ARTICLE BY: by Eloise L. Morgan
Eloise is the editor of the HPSO Quarterly and a member of the HPSO Board of Directors. This article first appeared in the fall issue of the Quarterly, enjoy!
The year 1984, for many, brings to mind George Orwell’s novel depicting a totalitarian future. But for the Portland gardening community, 1984 has far more positive associations—it is the year that The Hardy Plant Society of Oregon was founded.
Born in the afterglow of a three-day study weekend produced in July 1984 by a small ad hoc group of Oregon gardeners who had attended similar events in Washington State, HPSO is now—35 years later—one of the largest volunteer-driven, non-profit horticultural organizations on the West Coast. The 1984 study weekend, headlined by British horticulturist Beth Chatto and expected to be a one-time event, netted a surprising $3,000 leaving the organizers to ask: What do we do with the money? The 32 passionate gardeners who met on December 1, 1984, had the answer: Let’s form The Hardy Plant Society of Oregon.
It was a time when perennial plants were little known or available. Sharon Streeter, HPSO’s first president, later wrote that the founders “spent as much time explaining what a hardy plant was as we did running the new society.” HPSO’s mission was to change that—to educate gardeners and nurseries about herbaceous perennials and to encourage their use in gardens.
Within the first two to three years, many of the amazing offerings we enjoy today—plant sales, open gardens, frequent expert lectures, and discounted garden book sales—were in place. The Society had obviously struck a chord. The fledgling organization was soon enveloped in issues that most new entities would die for—burgeoning membership and crowded events.
HPSO’s growth was as dramatic as it was unexpected. In less than a year it had over 100 memberships, which included two-person households. By 1992, there were over 1,000 individual members, and by the late 1990s, more than 2,000. The Society’s size leveled off thereafter and even fell at times, but by June 2019, HPSO celebrated record numbers—2,800 individual members.
From its first days, HPSO has presented wonderful programs featuring top international garden speakers—Christopher Lloyd, Pamela Harper, Penelope Hobhouse, Marco Polo Stefano, Dan Hinkley, Rick Darke, to name a few—and HPSO’s own resident experts. As late as 1999-2000, some events were all-day affairs featuring as many as seven presenters.
Equally valuable to gardeners eager to learn is the Open Gardens program begun in 1987, which welcomes members to each other’s gardens on specified days. More than three decades later the program regularly features more than 100 private and nursery display gardens, each open one or more times from late April to early October.
Plant sales, including rare and unusual plants, also date to HPSO’s earliest days. Lecture programs originally offered some plants for sale; and in 1988 the first stand-alone perennial sale was introduced, featuring plants mostly from members’ own gardens. The spring sale quickly became “the premiere plant sale in the area” and developed into an important fundraiser (HPSO earns a percentage of gross sales). By the early 2000s, the spring plant sale had expanded to 60-70 vendors, many of them new, local, specialty nurseries that had grown up along with HPSO and the renewed interest in perennials. It was typical to draw 2,500-3,000 or more customers to the one- and later two-day spring event, first staged at the Washington County Fairgrounds and since 2008 at the Portland EXPO Center. Rebranded Hortlandia in 2012, last spring’s sale spiked up to over 6,000 visitors and was dubbed the “Coachella of plant sales” by one California visitor. Supported in part by plant sale proceeds originally, HPSO’s grants and scholarship program was also initiated in 1988 and now raises and distributes nearly $10,000 annually to regional nonprofit gardening projects, public gardens, and community college horticulture and landscape students.
Another attractive venture is HPSO’s small-group, members-only, international and domestic garden tours, officially introduced in 1998. Popular destinations have been England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, France, and other European countries. Participation is competitive—one 2019 tour sold out in 45 seconds, another in four minutes.
HPSO’s startling early growth brought logistical, organizational, and person-power challenges. From a clerical standpoint alone, managing the volume of membership and program registrations and fees as well as plant sale transactions was a heavy burden. The first paid employee was a treasurer/bookkeeper, engaged in 1999 after four volunteer treasurers resigned due to overwork in a four-year period. Free events soon became paid affairs to help balance the books. By the end of its first decade, HPSO was in effect a small business; and an office had become essential to house a part-time administrator and an expanding library and to gather records, supplies, equipment, and book inventory from members’ homes and garages.
As the Society expanded, connections among members inevitably grew weaker. In response, HPSO began in 1989 to encourage the formation of study or interest groups, smaller satellite bands of gardeners affiliated by geographic area or subject. More than a dozen exist today. New programs designed for smaller audiences were presented from time to time: Garden School seminars on garden basics; Gen(i)us presentations usually focused on particular plants; and, since 2016, HPSO After Hours gatherings hosted jointly with local nurseries. And throughout the years, HPSO activities, such as visiting with members in their gardens and volunteering side-by-side at plant sales and speaker programs, have fostered a strong sense of community and friendship among longtime members, many of whom travel together for study weekends or on HPSO tours. With so a large membership, there always seems to be an opportunity to talk gardening with someone.
