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Flower power; National Garden Club members convene in Buffalo to celebrate horticultural excellence

It's before noon on Wednesday at a downtown hotel, and exhibitors from across the country and beyond are working on entries for a New York State-themed national flower show.

New Jersey exhibitor Deirdre Gross is putting the finishing touches on a tubular design she has created using straws, dried banana leaves and hydrangea to represent the Guggenheim.

Amherst's Kirsten Reitan explains how she, along with several other Smallwood Garden Club members, grew the Columbine gracing her Adirondacks design.

A woman carries a small display up the escalator to the grand hall, while two local garden club members prepping in the horticulture section point out that a "Trough" is a planter that has been grown outside.

The gardening scene in Western New York is blossoming even bigger this week with more than 960 registered garden club members and guests turning out for the National Garden Clubs Inc.'s 83rd annual convention at the Adam's Mark, themed "Explore the Wonders, Buffalo/Niagara 2012."

The NGC is a nonprofit educational organization composed of 50 state Garden Clubs and the National Capital Area, 6,218 member garden clubs and 198,595 members, as well as international affiliates, according to its website (gardenclub.org).

Locally, 34 clubs with close to 1,400 members comprise the Eighth District Federated Garden Clubs of New York State (gardenclubsofwny.com).

This is the first time that the national convention has been held in Buffalo, said chairwoman Babbidean Urban Huber. It's also the first convention since 2000 that a national flower show -- certainly an event highlight -- has again been included.

Feeling left out? What people who aren't club members may not know is that local garden clubs regularly present flower shows around town -- for all to enjoy, said Huber. She is a master gardener, member of the Forest Stream Garden Club, a landscape consultant for the NGC and a horticulture judge in New York State.

"People think you have to be knowledgeable to join a garden club. But a garden club is a good place to go and learn," she added.

(Flower shows -- and other local garden club events -- are regularly listed in the Garden Notes section in The News' Friday Home & Style section.)

For those registered, the convention officially opens today with a two-day lineup of seminars, meetings, banquets, receptions and spouse tours -- and, of course, the flower show. But preconvention activities have been taking place all week, including several tour options highlighting the area's National Historic Landmarks, architectural gems and more.

The flower show, themed "An Empire of Wonders," is a Standard Flower Show -- which means it conforms to the very specific standards established by the NGC.

"All of our shows that are done as part of National Garden Clubs have to be Standard Flower Shows. We have a very involved handbook," said Mary Ann Ferguson-Rich, flower show chairman and Ohio resident. (The Ohio Judges Council is sponsoring the show along with the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State and the NGC.)

There have to be two divisions -- "Design" and "Horticulture," she continued.

Horticulture is specimens of plants grown by the exhibitor.

"You will see horticulture here grown to a level of perfection. No bug holes, no damage," Ferguson-Rich said.

Just getting it here is a challenge, she added.

"Design is an artistic form of what we do these are by people who really feel a passion for design," Ferguson-Rich said.

These designers do not have to grow what they use in their designs but rather were able to preorder supplies locally.

Size of shows vary. "A small club can have a show, a district can have a show or a state can have a show. This is a national show and, as a matter of fact, our international affiliates are entering," said Ferguson-Rich, who estimated it has about 120 entries, which is considered a large number.

Awards are given out, based on a points system. Judges go through an extensive formal training program. "You move up in levels -- all the way up to master judge," she said.

Top winners awarded Wednesday night included the Design Excellence Award to Margaret McGoff of Michigan and the Arboreal Award to Rebecca Linney of Maine for her Spruce branch.

Bringing the convention here began more than five years ago.

"National Garden Clubs, Inc. asked if New York State would host the 2012 convention, and the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State took it under consideration and appointed three different board members from three different areas to look into it," said Huber, who was one of them.

Buffalo was selected. The hotel could accommodate all that needed to go on inside while the surroundings offered attractions and opportunities that appealed to the garden club community. This year's attendance exceeded that of last year in Washington, D.C.

In addition, Buffalo is a community that is easy to drive to from quite a few states, which contributes to the good turnout, planners said.

smartin@buffnews.com