I really could title this blog post Pay No Attention to those (thousands of) Gardeners Behind the Curtain. I’m talking about the people who put garden shows together. The masses of people.
However I must start by acknowledging my perennial pet peeve about garden shows; then tell you how joining in with flower show worker bees has given me a new, positive perspective on garden shows in general.
I’ve railed against the unreality of garden shows in the past, on this blog, mostly for the way plants and flowers are put together that would never be together in real life: The artifice, the improbable vistas. I would sigh when I saw a cineraria next to a chysanthemum, or a hosta growing next to a hyacinth. Sometimes I would even groan. Softly. Helen, my usual Canada blooms companion, and I would constantly be saying to each other, “Of course, that would never happen.” The plants are forced in greenhouses, like Lego pieces, free to be arranged in any way the designer sees fit.
All these crazy pairings. The garden purist in me was bugged because they were a lie. It bothered me that new gardeners would see these things and might want to recreate them in their own gardens. That they would be disappointed. Misleading advertising, I complained.
Yet a few days ago I found myself in a work crew at the Canada Blooms site wearing a hard hat and steel toed boots. Yes, another garden show was being brought into being in a cavernous warehouse space. What was I doing there, you ask? I was stuffing salmon coloured gerbera daisies right next to a Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ grass in a sono tube. Yes! And not only that, afterwards I stepped back to look, and saw that it was good. The salmon and the lime green were perfect together. We cheered. Was this part of the plan? Not really. It was an impromptu design decision. Something hadn’t worked out. The grasses were all by themselves and needed some colour.
I was part of about twenty employees and volunteers who were working on the City of Toronto exhibit. Michelle Reid, the designer, maintained with grace the controlled chaos during the set up and planting session. Everyone was working on a little piece of the project. Some were filling bins with soil, or stuffing empty pots into the base to take up room, some were planting herbs in a checkerboard pattern, others were running to find hoses and containers of water. Others were hoisting massive kumquat trees into huge upright planters.
Michelle handled the task of keeping the urban agricultural themed project on track, managing the volunteers and the workers. Her overall design of edibles and ornamentals was extraordinary, and taking shape surprisingly well, and quickly – the colour scheme of purples, oranges and pinks was divine – but there were surprises. Plants didn’t arrive as expected. Some don’t arrive at all. So impromptu designing comes into play. The plants ordered for the living wall section were a bit too big: Way too big and floppy to fit neatly into the small pockets of the planter. So, you gotta improvise. Fix it somehow. Try this over there, hmm, maybe this will work. We had visions of pieces of echeveria crashing out of the green wall to the floor during the show.
Where were the plants? All the plant material is boxed in cardboard and piled a distance away from the exhibit area. Boxes and boxes of plants. Flats of tulips, piled high on carts. Worker bees have to fetch plant material, cadge a rolling cart, figure out which plants are in which boxes. There’s a whole lot of schlepping going on. Where was that wheelbarrow anyway? Pulling a cart while not being run over by a forklift or a backhoe is a necessary skill in a flower show set up.
The project co-ordinator for the city was down on her hands and knees with me, planting 4″ pots of herbs in close 12 frame checkerboards. “Why should everyone else have all the fun?” she said.
It’s tricky work, especially when the exhibit is half planted and you have to climb up onto a 4 foot bed and balance between the already planted material while adding new things. Make sure you don’t step on those freshly planted herbs with your steel toed boots. Your stupid hard hat keeps falling down over your eyebrows, better twist the little doohickey at the back to tighten it up. But not so tight that it gives you a headache.
Multiply this amount of hard effort and last minute creativity with the number of exhibition gardens and that’s a lot of people coming together to make something extraordinary. Purely for the sensation of seeing it all together for that short period of the show. Less than a week.
And while it’s true that what you end up with are not really gardens at all, but more like garden versions of flower arrangements. Yes, they aren’t real, but they are alive and beautiful, for the time being. So, go to the show, and be entertained, amused and delighted. But don’t expect to put gerbera daisies next to grasses in your real Canadian garden, no matter how much you might want to.