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Malibu Garden Club trowels for new members

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After more than 50 years of toil in surprisingly difficult soil, the Malibu Garden Club is slowly withering on the vine.

This time the threat is not drought or alkaline dirt or a pesky aphid infestation. The clock is simply running out for those in the pioneering horticulture group, who are looking for new members.

Newcomers who have fueled the "mansionization" of the beachfront city -- celebrities, successful businessmen, entertainment moguls -- aren't getting down and dirty with trowels and bags of fertilizer in the backyard.

"They have gardeners who bring in full-grown trees and instant lawns. They aren't that interested in gardening," said club member Tally Philbrick, 85.

That's not the way it was back in 1957, when a handful of frustrated arrivals to the isolated coastal community formed the club out of desperation. People often could get nothing to grow in Malibu's salty breeze and its clay-like adobe soil.

"The ground was so hard that I'd take a pickax and dig a hole and put water in it and a week later the water was still there," Philbrick said.

She and her husband, Russell, designed and built their own ranch-style home in 1960 after moving from Whittier to Point Dume.

"Our house was one of the larger ones at the time. There were probably 12 homes on Point Dume back then. Now it is about the size of a guest house out here," Philbrick said.

"All that was growing then was chaparral. It was windy all the time, and the first thing we did was build a bamboo screen on a movable planter as a windbreak to put in front of the plants I was trying to grow."

A friend taught her how to prune roses. Someone else showed her how to mix compost and dirt to prepare the adobe ground for planting. "I took everything about tolerating salt wind from Sunset magazine -- thank goodness for them," she said.

It took about six years before landscaping took hold and their place started looking decent. After that, the self-taught Malibu gardener began teaching others. Over the years she's twice served as the garden club's president.

Generations of newcomers have benefited from club members' collective knowledge -- shared at monthly meetings and through newsletters and annual garden tours that the club has produced.

Membership director Linda Androlia joined after attending a meeting where garden gates were being discussed. "Some of them were so creative, works of art, really. I kind of came into the club through the back door, or the back gate," she laughed.

At 63, she's one of the younger club members, Androlia said. Fingering a quaint, handcrafted box holding the laminated name tags of members, she said only about 40 of the 100 on the club roster are active.

Shirley Feron, the current club president, said a plea for new -- and younger -- members made in a weekly Malibu newspaper led to only a handful of inquiries.

Club leaders say they are giving themselves until Tuesday to find homeowners willing to open their properties for a May garden tour and to line up the two dozen or so volunteers needed to help conduct what would be the 12th annual event. They say that in the past, the tour has been part of the UCLA horticulture class curriculum.

Debbi Stone, a horticulture specialist with 30 years' experience who manages the Malibu Garden Center on Trancas Canyon Road, said there is a generational divide among her customers.

"It's the old-time Malibu people," said Stone, adding that, in a sign of the times, there is more demand for vegetables than fancy ornamental and decorative plants. "I think people have gotten too busy to do their own gardening. There are wealthy people who have landscapers. Others are just too busy."

But without adding younger members, it is quite likely the club will fold, said Aaron Landworth, the group's ways and means chairman. He's a professional landscaper who has lived in Malibu 25 years.

"Some people move here and want to do box hedges on two acres. They want to bring the East Coast to the West." But those in the know will counsel the Malibu way: "Put in woolly blue curls instead of non-native penstemon and delphiniums. There are native plants that can replace an ornamental planting," said Landworth, 52.

Point Dume's Philbrick is hoping for the best.

"We don't want to be an old people's club," she said.

"We can't be."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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