March 15, 2017

The Philadelphia Flower Show - Part 1: Design

A carpet of tulips set along a canal bridge bedecked with even more flowers welcomes attendees at the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show - a theme this year that celebrates Dutch culture.

Although I am no stranger to spring flower shows, it's been nearly a decade since I've taken the time to attend a major one. That said, the great Philadelphia Flower Show is one I have never attended so I was looking forward to being wowed, yet half expecting disappointment. It's safe to admit that I experienced a little of both, but don't get me wrong - any disappointment comes from being over-exposed to the flower show circuit and from being a bit of a plant geek - the 'wow' here certainly delivered a punch, even to me, the most jaded of plant folk. 

The these this year was Holland, and if you know anything about flowers, you know that the Netherlands is home to the world's largest flower market, and central hub of most every plant and cut flower sold on this planet, so one would expect a virtual explosion of flowers with this theme, which is exactly what the organizers got. This years' show was Disney meets The Netherlands meets a museum installation. Even if you don't like flowers (I saw a few husbands holding their wives handbags and flowers near the ladies room checking out the bicycles suspended from the ceiling), no one could get bored with this level of display.

No detail was overlooked by the talented show designers, even underneath the bridge elaborate Dutch tile work and floral design delighted most every smart phone user.

As I mentioned earlier, I am no stranger to this phenom called 'the spring flower show'. I attended my first as a little kid, and have fond memories of riding high on my dad's shoulders in the mid 1960's looking over a sea of tulips at our local spring show then sponsored by the Worcester County Horticultural Society at Horticultural Hall. Later, I remember the excitement and anticipation attending shows int he winter at around age 10 or so. Seeing glimpses of forced branches in the windows of Horticultural Hall as snowflakes fell, was a particular memory, as is the scent of daffodils and hyacinths indoors. IN fact, attending spring flower shows was probably the most influential event when I think about what got me first so excited about plants. So, hopefully, that still happens with young people who attend these shows.

Design is often best appreciated in the details. Under this reproduction of a canal bridge, which could have so easily been left unfinished, was a thoughtful installation of delft pottery tiles and a collage of plant material. As guest passed under the bridge, it became a favorite selfie spot.

The adult me views things with that burden which experience brings - a filter of unintentional yet innate cynicism earned through either over-exposure or just desensitization. Yet even though it's sometimes hard to reach the same level of excitement over forced tulips (I can fake it, but sometimes that is just sad), this show still excited me because design was of such a high quality. Some might say that there were too many bicycles and windmills, that the Dutch wooded shoe-thing was too cliche, but I am a sucker for cliche - at least when it's designed and presented so well.

When visitors emerge from under the canal bridge, they enter this space with colorful suspended dried flowers, all illuminated with color-change lights that wowed everyone, regardless of their age or interest in flowers. It's all about the experience, right?
Attending this show is like visiting Amsterdam as well as the flower fields of the Netherlands, but also it delivers a contemporary punch with installations and techno music - not unlike an evening in a hip museum opening or even a Dutch nightclub. I do think that something from the 'Red Light' district might have rounded things out, but no one here dared go there. Clearly, this was a family event, but I think one of the design themes for floral design might have been interesting with a more 'provocative' theme.

Another view of the color installation of dried plant material and color/illumination.

This years' theme for the show is 'Holland: Flowering the World', perhaps the most delightful of flower show themes to ever work with for designers, not only because of the euro-centric possibilities, but because of Hollands strong connection to the world of ornamental horticulture. Clearly, the designers here went wild with the theme, but don't worry, there are enough windmills, bikes and wooden shoes for everyone. I never thought about it, but if you think about it - the Dutch windmills were perhaps the first sustainable source of energy creation -how time cycles around, could have been an equally effective theme.

Another installation inspired by the White Bike Revolution or White Bicycle Plan in the 1960's - a radical revolution important in the contemporary narrative of Amsterdam. You can learn more about it here. Or here.http://dangerousminds.net/comments/the_white_bicycle_revolution All I know, is that this installation was beautiful with it's white painted bikes and flowers.

The bike motif was everywhere, but treated in clever and unique ways.

I appreciated the mix of contemporary art and installation along with the classic and old. If you've ever visited Amsterdam you can appreciate the old, but the rest of the Netherlands is so contemporary, the show here crafted a nice mix of the two.

I liked these Heineken bottles along with a photo backdrop of Amsterdam, and not just because it's my fav beer - (I do like my skunk beer in green bottles!), but the floral design and wood work was nice as well.
The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society puts on this show, which is the nations longest running horticultural event. It runs until March 19th at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

As in any flower show, there were modern arrangements, and classic ones. And then, some were just there to impress.

