NWFGS 2016 – a doubter’s report

Next week, it is time for the Northwest Flower and Garden show in Seattle again. That means it took me a year to write this post. I apologize. In all honesty, I had a hard time with it, as I wasn’t all that excited about it. I have spent the year battling not so positive thoughts about it, and trying to analyze why it didn’t make me more excited. My  dear, wise grandfather taught me to always add “I think”, when voicing my opinion. This is a great policy (I think 😉 ), because it respectfully acknowledges the distinct possibility that others might disagree with you. Which is okay. I still have no answers worthy of carving into stone, but here goes; My time of ponderance is up!

View toward the Puget Sound from the Washington Convention Center - home of the NWFGS.

View toward the Puget Sound from the Washington Convention Center – home of the NWFGS.

While it’s always a fun treat to go to garden shows, I’d go out on a limb here to say that they aren’t always that memorable. Did I see beautiful things in Seattle? You bet. Was I inspired by fabulous, imaginative creations? Sure, at least a couple of times. Did I get my socks knocked off? Well, there was this one deck… which I will dwell more on later. There were definitely a few memorable highlights – for me, about a handful.

This was one of my favorite displays - mostly because of how it manipulated scale. Its creators managed to create a miniature naturalistic representation of a massive land form using basalt pillars, completing the picture with blue drifts of crocus and iris, receding and leading your eye into the composition. Using a limited plant palette an rock against a photographic backdrop of sky, they managed to convey the majestic power of one of our most treasured environments.

The theme for 2016 was “America the Beautiful” – celebrating the US National Parks.  This was one of my favorite displays – mostly because of how it manipulated scale. Its creators managed to create a miniature naturalistic representation of a massive land form using basalt pillars, completing the picture with blue drifts of crocus and iris, receding and leading your eye into the composition. Using a limited plant palette an rock against a photographic backdrop of sky, they managed to convey the majestic power of one of our most treasured environments.

I also appreciated the display's slatted enclosure. The cut wood slabs that framed the entrance were magnificient!

I also appreciated the display’s slatted enclosure. The cut wood slabs that framed the entrance were magnificient!

Closeup of one of the Grand Teuton wood slabs.

Closeup of one of the Grand Teuton wood slabs.

This was another one I liked - a camp site set up in a desert.

This was another one I liked – a camp site set up in a desert.

There was a little of the Wild West over it - with modern conveniences, of course.

There was a little of the Wild West over it – with modern conveniences, of course.

I remember being quite surprised that it didn't win a higher award than it did. One of the designers explained to me that it didn't fill the criteria of having enough blooms. I suppose it is a "...Flower and Garden Show", but still.... To my mind, it was far better than many of the other, higher ranked display gardens.

I remember being quite surprised that it didn’t win a higher award than it did. One of the designers explained to me that it didn’t fill the criteria of having enough blooms. I suppose it is a “…Flower and Garden Show”, but still…. To my mind, it was far better than many of the other, higher ranked display gardens.

The one thing that was my absolute favorite highlight of NWFGS was this deck. I LOVED how the contours of the planks had been allowed to fit into each other. So unique and beautiful!

The one thing that was my absolute favorite highlight of NWFGS was this deck. I LOVED how the contours of the planks had been allowed to fit into each other. So unique and beautiful!

What I didn't like was this scalloped rendition of Adirondack chairs adorning it. This phenomenon always irks me - it's like Adirondacks are the only kind of furniture in American gardens - be they wood or plastic. You'd think at a garden show, perspectives would widen a little...

What I didn’t like was this scalloped rendition of Adirondack chairs adorning this fabulous deck. What a letdown…  This fascination with Adirondacks in any and every iteration always irks me – it’s like they are the only kind of furniture imaginable in American gardens – be they wood or plastic. You’d think at a garden show, perspectives would widen a little… 

But no - let's put one in every display. They come in so many colors...!

…but no.  Let’s put one in every display. They come in so many colors…! (Sorry for the snark, but… really?!)

Considering the buzz of irrefutable greatness that surrounds the Northwest Flower  & Garden Show, and its reputation as a regional heavyweight in its genre, I wondered if there was something wrong with my lukewarm reaction. It’s a good thing I had a while to think about this, before writing this post. I pondered whether it might be because, in my line of work, I am trained to apply a critical eye. This is what I do. A critical assessment is what people expect from me, and pay me for. This is not to say that I set out with the intention to find faults in the work of others at an event like this. Far from it. I usually dive in with eyes wide open and an equally open mind, with great expectations of getting inspired, and of learning of something new and exciting.

