Meeting for Chapter Chairs - A Strategic Plan for NARGS

Submitted by Ben Burr on Thu, 02/12/2015 - 18:24

We have scheduled a meeting for Chapter Chairs at 10 am on Thursday, May 7 in conjunction with the Ann Arbor AGM.

We want to use this meeting to kickoff the development of a Strategic Plan for NARGS.  While it will take some time to develop the Strategic Plan, we hope to use this meeting to gather your insights:

What do I get from NARGS?
How can we engage individuals who have shown their interest in rock gardening, but are not members of NARGS?

How can we revitalize NARGS?

In Ann Arbor we also want you to participate in helping us to come up with new ideas.

Please start now by telling us your thoughts.





Submitted by Jeddeloh on Sat, 03/14/2015 - 22:31

OK, I'll start.  

It has been suggested that we ought to be able to "harvest" some new NARGS member from the non-members of chapters.  Unfortunately this may not yield that many new members for reasons I'll explain.

I suspect most North Americans who are seriously interested in rock gardening probably already are members of NARGS, unless they can only afford one membership and have chosen to send their bucks to SRCG or AGS.  In our chapter most of our regular meeting attendees are members.  We have some non-memebers I swear I've never seen before.  Frankly I don't know why they're even members but we'll happily take their money.  I understand some chapters have only 1/4 or 1/3 NARGS membership which makes it appear these people are potentially ripe for the plucking.  I haven't done the math but I suspect of our regular attendees around 80% are NARGS members. I'm positive it's far above  1/4 to 1/3.

Our little group (average meeting attendance around 22) is where the Portland plant nerds hang out.  All the folks just interested in just creating a pretty garden, the phyto furniture crowd, as one member calls them, belong to the 800 pound gorilla, namely the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon.  Someone who is primarily interested in design or the social aspect of a garden society will just belong to HPSO.  As a result most of the members of our chapter want to belong to NARGS if for no other reason than to feed their addiction via the seed list.  The seed list, and the ease of not having to mess with an import permit is certainly a major attraction for me.

My suspicion is that NARGS chapters in communities with no alternative horticultural organization have higher percentages of non-NARGS members simply because they are the only game in town.  Many of the chapter members may not be much interested in rock gardening but they may, for example, want entrance to the best plant sale in town.  Or maybe they just want to attend the occasional horticultural lecture.  NARGS just may never be attractive to these people unless our focus changes radically in which case we would no longer be a rock garden society.  The reality is we don't just focus on alpines but we also don't stretch as far as "Plant your Containers with Thrillers, Spillers and Fillers".  The people who want that kind of lecture just aren't potential members and I don't know what we can do to make them potential members.

Other things contributing to the decline in membership include:

The demise of study weekends.  This may be a biggie.  Certainly it is felt deeply on the West Coast.  Study weekends were nearby (relatively) and fairly cheap.  Something to look forward to in February or early March.  Bringing them back would be difficult.  While everyone enjoyed them they were a lot of work and, as individuals, everyone is surviving just fine. But they were a MAJOR NARGS benefit.  

Small lots of seed permit.  This annoying piece of governmental overkill may be driving away some of our foreign members.  Donors get first crack at the best goodies in the seed exchange and this lovely regulation has made it harder for overseas members to qualify as donors.  My SRGS seed sat in the Seattle plant inspeciton office for about six weeks before it was sent on to me.  This kind of delay could result in overseas donors not making the deadline.  Not even remotely under our control but not helpful.

Ugly demographics.  We've never been an organization of young people and it ain't getting any better. Our biggest group of members and active volunteers have come from the ranks of the "young retirees".  These are the retired members still young and healthy enough to do the work.  Now a lot of this demographic not only wants to travel but they can afford to travel.  Lots of travel and gardens are not always a good combination.  Too many dead plants from neglect.  Oh, and while the're traveling they're not available to put on national meetings or otherwise volunteer.  

I don't mean to be all Debbie Downer but if you don't know why the membership is declining it's hard to know what to do t fix it.

I've read that AGS and SRGC are also having the same problem. Do we have any idea what they are doing to build membership?

Who's next up to delineate or solve the problem?



Thanks Jan - your comments are not off base at all, in fact, your entire note reads like a NARGS AdCom meeting, were we go back and forth, trying to find a solution. You are also correct in that many organizations, if not media businesses are trying to figure this all out - from magazines, to journals, to television to in fact, every leisure time activity.  It can sometimes be difficult to remain positive. 

