History of MHS

Founding Members

 Founded in late 1980 by:

Ann and Bob Blecken

Robert DeWar

Karl Kaestle

Paul Kingsley

Lois and Kenneth Kuiken

Kenneth O’Dell

John Pierce,Sr.

Christine Spindel

The Founding of the Memphis Horticultural Society By Christine Spindel

Leaves were turning red and gold in the fall of 1980 and fruit and seed were ripening. Also coming to fruition in the minds of ten gardeners, nurserymen, and horticulturists was the idea of founding a horticultural society in Memphis. The lack of such a society here was a subject that Karl Kaestle and I bemoaned nearly every time I went to his Four Fives Nursery, 5555 Summer Avenue. This knowledgeable and nationally known plants man and I agreed, regrettably but also with a tinge of envy, that Nashville, a smaller city, supported a flourishing horticultural society while Memphis had none.

Then one day in October 1980, he called and asked me to meet with a group at Ann Blecken’s to work on establishing a horticultural society here. I knew Ann only by reputation as a garden writer for the Commercial Appeal and national magazines. When I arrived at the Blecken home on Walnut Grove, I found nine people gathered there, including Ann’s husband, Bob, and her brother, Robert DeWar, who had been active in the Men’s Garden Club. Pentas, which Ann and Bob had brought back from a tropical vacation, bloomed profusely under a south-facing window in their living room.

Two outstanding nurserymen had agreed to help: John Pierce, Sr., well known for his iris hybridizing, and Kenneth “Digger” O’Dell, who now lives in Kansas. The nursery he founded on Highway 64 continues to offer an extensive collection of plants. Other members of the committee of ten were Paul Kingsley, Horticulturist for Dixon Gallery and Gardens, camellia and gardening devotees Ken and Lois Kuiken, and myself, a fern lover torn between trowel and typewriter.

Obviously, the time was ripe for the formation of a society dedicated to the study of a wide range of plants. Seeds of the idea had germinated in more places than one. Ann Blecken said that Ed Toth, former Horticulturist at Dixon, had told her emphatically, “What this city needs is a horticultural society”. Not until a meeting of the Memphis Camellia Society at Lois and Ken Kuiken’s did the first steps toward the formation of a society take place. Like several other gardening groups at the time, the Camellia Society, of which Ken and Lois were longtime members and Bob was longtime President, had shrunk. Ken Kuiken brought up the idea and discussed it with the Bleckens. He then invited his neighbor, nurseryman Digger O’Dell, over to explore further possibilities and probabilities. Paul Kingsley, who now lives in Cincinnati, said his motivation to join the group stemmed from his continual search for information about plants that grew or could possibly grow in the area. He frequently had to call Ken O’Dell or Karl Kaestle.

We coalesced into a dedicated and serious group, setting to work immediately to turn our love of gardening into an organization that would serve as a source for the study and cultivation of plants and the presentation of new ideas in gardening and garden design. With dues and monthly meetings, to which any interested person might join as a member or come as a guest, the society could attract experts in every field of horticulture.

That first night we had a short get acquainted session, a few remarks on plants we liked to grow, and then we turned strictly to our project. We had belonged to garden clubs and plant societies confronted with problems and we wanted to plan well to avoid some of those pitfalls. The failure of the Men’s Garden Club a few years before hung over our heads and we were bent on succeeding in spite of any chill from that ambitious venture permeating our plans. A plant study group headed by Karl Kaestle that met monthly at the Memphis Botanic Garden had been moderately successful.

We met six or seven times in the fall of 1980, sometimes at Ann and Bob’s, at Digger’s, and other members’ homes. Our discussions were lively and to the point and every member of the founding group contributed his or her thinking as we hammered our way through choices of Memphis or Mid-South, dues and guests, a format for meetings, publications, the one night each month available to most people, refreshments or not, and first and foremost, a working constitution and by-laws. We had a committee-within-a-committee to write a constitution, Digger and myself and probably another person or two. I offered the Memphis Fern Society’s Constitution as a model and Digger brought another, source now forgotten, which we amended and adopted.

By the first of December 1980, the committee had a plan in shape. On Tuesday, January 6, 1981, The Memphis Horticultural Society held its first meeting. Karl Kaestle, dean of Memphis nurserymen, presented the program.

The Society attracted members from the beginning, but at an early board meeting, a member reported that many gardeners considered it a “cold” organization. We had planned for refreshments and a time to socialize at the end of each meeting. The problem was that people left immediately after the program. I suggested we serve refreshments between the announcements and the program to give people time to circulate and meet each other. The practice encouraged socializing but created confusion and not a little mayhem so recently refreshments began to be served before the meeting. A Plant Exchange between members to raise money for programs and projects concludes each meeting.

I applied to the State of Tennessee for a Charter for a Non-Profit Organization and received it. I also secured the approval of the IRS for our dues and any contributions to be tax deductible.

The Society collaborates with The Memphis Botanic Garden, where it meets in the Goldsmith Civic Garden Center, with Dixon Gallery and Gardens, and has links to nurseries, plant societies, and other organizations in order to bring experts from every area of gardening to speak at its meetings. Interest in gardening grows and societies for the study of hostas, roses, iris, daylilies, ferns, cacti and succulents, native plants, herbs, and hydrangeas are emerging again and growing successfully along with it. Annually the Society presents the Horticultural Award of Excellence to a member whose achievement in an area of horticulture merits it.

Every founder believes the establishment of the Memphis Horticultural Society is a lifetime achievement of which he or she can be proud. To see younger plant lovers and gardeners gather for meetings and volunteer to assume the duties and responsibilities of the Society during the past twenty-five years gives us all great satisfaction.

All ten founders lived to see their efforts to establish the Memphis Horticultural Society succeed and they remain active in the Society. Three founders have died: Robert DeWar, Karl Kaestle, and John Pierce, Sr.

Past Presidents

1981 Kenneth O’ Dell

1982 Paul Kingsley

1983 Tom Pellett

1984 Bob Blecken

1985 Robert Harnden

1986 Peggy Shawhan

1987 Plato Touliatos

1988 Larry Wilson

1989 Ann Blecken

1990 Marvin Nutt

1991 James Crowder

1992 Barbara Taylor

1993 Andy Barksdale

1994 Joe Haas

1995 Jim Browne

1996 Michele Connelly

1997 Rick Pudwell

1998 Toot Fineberg-Buchner

1999 Mark Pitts

2000 Cindy Tobin

2001 Dabney Turley

2002 Linda Pittman

2003 Peggy Carroll

2004 Junius Davidson, III

2005 Karen Damrell

2006 Paul Little

2007 Debbie Peyton

2008 Dale Skaggs

2009 Lorie Emens

2010 John Tackett

2011 Allan Wells

2012 Ginny Fletcher

2013 Barry McCalla

2014 Larry Griffin

2015 Thomas Rieman

2016 Cheryl Lockhart

2017 Martha Garner

2018 Suzy Askew

2019 Melissa Taylor

2020-2021 Steve Scheer

2022 Anne Ballentine

2023 Val Tingley

2024 Anne Ballentine