quickly as the sale opens.”

What has fallen a bit out of favor are some of the vegetables, most notably eggplant, cabbage and broccoli. “They are no longer the popular items they once were,” she says.

What has gained in popularity since it was introduced about a dozen years ago is advance ordering, which includes annuals like the royal-blue Ageratum and the pink-tinged Cleome; vegetables like the heirloom tomatoes; flowering shrubs like the Capistrano yellow rhododendron, the Annabelle Snow Queen Hydrangea and the Olympic Fire Kalmia; and “thrillers, spillers and fillers,” including the trailing white flowers of the Bacopa, the pink New Guinea impatiens, the Ipomea sweet-potato vine and the Guard House blue fan flower Scaveola.

About a dozen years ago trees and shrubs, including native and Gold Medal Award plants, were introduced. “It remains a prominent and worthwhile addition,” says Lockwood.

And what a better introduction for planting new trees and Arbor Day?

LM trees and Arbor Day

For decades Lower Merion Township has been a strong supporter of adding trees to the township’s landscape. Decades ago the township made a 30-year commitment to planting shade trees. Since 1976 Lower Merion has annually been awarded “Tree City USA” status, receiving a 30-year award in 2006.

From 1999 to 2001 township workers planted 30 street trees in local business districts with another 120 trees being planted in residential areas. In 2000 township workers planted 110 trees in Shortridge Park.

In 2005 the township was awarded a TreeVitalize grant of 150 trees. In the fall of 2006, 75 of these trees were planted in the Bala Cynwyd Business District by members of township staff and the local community, including the Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd.

Amidst the beautiful landscape of Lower Merion you can find plenty of garden arbors.

The word “arbor” is Latin for “tree” so you don’t need a green thumb to figure out Arbor Day is celebrated with tree-plantings across the country and, for this environmental holiday, across the world. The use of the word “arbor” in garden arbors stems from the old French word erbier, which means garden. In that instance the word “arbor” is used most often for a garden arbor, or a trellising structure covered with greenery.

The Arbor Day holiday dates back to 1872 when J. Sterling Morton began campaigning for a holiday to celebrate trees and to encourage tree-planting.

Looking back 18 years earlier, Morton and his wife were among the many pioneers moving into the Nebraska Territory in 1854. Originally from Detroit, the couple were nature lovers and quickly planted trees, shrubs and flowers around their new home. Morton was a journalist who soon became editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper. He was quick to fill the pages of his newspaper with agricultural information and often wrote editorials supporting the need for more trees in the state, which was often referred to as treeless. He argued the trees were needed not only for their beauty but also as windbreaks to keep soil in place, for fuel and building materials and for shade from the hot sun.

Within short order Morton became the secretary of the Nebraska Territory, giving him another soapbox from which to preach the value of trees. On Jan. 4, 1872, Morton proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day” at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture. The date was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for the largest number of trees planted on that day. It was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on that very first Arbor Day.

By the 1920s each state in the United States had passed a law stipulating an Arbor Day be celebrated. In most states, including Pennsylvania, the holiday is celebrated on the last Friday in April.

For those who enjoy a little bit of trivia, Morton’s birthday is April 22, the same day as Earth Day.

Arbor Day around the world

While the Arbor Day holiday is sometimes celebrated on different dates and even different seasons throughout the world, most of the celebrations revolve around planting trees and other environmental activities. Here’s a brief review of how the holiday is celebrated, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

In Australia, Arbor Day was first celebrated on June 20, 1889. But instead of happening in April, the holiday is celebrated on July 28 as National Tree Planting Day. In Brazil, Arbor Day, known as Dia da Arvore, is celebrated on Sept. 21 (the start of their spring) with schools participating in environmental activities including tree-planting. Arbor Day has been a holiday in the Republic of China since 1927 and was established to commemorate the passing of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China. It’s celebrated on March 12.

In Egypt, Arbor Day is celebrated by planting trees on Jan. 15. In Germany the holiday known as Tag des Baumes was first celebrated on April 25, 1952. Israel celebrates Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, on the 15th day of the month of Shvat, which usually falls in January or February. Originally based on the date used to calculate the age of fruit trees for tithing as mandated in Leviticus 19:23-25, the holiday now is most often observed by planting trees or raising money to plant them. Japan celebrates Greenery Day on April 29, which is similar to Arbor Day and is celebrated on the birthday of Emperor Hirohito.

In Kenya, Arbor Day is celebrated as National Tree Planting Day on April 21 when palm trees and coconut trees are planted along the Indian Ocean that borders the country’s east coast. Arbor Day in the Philippines is observed every June 25 by planting trees and ornamental plants. In Poland, Arbor Day is celebrated on Oct. 10, while in Portugal the day is observed on March 21 and is celebrated through the schools with tree-planting. In South Africa, Arbor Day was celebrated from 1983 until 1999 when the national government extended it to National Arbor Week from Sept. 1 to 7 (again near the start of the Southern Hemisphere’s spring). Tradition calls for two trees, one common and one rare, to be highlighted to increase public awareness of indigenous trees, while various “greening” activities are undertaken by schools, businesses and other organizations.

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