Garden Show Dreaming

So, the 2012 Northwest Flower and Garden Show came and went last weekend. At first I was going to pass on commenting, since there are plenty of other voices out there chattering away about this year’s show, mostly expressing disappointment: some nicely, and some less so! And we would all agree it gets a bit obnoxious to read criticism after criticism all the time. Another thing I’m noticing is that many other people (my “plant friends”) have the ability to make scathing criticisms sound nice and diplomatic, much more so than do I; reducing the chance that anything I present as criticism could be seen as anything other than obnoxious, even if meant to be constructive. So that would be one reason to stick by the idea of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”

Then I had the idea that I might write something nice about what I liked about the show, giving criticism a pass; since there were, in fact, a few things that I liked and even found inspiring. A lot of people didn’t think the gardens were much to look at this year (if they could see them – a frequent comment was that lighting was inadequate), but I noted some very interesting water features that were pretty cool. The childrens play area continued to be good; at least my kid liked it. The section reserved for various plant societies, gardens and arboreta was good, even if a couple societies I would have liked to see represented were missing – the Cascade Cactus and Succulent Society, for one. And that is not necessarily the fault of anyone running the show, I suppose.

I also liked (conceptually, at least) the little cards that were distributed at the ticket booth to incentivize showgoers to participate in a survey to provide feedback about the show. While one could be a bit annoyed by the tactic of baiting people with offers for coupons from various booths (which were so scattered that it would take considerable effort to visit each one deliberately) to get them to participate in the survey, at least they deserve credit for doing something to try to feel out what people want out of the show to guide its future. But, to make it sound like the whole show was just fabulous in every respect would be kind of phony – and I think few readers who attended the show would find my commentary to be believable.

So here’s my idea to try to remain focused on being constructive and providing solutions. I’m going to spend just a little time fantasizing, shall we say, about what I would like the show to be. I’ll present my thoughts in the form of advice or suggestions for improvement that might be implemented by show operators, while acknowledging at certain points how I compare these ideas with the current situation (in which case, sounding critical cannot be avoided). Hopefully I’ll avoid the usual “The ____ was too ____. Wah wah wah.” style of complaining. However, I should emphasize from the outset that this is not necessarily intended to represent what everyone wants: it is just what I would like to see. I don’t pretend everyone else gets the same things out of the show that I do – nor should they, as we all appreciate different aspects of gardening, and for different reasons. So this is an entirely fantastical post, in which I invite the reader to share in all, some, or none of my sentiments. But here are some ideas that, if put into action, would make the Garden Show really, really awesome according to the standards of Ian.

I’ll start with the plant market, since it has so much potential. The plant market should be much larger, and should be the place in the Northwest – heck, this side of the Mississippi – to find the rarest and most exciting plants in the trade. Gardeners should be looking forward to their one chance every year to get hold of all the coolest, newest, and most obscure goodies for their gardens. (Heck, this idea by itself might even sell more tickets, if successful!) To that end, the show administrators should actively pursue the best, most prestigious, and most unique nurseries for the plant market. The nurseries should be tempted with an offer they can’t refuse! As it is, they seem to be leaving things largely to fate; and, between the economic downturn and society’s changing interests, fate has not treated the nursery business well the last few years. The plant market used to be pretty good; but still, I think, short of its potential 10 to 15 years ago. Every year a couple more nurseries drop out; and now, well, I’m sorry to say the plant market is a shadow of its former self both in terms of size and diversity of offerings. I appreciate, though, that the plant market is still in a prominent location in the show, rather than tucked away in a corner.

Next, I would be excited to see the show to do more to distinguish itself from “home shows.” This is actually related to the previous idea, since much of the space that ought to/used to be the plant market is now occupied by vendors of replacement windows and gutter systems. Dear show owners: people can find this stuff anywhere. There are home improvement shows all the time. The Northwest Flower and Garden Show is the second biggest in the country: how about differentiating to demonstrate that it is also the best? I would propose as a solution some sort of sliding scale where the most desirable nursery vendors pay less for a booth space and home improvement type vendors pay more and get last priority. Also related to this, artist and all other product vendors should be directly related to gardening. Vendors of scarves and jewelery, again, can be found at a variety of shows; and represent an opportunity for the show to differentiate by pursuing vendors with more clearly garden-related products to replace them.

