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Great Gardening: A visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show

The 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show theme was “Holland: Flowering the World.” It was my favorite and one of the best ever according to many. Imagine walking among 30,000 tulips all in bloom, under a floating floral canopy, and passing a 30-foot windmill – with light show and music performed on the hour. My band of travelers had left a blizzard-riddled world the day before and suddenly it was spring.

In its 188th year, the Philadelphia Flower Show takes place on 10 acres in the Philadelphia Convention Center, making it the world’s largest indoor flower show as well as the nation’s oldest and longest running horticultural event. It begins every season with a bare convention center floor. Then during just two weeks some 3,000 people coordinate their movements to build the structures and create the beauty.

The funding comes from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), which has significant endowments, history and community support. Its mission is “greening and transforming communities and lives.”

Accordingly, all the show’s proceeds go back to the communities of Philadelphia, to produce city harvest gardens (feeding 1,200 families per week), tree plantings, community gardens, pocket parks and programs that improve the lives of school kids, prisoners, refugees, as well as denizens and visitors to the City of Brotherly Love.

Bicycles were a popular theme at the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show. (Photo by Rob Cardillo/Special to The News)

Holland is more than tulips

For most, an image of Holland begins with tulips – accurately so. The country produces 70 percent of the world’s flower bulbs (tulips, narcissus and more) but also has a powerful plant breeding and production industry. It’s even one of the world’s largest orchid producers.

But just as important as bulb and plant production is Holland’s commitment to sustainability. Booth after booth exhibited ways to recycle and repurpose products, save water, grow plants in tight spaces, and integrate plants into people’s lives. Such innovation is not only good for the planet – it’s an absolute necessity for a country where half the people live below sea level.

Acquiring the geodesic Eco Dome for this show was a coup for the PHS. The structure (36 feet high by 70 feet wide) was designed to show the ultimate in sustainable living concepts, surpassing all existing building codes. Features include walls and ceiling that capture maximum natural light, built-in water filtering for captured rainwater, recycled materials and a bee hotel.

This show is the traveling exhibit’s only North American appearance. Next stop: Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Eco Dome’s designer, Nico Wissing, also built another exhibit for the show, called “Reconnection.” He used moss, dried grasses, lamb’s ears, meadow flowers and silver foliage to create a textured, naturalistic landscape, and bent willow stems to form fencing and delineate garden rooms. Broken macadam and used gravel became art pieces or paths. An innovative gutter system directed rain water into downspouts and rain chains – all useful ideas intended for copying or adaptation for many kinds of living situations and structures.

In addition to the sustainability messaging and ideas, the show had plenty of whimsy. One “bulb” display mingled light bulbs with plant bulbs. Holland is also about bicycles – credited with the world’s first known bike sharing plan – and they were everywhere. We saw bridges, furniture, planters and sculptures made of bicycle parts, and bicycles of all colors and styles parked in most gardens and front door vignettes.

One stunning display used 250 all-white bicycles that were suspended and shaped into massive sculptures, the white representing the traditional color of the Dutch ruling family.

Dutch style
Visitors to the show – at least those who were fortunate enough to have a guided tour – left with an awareness of at least two interesting and important horticultural movements:

The Dutch Wave Movement, credited to plantsman Piet Oudolf, values natural-appearing landscape designs that incorporate indigenous plants.

As he did in the planning of New York City’s High Line garden, Oudolf’s Dutch Wave style uses massive, densely planted drifts and groupings of native perennials and grasses.

Plants are allowed to develop seed heads, and to wither and turn brown as part of the natural rhythms of nature. While Oudolf was not present in person, certainly his style and influences were well represented.

Carrie Preston, an American-turned-Dutch designer – showed another uniquely Dutch style called “Stinze.” It derives from estate gardens in northern Netherlands, where for multiple generations gardeners develop vast naturalized plant communities, incorporating layer after layer of bulbs in no-mow lawns.

Other natural-looking plants such as anemones, Virginia bluebells, ferns and river birches take part in the seasonal sequence of blooms and changing plant stages.

Stinze designs are not for the impatient, but even with limited setup time, Preston managed to create an exhibit that suggested the planting had been in place for decades. Her garden was surrounded by her signature fence – chain link in which a plastic lacework design is entwined, turning something utilitarian (some say ugly) into a thing of grace and whimsy.

2017 Philadelphia Flower Show. (Photo by Rob Cardillo/Special to The News).

Other highlights
Educational displays competed well for visitors’ attention. The EPA used real plants to show disappearing natural habitats: a coniferous bog, a forest edge, prairies and wetlands. Educators from the Temple University School of Environmental Design illustrated sustainability techniques for home landscapes.

Bartlett Tree experts posted “How to Kill a Tree,” hoping you won’t. We saw competing Ikebana, Bonsai, succulents and other breathtakingly perfect plant specimens. And during the show one of the newest tulips in the world was named: a wine-colored beauty called “Philly Belle.”

My fellow travelers and I weren’t alone in opining that this show was outstanding. It was recently named the best event in the world by the International Festival & Events Association (in which the likes of the Tournament of Roses and Kentucky Derby Festival compete.)

Happening now
This weekend’s Plantasia at the Fairgrounds Event Center and Artisan Hall in Hamburg is not the Philadelphia Flower Show. It’s still missing old wealth, the 180-year heritage and international designers.

But it’s our excellent landscape and garden show – only one in New York State – offering you all day classes, vendors, and landscape displays that will also help you believe that spring is near. I hope to see you there.

The show runs through March 26. Visit plantasiany.com for ticket and seminar information. Plantasia is presented by PLANT WNY – the Professional Landscape & Nursery Trades.

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