Share this article

print logo

Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

My crystal ball shows me a vision: You will be seeing flowers and green leaves this weekend at Plantasia in Hamburg. Or perhaps my vision is cloudy: It’s really you at the Philadelphia Flower Show. For sure you are among flowers, and you have question marks dangling over your heads. What are these plants? Where did they come from? Can my yard look like that?

New flower-show peepers – or even veterans – are often confused by the illusions such shows present.

Illusion: Bulbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees all blooming together. I have even overheard comments like “Oooh! Purple hyacinths with ‘Fairy’ roses! Or, “Love those blue hydrangeas with the forsythia!”

Reality: Almost all the plants you see have been “forced” – a technical term that means they were fooled into flowering ahead of their real-time performance in the garden. Exhibitors put the forced plants together to make a good display, but to simulate that look you will have to choose plants with similar characteristics that really do leaf out or flower at the same time. Note the feeling, style and impression of plant combinations that you see, but don’t expect the literal plant choices to work exactly that way. Informed nursery and garden center folks – find a Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional (CNLP) – can tell you what really blooms when.

Illusion: These are the top new plant introductions or cultivars; the landscaper hand-picked his/her favorites.

Reality: Not necessarily. The landscapers setting up exhibits have to work with what they can get. A few firms grow and “winter over” some stock and have facilities where they can force some special plant specimens, and some choose specific bulbs and annuals to represent their styles and themes.

But most select and purchase from a pre-ordered list of plants acquired by the Plant WNY association, which presents the show. The show committee gets the broadest plant list and most dependable performers they can, but it’s far from what will actually be available from landscapers and retailers this season. Do note plant types you like, but don’t fixate too specifically on all the cultivar names. Trust that WNY businesses are growing or buying a much wider range of plants very carefully (and competitively) selected.

But why wouldn’t Plant WNY get every new and best plant introduction for this show?

Many months ago I was seeking plant donations from wholesale growers in Ohio for several projects, and they told me this: “It’s hardly worth it to send our best introductions out to the flower shows. For one thing, not every plant forces equally well. More important: Why send out our prized introductions to sit in shows in impossibly dry, dark conditions – often not watered well – where they might make a bad impression? We’d rather get the samples out with our reps giving talks at the shows, see them presented in your retailer locations!” Made sense to me. Any show is a tough place to be a plant – even though our people are caring.

Illusion: My patio or front yard can look like this!

Reality: Well … yes but no. Actually, sort of. Proportions and size cannot be realistic. Trees, shrubs and perennials require certain square footage per plant to grow well, and here they are packed together. Plants aren’t generally grouped together for their real site needs (wet/dry soil, acidity, sun/shade). The booth or exhibit spaces are only so big.

As for the hardscape – where many landscapers are showing their styles and skills – the paths and walls are generally narrower or shorter than recommended. The water gardens and fountains are much smaller than a real yard deserves. The pergolas and gazebos aren’t always to scale. The point is to look at the materials and styling, what the landscapers and nursery folks want to show you that they can do. The displays can hint at what each business owner offers and is proud of.

The plants you will see:

You’ll see a variety of plants, well labeled, in the retail booth and sales areas, including local greenhouse-grown and forced primroses, spring bulb baskets, hellebores, many kinds of geraniums and whichever unusual plants these businesses choose to represent themselves. Some landscapers will show witch hazels – actually blooming outside about now – and true spring flowering woody plants: Amelanchier (Serviceberry), Forsythia, Cornus mas (Cornelian dogwood), crabapples, rhododendrons, azaleas, lilacs and many kinds of viburnums. Trees with beautiful bark – River birch, Acer griseum (paperbark maple) – and unusual conifers are predictable elements. Write down species names and talk with the professionals.

The plants that were ordered for exhibitors to divvy up include a limited number of perennials – remember the forcing difficulties – including Astilbe, Helleborus, Heuchera, some great daisies (Leucanthemum ‘Banana Cream’) and the exceptional grass, Carex ‘Evergold.’ Besides the shrubs mentioned already, you’ll see Diervilla ‘Cool Splash,’ the Ninebark ‘Summer Wine’ and Weigela ‘Rainbow Sensation.’

The annuals you see were grown at McKinley High School by our future green industry employees in training. (Niagara County Community College students will also provide an educational display.) The annuals will surround the landscape displays, especially coleus (hundreds of choices for shade or sun), begonias, dianthus, gazania, impatiens, marigolds, pansies, petunias and salvias. Don’t take the selection or placement too literally – ask your favorite grower or garden center for recommendations – but do notice how annuals fill a landscape with color.

Not just about flowers:

Sometimes I hear critics say, “It’s no Philadelphia Flower Show.” No, it’s not. That century-old classic has the wealthy, long-established Pennsylvania Horticultural Society behind it, with deep pockets, millions of visitors and steep admission. Ours is produced by volunteers of PLANT WNY (PLANT being the acronym for Professional Landscape and Nursery Trades), and it’s still a young show. Ours is the only industry show presented in upstate New York – others having worn out or burned out their committees or volunteers or faced venue problems. The focus is home landscapes and gardens, not all about the flowers. But we smell and feel spring when we go. We learn. We shop. We imagine our yards. Don’t miss it, but do be realistic about what you are seeing.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.