Conflicted about the Philly Flower Show


Statue460 Here's my dilemma: The Philadelphia Flower Show is the mother of all American garden shows and it's produced by the venerable Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.  Even in a recession, the show attracts 250,000 attendees willing to fork over $22 each just to get in the door.  Plus, the show fills 24,000 room-nights in local hotels and generates $35 million in "economic impact" for Philadelphia.   

Even more impressive is the truly great cause funded by the show – Philadelphia Green, the organization that creates community gardens and urban parks where they're most needed, and has been working miracles for 25 years now. 

So given all that, what's my complaint with the show?  While I've frankly never loved gaudily lit fake gardens in convention centers, wherever they may be, the theme of this year's Philly show is Italy, and Roman hardscaping surrounded by forced tulips and azaleas just doesn't DO it for me, okay?  Ditto all the floor space given to floral "fashion".  And you'd never guess, from all these formal, ornate displays, that gardening today is all about growing vegetables and environmental stewardship.

On the other hand, the show IS sticking with what works and what their customers do seem to love – eye-popping displays of COLOR – and not worrying about being political correct or pleasing us gardenbloggers.  So in a perverse way I love that the show is old-fashioned, ornamentalist to the core, and barely "green" at all!

But I'd love to hear what everybody else thinks (and I'm sure I will). 
I've already found this post by gardenwriter/designer Jane Berger, who points out that after all, it's a flower show, not a garden show.  Okay, that helps. 

Anybody else?

Don't miss my comment, where I retract almost everything I wrote – except for some standard convention-going whining.


  1. Well, she would be tough to dance with wouldn’t she! Most show goers do love that pack of color no matter if it is daffodils with chrysanthemums. I think one must go into a flower show with a child’s mind and just revel in the fantasy world. I did post on the RI Spring Flower Show. Check out the great veggie garden/pottager that was featured there.

  2. Philly is my hometown and I’m very biased about the Flower Show. For me it would be disappointing to lose the grand displays. I love the scent of all those forced hyacinths. The last time I was there, however, was in 2003 and I’m a very different gardener now than I was that year. I think they should keep the big displays because, as you said, that is what brings in the big money and what makes it the Philly Flower Show, but they should get some speakers who can talk about the green side of gardening. And I haven’t checked but maybe they are doing that already.

  3. While gardening today may be all about vegetables, I can’t see 250,000 people getting excited enough about them to fork over $22 each to see a hall filled with vegetable gardens. Sure, alot of them can be worked into creative mixed gardens, but still. When you look compare that show to something like the Cleveland show where you can spend half an hour looking at the gardens and five hours wandering aisle after aisle of home improvement and craft booths, I would gladly take the over the top, hardscape heavy gardens of Italy any day.

  4. Felder Rushing and I have attended several shows together and we always get a kick out of all the Yankee gardening hype and “hort head” antics of the show. Of course it’s big, gaudy, and “barely ‘green’ at all,” but there’s a deeper meaning to it for me. In “Tough Plants for Northern Gardens,” Felder writes: “Northern gardens come to a complete standstill in mid-winter, when prolonged cold temperatures suppress all growth, and the only things in bloom are in greenhouses and garden catalogs.” And at the Philly Flower Show.

    (I heard there were no tomatoes in sight. At a flower show with Italy as its theme even.)

  5. Tomatoes were in the house! As you walk in the entrance – an olfactory orgasm! – take a right and check out all those tomato stakes; a veggie garden to drool over. The American Horticulture Society gave a deserved prize to Temple U’s most incredible veggie intensive-planting exhibit. Another featured Philly Italian veggie and flower garden.

    More edibles exhibits in raised beds, in cobblestone planters, and climbing up trellises and arbors.

    Favorite: simple footbridge that we plan to duplicate. I’ll post some photos on website in early April. Find: fab nozzle!

    It was my 7th time (4th as a lecturer;book signing)and Tuesday’s “Gardening with Bambi & Other Visitors” was crowded; I only missed my place once! I’ll be back in `10!

  6. Flower/garden shows like Philly and the upcoming Canada Blooms in Toronto give us winter-aldled gardeners a chance to see color and experience fragrance after being deprived of both for months. I don’t think we expect realism. The trend at Canada Blooms is to have more smaller show gardens that people that can relate to in terms of space. It will be interesting to see if food gardening will be a feature this year. I’m sure that green living will there in many ways, as it has been in the past.

