Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Philadelphia Flower Show - expectations and omissions

Yesterday my friend JL and I went to the Philadelphia Flower Show, this annual, glorious, giant event of artificially designed horticultural plants and gardens. This was probably my 5th visit, and I am getting used to the feel now.

The show is divided up into three parts, broadly speaking.  The first part, where you enter the show, are giant installations focused on some theme, this year it was 'Britain, Brilliant'.  Don't ask me how Britain is brilliant, I have no idea who came up with that non-brilliant slogan.  Anyway, there was a giant Big Ben clock, the gates to Kensington or Buckingham palace, things associated to London Fog, spring bulbs, royal crowns, and red and purple.

royal insignia

In my humble opinion, this year's theme was a total miss.  I don't think these designers even know much about Britain.  And Britain isn't just London and its vicinities.  Where were the rolling hills, the hedgerows, the fossil-rich cliffs along the English Channel, the little tiny front gardens, where were Kew Gardens and their greenhouses, where were the amazing British botanists of times past (Hooker, to name just one).  Instead it was gold, crowns, red, and some stone castles.

The king of the roses
The throne from the War of the Roses?

The second part are smaller installations of gardens from invited groups and companies and also a large area where amateurs bring in their best and most fantastic specimens of plant cultivars, and then compete against each other in different classes.  For example: "Best cactus", "Cymbidium orchid", 'Hanging fern", or "Miniature plant". Each category is judged and they give out awards, 1st prize, 2nd prize, etc.  It is fun to see these plants, but it is just like a dog show.  People pamper their plants, brush the hairs on the cactus, and obviously treat their plants with lots of nutrients, hormones, light or darkness, to get them to behave and look their best on their big day.

the flower show specimen winners
The succulent winners. 

a basketcase
A basket case design.
In this area are also the floral arrangements and botanical art made with pressed plants.  This year all art had to do with royalty.  I wonder how school children in the Republic of the United States feel about making a royal crown out of pressed flowers for display at an American show?  Maybe I am the only one that finds this strange?  The total obsession with royalty in this republic, in this day and age? 

The Philadelphia Horticultural Society, who are the ones that arrange this show, seems to be stuck in a previous century where ladies that had nothing better to do tended their roses and potted their geraniums.  Ok, maybe that is a bit harsh, but that is a feeling I get.  Conspicuously absent from the show (except from the commercial booths) was any displays that focused on the whole home-gardening and home-growing trend that is huge in USA right now. How to grow your own veggies, how to make your own food, how to be more sustainable, how to have gardens that can manage climate stress, storms, heaps of heavy snow in the winter, invasive species, native species, wildlife habitats, and so on.

Ajuga reptans - a slowly invasive weed, and exhibition object
This species is classified as an invasive species.  I doubt many knew that. 

Instead there are exhibits that are empty when it comes to ideas and messages.  Many exhibits felt like (as usual) "OK, lets put something yellow over there, and some red here, and then some rocks, and then we need something whimsical and a blue light, and some funky garden chair".  Nothing really designed.  No plants that go together.  Sarracenia next to daffodils?  Give me a break!  They would NEVER survive together, nor flower at the same time.  Everything is planted in straight rows, equally distant from each other, and it is the same plants over and over. Totally unnatural.  Where are the true designers?  Where are the people that understand plants' requirements, understand that simplicity and clear lines and naturalities are better than rainbow mess of botanical chaos?  Oh, it is so depressing.  And then the old ladies say 'oh-ah', and love it, and I think - well, this would never work in real life.

spraypainted plants, plastic fence ties, shredded papper - why?
Spraypainted plants, plastic fence ties, and shredded paper.  Why?  What is the idea?  What does this mean?  It just looks ugly. It looks like spraypainted plants with plastic fence ties and shredded paper strips.

red and purple... hmmm
The hodgepodge table.

I have this idea that artists first come up with an idea and then the thing is how you present this idea, this message to the world.  How to you communicate via your art, communicate feelings, needs, information, thoughts...  Landscapers and horticulturalists also like to see themselves as artists of living things, they design, 'paint with flower colors', create beauty.  But the message or idea in these exhibits were totally lacking.  I have no idea what they wanted to say.  Many times there were no statement or not even a sign on who had created an exhibit either.  It just turns into a giant hodgepodge (a name that was used for one exhibit, in fact, very appropriate).

And many florists and garden designers seem to think that just throwing some glitter, neon plastic, or metallic beads into something makes it instantaneously better.  It doesn't.  It makes it look cheap. It makes it look like the designer went to Michael's craft store during their sale.

One great exception to this disappointment was Bartram's garden by the students from The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, who always have great exhibits. They put their exhibit, about 18th century plant exchanges between England and USA, in a great historical perspective and both educated and enjoyed the viewer.  Wonderful!
Bartram's garden, importing and exporting seeds and plants

The final area, in the back, are hundreds of small booths from commercial sellers of horticultural products.  From jewelry to cut flowers, deck furniture to best cutter to cut up the tree that fell in the superstorm, seed packets and bulbs, and lots of items designed with garden themes.  This area was a lot of fun, and actually, this is where the modernization is taking place. 

OK, and now over to some interesting things we saw:
Michael Michaud botanical jewelry
Michael Michaud's Botanical Jewelry

Infinity Lightning lamps, made from plastic vinyl sheets
A lamp made by puzzle-piece shaped vinyl, by Infinity Lightning.  Really cool, and comes in many colors and shapes. 

Gorgeous tiles, handmade, by Symmetry Tile Works (Epping, NH)
Fantastic handmade clay tiles made by pressing live plants onto the surface.  Here is a fantastically beautiful weed, a thistle. The tiles are made by Symmetry Tile Works (Epping, NH)

white birches, probably the most beautiful thing at the show
This was probably the most beautiful thing, a simple line of birches.  

More things we saw will come in a later blogpost on new trends in the plant world...

PS.  My husband asked me yesterday 'since you are so upset and annoyed with this show, why do you keep on going?".  Well, because there are little gems here and there, and it is good to see bad stuff so you can identify the good stuff.  And also, so I can write about it, and hope that the Philadelphia Horticultural Society at some point decide to enter real time, with real world issues, and not just live in some romantic past with princesses, perfect lawns, and rich people's gardens. There is still hope!

Would I would like to see is a theme like 'Gardening and Climate Change - Plants under the weather', or 'Urban Gardening, plants for food and soul', or at least one little installation garden that is a little bit different and unexpected.  How about a garden just in blue or white, a garden just with dead plants, a garden based on Japan, a garden that looks real and is doable, a garden for tired parents and happy kids, a garden for touching plants and smelling them (there was one like that a few years back, it was great), or simply, 'McMansion gardens for sustainability and survival' (hehe!)).

So, dear PHS members, if you read this, please do something... try to shake the dinosaur skin and pearl necklaces off your bodies and do something different.  Just inviting school kids to grow geraniums is not really doing it...  even if it is a good first step.  Oh, and invite the person that made this garden to your show.  (Wij Gardens, a must-visit)

Click on a photo to get to the photo stream with more photos. 

2 comments:

Sarah Kelsey said...

It's completely constructive criticism, because most botanical gardens and arboreta, especially in the tri-state area, are not only progressing in the directions you describe, but also are not designed with even spacing and straight lines and sarracennias next to daffodils! Our at least this was the case for 2008-2011, the years when I was paying the most attention to public garden trends.

LS said...

Sarah - I am glad you agree. I feel like the Philadelphia Horticultural Society is stuck in the past. We should care about more things than who has the most beautiful christmas cactus, and garden design is evolving... just not at this show... But I will be back next year, to see if anything has changed. :)