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“Best Philadelphia Flower Show Ever”

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Competition co-chairs Alice Bucher and Don Slater at the big show.

With the theme of Articulture – the interpretation of art through horticulture – this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show (the oldest continuing and largest indoor flower show in the world) is being raved about.  One rave by Susan Cohan caught my attention because she’s no pushover.  But the “best ever” title was given to this year’s show by none other than my pal Don Slater, who’s worked on the show for about 50 years, and now co-chairs the competitions there, both horticultural and design.

Fifty years? But he’s barely older than that!  Yep, his parents were Flower Show people, active in Philly’s chapter of NARGS, so as a kid Don was enlisted to haul plants and help out however he could.   His mother later rose to the position of Nomenclature Chair of the show, which means she was responsible for the accuracy of all the plant names. Can you imagine doing that computer-less, back in the day?

Despite now living in the DC area, Don returns yearly to use a couple of weeks of vacation days to work really hard, donating his hotel and meal expenses to the cause.  And a cause it is – net proceeds of the show create gardens and greening all over the city, and the city of Philadelphia benefits to the tune of an estimated $3 billion yearly from the show.

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I was lucky to have Don guide me through the highlights of the show, so I’ll show you his favorite parts, starting the art theme itself, proclaimed in the entrance to the show by the Calder-inspired floral work above.  And yes, everything you see is a plant part – just like in the Rose Bowl Parade.

After the show’s 2014 theme was selected, museums all over the world were contacted, and very cool partnerships between plant people and art resulted.

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For example, Don’s favorite display was inspired by this painting by Albert Diato that hangs in Prince Albert’s Palace in Monaco.  The garden designers, who live in Southern France, are Chelsea award-winners.

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Here’s the result – a meadow of dry grasses, all rooted.  In the background is a structure made of Afghan building materials, reflecting the painter’s connections with that country.  And honestly, before seeing this again with Don my reaction was, “They’ve got dead grasses on display.  That’s weird.”  Yeah, I’m a deep thinker.  (Note to self:  Read the damn signs.)

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Above is a tiny part of the garden created in conjunction with the Brandywine River Museum, which apparently won a big honking trophy for it.  The painting by Wyeth is the real one from the museum.

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Above and below are two of the paintings that were selected by show organizers to have interpreted by design students using flowers, with the results.

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Don is particularly impressed with this interpretation of a portrait – not an easy task.

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Above, the “Through the Frame” exhibit was inspired by the paintings of Kandinsky,  particularly the ones hanging in the Guggenheim, which partnered with a nursery to create this exhibit.  The frames are several feet in front of the displays, so visitors can view them through the frames, or not.

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New this year is the design competition for vertical gardens, of which this is Don’s favorite.  The designer tossed frames around on the ground and when he found a configuration he liked, copied it in plants.  A clever feature not shown is the way that the required plant tags are displayed – not on the vertical element itself but in pots placed in front of the panel, a feature sure to be copied by other competitors next year.

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Another category of floral displays inspired by paintings are the arrangements in containers.   This one uses a yard-sale container, and palm fronts actually used in last year’s show.

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Subaru is the biggest corporate sponsor of the show, and manages to display their logo beautifully.

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Among classes in the design competitions, floral hats were new last year and proved so popular, they’re back.  They replaced the front porch competition.

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The window displays are popular, too.

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Finally, an interpretation of two very famous photos hints at the theme of next year’s show, which was just announced yesterday.  It’s Horticulture and Movies! After years of using places as the show theme (lately, Italy, Britain and Hawaii), the organizers’ recent turn toward the arts is proving to be a great idea, one that fosters even more creativity.

So I’ll be back.  In fact, I may take Don up on his suggestion that I stay overnight and meet him the next morning at 6 a.m. for a tour with no one around but a few contestants sprucing up their entries.

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Thankfully, this year I saw almost none of what I like least about flower shows – masses of flowers forced to bloom and, in the case of hyacinths, overwhelm the olfactories.

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In the convention center hallway I got to meet one of my favorite sculptors – Steve Tobin, whose work I first discovered at Fordhook.

Thanks to my tour guide, I learned lots more about the show, enough for a second blog post next week, along with more photos.

Posted by on March 7, 2014 at 10:15 am, in the category What's Happening.
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9 Responses to ““Best Philadelphia Flower Show Ever””

  1. Susan Cohan says:

    Thanks for the shout out Susan! I love the Philly flower show for many reasons, not the least of which is its mostly un-tethered notion of reality. Theatrics with plants is a good thing IMO. It’s a flower show–not a landscaping show and the displays don’t need to be real. It’s the first week in March every year and no matter what the winter has been like, it’s my first rite of Spring.

  2. gemma says:

    I love this phrase: “its mostly un-tethered notion of reality.” I did the flower arrangement inspired by a work of art thing in a class, I’ve read about the annual show one of the San Francisco museums does (Bouquets to Art), and it’d be fun to see a whole show using that theme.

  3. Don Slater is a treasure that I hope PHS truly appreciates! I was very happy with most of the art choices this year and that it skewed modern and sculptural. I had been afraid it would be awash in pastel impressionists when they first announced the theme last year. Can’t wait for the films + gardening theme — my two big loves!

  4. Susan says:

    I’m a traditionalist, so I wasn’t overly impressed by the photos I’ve seen of this year’s show. I’m also a floral designer, and I’ve never cared for creative design or modern art. Last year’s show pleased me far more since the emphasis was on traditional design. I do, however, love that they went for an “Art in Bloom” vibe. Our art museum here used to do an Art in Bloom show every year, and that really got my creative juices flowing. Unfortunately, they stopped doing it nearly 20 years ago and have never reinstated it. I was supposed to have gone to Philly for the show this year, but was unable to, so hopefully next year I’ll get back there – and hopefully it will be worth the trip.

  5. Lena says:

    I am on my way there right now, and I am so glad you liked it! The last couple of years some of the exhibits have been a bit disappointing, so I am looking forward to something different and better.

    • Lena says:

      Yes, you were so right Susan. It was a great show! And I am so glad that the best in show went to a natural-looking northeastern wild habitat, a forest edge in spring time (indeed with weeds and invasive species too!). The vertical gardens by Temple University’s landscape department were great, as was the Delaware Valley’s student exhibit. But were were the seed companies? I only saw one vendor, the classic Landreth.

  6. Kim Smith says:

    I haven’t travelled to the show, but I love the photos of the vertical gardens. I plan on constructing one myself this spring. And those head vases! Fascinating! I must try that also.

  7. Michelle Elwell says:

    Hmm, I do believe the Kandinsky exhibit was the work of Bill Schaffer and Kristine Kratt of Schaffer Designs…as well as a force of volunteer floral designers from across the country.

  8. nwphillygardener says:

    One of the most fascinating features of the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show doesn’t get much media attention, but the public seems to really enjoy: the Horticourt……where individuals enter their potted plants in a myriad of categories in hopes of winning prize ribbons. Remarkably well grown specimen plants arrive….with 3 different judging sessions through the 9 days of the show……from begonias, gesneriads, & orchids, to topiary standards and troughs. This show within the [greater theatrical] show really puts Horticultural passion front and center.

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