TAMPA — For about as long as anyone can remember, the Tampa Garden Club has brought its old-fashioned autumn celebration to the city's most scenic stretch of neighborhood: Bayshore Boulevard.
Each year, members from garden circles all over the Tampa area — from Brandon to Town 'N Country to Palma Ceia — lovingly make holiday crafts and frozen casseroles, seasonal wreaths and Christmas ornaments, and sell them at the daylong event.
"A lot of these women really care about this, heart and soul," says Kathy Lewis, a member of the Azalea Garden Circle in Palma Ceia. "The group that makes the casseroles does such an amazing job that they usually sell out halfway through. This year, we said: 'Please, please make more.' "
This year's annual Open House and Holiday Market will be held from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Nov. 13 at the Tampa Garden Club, 2629 Bayshore Blvd. The free event showcases dozens of sweetly decorated tables heaped with homemade crafts, yard art, lawn furniture, plants, planters, herbs and specialty foods.
Though the market is open to outside vendors, the effort is largely volunteer, with proceeds going to garden circle projects all over the Tampa Bay area.
The Old Fashioned Garden Circle made up of about 20 members, many of them flower show judges from Brandon and North Tampa, met this summer at each other's homes to make Christmas ornaments. Some members were so devoted to the cause they made additional items in their spare time, says Brandon resident Bess Treadwell, vice president of the Tampa Garden Club and a member of the circle.
Members of the Old Fashioned circle also canned their own pickles and hand-painted birdhouse gourds. Another member made pretty, ready-to-give jewelry that comes in attractive "art" gift boxes.
"This holiday market gives us a chance to earn our budget to spread goodwill throughout the community all year long," Treadwell explains. Her group sponsors gardening education and crafts at Booker T. Washington Elementary School and brings flowers to ailing veterans.
They're not alone in their philanthropy: All of the circles are devoted to making Tampa a better place to live, whether it's beautifying a median or park or helping to teach kids the joy of gardening.
"Each garden circle has its own personality," Treadwell explains of the 14 circles under the umbrella of the Tampa Garden Club, also known as the Tampa Federation of Garden Clubs and Circles. "Some are organized by neighborhood, others by interest. Many have tremendous community service projects."
Treadwell says that there's some serious friendly competition at the annual harvest among the circles, with each wanting their table to look unique and stand out to visitors.
"Everyone decorates their table, wanting it to be the prettiest. We come the day before to start decorating and put out our products."
Kathy Lewis said people in the Azalea Circle donated old jewelry that was then re-worked into an array of newly minted baubles that they will sell at the annual sale. "We're all joking that it's going to look so good we'll end up buying our old jewelry back," said Lewis, 46.
She calls the circles "jewels from the past" but says interest in them is rapidly reviving with younger members joining all the time. Azalea meetings typically attract 45 members and are a dress-up affair. "You don't go in your running shorts. You put on your lipstick and a skirt," she says.
Members take turns making traditional nibble food fare: tomato aspic, asparagus rollups, cheese biscuits.
The food is so good, the group plans to assemble recipes in a cookbook.
"I really treasure these women," says Lewis, adding that issues like the election and economy loom so large that it's nice to get together with like-friends to talk about something they all truly enjoy: gardening.
Volunteering for the annual holiday market is just a bonus.
"There's something so comforting about getting together with all of your neighbors and friends and working toward bettering the community you live in," she says. "The whole thing makes me really happy."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at [email protected]