A few notes though, since language can sometimes be more powerful than actions - I have not heard the phrase ' Harvest'  new members from the existing local membership, I would imagine that no one likes that term, but it idea is one, which is on the table. How effective it might be is questionable - my personal opinion is that if one actually needed to convince a plant geek to join NARGS, then something is wrong from the get-go.

That said, there is little the North American Rock Garden Society is currently offering to both chapters ( if, indeed they are properly 'chapters' - it seems some just use the name) and t members aside from the Quarterly, the seed exchange, raveling speakers and the Annual Meeting. I agree, the study weekend program needs to come back, but with the current financial situation - let me put it this way - if we were a national magazine, we would be closed down.

I am hopeful however, or, at least, I will try to push this organization and it's loosely-tied chapters if they wish to come along, for the big haul upward. I have great respect for the North American Rock Garden Society, but these times are not only tough, these times risk being fatal.

We re not alone in this fight -  social and intellectual groups, are on the brink of major change. Radio stations, newspaper, magazines all are struggling trying to keep one foot in the traditional medium that they love, while others are slipping off of the precipice one by one. 

I feel that this upcoming AGM is critical in facing and addressing these issues - therefore I ask each of you - regardless of how you feel about NARGS today, is this the right time to move away from a central organization? Would NARGS actually be better off without national officers and a united team? OR are there ways to improve what and how we are working?

All Pleas make notes, and try to attend the strategic planning meetings - which I promise will be in two parts - a presentation by myself about the current state of NARGS, and perhaps some ideas for the future - and the second part, an open discussion, which will only start the conversation that YOU all should and must have, not the officers of NARGS, not the AdCom, and not past officers. This is YOUR organization - more than it is anyone else's. Let's either redefine, reinvigorate it, reinvent it if neccessary. This may be our last chance.

Submitted by Riley on Thu, 04/09/2015 - 09:33

A point of clarification please, if we want to analyze this creature from the ground up, then let's do so.  Our forefathers and foremothers went to the trouble to change the name of our organization from ARGS to NARGS, presumably to be more inclusive, then why does the term "national" permeate our text and conversation. I do not find either name offensive in that it represents only the geographical location of the base of operations or predominant membership, like SRG. However, I do find the term "national" to be a highly offensive in concept, and one might assume that our many members outside the United States would consider it to be a just plain dumb choice of words. I mean nothing personal here because we all do it, but perhaps "thinking global" is a better perspective?

Submitted by Jeddeloh on Mon, 04/13/2015 - 20:25

Ok, I didn't mean to suggest that NARGS was like a ghoulish surgeon working to grab members out of chapters but I know the idea of requiring national membership has been floated around.  It's an idea that I'd like to see make a quick exit because it would likely be counter productive.  It's the only idea I'd like to see deep sixed to never again see the light of day.  Can you tell I feel strongly about this?  I know others do too.  Dave Dobak of our chapter sent Matt an email expressing the same opinion.  To his credit Matt sent a very detailed well thought out response detailing the issues with NARGS.  I appreciate the time and effort he put into this.  

So what could NARGS do to make membership more attractive?  

What about an ephemeral seed exchange?  I realize we now offer moist packed seed but much of it is still months old and some seed just doesn't tolerate this.  

I'm not sure study weekends are too expensive to reinstitute if they are done right.  Our chapter was always able to make a profit off them.  Doing so does require a treasurer with a sharp pencil, however.  

And perhaps we should just raise dues.  The Quarterly has got to be one of our major expenses and I'd rather pay more to get my hot little hands on a paper copy than have to read it online.  

The Hardy Plant Society of Oregon is holding their big sale this weekend.  This thing is huge with up to 50 vendors.  I've been clearing out my old bulletins because I don't want to move them.  Our chapter will have a table at the sale selling plants and hawking the benefits of the chapter and NARGS.  I plan to hand out these old bulletins with a membership application.  One of our members designed a form with the chapter application as the top tear off and a NARGS application as the bottom tear off.  It'll be interesting to see if this results in any new chapter or NARGS members.  I'll also have a seed list available so they can see all the goodies offered.

Enough of this for now.  Time to move on to other things.


