A few years ago, the New York Times reported that across the country, flower shows were struggling to make the numbers work.
The Times article quotes Duane Kelly, founder and former owner of the San Francisco and Northwest shows, who saw a generational shift that is hurting these events: "Younger people are…less interested in the aesthetics of gardening and more in the environmental benefits, like composting, he said."
I'm not younger people, but I am certainly in that camp. I basically garden for dinner. Not that I don't love pretty plants–but my idea of gardening is not "design," particularly not design as expressed indoors in an arena by landscaping companies hoping to be hired by non-gardeners.
So, how do you remake these shows so that they appeal to younger gardeners and backyard farmers?
My first thought: Make them much, much, much more commercial.
I don't live in a swanky place full of great nurseries or the kind of great design stores that I remember from my time in Los Angeles. I am starved for both plant materials and garden ornaments beyond the dinky shippable catalog offerings. I come to a flower show prepared to shop! So if you have acres of space, why not bring in the vendors whose wares are not readily available? Why not have the giant pots and arty arbors?
And why not have every possible plant specialist? Even if it's a few weeks shy of fruit-tree planting time, why not have vendors who will take orders?
This past year, I had the supremely interesting experience of going to Chicago's Navy Pier twice for garden-related events. I was on a panel with my Rant partners over the summer at the Independent Garden Center show, and I recently spoke at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show.
Hands down, the IGC show was the more vibrant event. There were over a thousand vendors selling all kinds of amazing things–including the most beautiful pots I'd ever seen in my life. And sadly, it was all wholesale. There was nary a thing for a gardener to buy.
The Flower Show was much less commercial, with most of the real estate devoted to big display gardens. While I enjoyed the crazy croquet field done by the orchid society, most of the display gardens were just ground to be covered in between the few plant vendors there on one end and the few horticultural competitions on the other.
The more fetishistic and weird, the better. And get the owners to appear with their pets as much as possible!
I spent a really enjoyable half hour looking over the contestants in the cacti and succulents category, some of which had been owned by their caretakers for three decades and still were ten inches tall. The judges' comments were particularly instructive and amusing. I'd spy a three inch cactus in a clay pot, and I'd read, "Excellent presentation."
My first reaction would be, "What? It's a three-inch cactus in a clay pot!" But then, of course, I'd reexamine the relationship between cactus shape, pot, and stone mulch, and I'd have to say, yeah, excellent presentation.
I like seeing the work of committed gardeners…even houseplant devotees.
What do you think a Flower Show should do?