Raising the Bar at Flower Shows

February 15th, 2010

by Tom Fischer

Sean Hogan's display garden of drought-tolerant plants at Portland's Yard, Garden and Patio Show. Those trunked wonders are Yucca rostrata.

This past weekend, I visited Portland’s annual Yard, Garden and Patio Show (put on by the Oregon Association of Nurseries), which, I am happy to report, had lots of garden and very little patio. In fact, this regional show has been getting steadily better, and this year boasted a roster of speakers that would do honor to an event three times its size. It also featured some outstanding display gardens, the most dazzling of which was the one created by Sean Hogan of Cistus Nursery. (Full disclosure: Sean is a good friend, and I am a frequent customer at his nursery.) Sean’s design consisted solely of plants that can survive our dry summers with little or no supplemental irrigation. And if you’ve always equated the phrase “drought-tolerant” with “boring and scruffy-looking,” this garden was a revelation: it was a rich, densely planted tapestry of foliage, mainly gray, glaucous, and silver, but with occasional bursts of orange and purple. There was a discreet floral element as well, but it was the foliage that took your breath away. On the score of design, plantsmanship, and regional appropriateness, it was a hands-down winner. It made me want to go spit on an azalea.

Yucca aloifolia 'Blue Boy' forms a fountain of purple and blue-green foliage, while Libertia peregrinans adds a dash of hot orange. Note the absence of azaleas.

Now, my question is, why don’t we get more of this? (Good display gardens, not spitting.) Yes, Sean is a rare talent, but there are superb plantspeople and designers everywhere in this country. Why are they so little in evidence at our nation’s flower shows? Where is the imagination? Display gardens take an immense amount of time and money to put together; why are their creators so often content to reproduce a formula that hasn’t changed in decades?

It used to be that certain shows—particularly those on the West Coast—could be counted on to get your blood racing. You’d see plants you’d never seen before, used in ways that made you tingle with excitement. Nowadays you’re not likely to get much of a tingle unless you’re a fan of flatware.

Often you hear the argument that people just want a nice spot of color after the long, dreary winter. Well, I’m sorry, but that doesn’t cut it. If you want to see a hodgepodge of forced bulbs and squatty little primulas in gumball colors, you can go to any garden center. If you’re paying good money to go to a flower show, you should expect—and get—more. Here’s my criterion for a successful display garden: it should make you want to take notes, not take a nap.

Sean's garden included lots of plants that aren't hardy in much of the country, but there's no reason why similarly rich effects couldn't be created in colder areas with ferns, epimediums, podophyllums, and other choice woodlanders.

So here’s my exhortation to the folks who participate in flower shows: For the love of the goddess Flora, forget about the fire pits and table settings; expand your plant palettes and teach people how to garden!

P.S.: In case you were wondering, chickens don’t count as edgy anymore.

7 Responses

  1. Gaye says:

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    just search in google – blackhand roulette system

  2. You said what so many of us have been thinking, but much more eloquently and without expletives. Having participated in a show ONCE, I can tell you that the work is utterly backbreaking getting a show garden in on time and then the show owners give you a pittance of time to get it torn down. Show owners also want to make money, so they don’t give much in the way of money to the garden creators. They expect garden creators to do it for the fame and glory and as PR for their business. Most garden designers don’t make the kind of money it takes to do that. The best way is to team up nurseries (like Cistus) with designers and contractors. In this kind of an economy, it takes a village to produce a single garden of any merit. If the public doesn’t respond with business for all of this effort, it is unlikely to be reproduced. So economically speaking right now, it doesn’t wash.

  3. rochelle says:

    I am so encouraged to hear that I am not the only one who feels this way about garden shows! I live in Boston now, but moved here from London where the Chelsea Flower show literally changed my life. These days I avoid the new England spring flower show because it is completely devoid of any designer who I admire, it is judged by people who have no business doing so, and it generally has a way of making the most exciting part of my gardening year feel sad, joyless, creativity denuded and simply depressing…. if you are interested, I wrote a rather controversial post about the local New England Spring Flower show which is back this year (after folding last year) here: New England Spring Flower show – Gone (it’s from a year ago, but I still stand by every word)
    The new show is actually running this weekend and I am cautiously staying away…maybe I will venture back next year. But in the mean time, I am encouraged by the fact that others, like you, share my sentiment – and that you are seeing improvement….

  4. I hope you don’t mind if I take to quoting you…”It made me want to go spit on an azalea”…perfect, just perfect.

  5. Kailla Platt says:

    I’m with you – barkchips and bunchgrass with a few boulders do not make a garden and yet that is what you see, and see, and see.
    I will chime in with my own limited experience on this. I work for a small, residential Landscape Architecture office. I consider what we do to be gardens not landscaping. I think there is a difference both subtle and significant. We have been asked to design display gardens for local garden shows and ones in other states. We were thrilled with the idea of really doing something different than the status quo. Unfortunately, it came down to money. We are small and we just couldn’t afford to put out that kind of capital. Being a design firm and not a nursery we couldn’t supply our own plants and would be “at the mercy” of what was available in the trade at that time – which really would have put a damper on the whole affair. I wish there were some way that the organizers of the shows and designers could work something out that would encourage innovation and allow the”little guy” in to play.
    Sean’s work points not just to his talent as a designer and a plantsman, but also to the fact that he has a wonderful paintbox of plants to draw from in his own nursery. It really is no wonder he came up with something so wonderful.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with your asessment of the caliber of the OAN speaker roster. I think it rivaled the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle this year.

    As for your rant about great display gardens – right on! It’s high time our talented designers took a leaf from Sean Hogan’s garden book. Thanks for saying it so well!

  7. Kate says:

    THANK YOU! I have been ranting about this for a couple of weeks now (since we’ve been immersed in garden shows here in the PNW for the past few weeks). It’s about time garden bloggers stopped tippie-toe-ing around the issue of how unimaginative and depressing these garden show displays really are. Not only are most of them boring but they are actually misleading. After all, it’s usually not best to place a little Cistus as a ground cover underneath a big Rhododendron, right? If the point of these displays is to inspire, then let them not only look dashing but also authentic – not like potted plants swimming in oceans of bark dust at a shopping mall.

    Thanks, Tom. I feel better now.

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