Submitted by mtribby on Sun, 05/03/2015 - 15:06

I'll start by saying I am a relatively new member to NARGS, having signed up a few years ago as a student. Now I am a new chapter chair for the Gateway chapter. Like the Portland group our chapter is very small. Most of the members are not members of NARGS. I put this down to the fact that the chapter seems historically to have included a wide array of lecture topics and tours, so that although some of the members do have quite nice rock gardens, I do not think that rock gardening or alpines is the focus of the majority. Honestly, we seem to be more of the hardy plant society type, as addressed on the "What is NARGS?" section of the website. St Louis also seems quite saturated with plant societies. But I'll switch off of the chapter issues now.

I am a member of NARGS because it is truly my passion and directly relevant to my career. I am a horticulturist at Missouri Botanical Garden and take care of the new alpine rock garden. The Quarterly is a very important resource to me and others at the Garden. We order from the seed exchange, particularly the wild-collected seeds. I wonder if/how other chapters partner with their local botanical gardens? We use meeting space and have our information on the Garden's could certainly be our new venue for plant sales.. If our group was more high-powered, I am sure we could get some additional marketing about NARGS and our chapter to more directly target garden visitors. 

I also think partnering with other societies and master gardener groups is important to reach a wider audience. I would like to do that here in St. Louis.

I was talking with one of my coworkers, who also cares for a rock garden at MBG. She brought up some really great points. First, there is always a drive to get younger members (such as myself) involved. This is no easy feat.. I think an increased social media presence could help. Hosting/cohosting events that involve youth and their parents/grandparents could be fun, educational, and create an interest in gardening at an early age. 

I think particularly with increasing drought in some areas, unpredicatable rainfall in other areas, more homeowners will be interested in waterwise gardens of native plants, which many rock gardens can provide. Perhaps this role of rock gardens can be promoted more. Also how these gardens can increase urban biodiversity, etc. It makes a strong case for the relevance of rock gardens in today's world.

I see NARGS funds some plant conservation projects through the Norman Singer fund, but I would like to see more promotion of what our society does in this regard. I feel plant conservation is such an important topic, and if we could establish this as more of a goal of our organization, we may be able to attract new members and just get our name out there more.

I am looking forward to my first meeting in Ann Arbor.


Submitted by Novak on Tue, 05/05/2015 - 19:22

I think the best prospects for new members are plant nerds who aren't get rock gardeners, but whom we can turn into rock gardeners. To find such people, our chapter (Delaware Valley) is doing more outreach to other gardening groups, such as giving talks related to rock gardening to garden clubs.

I will be interested in hearing what works for other chapters -- both for recruiting new members and for retaining new members. I'm looking forward to the discussion!

Michael, I had to reread all the posts three times to find the word NATIONAL, which I admit, I used improperly when I referred to our officers as National Officers, I suppose I should have said North American Officers, but I would not fo as far as to say that the word NATIONAL is 'permeating (sic) our text and conversarion - obviously, we are becoming more global with each day. I will say that in reference to 'our forefathers', our organization is not unlike the National Audubon Society in that it began its life a local chapters, and then grew into a greater organization, as many enthusiast groups did in the mid 20th century before the internet. Most are stuggleing to retain the original model, yet local groups continue to survive and grow - as are 'faux-local' social media groups such as those groups found on Facebook.


I don't know what the answer is, but I can share some ideas at the AGM - agree that we need more benefits, and although the part of the cure is more revenue, that should come from people who WANT to join, not be forced to. I ran the numbers for chapters and non members, and if every chapter added 20 new members at the GLOBAL level, we would not only be out of debt, we would have money to use for tours, grants, events such as study weekends and expeditions.


First steps - we need to find ways to improve the greater society, to add benefits, and find ways to retail members. It would be ashame if the group disolved into highly active regionalize or local groups of plant nerds - surely, we are one plant society that could find creative ways to connect into a greater force, where the benefits to each member could be great as well.

Hi Mariel,

I look forward to meeting you in Ann Arbor - be sure to look me up, as I would like to pick your brain about social media ideas ( #yes!) and some of your other ideas/ways to get younger plant people engaged. I agree with much of what you said, but not sure yet about attracting younger members - it seems few have time, but if they are indeed plant nerds, there is no excuse for them to peak out in our group of equally nerdy plant geeks. The "rock gardening' part of our title is limiting today, but so was Kentucky Fried Chicken before it became KFC. It made the brand more acceptable to the healthier folks, while the name change hardly defected any hard core fried chicken fans. WE have the fried chicken, all we need is the Taco Bell crowd.