At flower shows, ideas are the main crop Horticulture: The point of the imaginative exhibits is to get people to rethink what a garden is.

January 04, 1998|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Flower shows are the garden world's three-ring circuses. Fearless professionals juggle plants and anything else they can think of to prove that gardening can be whatever anyone wants it to be.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of gardening enthusiasts jam the aisles at flower shows across the continent. Vast exhibition spaces are transformed into impossible horticultural juxtapositions: instant gardens in which every imaginable flower blooms, the grass never needs mowing, the garden furniture is always freshly painted and it is perpetually spring -- but without the mud.

"All of this has nothing to do with horticulture," says Michael Petrie, whose designs for the annual exhibit of J. Franklin Styer Nurseries have won Best in Show, the top award at the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is visited by nearly 300,000 people in the course of one week every winter.

"You have to realize that what we're doing is not real; it's theater," Petrie says. "That's why we call it a show."

Petrie's day-to-day job is garden-shop manager for Styer's in Concordia, Pa. The nursery also employs landscape architects, experts in the real world of customers' back yards. Petrie's specialty is showmanship, and his goal as he designs the nursery's annual flower-show exhibit is to encourage greater interest in gardening.

"So many people are intimidated by gardening," he says. "I want people to expand their ideas, to loosen up and let go."

Flower show gardens are put together almost overnight with the help of bulldozers, forklifts and dump trucks. They don't grow; they're manufactured of mulch, muscle, pallets of sod, tons of bricks and flagstones, millions of trees, shrubs, flowers and amazing garden ornaments from all over the world.

Before the doors open, the raw materials are transformed into fantastic garden scenes: a Fijian temple rises from the soft, mossy floor of a dense fern garden; a quiet English pub, with a real thatched roof, basks in its cottage garden; waterfalls materialize, splashing over enormous boulders; Jack's beanstalk shoots up toward the rafters.

In 1997, Petrie's show garden combined gigantic black towers of old tires and recycled car parts with new varieties of roses, rhododendrons, hollies, hostas, junipers and boxwoods. "We want to shake up complacency and have people rethink what a garden is," Petrie says. "Even though you may not go home and LTC do these things, the idea is that you may be able to do something in your yard that may spark creativity."

About 60 major garden shows are held in the United States and Canada every year, beginning in early February. This year, the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest and oldest in the United States, is scheduled for March 1-8; the New England Flower Show takes place March 7-15 in Boston; the Northwest Flower & Garden Show will be Feb. 4-8 in Seattle.

Horticultural societies in England, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark, Italy, Australia and New Zealand also have major flower shows. The Chelsea Flower Show, perhaps the world's premier gardening event, is held every May on the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, in London. Tickets to the show are always sold out well in advance.

The things we attempt in our own yards are usually not as daring, elaborate or intense as in flower-show gardens, but every astounding display garden has its roots in basic garden design. Designers are nearly always on hand to answer questions about plants and techniques. New materials, new products and new technology also are very much a part of the displays, along with plants introduced to the public for the first time at the show. You'll come away from these shows with tons of brochures.

Garden shows from Miami to Vancouver vary enormously in their themes and moods, but at every show you'll meet a great number of knowledgeable local garden professionals, all of them glad to discuss their bold interpretations of garden style.

Flower shows are worlds unto themselves, with restaurants, bank machines and enormous marketplaces where vendors sell a little bit of everything: rustic furniture, wind chimes, plants, pots, T-shirts, pergolas, cut flowers, books, garden antiques. To get the most out of a flower show, wear comfortable shoes, take plenty of notes and above all, relax and let these artists play on your imagination.

Show time

"The Garden Tourist," a guidebook to garden shows and other events in North America, can be ordered from the publisher. Call 212-874-6211. For more information about 1998 flower shows, contact:

* Pennsylvania Horticultural Society; 215-988-8899.

* Massachusetts Horticultural Society; 617-536-9280.

* Northwest Flower & Garden Show; 800-229-6311.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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