What Should A Flower Show Be?


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.

Cactus My second thought is, heighten the comedy.  More horticultural competitions!  

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?


  1. Happy to say that there was lots o’ fun stuff on sale at the Philly Flower Show this year. I got a great witch hazel and hellebore and lots of herbs at reasonable prices. Also included cool garden ornaments, those little seed balls, upside-down tomato kits, worm/ compost kits, and fresh flowers.

    (I did a presentation on incorporating the Victorian Language of Flowers into your life, which was also great fun!)

    -Amy (Brecount White)


  2. If like the Duane Kelly say’s, “younger people are…less interested in the aesthetics of gardening and more in the environmental benefits, like composting…” Why not give them what they want? I would enjoy that kind of show more than looking at the static displays at a flower show.

  3. Home and garden shows are not keeping these vendors out. The shows are struggling to fill their spaces, so there is plenty of room for the type vendors you describe. The problem, I think, is that there is not a sufficient market at the shows to support vendors spending a couple thousand dollars for each 10×10 space. I see very few people carrying around items that they have purchased at the local garden shows. Without shopping carts, and often when its freezing outside, there’s little reason to buy today, but lots of inspiration in the gardens that have been constructed for the show.

  4. I read that the Philly Garden Show generates $65,000,000 annually for the Philadelphia area. Not too shabby! Food vendors offered salads, soups, panini, coffees, and a myriad of less healthy choices. I discovered, rather too late in the day, a wine and cheese tasting at the end of the lecture hall (where I spent most of my time). The show floor is split pretty evenly between displays, hort comps, and vendors from all over the country. I save up all year to shop at the show, and usually come home broke and happy. Maybe more shows should follow their model?

  5. Dave, good points. But maybe the organizers should make the booths cheaper and have many, many more of them. Or make the booths free and take a cut of sales instead. And maybe there should be shopping carts!

    Maybe the events should be sold to gardeners as a chance to get a jump on spring…and not just as the questionable opportunity to experience “spring” indoors under weird lights.

  6. Dave, I have purchased a 6′ garden sculpture, 20″ copper pots, a vermicomposting system, a reel lawnmower, garden augers, tuteurs, countless hand tools, etc. Vendors like Lee Valley Tools bring samples of their wares to the show and offer free shipping, even discounts, on items ordered during the show. Even the smaller artisans are willing to ship/deliver larger items. People walking out of the show with a few small items in their hands may well have spent hundreds – you never know. What the local shows need to do is PROMOTE the vendors so people know there will be an opportunity to shop.

  7. I agree with this post and am in the under 30 crowd for reference. I went the the MD H&G Show last week. Stopped by the ATM on the way and was only out the price of admission when I left because there were few options. One had boxes of bulbs (like big box stores), one only sold carniverous plants, one sold peony roots (30-100 bucks per root, dont think so),and one sold houseplants & tulips already in blooom. Though, if you wanted gutter protectors you would’ve been all set.

  8. We don’t have a flower show in my area (Calgary, Canada), in fact until I started reading Rant I didn’t even know what a flower show was. WE do however have a Garden Show, which broke free from the “Home and Garden” show a few years ago after they cut the allowable garden entries drastically. All it all though its worked out great, the majority of the big land scape companies still set up at the home and garden show and all the Garden vendors set up at the garden show.

    There are still a few landscape displays along with container set ups, all for competition. The displays inspire the average gardener (and mostly make me wish for a bigger yard). The best part about the competitions though I think are that they are completely the peoples choice. When you walk in the door you get ballots for all the competitions, you want heightened comedy? Try debating with a complete stranger at a display as to why your choice is better then theirs, trying to sway the votes. Its fun.

    Now I’ve never been to one of the big shows and comparatively I’m sure this one is quite small. But its really a great time, with lots of speakers, food, plant/seed, soil and kitsch vendors and enough landscaper types to break my tiny back yards heart.

    I don’t know if this is what a flower show should do but you better believe its a great garden show.

  9. John, that is the problem with my local show, too, the Capital District Flower and Garden Show in Troy, NY.

    When I was there last spring, it had many times the vendors that Chicago had, oddly enough. But most of them were selling hot tubs and awnings. Not plants or gardening supplies.

  10. My local “Garden Show” is much bigger on the vendors. There were maybe two teeny little display gardens. Granted, I live in a teeny town, garden-show wise (150,000) But everyone bought stuff and everyone was happy! The vendors at the show did quite well–I talked to most of them and they were thrilled with their results.

    Gardeners LIKE to buy stuff.

