Show Off


Here’s a guest rant from Kathleen McCoy.

When I joined the Garden Club of Montclair, I got the
official Handbook for Flower Shows and a toolbox. I was not excited about the
requirement for new members to make two flower arrangements. It was the floral
equivalent of eating a bland chicken breast.

Then I met Brenda, the reigning queen in a long line of our
club’s flower design royalty. In her workshop I learned about the elements and
principles of design. To see it well done was to have my eye led on a fun
little trip, to be delighted, drawn in. My first attempts felt wooden. Then
Brenda would stop by, and with deft and sure movements make one or two changes,
and voila, there was rhythm.

We learned about mechanics, which is how to construct the
arrangement so that it will survive the trip in the car to the flower show. The
legend before Brenda was Julia Berrall, a published author on flower
arrangement. Brenda said Mrs. Berrall used no oasis (the green foam) in her
designs. She was that good. You could turn her design upside down and it
wouldn’t move.

Someone once suggested our meeting room needed painting. She
was informed that the walls were a specific shade of green to enhance flower
design exhibition. Which brings me to the scary people in the world of flower
shows who take the rules seriously. That Handbook is 356 pages. One exhibitor
at our club’s monthly flower show (a humble affair) was upset when points had
not been deducted from the score of the winner for not filling out the entry
card correctly. The prevailing attitude, however, is let’s have fun and eat
those terrific desserts on the tea table.

On days we’re staging a flower show, I bring in my design,
see those of my fellow competitors, snort in contempt and come home with third
place. Do I care? Yes. I am one of four women who regularly exhibit in the
Intermediate class. I usually lose to one woman who is frugal, buying her
flowers at Shop-Rite. I spend gads of money at the local florist. The other one
who regularly places ahead of me designs like she plays tennis: to win. I take
solace in the words of Brenda: winning blue ribbons gets boring; taking chances
is much more fun.

Here are some of my designs:



For this scholastic-themed design I submitted a Hogarth or S
curve. The judge said it looked like it would fall apart. It received third

Save Room for Dessert

 A functional tray design

It needs a pewter charger under the dessert plate to add
weight. The judge thought the fork was plastic and made no sense with the other
elements, when in fact that fork is from France. Third place.

Chili After the Game

 A small design, not to exceed 8”

The theme was Montclair traditions. Judge’s comment: Choice
of material and background is exciting. First place

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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 regularly 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. Floral arrangement and landscape design? Equating dermatologist with a dentist.

    Your writing, about floral design, is the first I have ever tolerated (read thru) in decades.

    Fresh, evocative, historical, current, and then you add the pics for spice.

    A delight revisiting a detested genre/topic and LOVING it.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I’m intrigued by the obsessive nature of the flower show judges, the idea of an over the top rule book. Maybe this should be made into a movie like that one they made about dog shows? I’d go see it, probably even buy the DVD of it.

    Now, will the next generation carry on the tradition of flower judging competitions, or are these fading faster than a cheap cut flower?

  3. As a misanthropist I could never be in any club.

    That is why I collect plants with their botanical names, not the common place mostly.

    Some flower arrangements are cool. You have been very patient, however,
    I could not allow
    people with less talent, plant collection,
    credentials, be me judges.

  4. It’s not a competition, it’s an exhibition, please! no wagering! Oh, I laughed when I read your description of the flower show, what fun! I know way too many serious, over-competitive people and find them to be ridiculous most of the time.

    I loved your arrangements, by the way, and you would have won a blue ribbon from me!

  5. Montclair, NJ ? I grew up in Summit, NJ. I’m guessing if it is, it is an old, established Club. Some of the older Clubs ( i.e. over 50 years running) are really into the whole flower arranging thing-very white glove. With some ( even here in western PA) you have to be “invited” to join and are voted it! The Club I belong to is less than 10 years old with 30 members of all types ( Master Gardeners to newbies) who just love to get together to learn about plants, exchange plants and ideas and enjoy each others gardens-no competition. We do field trips too-like to the Buffalo Garden Walk ( where 3 of us met Elizabeth! :>) And buying flowers at Shop-Rite?? I could almost see the point if you had to use plants from your own garden.

  6. You had me grinning and nodding all the way.Our Horticultural Society only has a formal Flowershow every other year. Thank God! Some of the judges comments are really harsh. We all participate just the same. I like our Fieldtrips,some of them to members Gardens,some to public Gardens. And the plant Exchange every July.The Flowershows just happen to be part of the package and the package is great.

  7. Your first arrangement is stunning! But egads. I have my very first garden club meeting tonight. If they require me to arrange flowers, I’ll have to stab my eyes out with a shasta daisy.

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