So, the feeling of “mostly meh” that prevailed after our visit needed to be explored and examined. Why was I so unmoved? Is it a plant thing? For a while, I thought it might have to do with the fact that the show is in February, and that you are met with an ocean of flowering spring bulbs, mixed with baby renditions of much larger plants, that would never actually function together for more than one season? At first sight, the plant textures and colors look fabulous together, but as any decent gardener knows, it would never truly work in an actual garden. But, no – I don’t think that’s it. I think some textured bravado is probably both allowed and encouraged at a garden show. Even though – as read on the Frustrated Gardener’s blog – the comparative diverse display gardens of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (which takes place at the end of May) – made me wish for a more accurate representation of actual plant behavior. I marveled at Dan’s tales of the designers who had grown seeds they had collected themselves in far-away, exotic places, and at the admirable timing and skill behind the accomplishments to make them bloom for those exact few days when they needed to be at their best. Perhaps at the height of spring it is easier to achieve such things? I don’t know, but I can’t help thinking of bulbs as floral one-hit wonders. Don’t get me wrong – I do love them, and have gobs of them in my own garden – but by the time they’re done, you can’t wait for them to go away. In February, I bet they are the hands-down easiest solution. Maybe that’s my problem – I don’t want to travel this far to see ‘easy’.

Bulbs, bulbs, bulbs...

Bulbs, bulbs, bulbs…

thalia-and-pink-tulips

… and more bulbs.

This one I really liked - Cyclamen and Fritillarias - and some rock for them to stand out against.

This one I really liked – Cyclamen and Fritillarias – and some rock for them to stand out against.

Maybe my issue is with the concept. A show garden  is a concept thing. I don’t think there is really a requirement for it to work in reality, but it does need to represent an idea. Some garden shows make each participant create an interpretation of an overarching theme they need to adhere to. Seattle’s is one of those shows. As mentioned, the theme here was “America the Beautiful”. The year before, it was “Romance Blossoms”, which was positively overbearing in its pink- and redness. Kind of sappy too – it reminded me of this girl in my sophomore architecture studio, who when asked, answered that her concept was “cozy”. Okay then…

In other types of shows – like the Chelsea – each show garden has a sponsor, and its own concept – which obviously makes for a greater variety. Perhaps the idea of outside, corporate sponsorships is a key to my puzzle. Judging from the scale, originality, and level of detailing of the Chelsea gardens, there is A LOT more money involved, and last year’s themes ranged from math to geological processes, to political and environmental statements. This year’s NWFGS theme is “Taste of Spring”, with tangents of Urban Farming, from Farm to Table, and Sustainability. This might be interesting, and I’m prepared to be surprised. Without a framework of non-edibles, it is difficult to make edible gardens visually interesting for other than a short period of time. Or, at least I don’t know how. I hope to learn a few inspiring tricks. After all, Urban Farming is one persistent trend, and one that I struggle to find interesting.

Both years I have visited this show, it’s been the marketplace part of it that I’ve found most  fun. The Pacific Northwest has lots of glass artists. Although I don’t have any in my garden, I think it’s fun to see the plethora of booths featuring the shiny, colorful, amorphous creations.

blue-and-yellow-glass glass-art-red-and-orange

glass-art-greenThere were tons of other arts too, and of course plant vendors – hooray! Among the vendors was a display from Butchart Gardens, BC. I would love to visit them some time. Their displays are always feature some of the more interesting plant combinations at this show – at least I think so.

This year, they had a Zebra as part of their composition.

This year, they had a Zebra as part of their composition.

stachyrus-salicifolia

I was delighted to see one of my faves in there – Stachyrus salicifolia!

The orchid display is always wonderful, but terribly hard to photograph!

orchid-1 orchid-2

The garden art is always fun to admire. Lots to choose from, should you be so inclined!

art-lighting yard-art-fly yard-art-sculptures yard-art-sun

All seen and done – when it really comes down to it, the opportunity to hang out with friends for a day or two of garden revelry is truly what makes this memorable. This year, we are missing Tamara, but William and Gina will be there. And just about all my other blogger friends too. It will be lots of fun – of that, I have no doubt!

t-w-g-in-brutalist-lobby

About annamadeit

Born and raised in Sweden, my aesthetics and outlook on life are strongly shaped by a culture rich in history and tradition. I care a great deal about environmental responsibility, and my aesthetic reflects the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia. I was trained as an architect at the University of Cincinnati and as a color specialist at the Scandinavian Colour Institute in Stockholm. I'm obsessed with plants and gardens, and aim to take my skill set a step further by designing gardens as well as interiors. As someone so aptly said: " Architecture is the skin that separates the exterior from the interior". So true - you can't successfully focus on one without incorporating the other. I'm also an avid cook, and I love to ski. In addition, I put time and efforts into trying to rectify things that I feel are wrong in my immediate community. As you will see, The Creative Flux will touch on all these things, and more. For sure, it's all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blog!
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16 Responses to NWFGS 2016 – a doubter’s report

  1. Evan Bean says:

    I usually come away with the same lukewarm feeling regarding these shows, and I struggle to find nice things to say. Like you, I have trouble with temporary displays of plants that wouldn’t last together in a real garden for more than a season. Most of the displays rely too much on flowers and tend to be formal or just too “classic, English-influenced Pacific Northwest.” My taste in gardens is strongly naturalistic and foliage-based. I enjoyed the desert garden, and there was a beautiful temperate rainforest garden. This year, I’m going to look harder for inspiration and things I could adapt to fit my tastes, but I’m not going to try so hard to be nice. I’m just going to be honest.