  11. I agree that the shows need to change- or at least keep pace with what is going on. I am in my 30’s, but have already been to enough ‘landscape industry’ shows to be bored by the sameness of them from year to year as well as the overall lack of environmental sensibility on the part of vendors. I went to the ‘green industry’ trade show for the upper midwest this year and was found it interesting that a large number of the educational sessions focused on environmental issues and how to integrate green practices into projects, yet there were almost no vendors selling environmentally-friendly products. There was one vendor who was selling a rechargeable battery-powered small pickup truck with I was fascinated by, but the sales person seemed to know almost nothing about it. When I asked him if he knew of anyone who produced a biodiesel-compatible skidloader he looked at me as if I had just asked him for his bank account number.


  12. Maybe some of these shows need to put “Green” or “Sustainable” in their titles (and follow through with those types of vendors)–and then watch the young hordes come in….

  13. There has to be a sense of appeal to a broad age group and their interests.
    I would die of boredom if there was aisle after aisle of compost bins and vegetable garden accoutrements.
    The most successful garden shows are those that have been highly “curated” as horticultural, theatrical and cultural events.
    A balanced field of good design, commercialism, and entertainment for all who share an interest in the board field of gardening.
    Throw in the ‘trend of the year’ and promote the best that the local area has to offer , example : cheese making, floral arranging, specialty plants, water gardening, organic farming, wineries and local garden related tradesmen such as ironsmiths and stone cutters .
    Make the show that is as inclusive as possible so that you have appealed to a wide range of people who will have cross interests.
    And keep the junky crap out. There is no need to have someone selling baby clothing or bedding sheets at a garden show.
    Above all high ‘curate’ the show gardens so that you maintain your reputation of a high calibre designed show. Part of the demise of many a show is that the design quality has not been maintained.
    Balance out the display gardens with a couple of high end blue chip landscape architectural firms, include a historical aspect, introduce emerging hot new design talent and balance it out with some savvy established design firms with a great reputation.

  14. I don’t know there were a lot of “green” “sustainable” things at the Chicago Flower Show, but there was some:

    -A display with the cutest chicken coop, I’d live it.
    – The Trees that Feed presentation
    – The wierd hats section

    Not a lot but you could see the trends there.

  15. I guess what I really would like to see is the “Farm” section of our State Fair, but expanded & with items to purchase. And info on making “grow your own” work in the smallest of urban backyards. Most of the “Home & Garden” shows in these parts are as much garden as HGTV is – heavy on the pools, spas, chimineas, and awnings. Even those shows that are “Flower & Garden” are full of businesses offering to do for you rather than help you do for yourself. It makes me a little crazy, too, because the region is a big ag producer that’s full of suburbanites & city-dwellers who really want to know more about growing their own food. If there were vendors who offered garden goods – arbors & trellises, potted plants & seedlings, composters, locally-produced art, veggie & fruit cookbooks, & demos – alongside competitions and displays by local clubs, I would be inclined to go. And probably leave with my credit card smoking.

  16. Laura Bell (and anyone else who’s interested), become a member of an ag producer organization (you don’t need to be a farmer, just to pay the membership fee), and then you’ll be on the mailing list for all the hort meetings and symposiums, where there are usually vendors, seminars and workshops you can attend. You don’t have to be a commercial farmer to get a lot out of them, and you membership supports the industry of the organization.

  17. As smaller nurseries go deeper into the use of the internet and social media to develop their market, garden shows and the like become increasingly less important for the amount of money put into it. A lot of nurseries are struggling to make ends meet in general and may be looking at this like, is it worth the time and money to put down $1500 for a booth when we’ll be lucky to make that much back in sales during the show, and people can always find us on the internet? If show organizers want to keep it together and keep nurseries interested and involved in shows they’ll just have to try harder, which could include things like, lower booth prices or a percentage based price schedule for plant vendors only, show themes that deliberately “advertise” the kinds of plant nursery vendors will bring as closely as possible, and other special incentives such as waiving parking fees and providing staff to help move plants during set up/take down time.

  18. I was underwhelmed by the Chicago Flower and Garden Show. I would have liked to see a better mix of eye stopping crazy displays of plants and examples of what I as a Chicago gardener could reasonably grow at home.

    I would have liked to see more vendors that had garden related items. I did buy bulbs and a watering nozzle and the booth with the succulents and african violets were both really great but that was about it.

    I’m sorry I missed your presentation Michele. I was only in town for one day and my time was limited. The other presenters looked really great and that definitely is something I look for at a Garden Show. A way to realize my gardening ideas.

  19. I went to the Orlando (Florida) Home and Garden show and talk about a disappointment. You would think as big as Orlando is that it would be packed with all kinds of vendors selling plants or gardening supplies. All I saw was 2 selling a small misc. assortment of orchids and common houseplants. I didn’t come to buy mattress’s, boats or a vacation and I didn’t appreciate the overly aggressive sales people practically chasing you down the isles to sell there non gardening items. One guy was actually chasing my 7 years old daughter with a curling iron in his hand. Needless to say we didn’t stay long.

