Hillside Gardeners Quietly Toil Away

Have you even heard of the Hillside Gardeners of Montclair?  The Hillsiders have been quietly toiling away and making our public gardens flourish since 1947.  Since these gardens don’t live by sweat equity alone, the group will host a fundraising garden tour – this Saturday, April 18th, from 11am – 4pm.

Our interest in this gardening club was piqued, because we seldom hear about them.  We were able to catch up with one Hillsider, Barbara Goldenberg, who graciously filled in the blanks and shared their history and projects with us.

Conquering the Difficult Hillsides

As part of the post-WWII civic boom, Hillside Gardeners was founded in Montclair.  “Women were interested in putting in gardens into their new homes, and sharing information about gardening on these difficult hillsides,” explained Goldenberg, who has belonged for years.

“There were 10 ‘founders,’ all known by their husbands’ names, as was typical of the times.  All have passed away,” said Goldenberg.  However one long-time member of the Hillside Gardeners, Marj Saunders, is nearing her centennial and has been a club member since 1950.  She is a well-known green-thumb around Montclair, and even has an eponymous park!

Marj Saunders - Park Dedication

Hillside Gardeners Thrive Today

Today, the group is thriving while others have become extinct.  Under the current leadership of President Merle Boese, VP Ann Livingston and four other board members, there are 120 members and 21 standing and special committee chairs.  The point isn’t to bestow titles on members – it’s to assign and oversee many projects on a long-term basis.

Over the years, the membership has evolved well beyond Montclair borders.  Last year, the former Skyline Garden Club officially merged into this Hillside Club.  Today gardeners come from all over Oakland and carpetbaggers have been welcomed from Alameda, Berkeley and San Leandro.

Where the Green Thumbs Go

Hillsiders have restored and maintained some interesting gardens in publicly-owned places as well as health care locations.  Here’s where they till, plant, weed and prune these days:

  • Montclair Library Garden – about 10 years
  • Joaquin Miller School Gardens and Ecology Club – more than 12 years
  • Joaquin Miller Community Center – since the late 1980s
  • Moraga & Masonic Neighborhood Garden – after the 1991 firestorm
  • Lakeside Park Gardens – old Sensory & new Mediterranean Gardens – in the last five years
  • Water’s Edge Nursing Facility in Alameda, Horticulture Therapy – over 10 years

Each location requires around a day or two of monthly work, with Hillside teams ranging from six to 15 volunteers.  Lakeside Park requires more time, and Hillsiders work one evening a week from late spring until early fall.

From Earth to Table

The Joaquin Miller School gardens take even more time and attention.  Originally Montclarion Peggy Hulse had grand kids at the school, and she convinced their principal that growing food there was a good thing.  While Peggy has moved away, her legacy continues and the grade schoolers grow vegetables and native plants – and make nutritional snacks from their harvests.

Kids from first to fifth grades participate in three different weekly classes.  Lots of students get hands-on experience in the garden, and new participants join every half-semester.  Future gardeners naturally emerge, when a few older ones help the first and second graders.  It’s a rewarding project for the volunteers as well.

Sowing Oats with Scholarships

Hillside Gardeners also encourage college students through scholarships and part-time jobs.  They award horticulture and ecology students at Merritt College, granting enough for their expensive textbooks.  In addition, the Hillsiders hire and pay UC Berkeley students to work in the Botanical Gardens.

The club’s investment works well, since Merritt students and alums turn into active volunteers.  Barbara Goldenberg gave a shout-out to the Merritt pruning class who has helped restore the Sensory Garden at Lakeside Park, by pruning old camellias and other specimen trees.

Over the years, some Merritt graduates have joined the club and contributed their expertise.  Other grads just show up anyway – and pitch in with garden planting and clean-up efforts.

The Ups and Downs of Hillside Gardening

Earth Day is celebrated by Oaklanders this Saturday morning, but the afternoon is free and clear.  Why not take a tour of some extraordinary gardens and support the Hillside Gardeners?  They only hold a fundraiser every two or three years, and here are the official details:

The Hillside Gardeners of Montclair present “The Ups and Downs of Hillside Gardening,” a self-guided tour of eight fabulous Oakland gardens on Saturday, April 18th from 11 am – 4 pm.

See a terrific succulent garden, a butterfly garden, a sculpture garden, spectacular water features and four different vegetable gardens.  The gardens range from tiny and personal to large and household-sustaining, with lots of variety in between.

Each garden has a different way of using water wisely, including drought-tolerant plants, a home-made rain barrel, a well and a sophisticated rainwater collection and distribution system!

Tickets are $30 in advance or $35 that day.  For tickets, email hgmgardens@gmail.com or call (510) 530-1681.

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