Philadelphia flower show

By Paul Hervey-Brookes

Annually the show attracts over 260,000 visitors and stages a series of unique black tie events, not to mention live entertainment, craft sessions and this year the largest cinema screen on the eastern seaboard!

So walking into this mammoth flower show, what experiences do I feel - first of all it's worth understanding the sheer scale of endeavour - outside it's a easily a chilly -9 to 17 with wind chill, snow lays deep on the ground and the city has seen many cold days of Winter. Palpably people are ready for Spring. So it should come as no surprise that the halls of the convention centre are flooded with thousands of forced blooms, shrubs and even trees!

This year the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which organises the show, invited four international designers to create gardens alongside American counterparts. Aside from myself the other designers were Jim Fogerty, Leon Kluge and Lim In Chong - alongside international designers the show also changed its judging format to the more standard Gold, Silver and Bronze award.

The show opens with a huge feature entrance - this is something largely unknown in the UK and whilst upon first hearing about it, it's easy to think that's over the top but when you are at the show it works really hard to create an amazing first impression and sets the tone that you have come to a flower show - the longer I stayed at the show the more I felt this idea could be used and adapted to add a new dimension to RHS Shows.

The show then works in a series of areas, the gardens cluster around the feature, although they are all roughly 10x10 variations the variety of design ideas and planting is incredibly varied. 

Fantasy and installations co-exist with rural idylls and there is genuinely something for all tastes.
Paul Hervey-Brookes

From across the United States people from all walks of life with a particular passion for Orchids, succulents or even variegated cheese plants can bring their prize specimen and enter the competition ranks!

Within this area there are also education gardens, some are made by colleges other by groups and societies but perhaps the most exciting to me was a new charity set up to transform a disused high line which runs into Philadelphia into a community garden.

These re-worked spaces are incredibly popular now thanks to New York's High line, which incidentally is New York's second biggest tourist attraction. But the line in Philadelphia was a sobering reminder that urban green spaces don't need to cost £150 million or have an air of elitism about them.

The show then opens into floristry and crafts before revealing perhaps its biggest treasure - the PHS Hamilton Horticourt. This, by far the largest single area, is home to over 7000 individual plant exhibits and they are all judged! 

The standard was incredibly high with some entries having been grown in sheltered conditions and on bottled water for months in advance. For me the most invigorating element of this was the age range of people growing and exhibiting, teenagers, men and woman in every decade of life all clustered together to admire each others efforts and this reminded me that horticulture isn't about a particular group of people it's about everyone coming together and sharing a passion for what they love.

The last section of the show is the inevitable retail, taking up roughly a quarter of the overall hall space this was a tightly packed area reminiscent of the bazaars of Jerusalem with hustle bustle and a lot of interesting garden art ideas, furniture and plants.

In all the show runs for nearly two weeks, its energy is relentless but interestingly it's not contained to the halls of the convention centre - ask anyone in the streets and they know of or have been to the flower show, look in shop windows and displays of floriculture abound. To me the lasting impression of the Philadelphia Flower Show is not one of an event locked away for the cold but an event which is deeply loved by a city proud to host it and support it and I think there is a lot to be learned there.

Meet the author

Paul Hervey-Brookes

Paul had his own highly successful landscape design business, and has also designed a range of gardening gifts for Marks & Spencers.

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