Now, to the gardens. I feel that half the problem with the gardens are the themes chosen each year that the designers have to work with. This year’s theme was “A Floral Symphony.” Last year’s theme had something to do with stories or books, I can’t rightly remember. So here’s my idea. It’s true that most anything in life – music, books, attire, what-have-you – can be related to gardening. I would like to propose that these pre-selected themes be based on topics that are inseparable from gardening. I think this requirement would keep things a little more down to earth and less fantastical. Because what I’m seeing is that the gardens don’t always look realistic to people; and it is not always simply because of practical concerns (expense, maintenance): I think sometimes a “weird factor,” if you will, appears when a theme is chosen that results in certain elements being included in the gardens that overshadow the strong points. Gardens need to look like something someone would actually do. And in many places, they do: the question is, how to make it better? Hence my suggestion that gardens ought to reflect a garden-based theme. I don’t really have any specific examples in mind. It’s just a starting point to help the gardens hopefully inspire a broader range of showgoers.

Here’s another idea. I would like to suggest the addition of a large area where specimens of individual plants can be showcased and judged: sort of like they do at the county fair, only with much higher standards for coolness and acclaim. (Perhaps a few more of those gutter system vendors could be eliminated to make space for this – ha ha.) We have a place for showcasing container displays; which is great. We have a place for showcasing artwork. Why not a place for showcasing plants? These plants could be judged and the best given awards just as the other categories present at the show. This could also be a way to generate interest in particular new or rare items of great horticultural merit that deserve broader attention. I think a display of, say, 100 – 150 individually presented cool plants, that were truly unique and interesting; would be a lot of fun to look at, even if not all of them happened to pique my interest personally. Hopefully most of these plants would be produced by smaller and edgier growers and not just the big guys, so some method of regulating that to make it fair for everyone would have to be developed.

Finally, I would like to say that I have no serious complaints about the speakers line-up. I would just like to offer one minor suggestion, which would be that at least one seminar per day should be about exploring for plants in the wild. This is because I think people benefit from seeing the connection between gardening and nature in a way that goes beyond “landscaping for wildlife” and such: gardeners can never have too much awareness of the wild origins and habitat preferences of their garden plants, or the story behind their introduction and cultivated history. These talks usually draw pretty good crowds anyhow, at least the few that I have attended.

So, you folks organizing the show do all that, and then I’ll be really excited to come every year! I’ll even be a vendor with my own booth! Really! And I’ll talk it up to everyone. So, really now, what’s not to like about my ideas? Does anyone have more inspiring ideas to offer? What would get you excited to see the Northwest Flower and Garden Show? Not that anyone important is actually going to read this, but hey, let’s put it out there just for fun.

Once nice water feature.

Another nice water feature. The funny thing is I didn’t really notice that bird until I went back and looked at my pictures. What does that say about me, I’m not sure?

This cool rotating metal thingammy (not sure what to call it really) was probably the most oohed and aahed at thing in the gardens. I liked it too. The water feature behind it was also pretty cool. On the other hand, I’m not exactly inspired to go out and buy a rusty guitar sculpture for my garden.

The WSNLA Treasure Island booth looked good once again although we did not participate in it this year.

They did offer a few of our plants though, which appear to have mostly sold, so that was nice.

This Hardy Plant Society of Washington display of purple and black leaved plants was way cool. Just one problem, almost nothing in the display is hardy. As much as I loved this display I thought that fact was a bit ironic.

The North American Rock Garden Society display looked great and I enjoyed chatting with the fellow who staffed the booth. I will probably join this society soon; it’s very reasonably priced.

I leave you with this lovely poster from the Plant Amnesty booth: proof that not everything has to be inspiring to be worth seeing!

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Alison
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 20:22:56

    All excellent suggestions! I would most definitely like to see more emphasis on plants in every way imaginable. I almost bought one of your Callistemons, but I just didn’t want to haul that big pot out to my car. I went to a lot of spring plant sales last year, and probably will again this year, so if you’re going to be at any of them, maybe I’ll get one then. As well as any other plants you might want to suggest that will work well in a gravel garden in the South Sound area.


  2. Justin Galicic
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 22:31:11

    That Plant Amnesty collage is priceless.


  3. Loree / danger garden
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 09:18:37

    Wait just a second? You want to make a Garden Show about the plants? That’s crazy talk.

    “To that end, the show administrators should actively pursue the best, most prestigious, and most unique nurseries for the plant market. The nurseries should be tempted with an offer they can’t refuse!”…I can’t even begin to imagine how fabulous this could be, the possibilities…oh my. And to have a dedicated area for showcasing plants? (of course some people would say that’s what the gardens are for…) that would be great too.

