Phyllis Ross looks more like the boss of a landscaping crew than she does a garden-club lady.
She wears work gloves instead of white gloves and a ball cap instead of a flowered hat.
And she isn't chatting amiably over tea with other ladies in voile dresses. She is telling them where to dig, what to pull out and what to plant.
"Nobody does anything without asking Phyllis first," says a fellow member of the Cliff Dwellers Garden Club. "Phyllis is the boss."
Ross is the creative force behind the restoration of the Friendship Garden on the grounds of the Evergreen house, and today is a work day.
Members of the Roland Park and Guilford garden club are out in force on this beautiful morning to spring-clean the intimate walled garden created by the late Alice Garrett during Evergreen's heyday.
The brown-bag lunches that the women bring to eat during the business meeting that follows the clean-up are a far cry from the fancy lunches original members served each other in the days when the club was rarified and exclusive. Today, everybody is a mess and sitting on the ground.
This tableau demonstrates more clearly than any garden-club archive the difference between then and now.
This isn't your grandma's garden club.
"We like to get our hands dirty," says Ross. Though a member of Cliff Dwellers for only 15 years, her horticultural skills have made her a leader among the members.
The first garden club in America was founded in 1891 in Athens, Ga., and the irony is that the original 12 members probably didn't garden. In that era, servants did the work.
At a time when a woman's social life centered on her church, garden clubs were a way for women segregated by denomination to socialize, and the clubs became a Southern tradition.
Though socializing and flower arranging were the twin pur- poses of garden clubs, they were also responsible for community beautification projects from their earliest days.
The Cliff Dwellers was begun in 1929 by Judge Morris A. Soper's wife for women who were excluded from other clubs because they lived in apartments. They focused on creating terrariums and on decorating windows and sun porches.
The Sopers occupied an entire floor of the Ambassador apartments, and Grace Parker Soper had 32 windows to beautify. The landless club focused its community service on buying gardening books for the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Garden clubs today have those same purposes -- socializing, flower arranging and community service.
But they have added many more dimensions: scholarships for college students as well as members who want to become "master gardeners"; restoration of historic gardens and maintenance of gardens in public places; "flower therapy" for the elderly, troubled youngsters or those in hospitals; conservation, including the planting of millions of seedlings, wildlife preservation and native plants, as well as programs and camps for kids -- the gardeners of tomorrow.
Garden clubs were the first environmental lobbyists, and today they might have their biggest impact in this area: the two national garden-club governing bodies boast a total of a half-million members. That's a lot of phone calls and letters to government officials.
But garden clubs today are different in one more important way: Garden clubbers work hard.
"I wouldn't want to take aerobics with any of these ladies," says Jill Palkovitz, a relatively new member of the Cliff Dwellers and a youngster at 41.
"Garden clubs used to be mostly about flower arranging," says Jane James, pulling off her gloves and sweeping her hair off her forehead. She has been a member of Cliff Dwellers for 41 years.
"We still do Art Blooms at the Walters [Art Museum], and we do the Christmas flowers at Evergreen. But we are far more physically active," says James.
"We do more physical labor. We do more gardening."
She, like all the members, will be assigned by Ross a week of weeding at the Friendship Garden this summer -- on top of ambitious yard work at her own home.
Another difference in the modern garden club? She will probably get her assignment by e-mail.
The Cliff Dwellers, who dress in flowered hats and gloves once a year in good-natured self-mockery, have a long tradition of adopting historical buildings, including the Peale Museum Garden and the restoration of the Mencken Garden using the plans of H.L. Mencken's mother.
That can't be said of the Hazelwood Garden Club.
"Our garden club is purely about us and our own gardens," says the cheerfully irreverent Joanne Hampson.
Its members all live in the Baldwin-Fallston area around the Harford-Baltimore county line, and they formed the club five years ago "as a release from our hectic lives," says Hampson, 48.
"And besides, gardeners are the nicest people."
The women meet at night because most of the members work during the day -- an enormous break with garden-club tradition and a nod toward the realities of modern gardening.
"I come home in a business suit and pantyhose and start pulling weeds," says Hampson.