A GREAT IDEA!
The Northwest Flower & Garden Show
By Marty Wingate
Even during the darkest season in the Pacific Northwest, gardeners have cause to rejoice, because each February, it’s time for the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. This event has become so much a part of our gardening lives that it is difficult to remember when it didn’t exist, but it began only 20 years ago when its founder, Duane Kelly, had a great idea. Duane and Alice Kelly visited the Philadelphia and New England flower shows in 1987. Back in their hotel room, Duane told Alice that he thought they could put on a flower show in Seattle.
It is a tribute to their relationship that Alice didn’t disagree. Duane was a businessman and had started other successful ventures; she knew that his great idea wasn’t just a fanciful dream, but a notion that could become reality. With models such as the shows in Philadelphia and New England (with a combined history of almost 300 years) and the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show (which is more than 140 years old), the Northwest Flower & Garden Show debuted in 1989 and quickly became one of the premier gardening events in the country—two countries, if you, rightly, include Canada. Now, it’s a tradition; then, it was a new, exciting and risky enterprise set in Seattle’s newest venue for events: the Washington State Convention & Trade Center.
A Different Sort of Show
From the beginning, the Northwest show was different. We may not have 150 years of gardening behind us, but in 1989 the Northwest was a hotbed of horticulture (as it still is), and an exciting combination of inspiration, education and opportunity was all that was needed to make the show a hit.
Each element of the show—gardens, seminars and commercial booths—continues to draw visitors into an atmosphere where the dark winter is forgotten. The gardens—more than 20 of them each year—greet people first. They showcase plants and gardening styles, both fanciful and fabulous.
Each garden has its own set of designers and creators, and it was clear in the show’s very first year that a whole convention center full of such talented people would need some coordinating. It’s the most fun job I ever had,” says Mary Booth, who served as garden coordinator for six years. Booth, a landscape architect who helped create the Arboretum Foundation’s display garden the first year of the show, moved to Hansville with her husband and decided that she wanted to stay connected to the flower show, so she volunteered her services to Duane Kelly. “He came back to me a couple of weeks later,” she recounts, “and said, ‘How about being in charge of the garden creators?’” It wasn’t a technical position, but rather one of keeping tabs on designs, designers and how the gardens all went together.
With Different Sorts of Stories
Sounds easy enough, but snags—later referred to as “great stories”—invariably occurred. Such was the year when a creator, whose garden was slated for a large, prominent location, dropped out only a few weeks before the show. “Duane asked me if I would put something together. He got Architectural Glass to put up a greenhouse and a contractor to install pavers. Then Wells Medina Nursery said we could borrow anything we wanted.” The garden came together at the last minute with a great deal of help from many people, including Booth’s 80-year-old mother, who was up ‘til late at night putting in plants with everyone else.
Often, it isn’t just placing the last plant that is the problem. Once, the challenge was chasing down a pair of white peacocks that got loose in the gardens just before the Arboretum Foundation’s preview party began. Then there was the time that the huge waterfall in one of the gardens leaked, and Kelly got a call in the middle of the night saying that the Convention Center parking garage was flooding.
It’s no wonder a glitch or two occurs, as the garden creators have only three-and-a-half days to move into position mountains of compost, sawdust and large rocks, in addition to plants and hardscape. By noon on Tuesday, everyone must be off the floor so that judging can begin. This is the moment when Kelly strongly recommends that the garden creators take the afternoon off—take a nap, take a shower, get ready for the preview party. There’s nothing else they can do.
Judging causes anxiety, delight and, occasionally, puzzlement. The main awards are presented by three judges and—beginning with the 2000 show—are based on the Royal Horticultural Society’s method of judging, in which a garden is judged against its own written intent rather than against other gardens. On Tuesday afternoon, with the floor quiet and everything finished, Alice Kelly accompanies the main judges on their journey through the gardens as they award gold, silver, bronze or crystal medals.
Usually, the judges are well known to gardeners who read U.S. and international magazines and books, and often they are the subjects of a few good stories themselves. Such was the case when Helen Dillon, Irish garden designer and author, judged in 1998 and ran up against an irate designer who didn’t agree with the final outcome of the awards. Instead of taking Duane Kelly’s advice about resting, this designer spent the afternoon drinking. When he learned of the judges’ decision—a decision he didn’t agree with—he took his alcoholic anger out on Dillon, which was a misguided decision, to say the least. Normally a gracious person—“She has a feisty Irish streak,” Kelly says—she told the garden creator to shut up, which he did. He later wrote her an apology.
