March 23, 2012

The Brief Life But Enduring Legacy of a Flower Show Garden

It is not part of my formal curriculum vitae but, for the past three years, I have been chairman of Blooms! at the Boston Flower & Garden Show.  The word ‘chairman’ implies some honorific: it sounds as if I wrote a large check and an organization – in this case, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society – gave me a title with no responsibilities other than to write another, presumably larger, check at some point in the future.

That is not the case.  I became chairman because someone needed to organize Mass Hort’s multiple efforts at the show which came into being after the demise of the much beloved but startlingly unprofitable New England Spring Flower Show.  A for-profit trade show group created the Boston Flower & Garden Show; Mass Hort was retained to produce the ‘amateur horticulture’ elements of the show.  I took on the task of running ‘Blooms!’ (the collective name for those elements) when it became apparent no one else wanted, much less would accept, the job (not the least because the sum total of the remuneration for a thousand hours of work is reimbursement for parking while at the show).

Saturday morning at 8 a.m.  There's
nothing but a cavernous hall and
a show-polish line (double-click on
any photo to see it full-screen size)
At the 2012 Boston Flower & Garden Show, Blooms! comprised two divisions of floral design competition (114 designs over two entry days), a large Ikebana display (28 displays over two entry days), a photography competition (36 exquisite entries from around the country), miniature gardens (a fascinating and highly specialized corner of horticulture), a book store, 400+ individual entries of amateur horticulture and nine group collections arrayed in structures. It also encompassed a display garden, and it is that garden about which I write today.

When you or I create a garden for our home, we may sketch it out on paper, walk our property and consider the views, and then visit nurseries and garden centers to find the trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals that will form the garden.  We will add benches, planters and other hardscape elements; changing things as we go until we are satisfied with the result.  And, if we are not pleased, we dig out the trees and re-arrange them until we get it right.

The wrought iron fence starts
to take shape
A garden at a flower show incorporates almost none of these conventional elements.  Instead, it is gardening as theater; except that, because the garden would bear Mass Hort’s name, it was also gardening as education.  Not even the size of the garden was fixed: as exhibitors were added and dropped out, Mass Hort’s allotted garden space grew from less than 400 square feet to eventually encompass nearly 1200 square feet of floor space.

The key differences between that garden in your side yard and one on the floor of a flower show are these:  first, the flower show garden must be built from scratch in three days, exist for five, and then be torn down in one.  And, second, the garden must be in full, glorious bloom for those five days.

The first segments of the townhouse
are raised onto the concrete wall
These were the parameters and obstacles that I faced when planning began for Mass Hort’s garden.  In turn, I had four secret weapons in my arsenal.  One was Paul Miskovsky, a Cape Cod landscaper who is a veteran of dozens of flower shows.  The second was my wife, Betty, who knows floral design had created gardens for five previous flower shows.  The third was Clark Bryan, Mass Hort’s Director of Operations, whose unique combination of organizational skills and mechanical competence is unparalleled.  The fourth is the Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, a group of people for whom horticulture is a passion and who collectively possess the skills to build anything from a garden shed to, probably, an aircraft carrier.

Behind the townhouse, a mass of
stabilizers kept it in place
I should also mention at this point that a flower show garden is a horrendously expensive undertaking.  A thousand-square-foot exhibit can cost between $50,000 and $75,000 in labor and materials.  My budget for the garden was $6,000 (unless I wanted to give up my parking stipend, in which case the budget could be expanded to about $6,084).  In other words, creating this garden would involve a lot of begging.

Every flower show has a theme and the one for the 2012 Boston Flower & Garden Show was ‘First Impressions’.  I knew that I wanted a house as the backdrop for the exhibit, and I described the quest to build that backdrop back in January (see, ‘Would You Like a Townhouse to Go with that Garden?’).  Assembling the plant material was touch and go:  Paul Miskovsky agreed to supply most of the ‘big’ items – the trees and shrubs, especially.  Betty and some of her more larcenous Master Gardener buddies prowled New England Grows and came away with hundreds of smaller shrubs, perennials and annuals.  Various growers with a soft spot for Mass Hort offered flats of plants.

A small portion of the plants planned
for use in the exhibit
Why so much?  Because the rule of thumb is to start with three times the plant material you think you’ll need.  Come show time, one-third won’t be blooming (or be past bloom) and another third won’t look right in the exhibit.

At 8 a.m. on Saturday, March 10, Betty, Clark and I assembled at the Seaport World Trade Center.  We found a cavernous, empty hall.  On the floor, Paragon’s Show Director, Carolyn Weston, has put down the ‘shoe polish line’ (double-click on the top photo to see the shoe-polish line); white marks indicating the corners of our exhibit.  The rest was up to us, and luck.

Clark Bryan, at left
This would be a good time to say a little more about Clark Bryan.  His role as ‘Director of Operations’ at Mass Hort is something of a misnomer.  ‘Chief Magician’ would be a more appropriate title.  His job for the past four years has been to make things happen without the use of actual money.  If I said I needed that aircraft carrier mentioned a few paragraphs above, three things would happen: first, he would roar that what I wanted was impossible, and he would stomp off in a huff.  Second, he would re-appear, three days later, with a thick binder containing plans for an aircraft carrier and little slips of paper indicating favors owed to him for things done decades ago.  And, two weeks later, I would come to Mass Hort and find a working, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier outside his office, which he would say he whipped up at home over the weekend.  He is the ultimate can-do guy.

