If it’s Wednesday morning, there’s no question where you’ll find Celeste Neuman. She will be in the garden at Ashland, the Henry Clay estate, on Richmond Road.
Neuman is a member of the Garden Club of Lexington, whose 60 active members turn out in work clothes at 9:30 a.m. each Wednesday from early April through October to plant, pull weeds, deadhead, mulch, prune and generally keep the half-acre formal garden in pristine condition.
“It’s a complicated garden, and it has to look good all the time. There’s a lot of work,” club president Kathy Brooks said.
Everyone keeps a pretty good frame of mind about the hard work. “No one has ever said, ‘Let’s give up the Ashland garden and go on to other projects,’” Brook said.
Anyone who is asked to join the club accepts knowing the weekly commitment. “We feel obligated to be here,” member Lendy Brown said.
Neuman doesn’t bring her cellphone on Wednesdays, so she won’t be distracted. “We really work when we’re here. We enjoy gardening and the camaraderie.”
When Elise Boyd gets a new calendar in January, “I go through and write the word ‘dig’ on every Wednesday from April through October.” There also are monthly educational meetings.
The garden, enclosed with a brick wall, is open during daylight hours, 10 months of the year, at no charge. Visitors walk through constantly, Brooks said. It’s a popular spot for wedding photos.
In July, a bronze Kentucky Historical Society marker was unveiled outside the front gates of the garden, commemorating the Garden Club of Lexington’s 100-year history. The club was founded in 1916 and became affiliated with the Garden Club of America in 1924.
In 1950, the Henry Clay Foundation asked the club to create a garden honoring statesman Henry Clay, said Melody Kinkead, club historian and chairwoman of the marker project. The club raised the money and hired Henry Kenney, a Cincinnati landscape architect, to design a formal parterre garden.
Kenney grew up in Nicholasville and was a childhood friend of Henry Clay Bullock, the last descendent of Henry Clay. Bullock lived at Ashland until 1959.
The garden is divided into six parterres in the center, surrounded by eight large borders planted with annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. Each club member is assigned a section to make sure the whole garden is tended.
On a recent Wednesday, Boyd clipped dead blooms from large clumps of daisies and generally tidied up a long border containing baptisia, Japanese anemones, Solomon’s seal, lilies of the valley and Joe Pye weed. Brown and Neuman worked in a section called “the coral bell” bed.
In another area, members pruned roses and inspected leaves for insects and black spot. Sheilagh Hammond sprinkled a fertilizer-pesticide-herbicide mixture around each one.
“Roses are so temperamental. One week they look great, the next week they might look completely different,” Nancy Bishop said. “Roses, to me, take constant care. Some people say they can’t do roses. Anybody can do roses, but you have to be consistent.”
In addition to the formal garden, the garden club maintains the Saunders peony garden at Ashland, planted with 42 varieties of Saunders hybrid peonies that once belonged to garden club member Alice Mcllvain Prewitt and were donated in her memory in 1986. Next to the garden shed is a monarch butterfly way station that was installed in 2015.
The club started the Kentucky Coffee Tree Project in 2010, providing seeds and planting supplies to local students. Last year, 1,300 students in 13 schools participated. Small bouquets made with flowers from members’ gardens are delivered to nursing homes once a month during the growing season, for Bouquets to Brighten the Day.
At 11:30 a.m., everybody takes a break for refreshments. On a recent Wednesday, Dottie Cordray brought a tray of tea sandwiches, a platter of deviled eggs and iced tea. Cordray said the Garden Club of Lexington has cohesiveness that many clubs lack. “I think it’s because of this,” she said, nodding toward the garden.
The club employs one part-time person, Mary Warren. “Mary keeps the garden going when we’re not here,” Brooks said. Local landscape companies are hired to mow the grass paths, clip the 15-foot-tall yew hedge and prune the boxwood.
The annual budget to maintain the garden is $25,000. The major fundraiser is a September garden party, plus the sale of Pomegranate “Garden Gate” linens and two cookbooks, “Bluegrass Winners” and “Entertaining with Bluegrass Winners.” Both feature regional recipes and highlight area horse farms with photographs and their histories. The club has sold more than 100,000 copies. Bluegrass Winners is out of print; the second book is available in the gift shop at Ashland and at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.
Beverly Fortune is a former Herald-Leader reporter. Reach her at email@example.com.