Important Principles of Judging
Not all judging prompts such emotional encounters, but all judging does encourage good display design, which includes the idea that there should be no shortcuts in elements that are integral to a garden—a principle that was demonstrated by the late Rosemary Verey, who first judged in 1990. When Kelly invited her to judge, his preconceived idea of Verey as a pretentious British garden writer thoroughly burst. On their rounds, the judges came upon a garden with a worm bin. “Rosemary said if it wasn’t real, they should be marked down,” Kelly remembers. So what else was there to do? Verey walked over, lifted the lid, stuck her arm into the earthy-smelling matter and drew up a handful of compost and worms. “This garden,” she said, “deserves high marks.” High marks were always given to Rosemary Verey as a judge; as with other European judges, the appeal of international involvement gives the show increased prestige. Often, one judge generously suggests other potential judges, such as two of the judges for the upcoming show: 1997 judge Nigel Colburn recommended Sibylle Kreutzberger and Pamela Schwerdt, longtime gardeners at Sissinghurst Castle. “It’s a small world,” Kelly says, “and you end up knowing everyone.”
An Extraordinary Seminar Series
Judges not only decide awards, they participate in the seminar series, another vital component of the show. “When I started,” Kelly says, “I saw the show as a three-legged stool: the gardens, the seminars and the booths.” The Northwest show far exceeds the educational opportunities at other shows, and Kelly is rightfully proud of the seminars. “Here’s something I can brag about—at the time, the Philadelphia show had about five seminars.”
A daily program of free lectures, staged in two or three rooms, is able to cater to everyone’s gardening interest, whether that might be designing full-blown English perennial borders, growing apples or composting. Dave Stockdale ran the seminar series from 1990-1999, after its inauguration by John Wott, and believes that the seminars offer the complementary “how” to the show gardens’ “wow.” The creation of the show gardens requires quick work and fast thinking, but the seminars demand the same pace for each lecture, in each room, every day of the show. Anything might go awry—it could be temperamental technical equipment, a line that clogs the hallway or a blown bulb in the slide projector.
Over the years, many Northwest writers and garden experts have come into their own as speakers in the seminar series, and not all were as popular at the beginning as they are today. Dan Hinkley has spoken at the show every year, but he still remembers the first year well, when he had five people in the audience—and one of them was his professor from the University of Washington. It’s true that the seminars often give show attendees a break from viewing the gardens and shopping. The commercial booths offer a tantalizing array of cutting edge plants, great tools, and almost anything you could want to decorate a garden. But even if the only physical things visitors walk out with are seed packets or a new pair of gloves, their heads and hearts are full of ideas about gardening in the Northwest.
The Bigger Picture
“This show is a reflection of the whole garden community,” Kelly says, and examples of that gardening breadth abound. Every year, Don Marshall, who heads the environmental horticulture program at Lake Washington Technical College, arranges for his students to help build gardens and work in commercial booths. So many of his students have remained in the industry that, now, each show seems like one large class reunion.
It’s also a reflection of a family business. Alice and Duane Kelly have spent the last 20 years planning and then putting on the show. Many of those years, Celice Eldred, Alice’s daughter (Duane’s stepdaughter), worked the show in a variety of positions, including booking and coordinating the commercial booths. And Cyle Eldred, Alice’s son (Duane’s stepson) has now joined the staff, full time, as show designer, after years of working short-term jobs during the show.
“If I was brilliant—or lucky—at anything, it was catching a wave at the right time,” Kelly says. But after peak attendance in 2000, the huge swell of baby boomers had finished creating their gardens, and attendance slacked off. This lag in gardening frenzy has been felt not just by special events, but also by garden-book publishers, growers and nurseries. “We’ve had to adjust to market realities,” Kelly says, “just as everyone else has, and we’re learning how to attract younger people to gardening. A cornerstone of this adaptation is a recently completed overhaul of the show’s Web site, www.gardenshow.com.”
New show elements include offering seminars that focus on a wider range of gardening skills, as well as seminars designed for beginning gardeners, new families, and condo and apartment dwellers. The goal: to make gardening more accessible to more people. But some constants are welcome. The Arboretum Foundation’s Preview Party has been held every year, the night before the show opens, and this fundraiser gives the gardening community not just the perfect chance to admire the gardens early, without crowds, but also offers gardening enthusiasts a great opportunity to see and to be seen.
Update: In 2009 Portland-based O’Loughlin Trade Shows, a 4th generation family-owned business, was proud to acquire the nation’s second largest garden show and continue its high quality and world-class reputation. They hope to continue the make history with this spectacular event.
Marty Wingate is one of the leading garden writers in the Pacific Northwest. She also knows the Northwest Flower & Garden Show inside and out: in years past she worked in the seminar rooms and as ticket manager; in recent years, she has been a speaker. Her book on the Bellevue Botanical Garden will be published in June 2007. This article first appeared in the Winter 2007 edition of The Arboretum Bulletin, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Ms. Wingate.