Guest post from Ginny Stibolt

A recent NY Times article reported on how public gardens are expanding their offerings and canceling their traditional flower events. I’d like to offer additional ideas for organizing events that can attract a large numbers of gardeners. My observations are based on my participation in 11 garden fests and other garden-oriented or environmental get-togethers this past year here in Florida. Some took place in public gardens, but others took over downtown streets or city parks. They drew from several hundred to more than 20,000 attendees.

There are plenty of ideas that could be applied anywhere.

Some general organization ideas:
· Events organized by multiple regional organizations— garden clubs, master gardeners, and agriculture agents—seemed to gain more attention and
satisfy a larger audience. Also, events run with the participation of the city or town and local businesses seemed to have more to offer.
· Two-day events drew more interest. This means that there is more time to have a variety of speakers and to have more sub-events within
the festival.
· Making it easy for people to buy plants and get them to their cars is important. Some of these events had youth group members towing wagons or garden carts around the grounds.

Some of the best ideas to make the event work better or garner more interest:
· As a fundraiser, the scarecrow contest at Fairchild Tropical Gardens was fun. Organizations, adults, or children paid a fee to enter their scarecrows into the competition. Then the attendees paid a dollar to vote for their favorite. The money raised last year was used to buy fish for their lakes to attract more water birds (I love the irony). 
· Many festivals had entertainment including musical groups, story telling, and strolling entertainers; others went further and created scavenger hunts and other educational activities. One thing to avoid is loud sound systems.
· Scheduled guided walks through the gardens, along trails worked well at appropriate venues.
· Attendees seemed to pay closer attention to all the booths (commercial, non-profit, and informational) when they were all mixed together
rather than segregated by category.
· Good ideas for service booths include tool sharpening, plant diagnostics, and plant IDs. At some festivals there were scheduled presentations at “Ask the Expert” booths; in others it was freeform.
· Expert speakers often draw a lot of attendees. Unless it’s a really large event, it’s probably a good idea not to have too many speakers at the same time.
· Food vendors should offer a wide variety of foods and prices.
· Themed events work best if totally unrelated vendors are not allowed. If it’s a flower festival, having teens shoot baskets to raise money for Haiti or private school recruiting booths might be too far off topic.
· At the St. Petersburg festival, the city offered 500 free butterfly plants each day, which were gone in half an hour, and 2000 native trees for $3 each.
· A number of events had birds and animals to see up close. Some also had butterfly experience tents and/or releases. At the Jacksonville Arboretum, a gopher tortoise made an appearance behind my booth.
· A wide variety of plant vendors with plants from seedlings to well-established seemed to offer the right mix, but fests need to screen for invasive exotics.

In sum, Garden Fests are fun! If you have a great idea that your local event has implemented, leave a comment. Maybe those public gardens
will be able to add more gardening-oriented events back into their mix.

I’ve also created an online garden fest photo album with more details on the various festivals.