HPSO’s evolution paralleled—and benefited from—the advent of the internet and other technological advances. A few examples: early membership communications used hand-applied labels produced by Sharon Streeter’s dot matrix printer. The work was farmed out to a paid service in 1992 when HPSO averaged 15 mass post office mailings each year (to the relief of a volunteer mail committee). Now the HPSO website provides online notices, registrations, and payments, largely eliminating paper mail—a huge advance. The crunch of annual year-end membership renewals was also alleviated when computer software enabled rolling memberships with automatic renewal notices. HPSO’s paper publications—a twice-yearly Bulletin introduced in 1985 and a more frequent newsletter begun in 1992—have morphed into a website (first introduced in 1997), weekly email blasts (2010), the Quarterly magazine (2013), and social media advisories (by 2018).
While the electronic information age smoothed HPSO’s operations, it also lessened the demand for some features. When expert slide shows and books were the primary means of education about perennials, HPSO’s quarterly programs and annual meetings drew crowds so sizeable (up to 900 registrants by 2000) that large-enough venues were hard to find. Book sales at these programs were brisk—sometimes more than 300 volumes sold in a single day. Now that plant information is almost instantly available through the internet and books can be ordered online with a few clicks, both the crowds and book sales are smaller. Open Gardens continues to be a major attraction, though, and several revenue generating events—Hortlandia, study weekends, and the foreign garden tours—are perennial successes.
Fittingly, the Society’s first 35 years are bookended by Portland study weekends, hosted over the years by the Society in rotation with horticultural groups in Seattle, British Columbia, and at times, Eugene. Attendance at these three-day conventions, filled with superb speakers, stunning open gardens, plant and book sales, catered box lunches, and a convivial Saturday night banquet, today appear to be limited only by venue capacity. HPSO’s 2019 event prompted a visitor from Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens staff to pronounce Portland’s study weekends as “the best horticultural events in the country.”
Challenges remain. The highly popular spring plant sale marks a joyful welcoming of spring. However, the sale has always required dozens of volunteers, at first laboriously recruited and organized through telephone and snail mail outreach. A 1993 HPSO Bulletin editorial headlined: “Can this Monster be Tamed?” was an eye-catching appeal for plant show volunteers. Although staffing is now organized largely through HPSO’s website, the need for volunteers is unabated. Another recurring plant sale theme—long checkout lines—also continues to confront the organizing committee. Plans for 2020 call for more checkout lines and improved space configuration.
HPSO’s fall plant sale was never as successful as its spring sale. What gardener doesn’t prefer spring? After losing money and energy for several years, the fall event was successfully recast in 2013 as PlantFest, a combination speaker/small-scale plant sale held each September, where vendors pay a flat fee per table and handle their own transactions.
Not every early initiative has survived. When perennial seeds and plants were hard to find, a few members grew seeds for sale at HPSO events. The increasing availability of perennials in the market reduced the need for homegrown seeds, and the effort gradually faded away. Another committee, abolished in 2004, sold aprons, shirts and hats. HPSO’s extensive botanical displays at Portland’s Yard, Garden and Patio show ended when the show itself perished after 2016, but displays continue as a valuable feature at HPSO events.
Creating any organization from scratch is not easy. When a new group grows like Topsy, the task is massive. Over the decades, HPSO’s hard-working officers, 12-person board, and dedicated volunteers have wrestled with philosophical and practical questions: Should we limit membership? (No.) Should director and officer positions be term limited? (Yes.) Should dues cover operating costs? (Not all of them.) How much should membership dues be? ($12 originally; $15 in 1991; $20 in 1996; $30 by 2004.) How can we oversee up to 20 working committees? (Good question.) How to run smooth board meetings? (Follow a set agenda, raise your hand before speaking, stay on point, be respectful.) Should we hire paid office staff? (Yes. Three part-time staff currently.) Should HPSO branch out to houseplants for the younger market? (Let’s try it.)
While many garden clubs and horticulture organizations have withered in recent years as members age and younger people lack the time, resources, or interest to engage in gardening, HPSO is proud to be one of the West Coast’s largest, most vibrant, nimble, and forward-thinking horticultural nonprofits. The Society has several younger board members; has embraced social media with its own active Facebook page, Instagram feed, and gardening blog; and actively appeals to a broad demographic.
HPSO was formed by a small group of passionate gardeners who aimed to learn together about perennials and to introduce them to a broader population of gardeners and nurseries. Those goals have been met beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Three-and-a-half decades later, HPSO is thriving—firmly planted, in fertile soil, lovingly tended by a community of dedicated gardeners. We look forward to the future.
This history is based primarily on HPSO board minutes, publications, and other records, including a detailed history of the Society’s early years written by Sharon E. Streeter.