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Newsletter Posts

An Afternoon with Clara Rankin

Lee Warshawsky

When asked to write a description of Mrs. Rankin’s involvement with our Club, I was both flattered and afraid that I could not live up to the task.  Many revisions later, I wonder if I have done justice to a woman who is always  curious, purposeful and filled with wonder—and is also approachable and candid.


When Clara returned to Cleveland as a young bride, it was her mother’s idea that she join the garden club as a social outlet. In her early membership, she was not actively involved as she was busy raising five sons and taking singing lessons.  Her nascent interest in gardening was present in her first house which overlooked a country club; she recalled the regular spraying with DDT, of which she was presciently suspicious.

Clara feels that the tone of the Garden Club has changed since she joined in 1946 when most of the members had helpers who created and maintained member’s gardens.  With the introduction of horticulture and conservation issues, the Club “became more meaningful to me.”  She recalls a speaker at a Garden Club meeting in the 1950’s whose talk particularly resonated.  More than sixty years later she remembers what she learned:

  1. Trust yourself to be able to design a garden

  2. The sky is the ceiling

  3. The shrubs anchor your vista

  4. Make a path wide enough for two people

When the family moved to the farm at the corner of Shaker and Chagrin River Roads, Clara inherited a garden designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman. She was delighted when a visiting English friend pointed out, “Anyone can have a new garden but not everyone can have an old garden...” From shepherding this historically significant garden, she learned that gardens do not have to have sharp edges; plant materials can tumble down fences and cover stones.

Today, Mrs. Rankins’s interest centers around growing vegetables—which she does from seed via a process she calls stratification.  Her seeds are not purchased in packets but are harvested in the late summer and early fall from fruits and vegetables.  These are dried and stored in clear plastic envelopes in her refrigerator until mid-May.  Then they are dug into prepared soil, watered and watched.  This year some of the tomato seeds “stuck to a piece of paper-toweling, so that was put in the ground and covered with soil.” The result: a profusion of tomato plants growing alongside and on top of each other and lemon-colored cucumbers.  In the garden is a Hubbard squash that will need a grandchild to carry into the kitchen.  In her tangled garden, she also grows arugula.  A checker-board space is filled with herbs, a style she saw in an English garden many years ago and has adopted very successfully.

As we drove home after the interview, she continued her lively comments on all that we saw.  She mentioned that the day before she had called a dear Greek-speaking friend as she wanted to know the word for happy.  The sentence for which she needed it was, “I am happy with my life.”  And for me, a thought kept surfacing: “When I grow up, I would like to be like Mrs. Rankin.”

Shaker Lakes Garden Club is fortunate that Clara has maintained her membership for over seven decades, sharing her wisdom and love of gardens.  She is still active with the Club, is interested in having well informed members and is proposing a new member for our next class. 

An addendum: A quote from Clara's book Tea and Curiosity about her 1973 trip to China, (shortly after Nixon and Kissinger's visit), “In all humility, I know that what I have written is like a dewdrop’s lens on the cobweb of history.”

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