Flights of plantasy


In March, Northerners and Midwesterners can look forward to more than simply watching our gardens slowly come back to life. We’ll also be treated to a wide range of garden and flower shows, from the “home and garden” variety where hardware plays the starring role to garden-only shows—still commercial but at least with more plants—to spring flower shows, often hosted by non-profit public gardens and conservatories. The flower-lover in me prefers the conservatory shows, though these often feature too few cultivars. (I like to see the rarer varieties but seldom do. Tulipa acuminata, anyone?) But I do get some enjoyment out of the commercial garden shows. By “enjoyment” I mean that not wholly innocent form, where an appreciation of the absurd plays an important role.

The garden show in Western New York is called Plantasia; it is put together by the local association of landscapers and nurseries. A garden exhibition area features display gardens created by garden centers and design contractors; there are also aisles of vendor booths. I think this is a common format for most of these shows. Often, the show has a theme: my favorite was books, where we saw an urban garden based on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a Lord of the Rings hobbit habitat. Last year was “Around the World,” but I don’t remember any of the locations, so it couldn’t have been that great. Without ranting too much about Plantasia, I wonder about the value of these expositions.

I can’t stay away from them because:
•It’s great to walk into any space filled with gardens and plants at this still-frigid time of year.
•Sometimes, the vendors have some interesting items.
•I’m a sucker for insane water features like towering waterfalls with sound and light shows attached.
•I’m fascinated by the countless ways in which Unilock can be employed.

I’m disappointed every year because:
•Most often, the display gardens err on the side of caution. They don’t seem to get that they should be pulling out all the stops. Even if it’s not what I would want for my garden, I’m always going to be more impressed by creativity.
•The plant material, I guess because of the time of year, is generally limited to forced bulbs and azaleas, with some exceptions.
•Increasingly, the displays are less and less about a great context for plants and more and more about the “outdoor room.”
•I’m not really fascinated by Unilock.

Yet, these shows are aimed at gardeners, I’m a gardener, and I continue to attend, hoping that the pleasure will outweigh the disenchantment. What about you? Are these shows, for good or ill, part of your gardening year?

A partial listing of upcoming shows:

Plantasia, March 22-25.
Gardenscape (Rochester), March 15-18.
The Connecticut Flower & Garden Show, Feb. 22-25.
The Chicagoland Flower & Garden Show, March 10-18.
The Cincinnati Flower Show, April 21-29.
The Boise Flower & Garden Show, March 23-25.
The Portland Flower Show (Maine),March 8-11.
The Central Massacusetts Flower Show, March 2-4.
The San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, March 21-25.

And of course there are many more.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’ve never been to mine, but it’s all anyone talks about for days afterwards in San Francisco. And when I say anyone, I mean people working in some horticulture or design business. I wish I had someone fun to go with, but everyone I know is so serious about the whole thing, I don’t think I would enjoy it very much. Maybe I should just go.

  2. Elizabeth said: “Most often, the display gardens err on the side of caution. They don’t seem to get that they should be pulling out all the stops. Even if it’s not what I would want for my garden, I’m always going to be more impressed by creativity.”

    Apparently, this is one thing the San Francisco show is known for; insane, impractical, garden couture. Hmmm… It’s sounding better all the time now that I think about it. I guess I never thought of myself as the type to go. But you say it’s for gardeners…and *I’m* a gardener…I could go.

  3. I’ve never been to a general garden show. I’ve been to the Orchid Show at the WinterGarden at the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan a couple of times. I usually can’t resist picking up a Phalaenopsis.

    I had to look up Unilock. When the time comes for us to redo our driveway, I want to use a driveable draining surface. It will also look a lot better than the industrial wasteland of broken-up concrete we have now.

  4. A garden show is just the ticket for curing the winter blues! Even if some of the plant material…dare I say it…is commonplace there is always someone with something fairly unusual. Last year I saw a beautiful variegated pine with the funny name ‘Pinus parviflora ‘Ogon Janome”. Sometimes it is best to go alone so you can really take notice of the plants. It is a real challenge to force trees and shrubs for the show. I’m always amazed at the witch hazels, dogwoods and even wisteria which has been forced.

  5. I just went to the Seattle garden show last weekend. I’m a beginning gardener and this was my first ever garden show so I didn’t know quite what to expect.

    The display gardens were a bit uninspiring. Despite my inexperience, I recognized several “plant materials” 🙂 being used in ways that completely did not fit how they would mature. I guess I’d hoped that I would see some neat combinations or plants that I’d want to drop into my yard, but with no information about the plants’ needs, there seemed to be little connection between the displays and reality. I did note down some names to look up on the internet, to see if I had a place for them.

    The plant market was hopping, but I think my inexperience meant that things just seemed expensive, instead of being rare finds! I did eventually purchase some trillium. I think that the non-plant marketplace would have been really useful had I been in the market for garden art and accessories.

    All that said, attending did get me ready for the season. The next day we had beautiful weather so I bought and planted a bunch of pansies. I’ll definitely attend the show again in the future, and hopefully as I become a more experienced and knowledgable gardener I will get more out of it!

  6. I just did my first post about the Cleveland Home & Garden show, but I have a few more to post, too. I really agreed with your comment about how the display gardens play it too safe–there was only one that “transported” me to the theme of the show (Ireland)… the rest might have transported me to an expensive outdoor room in a ritzy neighborhood, but that’s about as far as they took me. Disappointing.

  7. Hey all! Thanks for mentioning the Boise Flower and Garden Show. I am working on the theme garden for the Convention Center lobby: a showcase of balcony/porch size gardens (four in all). Boise is getting 400+ new condos, townhouses and lofts in the next couple of years. Our message is: yes you can garden on a postage stamp size spot.

  8. God, I HATE these shows. I’ve been to one in New York City and one in Albany. Both were in really, depressing windowless convention spaces. The garden vignettes were pathetic–the produce section of my local supermarket is more inspiring, with its potted azaleas and cyclamen. And the shows were so relentlessly focussed on marketing hideous high-ticket stuff, like vinyl fencing. Plus, no interesting plant material for sale. No thanks. I’ll find another way to survive the winter.

  9. Before anyone gives up on all garden shows entirely please understand not all shows are created alike. It is crazy expensive to create a display. So with the use of unilock and similar precast products you may be able to be reuse them. Not the case with live plants. Most get trashed or possibly donated to after show auctions for charity.Which is great but of no benefit to the poor contractor who gets watch the money fly out the window to put on a great show for people to critique ,often rudely. Please also remember that the people who create these displays are on a very limited time frame, like 3 or 4 days. It is impossible to please all the people all the time. If you fill your displays with flowers and shrubs then folks complain about how it doesn’t translate to real life. If you dont then people complain that it’s not enough for a good show. And lastly the trends dictate the direction you go in. Outside rooms with lots of hardscaping are what’s hot right now. You would not want to be accused of being out of the loop. It’s very scary with that type of investment to go to far out there most of the market may not get you. And never hire you. So even if it’s not to your liking please smile and nod and remember someone somewhere may have loved it just the same. Ps. How about we tour 25,000 people through your yard and then critique it.

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