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Planada woman touts benefits of gardening club membership

To Joyce Stillman, there are many advantages to being a gardener and the enjoyment spreads throughout the year.

Stillman, who lives on a two-acre plot in Planada in rural Merced County, relishes seeing things grow, mature and develop, with the final bonus seeing them bloom into breathtaking flowers representing all the colors of the rainbow and some in-between.

"This is really God's garden," Stillman says. "Maybe he's experimenting with me. It's like a symphony."

Stillman and other members of the Merced Garden Club will be conducting their annual garden tour April 12, rain or shine, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Five gardens in the Merced area will be open to visitors in the fund-raising effort that supports scholarships at Merced College and high schools. The tour has been going on for about 25 years.

"It's fascinating to see things growing, how they evolve," Stillman says. "It just brightens your day to see the colors. When I was a kid growing up I always wanted flowers. I think I have a few now."

She is quick to point out she is not a pristine landscaper. In many cases, birds, the wind and stray seeds have introduced "volunteer" plants everywhere in the Stillman garden.

She likes the experimental factor, but says time and Nature's fickle temperament will determine if certain plants ultimately "make the cut" as permanent fixtures in her gardens. If a plant spreads too quickly or becomes invasive, it may not last. Rabbits and gophers also make her gardens a "survival of the fittest" drama.

Baby's breath is found throughout Stillman's gardens; she says it's a great deterrent for weeds. A six-pack of chrysanthemums planted 15 years ago have reseeded everywhere and are eager to fill in blank spaces.

"It's an experiment to see what lives and what doesn't make the cut. Everybody wants a garden without maintenance, but there is no such thing," she says. While she likes the colors from roses, too many rose bushes will require too much care and they are limited with the Stillmans.

Stillman says she could spend all day in her garden but doesn't. The heavy clay soil typical of the area where she lives provides challenges to growth. As proof of her zeal for gardening, on her birthday one year her son gave her 10 yards of mulch from the dump to help the plants grow.

Stillman has spent 41 years with the Merced Garden Club and another 15 years with the Le Grand Garden Club, which have state and national affiliations. She says she has enjoyed belonging to the club and has learned so much from senior members. Tours to places like Filoli Gardens, the San Francisco Garden Show, Fresno's Woodward Park and growing mums in Jackson also are worthwhile.

She points out Merced Garden Club meetings feature a horticulture report which often includes demonstrations of new ways to use certain plants or how to cultivate them. Workshops cover things like growing dahlias, garden solutions, water-saving techniques and improving the soil.

"Joining a garden club will result in new friendships, knowledge and learning how to give back to your community," Stillman says.

The garden club was established in 1930, federated in 1933 and incorporated 14 years ago. It has its monthly meetings at the Fish and Game Building at Lake Yosemite. The group meets the second Wednesday of the month from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. from June to September.

Members bring in cuttings and starts of plants to share with others. Sometimes the club will tour members' gardens during the meetings.

Stillman's sprawling gardens include many ferns, snapdragons, pansies, calendulas, camellias, cherry trees, Hollywood junipers pruned like bonsai plants, Bradford pears, succulents, violas, reblooming iris plants, daffodils and her favorite — zinnias.

While summer will mean full color for Stillman's flowers and trees, she says the best season is the fall. Stillman and her husband Tom like to live outside, watching the sun come up and go down. It's never a dull moment, she adds. Still it's a soothing feeling.

Just planting seeds and seeing them emerge is fascinating, along with wondering how they sprout. Part of the fun is the moment when she says, "Oh yeah, I forgot about that one" and is surprised to see that plant bloom.

For the club's garden tour April 12, there is a $20 charge per person. A no-host lunch will be provided at the Vista wine tasting and luncheon facility on East Highway 140 near Planada. For more information about the tour, call (209) 617-2199.

— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.