  20. I went the Capital Home and Garden Show in D.C. and I don’t recall any plants being for sale with possibly the exception of a native plant nursery that had a few things. There were a couple of landscapers and a whole bunch of stuff for your home like mattresses, gutter covers, granite counters, doors, windows, siding etc. I suppose the name “Home and Garden show” should have told me it was more “home” and less “garden.”

  21. I can’t believe that garden show promoters have not figured out that much of the crowd at these shows are looking to spend money on a very cool plant they’ve never seen before or just can’t get at their local nursery/ box store. If I were in charge I would basically comp the booth fee for the best of the best local small niche grower/nursery. Shoppers are happy and word spreads for better attendance next year .
    In my area , there’s always someone new in charge of these shows every year who has very little grasp of who’s who in the local plant world . Whats more the plant vendors are not treated at all as wonderful customer magnets that they are for these events but as after thoughts by the event staff who can be stressed/rude.

    Almost all first time live /plant vendors at our local show never return for a second year. It can be a brutal experience with very little to show for it when all is said and done.

  22. Iola, I think you’ve hit on something–“there’s always someone new in charge of these shows every year who has very little grasp of who’s who in the local plant world”. The managers of these shows are probably not so much interested in what they’re about, so much as they want to make money from the show. I’ve done a lot of wine and food shows over the years, and it’s the same thing. The people running the show have to make a certain amount of money from the booth fees, and these venues are very expensive. So maybe it pays to consider who is running the show and why, before you decide to go.
    Was the IGC show in Chicago that was so enjoyed run by the IGC industry, and who was incharge of the obviously popular Philly Flower show? Maybe people who knew and cared about gardening and plants?

  23. Lola, I so agree. If you want to get the real plant nuts in, get the plant specialists into the place, no matter what kind of deal you have to cut with them!

  24. Annie Hayes of Annie’s Annuals gave her views on what garden shows need to do at The Blogging Nurseryman: http://thegoldengecko.com/blog/?p=1405
    The Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle has quite a few plant vendors but I think the ones who do the best have dormant plants (perennials and bulbs) in plastic bags with pictures. These are easy to carry and not messy. It is hard to imagine how people could push around shopping carts at the show but maybe the show could provide baskets. Some people bring their own shopping cart of sorts. Vendor fees are high and the show is five days and long hours so it is really difficult for small growers to be there (all of Annie Hayes’ points exactly describe the situation). Reduced vendor fees for plant vendors is an excellent idea.
    This year at the NWFGS there were no display gardens of vegetables, edible gardens, chickens et cetera except the wonderful Play Garden which was for children and in a different area. The state nursery association, WSNLA, had a booth with plants from various members for sale but there was no publicity in the program or at the show website or WSNLA website so people found it if they walked by (location was near the food so that helped. haha).

  25. The Southastern Flower Show, two weeks ago, actually made more money than the year before. Many exhibits about the environment, sustainable gardens, lots of great speakers, but not many plant vendors. The buzz from vendors was that they were too high. Plant vendors have had a very hard time the last couple of years. dealing with drought in the southeast and all. Hopefully the powers that be will wake up and realize that people come to flower shows to buy things, to take things home and find things not readilly available to them. The Philly show was marvelous, and I shipped home two very large boxes of plants via fedex that I could not carry on the plane, and ordered other things to be shipped, for free, to my home. I hope you are listening out there, flower show organizers.

  26. You basically garden for dinner? You poor thing! I basically garden for, well, you know, the pretty plant thing. Just me and my wife, no “Landscaping Companies”. Not much lawn either. Just the pretty plants and us. How do we do it? A lil’ miracle called C.S.A.!

  27. @ Michelle: Agree with Cap District Show. It is horrible. Too many large gardens not enough smaller “how tos” A grest display could be made for a 10×15 area with an herb garden, trellised veggies and small potting stand/shed.. There are not enough cutting edge garden shops in the region to do something like this however. Most still opearte the old way.

    The TROLL

  28. I just returned from Canada Blooms in Toronto, possibly the largest flower & garden show in our country. My friend, an independent retail nursey owner, and I, a landscaper, were amazed at the lack of plants for sale. We wondered if this was destined to be another season when planting plants was not going to be considered landscaping???? It was the first time at this show that I haven’t purchased something unique or green…I went home with only a giant pretzel and a schtrudel (sp?)…

  29. We need somebody to contract with small specialty nurseries to travel to shows, show off cool plants and take orders from eager gardeners at a 5 or 10 percent show discount. They could have speakers and how to demonstrations. Like Vitamix except with cool new plants.

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