    I think here in the PNW we’re all so starved for warmth, sunlight, and garden talk this time of the year that it doesn’t take much to get us excited…but In fact I bet even the people who have praised what this years show had to offer would enjoy the changes you suggest.

    On another note (see I’m just trying to steal your blog by making my comment longer than your post) this weekend is our Portland show, have you ever been? Val Easton called it “smaller, sweeter, less commercial” than the NWFGS. After reading through the insert in today’s paper I have to say I’m pretty excited to go. The theme here is “Think global. Garden local” which sounds like it has much more potential to excite the plant lover, we’ll see. In addition to being smaller our show is put on by the Oregon Association of Nurseries, which does give it an entirely different feel than the Seattle show.


  4. David R.
    Feb 16, 2012 @ 18:18:15

    The Plant Amnesty booth caught my eye. Wow It’s a real group! I don’t know if you would ever see anything like that here although it would be amusing. But still the state of general landscape practices have a lot to be desired. Like you, I’m trying to keep it positive. Laughing is good for you.


  5. Riz Reyes
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 00:29:35

    Great observations and ideas, Ian.

    We all want to think very highly of this show, but really, after all my years of being involved with the show, I’ve come to learn that it’s really impossible to please everybody and we have to look at the show as a whole and how it impacts the community outside of our realm as plantspeople, avid gardeners, and horticultural professionals.

    A lot of the ideas you presented have been tried before, but for some reason, they never really caught on. For example, they used to have the “Cool Plant Corner” a few years back and a section for “New Plants” that featured single specimen plants and MANY years ago, they had the Federation of Garden Clubs amateur competitions that showcased horticultural entries of single cut stems, potted plants and amateur floral arrangements that won blue ribbons and such (this is how I first got involved with the garden show when I was 13 years old).

    I bet these “smaller” exhibits were more of a nuisance to show planners/organizers as they didn’t have that great of a draw and it probably made move-in and move-out far more challenging as they competed with the bigger garden designers for time and space during set up and tear down.

    The show must cater to a large audience and, sadly, it’s the “junk” a lot of showgoers relate to rather than plants. Not everyone is a plant nerd and to many of them, it’s intimidating to look at a plant, learn its latin name and learn about how it grows.

    However, I firmly believe that plants still MUST dominate and be the focus of this show regardless of the winter season. This is our time to celebrate plants, gardens, outdoor living, and what we in the industry do best so we can educate, encourage, and inspire others to have plants a part of their lives.

    Another drawback to having specialty nurseries be featured, many of our specialty nursery friends and colleagues feel that it’s not worth the time and expense to have a presence at this show because it is so expensive, time consuming and physically and mentally draining. There are also those that have felt alienated from the NW Flower and Garden Show because of past tiffs and they can’t seem to overcome their egos to just take part and contribute.



  6. Ian
    Feb 17, 2012 @ 12:59:53

    Alison, don’t worry, there will be no shortage of Callistemons in the foreseeable future, and many of the plants we offer would be great for a gravel garden. You might look for us at the Bloedel Reserve sale or Rhododendron Species Foundation sale in April although we have not yet received an official invitation for either. I’ll try to post something on the blog as soon as I have a clue what’s going on. Thanks!

    Justin, indeed – in fact, it gives me some great ideas for what to do with shrubs and trees I don’t like.

    Loree – It’s hard to argue that the gardens are intended to showcase plants, even if that is people’s intent – because most of the plants in them are not that exciting, new or interesting. I think a lot of the time designers just want to plunk things in according to what they are familiar with or is widely available, another big limitation. This goes against my mentality that 80% of the key to an awesome garden is to start with awesome plants. By far the most interesting plants (though, I concede, many were used very impractically) this year were in the Fancy Fronds “Persian Garden”, although in past years a greater number of gardens have featured interesting plants (I have pictures of some of those with incorrect labels on them – another challenge when dealing with less familiar plants).

    I have not been to the Portland show – I will look forward to a report on it! I am also aware of a few people who were vendors at the show and will make a point of asking them how it was. (And don’t worry, you can’t out-type me!)

    David, oh don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be back to my old self soon enough – ha ha. No, sometimes it’s just hard to figure out what to say when I feel a mix of responses. Plant Amnesty has a pretty strong presence in Seattle, but still not strong enough it would seem.