At 8:20 a.m., trucks began rolling into the hall.  Out came the segments of the townhouse, ready to be assembled like a Tinkertoy set; a pre-built, ready-to-screw-together kickboard; a hundred concrete blocks and 200 bricks; 40 feet of antique, wrought-iron fence; and enough braces, clamps, screws, and ancillary tools to stock the grand opening of a Home Depot.  By 8:30, a cadre of volunteers working under Clark’s direction was building the two-foot-high concrete block wall on which the townhouse would rest.

The kickboard was a giant jigsaw
puzzle, ready to be bolted together
We worked steadily though the day.  Ten hours later, the kickboard was in place and the town house rose a majestic 16 feet from the floor of the convention hall.

Sunday morning brought the plants.  A truck from Olsen’s Greenhouse, to which we had paid $1,000 of our precious budget for nearly 200 pots of perfectly color-coordinated tulips and daffodils, was already parked outside.  An hour later, the first of three trucks bearing plants, trees and shrubs appeared.  Two days earlier, Betty and two fellow Master Gardeners had gone through two Mass Hort greenhouses, marking plants that looked like they would be at the right state of bloom for the show.  Now, she unloaded them, segregating plants into ‘front and center’ perfection and ‘background’. 

Monday afternoon, 20 Master
Gardeners worked to complete
the display's vegetable garden
Paul Miskovsky’s trucks arrived, bearing both good and bad news.  Twenty ‘Light-O-Day’ hydrangeas had been tinged with frost while loading them.  They would be unusable for the show.  Fortunately, Paul packed along lots of extra plants - that "three times what you need" rule at work.

Now began the actual design of the garden.  We knew we wanted a few set pieces – an enormous Heptadcodium miconiodes (Seven Son tree), a Picea orientalis ‘Horstmann’s Gen’, and a Picea omorika ‘Pendula’ (weeping Siberian spruce) – and knew approximately where they would go.  But everything else was done on the fly, with 45 cubic yards of mulch arriving a scoop at a time.  Betty and Paul would review the available plant material and then argue over what ought to go where.  It was a case of two people with very different design aesthetics working in the same small space.  Paul is more of a showman with a flamboyant style that wins awards and the praise of big-budget clients.  Betty is more attuned to the interweaving of color and texture and creating spaces for real-world budgets.  At various times, each one retreated to fume at the other’s intransigence. It was Betty’s garden but Paul deserved a say.  In the end, they collaborated with delightful results.

The Townhouse Garden.  Double-click for a full-screen view
At the end of another ten-hour day, the town house garden was largely in place.

The townhouse garden, though, was only one-third of the exhibit. Next to it was a backyard vegetable garden.  Work began on it in earnest on Monday morning as twenty volunteers planted, pulled out, and re-planted displays of exotic vegetables that can be grown in New England.  And, on the right, the ‘secret space’ began to take shape.  The Mass Hort garden is about education but it is also, ultimately, a tool for attracting members.  One way to get those members is to invite them to have their picture taken.

Paul Cook, Master
Gardener, an incredibly
competent carpenter, was
indispensible to creating
the exhibit
For two years, I brought in an enormous chair that normally resides in a children’s garden at Mass Hort’s Elm Bank headquarters.  Wanting not to get stale, I asked for something different for 2012.  Clark knew a guy who was closing his flower shop in Allston and, in December, Mass Hort became the proud owner of a beautiful arched trellis.  Betty saw the arch and decreed that she knew just the bench to sit under it – the one in our side yard.  Add all those tulips and daffodils plus a bank of Rhododendron ‘Dora Amateis’ in full white bloom, and you have a magnet for people with cameras and cell phones.  While a volunteer snapped photos, a membership specialist gave the ‘elevator pitch’ to become a Mass Hort member.  It worked.
People lined up all day to have their
photo taken in the 'secret garden';
many became Mass Hort members

That last piece of the display garden – the Secret Corner – was completed around 11 a.m. on Tuesday. 

The result was, by all accounts, a fantastic garden and one that was useful to someone looking for ideas. (By contrast, the vignette next to Mass Hort’s garden was a relaxing space atop a ten-foot-high  ‘hill’ with a waterfall.  It was both a crowd- and a judge-pleaser, but it unlikely that anyone took it for anything other than entertainment.)  We attracted tens of thousands of show-goers who lingered and asked questions.  It was, in short, a class act.

A final look at Betty's miraculous
The Boston Flower & Garden Show closed Sunday at 6 p.m.  We put tape around the exhibit (to keep out ‘light fingers’ and disassembled it on Monday, starting at 8 a.m. and concluding by mid-afternoon.  When it was all over, there was nothing but a pile of mulch.  Tuesday morning, another shoe-polish line went down for the next show.

A garden for education
But the exhibit left behind memories and ideas.  It inspired, it taught.  More than 50 volunteers worked on it at one point and twice that number were involved all together.  Like good theater, it was hard work.  Like great education, it was worthwhile.

I have hung up my ‘Chairman’ badge for the year and, indeed, for the last time.  Three years is enough.  But this particular garden, which lasted just five days, will endure in my mind for a lifetime.