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

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.)

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

The window displays are popular, too.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

2014 Philadelphia Flower Show with art theme

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.

Sculptor Steve Tobin at 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show

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.