  7. Well, sorry, I hate to chime in with the expected comment, but here goes: I don’t go to a flower show to look at vegetables. (I see those every week in the supermarket–yeah, I know, they’re not growing, but still.)

    Having said, that, I’m not overly impressed with the two images shown here, and look forward to seeing others that would justify the huge hype this show gets. A hype I imagine it is difficult to live up to!

    However, I do love a flower show and look forward to reporting on this year’s Canada Blooms, which is also very big on floral displays.

  8. There are 19 exhibits in the Educational section of the Philadelphia Flower Show that are all about green – green roofs, veggie gardens (with tomatoes), sustainable plants and plantings, and native plant gardens galore! I don’t know how you missed them.

    They are done by miscellaneous area high schools, technical schools and colleges, the EPA, PECO (electric company), PA parks and forests foundation as well as various garden groups, and they are fabulous. Oh yes, and there are speakers who talk about the green side of gardening. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society operates in the real world.

    We are all dazzled by the big, beautiful, wonderfully scented main displays with their “forced tulips and azaleas” but that’s not the whole show.

    Elizabeth, the photos aren’t very good. You are going to love it!

  9. My eleven year old daughter begged to go again this year, after I took her last year on a whim. For her, all the fussy flowers translates into her wanting to help me in the garden. Last summer we started at square foot garden (heavily fortified against squirrels and deer) at her request.

    PECO (the electric company) had a great display of its rooftop plantings on its city building; we stood there for quite some time running our hands over the low sedums.

    Lots of educational information there, as well as native plants displays, displays dealing with water runnoff problems (the coolest looking water barrels I’ve seen yet), “backyard gardens” for under $1000 full of vegetables, compost bins, and bird houses with their own roof top gardens.

    Yes, the aisles of “fashion gardening” were plentiful, but I thought full of humor and whimsy. Why should gardeners take themselves so seriously?

    PHS is changing the face of the local neighborhoods in Philly – and not by swooping in and taking over, but by enlisting and involving the people in the community to reclaim abandoned lots and turning them into neighborhood gardens (with vegetables and flowers!) or quiet, grass filled lots with trees.

    There were tons of useful (and not so useful) lectures — I missed Traci DiSabato-Aust’s lecture on Monday because of the snow. I think there was something there for everyone to feast on — especially in this week of the last winter snow.

    Wayne, PA

  10. I gotta say, I feel sorry for the Tulips. I know that is so weird but there it is. Once a person knows a bit about their life cycle, seeding (rather than new side bulb propagation) and their future after being forced, I just feel a bit sorry for them.

    Hence, I can’t go to those huge flower shows in winter, even though I do love flowers and shows.

    It is just the darn pitiful tulips….

  11. I won a couple of tickets from Garden Bytes. I’ve never been before, but do not expect to return. That said, I think these things, like others have said, are not about gardening per se, but a ritual celebration of the ending of winter, coming of spring. The dazzle grows out of this, like any other expression of seasonal excitement, like Christmas.

  12. Wow, Susan – I had the exact opposite reaction to yours at the Flower Show this year — almost a Rashomon-like difference in perspectives. To my eyes there were many edible gardens plunked in among the floral displays and lots of green education for the public. I was pleased to see Joe Lamp’l, Mike McGrath, and others on the speaker list who are teaching good, basic gardeining principles.
    For my take and of the greening of the flower show, see my blog post at:

  13. Since we’re losing our show in Seattle, I’d challenge you to think about how you’d feel if you didn’t have the option to attend a big show. Would you be sad?

    I always think of the big shows as theater. That puts the fantasy v. gardening reality in check for me, and helps me enjoy it that much more.

    I hope you go. I’d love to hear reports! 🙂

  14. I haven’t been to Philly for a couple of years, but for me, it’s not a question of realism either. I go because it has such wacky old-fashioned garden club competitions, and weird quasi-Victorian garden craft exhibits. It portrays such a lost world that I half expect a Miss Wilmott or two to pop out somewhere. Pictures made with dried flower petals? How can you beat that?! The only thing more old fashioned is the line for the Ladies Room.

