Designing Landscapes: A beginner’s guide to the NW Flower & Garden Show

Cute but complex. How it may all fit into the context of your home and life may be overwhelming when looking at one show garden, let alone 20-plus show gardens.

By James Young

The Northwest Flower and Garden show is coming! February 23-27, Wednesday through Sunday.

Despite its popularity, I believe the garden show tends to attract the same people year to year. To help change that, I thought I’d put together a Beginner’s Guide to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show to encourage those who haven’t seen it, to go for the first time.

Blue Wheelbarrow’s Semi-Serious Beginner’s Guide to The NWFGS

Bring water. Garden shows will make you thirsty. Perhaps it’s the drooling from all the garden lust. Unfortunately, there appears to be only one drinking fountain per 5,000 people at the show. And like Waldo, it’s hidden somewhere in the massive crowded picture. So bring your own water.

However, do not bring water in a disposable plastic bottle or you may be gang tackled by roving bands of “green” activists. This is not to be confused with plastic bottles filled with other products, such as sugar water (soda pop), which renders plastic bottles socially acceptable. Don’t confuse the two, they are completely different.

Avoid show food. Sneak your own food in to the show even if you have to stuff it in your socks because it will still taste better than show food and may even have less hair in it. I’m kidding, of course. One should always sneak food under a large hat, not your socks.

You can also get yourself ‘stamped’ for re-entry if you want to exit mid-show to grab a bite outside. This is definitely recommended, not only for getting better food but for taking a break to clear your mind from the garden show mayhem.
For example, you may walk down Pike street to the Cheesecake Factory and stock up on a week’s worth of calories in a single slice of heavenly flavored fat.

The seasoned Seattleite will already know enough to get their coffee elsewhere. I recommend a brisk walk down Pine to the Chocolate Box if you want coffee and a treat. You would then be about a block from the Pike Place Market, which has all sorts of tasty restaurants. For the seasoned gardener, there are plenty of bars.

Arrive in a small car. It is most fashionable to get to the show on foot, bicycle or by bus. Directions for getting there can be found here. Those of us from Edmonds probably must drive, so be sure to take a small car, as the convention center parking was originally designed for horse-drawn buggies pulled by pygmy donkeys in the tradition of Seattle’s pioneers. Park in a stall marked “compact,” which is every stall in the convention center. If you drive an SUV or truck, be sure to park as close between two other cars as possible in order to save space; people love that. Pacific Place is another garage nearby that’s decent if the convention center parking fills up.

How to survive the show gardens. Gardens are the quintessential place to relax and unwind; places to recharge the soul. Don’t expect any of that here. The show gardens are built by talented garden designers who have complex design ideas to show you. There is so much to see you will probably not even know what to look at. If you find it hard to relax, don’t worry, that’s normal.

Every garden requires a certain amount of time to get to know, appreciate and critique. Problem is, after a few minutes at any single display you might start to feel awkward for holding up the crowd, or hanging around too long, or your feet get tired. Too bad there aren’t garden benches available for actual use because it takes time and a nice place to sit to absorb everything properly.

Another problem is they stuff too much into a small space. There’s barely room to take a breath before you’re on to the next display. In order to calm your mind and reset your brain between each display, I recommend closing your eyes and going to a relaxing imaginary space. For example: I imagine myself in a peaceful garden setting.

Gardens are not only about what is in them but what is around them. My biggest criticism of the show is the venue. A garden’s spirit is in how the little patch of land we tend interacts with the whole world outside. It’s about garden visitors. For example, birds that come from thousands of miles away, swooping in to poop on our gardens, a mess that feeds the soil and the invisible microbes that live within, which frees the nutrients that nourishes the trees that look so grand. Another “visitor” is the breeze that blows off Puget Sound dancing about the garden and teasing our noses with a faint scent of seawater, minute particles of salt and seaweed from miles away mingling with our anatomy, literally taken in with every breath. It’s the sunshine that filters through the leaves and warms the stones on the patio, reflects off the walls and onto our faces, warming us, through multiple layers of fleece and Goretex, down to our soul.  This isn’t going to happen in a concrete building built over a freeway, you can be sure of that.

If your goal is to inform the design of your own garden by looking at the display gardens, you may end up feeling more confused after the show than before you went. You might find yourself focusing on single elements at the show instead of the big picture of each design: a beautiful plant, a nicely constructed arbor, the color of a wall, a nice pot, a water fountain.

That’s OK. It’s probably because the most important things affecting your garden are impossible to replicate at the show. Questions like: How does your garden fit with your house, topography and neighborhood? Have you considered your sun and wind exposure and how to enhance or mitigate its effects? How do you address problems with neighbors and neighboring views? How do you spatially arrange your garden to optimize your particular purposes? You can’t really answer these questions at the show. The show gardens lack any reality based context so there often is no connection between what you see there and what you want to implement at home.

So enjoy the beautiful compositions the landscapers have created for you but don’t necessarily expect answers to your own garden design. Take note of individual items you like but be ready to cut them out or modify them if they have no place in your own garden plan. And by all means, take a break if you feel your head’s about to explode.

How to survive the exhibitors. This is the section of the show where you get to experience what every gardener craves — sales pitches. You will be exposed to the gregarious salesperson who will greet you like a friend with very sincere questions about your gutter systems. You will be exposed to the anti-salesperson who would rather finish reading his book than appear to care about the product; Seattle-style soft sell.

Some people love this section, others will hate it. But don’t miss it because you never know what kind of gold you will strike in this labyrinth of vendor booths. All sorts of Doodad-Dangly-Things, silly hats, multi-purpose garden pants, whole-family rocking chairs, mutant plants and other what-nots are to be had.

I take note of what other people are buying and take business cards, brochures and pictures for items I might incorporate into a design later. Note that show pricing can be better than normal pricing for some vendors but try not to break the garden show golden rule: Don’t buy it unless you’re pretty sure you have a place and use for it. I know you know if I’m speaking directly to you.

How to attend the seminars. It’s interesting that the word “seminar”comes from the word “seminary,” which means a plant breeding ground or nursery. How appropriate. The word root semin- refers to seed. Or semen.  So when going to the seminars, prepare to be publicly inseminated — with garden knowledge that is.

Check the schedule here for interesting topics. There will be no seminar passes this year. Instead, it is first-come, first-served, and they will start seating 20 minutes before each seminar. However, the rooms this year are much bigger than previous years so they don’t expect over-filling, and they tell me you should be able to see any seminar you want without waiting. Famous words: “should be able to.”  Bring a notepad for notes. Or don’t bring a notepad and just focus on one or two main points and enjoy the show.

How to buy show tickets. You can buy tickets at the usual garden places or online here.  There is the customary discount for buying early, for buying in large groups, for being young, for coming in late (When else are you going to be rewarded for procrastinating?), or for buying multi-day passes.  There is a $1-per-ticket service charge if you buy online.

Go because it is a Big Deal. In all seriousness, even if you’re not a garden-mad landscape warrior, it’s a great way to be entertained and support your local economy. Its popularity brings tourists from all over the Northwest and beyond to spend their money in our economy and that’s exciting. Most of the money spent stays local and like a loving lost pet will return to you somehow from miles away, quite unlike most everything else you can buy these days. Like, how will all that money we collectively spend on Chinese products ever make its way back to us? I don’t know. Forget that stuff and Go to the Show.

Where do you think O’Loughlin Trade Shows should hold the next Flower and Garden Show? What other improvements do you think should be they should implement? Put your comments below. Thanks.

James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscapes in Edmonds.

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