Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Guest Rants

Someone, Please, Turn Up the Lights

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Every year, I go to my local flower and garden show and contort my body into weird yoga poses that don’t exist. Why? Well, it’s not because I’m stretching (which would probably be good for my back) but because I’m trying to get a good look at the plants in the display gardens. The problem is I can’t see anything—ever. I see a glossy, pointy-leaf shrub and think, “Is that one of those evergreen Solomon’s Seals Dan Hinkley found on a remote mountain in China? Or is it just a parking lot Otto Luyken laurel?” The lighting is so drastically bright or so frustratingly dim that seeing a plant in its true form is often impossible.

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Alas, it has been this way since the beginning of garden show time. Every year the shows use spotlights and floodlights to create “drama” in the display gardens while the public roams aimlessly around in the dark, squinting in vain to find the people they came with.

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I do believe that the stars of the show are the gardens and the designers whose incredible planning and exhausting work lovingly get the “spotlight.” I just don’t think they should get a literal spotlight. When’s the last time you went to a botanical garden at night? And Christmas light displays or moon gardens don’t count. Your answer is probably never. You go (and the garden is open) during the day so that under the sunlit or cloudy sky, you can walk around and feast your eyes on all of the rare plants and soothing spaces you long for in your own yard. I think few people prefer to look at Stargazer lilies in the dark—when the pink color seems white and the delicate maroon specks completely disappear. We go during the daytime because that’s when we can see plants the best and admire all of their subtle characteristics.

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It’s hard to admire a display garden’s subtle characteristics at the typical flower and garden show. Inevitably, there’s always a contorted filbert or curly willow whose branches are floodlit upward. Because of this, I never know how big the plant actually is, since its shadows are bouncing off of one another, creating an almost fun-house mirror effect where I see more branches than actually exist. Similarly, when I’m looking at a rare variety of daffodil that I think is a gorgeous peach color, I have to tip it away from the light to see that it’s actually yellow away from the spotlight’s reddish tint. I once actually mistook a hellebore for a dwarf rhododendron since the leaves absorbed so much of the shadow that they lost their boundaries and faded into a sea of black foliage. And I circled around that thing twice!

Still, I love the display gardens. There are always plenty of good ideas, including the ones that seem there just for the fun of it.  I just wish designers would take advantage of the giant array of full-spectrum lights on the market now, so we can see every true flower color, every shrub’s actual shape, every boulder’s depression—in other words, have an experience that’s more like touring a botanical garden during the day. Then I could go home and practice some real yoga.

Posted by Karen Hugg on January 20, 2014 at 8:36 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Guest Rants.
10 Comments

10 Responses to “Someone, Please, Turn Up the Lights”

  1. susan harris says:

    HATE the lighting at these shows! Horrible for seeing and photographing both.

  2. anne says:

    I’ve been a vendor at a lot of shows inside of expo centers and the like, and I have never been in one that had adequate lighting, for whatever event was going on–everyone and everything looks sallow and anemic. So I get why individual vendors would bring their own lighting to showcase their booth/exhibit, but when there are 100+ different lighting schemes, that’s chaos. Something for event coordinators to think about.

  3. Frank Hyman says:

    thanks– a real good rant. :-)

  4. Susan says:

    I totally agree with this! And because of the piss-poor lighting, you can’t even take a photo of something you want to research, because it comes out nearly black. I’m cranky enough to believe that given the prices venues charge their exhibitors, they could damn well afford better lighting.

  5. John Buettner says:

    So glad you said this. Years ago I commented online about the piss poor lighting at the Philadelphia Flower Show and got my head bit off by snooty photographer types. They tried to blame it on my “poor” camera skills. See whom-ever-you-were where-ever-you-are, it isn’t just me!

  6. Karen Hugg says:

    Yes, it’s frustrating because people who love gardening the most come to these shows to learn about new plants and get new ideas. The lighting makes it very difficult. I’ve been brushed off as well so it’s nice to know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Thanks for commenting.

  7. It’s not the duh-ziners to blame for the shitty lighting, it’s the “event planners” twerky beliefs that they need to make the gardens ( strike that) ‘stage sets’ more “dramatic”.
    If the deziner has a good grasp on theatrical lighting and has been given a good lighting company to work with ( provided by the event planners ) then a really spectacular exhibit can be experienced by the show goers.

    For every year that I have been involved in a show garden ( and there has been many) I tactically plan the lighting plan first then strategically plan the planting plan.
    Always, without hesitation, the lighting plan is the most important aspect when exhibiting in an interior darkened facility.

  8. I’ve done a lot of show gardens and the lighting can make or break a display like this.
    The best facility we ever did the Flower Show in was a dark dungeon that required a lot of lighting. In that space I could really manipulate the light to my advantage.
    The worst space we did was a giant modern convention hall that didn’t allow us to do our own lighting. Everything was washed out and fake looking…

  9. Steve Penner says:

    Oh come on guys, the lighting isn’t all that bad! :-)

    Personally, I go to enjoy the beauty of the gardens, and have yet to have any major issues taking pictures with my Canon Rebel. By the way, the first two pictures are absolutely stunning, thanks for sharing!

  10. Chris says:

    I went to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show last Thursday. The dramatic lighting on the display gardens was annoying. Especially since at least one was misaligned and I caught a blinding bit in my eye as I was walking from one display to another.

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