  15. Okay, you’ve all convinced me! Not that I should love the show, coz I’m probably too viscerally turned off by convention center halls to ever be happy there. But I’m convinced I was just being grouchy not to see the parts of the show I WOULD like if I could stand the crowds, the harsh lighting and my aching feet. I know, I’m still complaining…

    But seriously, on the two days I was there there were demos or talks about not just floral designing and cooking but also composting, organic g’ing, propagation, g’ing with Bambi, Debra Prinzing AND Tracy di Sabato-Aust, whom I would have heard if she hadn’t been scheduled during the Garden Writer get-together, and more plant talks. I even saw the electric company’s green roof demonstration on the floor.

    But I sure succeeded in energizing a lot of you to tell us why you love the show! And I’m relieved to hear it.

  16. The operative word here is : SHOW.
    If you want to look at vegetables go to the farmers market, the supermarket or step into your own back yard vegetable plot.

    If you want a piece of horticultural fantasy, design inspiration, artfully and creative plant vignettes, lively informative and educational seminars about gardening and sustainability then go to a garden SHOW.

  17. No matter which plants are displayed, I think we should be thankful that there are still garden shows that have not been taken over by the vinyl siding and sunroom salesmen.

  18. I’m jealous – we here in Boston ( with a fresh 12 inches of snow on Monday and temps 20 below normal) have no Flower show this year. I am surviving on a diet of indoor forced bulbs 🙁 Embrace your Flower Show, coz you’d miss if if it was cancelled!!

  19. Dear Gardenrant,

    Of course we all have various points of view !

    Mine is……that while there were oddball characteristics…..there was IMHO a sense of overall beauty…..expressed in the many, many prize winning flowers, as well as the nursery and landscape designs. How many thousands of hours had to have been spent to create the beauty we saw ! And all in one place…, nothing quite like it.

    And live opera, too !

  20. I used to love our little “flower and patio show” in Indianapolis when I was young. Oddly enough, I HAD to get a huge tissue-paper flower each year for the show to be “real” to me. And, I’ve been gardening since I was about three years old. My whole experience/opinion of flower shows is conflicted and probably always will be. I went to the Philly show once while I lived up there. Shopped a lot, breezed by the displays, but I have a bunch of friends who design and take displays for the public gardens they manage, and they seem to enjoy it. I dunno. Now that I live where it is (usually) warm all of the time, I don’t much care for the shows. If I lived in Minnesota? Maybe I’d feel differently.

  21. Susan as pot-stirrer, trouble maker. Hmmmmmm. Who’d a thunk it? Not a big fan of fake either, but do love the gatherings they engender.

  22. Am I the only one who looks forward more to the vendors than the garish floor displays? I picked up my supply of seeds & got some wonderful ideas for things I can create in my garden from some of the vendors (Smith & Hawken’s vertical gardens & hanging potless succulent balls were totally cool and new to me). And how can anyone complain about a place where there are at least three different brands of ice cream (each with their own flavor varieties) being sold by the food vendors?

  23. Aw man I wish I could have gone to Philly’s show this year. The spectacle doesn’t bother me as much as all the product placement, but hey! That’s why it’s kind of a tradeshow, right?

    Although I can’t speak for this show, from other flower shows I’ve been too I wish there was more landscape architecture represented. The disconnect between the fields of landscape architecture and horticulture is so profound you wouldn’t even guess the two are completely interrelated.

    Granted, these show’s are geared primarily towards homeowners and not academics, but aren’t home gardeners the logical “audience” for landscape theory?

  24. I’m a Philly native, but I intensely dislike the flower show. The flowers very quickly become wilted; never mind that they’ll die anyway, but I hate for them to be so thirsty for 2 weeks before they die. I also hate the crowds. We’ve shuffled along, trying to not be pushed by the crowd swells over the low edges of the displays, as the sweaty crowd moves at the rate of 5 feet per hour. The crowd forces me to move slowly past displays I have no interest in, but keeps me from being able to get to see the displays I might be interested in. The show really needs to have even more extended hours than it does now – it could open at 5 am on Sundays and still be crowded (but at least those of us who came to see the plants, not the backs of people’s heads, would have a better time! Although I still wouldn’t go back.)

    I love botanical gardens. The plants there don’t seem to be in pain, and the atmosphere is 1000 times fresher and more peaceful. Really, if you must see greenery during the winter, go south (and I mean below the Mason-Dixon line), or go to a greenhouse.

    I also dislike Longwood Gardens (outside Philadelphia – in Chester County) – too empty, not enough special plants. I don’t think the Philadelphia area has anything going for it garden-wise. I like the Montreal & Chicago botanical gardens.

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