I appreciated the mass plantings. In the 1970's and 1980 when I would help install spring displays in high school and college, gradually greenhouse raised sod as a ground cover was replaced with Michigan Peat, because it was dark and brown. Eventually, the wood chip and shredded & dreaded bark mulch became omnipresent. Here, not even a whiff of bark mulch - in any display! Just massed bulbs because that's what we want to see in March when it is snowing. Abundant and ridiculously dense plantings of bulbs because -- we can do it when it's fake and someone else is paying for it!

Garden designer Carrie Preston's. a New Jersey born designer who moved to the Netherlands 18 years ago created a display entitled 'Stinz '. It stole the show for many of us with its natural planting scheme. Other leading Dutch designers were featured in the show as well including Bart Hoes, Nico Wissing, and Bart Bresser.

The inspiration this show provides to attendees is broad, with modern concepts presented such as Carrie Preston's 'Stinze' a naturalized planting which she explained as being inspired by the gardens that surround the more stately manor houses in the northern part of the Netherlands. Her design was a contemporary interpretation of these gardens, but I feel that most people just loved the natural style and look which some may have interpreted as 'wild'.

To the uninformed, this design felt realistic if not meadow-like. I knew from social media images that the entire project was only completed the night before, but even then, it was hard to imagine that every plant was just a day or two ago, in a plastic liner or pot. The magic of spring flower shows in capable hands, indeed!

The 'Stinze' display looked as if it was planted years ago by mother nature. So natural in fact that it was hard to believe that it was completed the evening before.

I loved these Fatshedra standards - an idea that I may steal for myself! 

I thought that this design using bicycle parts as a bridge railing was an innovative way to recycle, or 'up-cycle'? (sorry!).

In this spring show, don't expect the ordinary (nor bark mulch, forsythias or anything 'easy to force'. Instead expect unusual plantings that look natural, perennials and biennials that look as if they were plucked from a June garden, and leave with ideas, inspiration and some hope that spring isn't that far away.

In the next post I will share some images from the 'Horticulture' section of the show.


  1. From the pictures and description this show continues to be a great one! thanks for sharing this experience!

  2. Looks light years more inspired than the Boston Show. Pretty cool! I've heard of garden clubs decorating bicycles around a town, might try that around here. BTW, congrats on the new phase of your life. Getting laid off is unsettling and weird, it sure doesn't feel good even if it's expected. C'est la vie! I'm sure all sorts of neat opportunities will be coming your way! Good luck!

    1. Well Mary, the Boston or New England show's had their day (Stone Family Acacia's, Weston Nurseries and the great Alan Haskell designs come to mind), but maybe Mass Hort will get organized again and sponsor it? Who knows. I wonder though if the general public notices a difference from the 'lawn and garden' style shows we see today from the more horticulturally interesting ones from the past? They may be gone forever.

  3. Thanks for your observations; I'm looking to part two, especially since I've never been to the Philly show. I particularly am looking forward to more about the horticultural displays of Carrie's garden and the one pictured above with the Rhus in it.

    I winced, however, as I saw the white bicycles used in the displays. They mean something quite different here - they are called "Ghost Bikes" in Seattle, and signify when a bicycle-related death has occurred on that spot. Sad. - http://mashable.com/2015/04/20/ghost-bikes/

  4. Did Stinze create the same controversy as the "trout stream" at the Chelsea Flower show a couple of years ago? (Speaking of Chelsea, now with time on your hands, is that the next excursion?)

    It was neat hearing about some of the displays from the podcast "You bet your garden" with the show director, and I can now see them in your blog:

    Thanks for posting. I too hope one day to make to the Philly flower show, and I'm only 3 hours away...

    1. I dont know Linus, if it caused the same controversy, but I think we could assume that some people felt that it was weedy if they came expecting rows of tulips. I can imagine the lawn enthusiast freaking out (the sort who react when clover or a dandelion blooms in their lawn!) but the crowds seemed to enjoy its beauty.

  5. Anonymous6:21 AM

    Will You go to the Chelsea Flower Show or perhaps to the Hampton Court Flower Show this year? I mean, this year you have plenty of time!

    Greetings from Hamburg

    1. Ha. I do dream of it, and actually, I could. I've been to Chelsea once before, and dream of going again.

  6. There were some real beauties there, attending a major flower show gives you so many great ideas.

    1. Thanks Chris, I agree - even though most flower shows can seem ordinary even to accomplished plant enthusiasts, one always leaves with something inspiring.

  7. Thanks for sharing your shots (and thoughts). One of these years I have got to get to this show. My local show in Hartford, CT seems to get more underwhelming every year.


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