    Riz, I appreciate your thoughts, especially as you seem to have been following the show consistently over the years while my involvement and attention paid has admittedly been much more intermittent – I even skipped quite a few years in the early 2000’s. My recollection of the “cool plant corner” was as a similar setup to the WSNLA Treasure Island but with more of an emphasis on specialty nurseries. I do not remember a “New Plants” section but my gut feeling is that such a feature would be more likely to meet with success if the emphasis were on “special” rather than just “new”. I also vaugely recall a lot more amateur competitions and other features in the upstairs part of the show in the past, but I never used to take many photos of the garden show back in the 90s so it’s all kind of a blur now!

    When you relate ideas that have been tried and then dropped, or create logistical difficulties, or fail to appeal to a broad enough audience; the take-home message to me is that the show does not exist in a vacuum but depends on and reflects the general health and interests of the broader horticultural community in the Pacific Northwest. Not that anyone’s saying it does exist in a vacuum – but I would draw a direct connection between the trajectory of the show and the challenges nurseries are facing with the difficult economy, younger people not taking interest, people preferring leisure activities other than gardening, wanting instant gratification, etc. However I continue to believe (in the words I just read on another blog…hehe), that real effective change occurs not at the center of the industry but at its fringes. It is my hope that we are entering a time where people will recognize the value of specialty nurseries, plantsmanship, and club/society involvement over the trendy factors of gardening that have seemed to dominate nursery and show marketing in recent years. (This sounds like a great topic for another blog post, LOL) If this occurs, as I am optimistic it will, I hope these ideas will start working back into the show. So with that in mind, I will always give them a chance, but I don’t think the time is right just yet to consider being a vendor at the show – though perhaps that would change at some point sooner than we might expect. I guess for me just trying to “feel” this stuff out is as important as considering factors of expense and hassle.

    One final thought is that it may be worth considering whether the “smaller exhibits” were useful, even if they got in the way. If enough showgoers value these features it could be more worth the hassle than it may seem. It may be sort of analogous having a garden center that does not offer books about plants/gardening. Garden centers can never hope to make much money on books, and (I’ve heard more than one owner say) they just “take up space” – but what is easily overlooked is that customers who shop at garden centers expect to find books, and if you don’t have them it can make your garden center (or show, event, etc.) feel “incomplete” so that people will opt to take their business (or spend their time, etc.) elsewhere.

    Well I really tend to ramble on don’t I… LOL…


  7. Valerie Easton
    Feb 18, 2012 @ 11:25:01

    Good comments on the show – while I’m always so impressed at all the time and effort that go into a big show like ours, I think many of us wish for more cool and unusual plants, more sophistication, more fresh and new designs we haven’t seen before, a more modern sensibility. That said, Riz is right that the show does wonders for the horticultural industry, and maybe that’s enough to be grateful for…

    But I SO agree with you about the theme, which especially this year was taken too literally. I just got back from the Portland Yard, Garden and Patio Show…I’ll be blogging about it when I have a moment… but the lighting is warm and bright (enough of the “theatrical” lighting in Seattle that is supposed to be dramatic but is just gloomy and obscuring), there were great plants in the show gardens, commercial, educational and display elements are mixed together, the venue is more human-scale, and I love the Hardy Plant Society display where members cut branches and flowers from their gardens and you can see a dozen kinds of witch hazel in bloom, cool daphnes & viburnum – whatever is actually happening at the moment in area gardens. This is a bit like the “country fair” element you suggested, but personal, detailed, with an impressive range of plants to view close up…


  8. Ian
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 22:35:15

    Val, Thanks. The Yard Garden and Patio Show sounds like it would be worth the trip down next year. I don’t know if I should admit this but I actually had not heard of it until this year! Isn’t that awful? Anyway, you and lots of other people are making it sound like quite an interesting and fun event.


  9. Panayoti Kelaidis
    Feb 28, 2012 @ 03:26:46

    Omigod: you must NEVER NEVER EVER come to the Spa, Barbecue and Patio Tchotchky show (aka Colorado Garden and Home show–home definitely overshadowing the former) in Denver. I was quite impressed with the Pacific NW show LAST year: sounds as though there’s been some backsliding?


  10. Ian
    Mar 02, 2012 @ 10:44:42

    Panayoti – thanks for the warning! When I finally make it to Denver (I’ve actually never been there – heh) I’m sure there will be no shortage of other botanical sites to see first. I’d say there was a little backsliding from the previous year, IMHO, but if you compare 2012 to, say, 1996, the first year I attended; it seems like two different shows!


  11. gardening
    Jun 03, 2013 @ 04:36:44

    Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to your blog before
    but after going through some of the posts I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyhow, I’m definitely happy I discovered it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back


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