    • annamadeit says:

      Honesty is good! I remember the rain forest garden. Meant to add some photos of that one, but forgot. Might just do a little update of my post – thanks for the reminder! As for the flower focus – I was so astonished to learn last year that having lots of flowers is a requirement. In fact, I was in total disbelief!!! But, that DOES explain all those massive amounts of bulbs. Like you, I would be so much more intrigued with the allowance (encouragement?) of foliage based plant displays that would no doubt wow me a lot more, and hopefully teach and inspire, too. I still don’t understand why flowers are rated so much higher than foliage…

  2. I love the ridiculousness (theatre) of the big display gardens, and eavesdropping on what the general public has to say about them. Not being a spring flowering bulb lover that side of it is all a little over the top for me, but what else are ya gonna use when your garden show is in February and people want to see flowers? Did you go the year Riz did a display garden? I LOVED that it was all about the plants, cool plants.

    The show really is all about the people, for me. Plus there are always a couple of good seminars and a few inspiring ideas stuck in here or there.

  3. Alison says:

    I always look for something to take away, even if it’s just one plant combo. I don’t feel the need to say bad things, except about the people, they annoy the heck out of me. I like the small gardens on the concourse better than the big gaudy display gardens, maybe because it’s easier to get close to them. I go mostly to buy stuff from the vendors too, to see some flowers, and to see friends.

    • annamadeit says:

      I don’t know if I necessarily said anything bad – that wasn’t my intention. My apologies if that is the way it came across. I was just soul searching a little – trying to figure out why the whole thing – however entertaining – often feels like a version of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

  4. rickii says:

    i have the feeling that if you have seen one of these shows you have seen them all. always went to the one in pdx but only the fun of hanging out with friends would be the lure of traveling to take one in. your opinions are always valuable.

    • annamadeit says:

      Aw thanks, Rickii! It was so good to see you today – this will be a fun summer! It’s like Loree said – hanging out with friends and eavesdropping is the funnest part. 🙂

  5. Kris P says:

    You have very high expectations, Anna – that’s not a bad thing but I can tell you, from my perspective down here in SoCal where we have one increasingly crappy show (now almost entirely focused around home furnishings with just a few plants thrown in), the NWFGS is stupendous. That’s not to say I don’t see many of the issues you’ve raised but, by comparison, our show and yours can’t even be compared. SoCal very briefly flirted with a larger scale show, optimistically titled “Chelsea West” and coincidentally sited on the very peninsula on which I now live, but it died after a short, unimpressive 2-year run.

    • annamadeit says:

      Aw, that’s a shame, Kris – both that you have an “increasingly crappy show”, and that Chelsea West failed. When I look at the Frustrated Gardener’s blog posts about the real Chelsea, I want to visit so badly… Yeah, maybe my expectations ARE too high – but I honestly don’t think so. With the kind of climate we have here, a show like this should be nothing short of spectacular. Despite it admittedly being a great kickoff event for the gardening season, I kind of wish they would move it forward a few months. The plant palettes would definitely be more interesting…

  6. Alyse says:

    I LOVE THAT DECK!!

  7. Peter/Outlaw says:

    For me, the fun really is the people and of course the shopping, seeing what new ideas some of my favorite artists/craftspeople have come up with for the show. The pendulum swings with the show gardens. Years ago they were criticized for being way over the top fantastic so the reaction was to do a lot of outdoor living spaces, decks, patios, etc. This was followed by a big native plant and absolute time correct bloom thing. Now it seems to be a bit more in the middle. To my eyes, the show gardens are just that, a show complete with theatrical lighting. The lilacs, roses, and delphiniums blooming with snowdrops and crocus make me smile. The English outdoor shows are amazing but gardening is much more part of the culture there. Queen Elizabeth even attends and Prince Charles is quite a keen gardener. Despite my meh feelings about the show some years, I’m sure glad that we still have it as it almost came to an end a few years ago.

    • annamadeit says:

      Aah – the pendulum…. I get it. That’s interesting that it used to be so “over the top fantastic”! I think I would have enjoyed that quite a lot. I imagine it’s akin to the concept cars at car shows. Perhaps not all that realistic, but a fun exercise in fantasy. But, despite my gripes, I do agree with you – I’m glad it exists. Especially now that Portland lost its YPG show. That’s just sad…

  8. ks says:

    I know exactly how you feel Anna, I didn’t even bother to do my increasingly snarky San Francisco Garden Show post last year-so underwhelming. Every year I hope for the turn around that heads back to the pinnacle of this show. I used to do 2 days but no more. And the plant market has shrunk like a cotton tee shirt;fewer and fewer plant vendors every year. I will go of course, and will hope to see at least something decent relative to last year . I have non-gardening relatives who will go with me this year and they are far more forgiving. Their enjoyment will help me feel more positive.

    • annamadeit says:

      You know, Kris P said the same thing you did… We’re losing plant vendors here too, but I imagine it’s worse down there with such an extended period of drought. Just like with all that rain you were surprised to get, I hope whomever puts on your shows will have an epiphany, and you will walk away happy and inspired. Fingers crossed!

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