Hometown-grown magic raises holiday spirits
To the casual observer, it seems to happen overnight every December: the magical transformation of Maplewood from late-autumn browns to fresh holiday greens with all the trimmings.
Suddenly, there will be Christmas trees in the train station, fresh evergreen wreaths in the windows. Seasonal greens and ribbon bows will brighten our libraries and public buildings, including the historic Durand-Hedden House.
Most enchanting of all, perhaps, Dickens Village will materialize in Ricalton Square like a miniature Brigadoon, with each tiny building telling its own story of holidays long ago. Peer into the window at the conservatory and see greens of a different order. This year, a carefully curated display of succulents, holly, and pansies will suddenly bloom under glass.
All done by magic? My eye! as Bill Kohlman would have every right to say. He’s the president of the Maplewood Garden Club, the 92-year-old organization that is the creative force behind Maplewood’s “magical” sprucing up. It’s a huge labor of love, a “give-back to the community,” as Kohlman puts it. Every fall, Garden Club members lay trowels and seed catalogs aside and take up their annual holiday mission of making Maplewood festive for the coming holidays.
The transformation mostly occurs in just one intense, well-coordinated day – the first Saturday in December – but the project really begins much earlier every spring, including the Garden Club’s sensationally successful plant sales in May whose proceeds fund the holiday decorations.
Working up to the big decorating event has kept Garden Clubbers thinking about winter holidays since the early fall. There’s past president Judy Cronin, busily designing the “embellished-natural ornaments” that will decorate the trees in the train station. All autumn long, other club members have collected natural materials, such as pine cones, allium and milkweed seed pods, for Judy to imagine into decorations to be created in a series of ornament-making workshops.
With that five-foot-tall tree in the train station waiting to be decorated with the handmade ornaments, it’s a good thing, as Cronin says, that “we have a lot of artists” among the 150-plus members of the Garden Club. Members also come together in late autumn workshops to turn what Kohlman describes as “bales” of Fraser fir and white pine into the dozens of wreaths and swags – each accessorized with hand-tied bows – that will soon be conjuring holiday charm all around town.
On official Decorating Day – this year it’s December 7 – the Maplewood railway station feels a bit like Santa’s workshop. Workers arrive about 11:30 in the morning, bearing trees, wreaths, swags, and ladders, plus their kids to help wire-on bows, and, as Kohlman reports, “young recruits to climb those ladders.”
Garden Club members “are doers,” says Kohlman. “It takes manpower.” By which he means woman-power, too, of course. Kohlman's wife, Kathy, was president before Bill took over. “She is the real gardener,” says Kohlman. “She knows the names of the plants.” They joined the Garden Club together in 2006. “Kathy was interested in gardening, and I was interested in my wife,” he says with a smile.
The Kohlmans are upholding a long tradition: According to its website, the Maplewood Garden Club has a reputation among New Jersey garden clubs as the “Husbands and Wives” Club. A list of its past presidents shows a generous mix of male and female presidents, as well as a number of husbands and wives who, separately, have held this office.
Back at the Maplewood train station on decorating day, the holidays will arrive by noon. The trees will be twinkling, the swags hanging in graceful loops, and the windows wreathed in green. Even the poles on the island between tracks and the parking lot on Ricalton Square will be given the holiday treatment.
Meanwhile, more greens will go up all over town. Over in Ricalton Square, the Dickens Village conservatory team of two, Liz Demkin and Maria Mulkern, will wrestle with their Garden Club assignment: planting the little garden in the mini conservatory. The problems include unusual, harsh conditions. “It’s hot during the day, cold at night,” Demkin explains. And keeping live plants watered is another challenge. They were still working out the details as this article went to press, but like any good gardener, Demkin and Mulkern are used to experimentation.
“We’ll just have to see what works. We’re thinking Artemisia, yucca, maybe grasses, Helleborus, and ornamental cabbages, pansies....” Demkin muses. There will also be battery-operated candles, twinkle lights, maybe “something from the toy sale at Morrow’s Turnover Sale.”
Making this a community project is typical of the Garden Club itself. Working quietly behind the scenes all year round, club members maintain various gardens around town, at both libraries, on the Baker Street traffic island, a Youth Garden for young children, and the MapleFood Garden that produces 500-1,000 pounds of vegetables donated each season to local food pantries.
The club also cultivates local gardeners’ expertise, presenting top professional speakers at free public programs every first Monday from September to May, and maintaining the community greenhouse with 160 wintering-over spaces available to any Maplewood resident (for a modest fee, payable to the township). The greenhouse also offers cold-weather shelter to refugee tropical plants from the Maplewood pool, and provides nursery space for plants headed for next May’s plant sale. Add in the scholarships ($5,000-7,000) awarded annually to Columbia High School and Rutgers University students pursuing environmental studies, and the club’s ongoing donations of gardening books to the Maplewood libraries.
Christmas may come just once a year, but as Kohlman observes, “We give a lot to our town all year round.”
Journalist Rose Bennett Gilbert is challenged by arranging altar flowers at St. George's Church, so she is totally dazzled by the Maplewood Garden Club!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Did we make your own green thumb itch a bit? Check out maplewoodgardenclub.org. New members are always welcome.