PHILADELPHIA - Perched somewhat precariously on his cloth director chair, veteran landscape designer Michael Petrie already looks weary as he fields questions about the intricate metal sculpture garden behind him, even though he faces another week of the same here at the world's largest indoor flower and plant exhibition.
As I wait for him to finish chatting with an attendee, I peer through the exhibit's lush perennials and evergreens into the tranquil sitting area Petrie has assembled here at the 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show.
The hopscotch pattern of the surrounding beds borrow their texture and hues of copper, beige and green from the paintings of Dutch landscape artist Piet Mondrian. Deciduous trees are sketched onto the monochromatic walls sheltering the area from the throngs already crowding the convention center early on the show's first Sunday, a nod to wood sculpture artist Louise Nevelson. Around the backside of the massive booth, a cheerful field of sunny daffodils blooms below the towering handwrought copper sculpture that mimics their graceful trumpet shape.
Petrie pauses and turns with a smile, now eager to talk about why he returns year after year to participate in what has blossomed from a regional horticultural event into a must-attend gathering for the U.S. garden and landscape industry.
"It's pretty simple, I come here because the quality of the leads is much higher than any other investment of this kind," Petrie says, putting on the sales hat for his company, Handmade Gardens. "But that takes longevity." For Petrie, that means 33 years and counting.
It also takes collaboration. Petrie's design this year was largely inspired by the work of a family of Boyertown, Pa., ironwork sculptors -- Greg, Tianna and Camille Leavitt -- that is featured throughout the space. Later in the week, Handmade Gardens will earn the coveted "Best in Show" award for the highest-scoring major landscape exhibit. It's an honor Petrie has garnered time and again since first being invited to exhibit way back in 1980. The judges write of this year's entry: "The garden was as much a work of art as the art itself. It communicates on a very emotional level."
The same could be said for many of the other major exhibits at this year's show, which covered a sprawling 33 indoor acres and attracted an estimated 225,000 visitors. That attendance figure was actually down slightly from the usual 250,000 gardening enthusiasts who travel here annually for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's biggest annual fund-raiser –- which started way back in 1829. The threat of snow was blamed by show organizers for wilting the crowds on the last few days.
But here on Day 2, the floor is buzzing. This year's theme, "Brilliant!" celebrated all things British, inspiring cultural references to literary treasures Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins and the requisite homage to The Beatles. Each display was carefully designed for maximum emotional impact. If Handmade Gardens' design was all about hope and the promise of spring, the mood elicited by the show's other top award winner, Schaffer Designs, for its Floral display was far darker, both literally and figuratively.
The team set its dimly lit exhibit in the slums of Whitechapel during the days of Jack the Ripper, reinterpreting the district's infamous blood-splattered back-alley crime scenes with vivid crimson roses, bold purple clematis, gnarled boughs of thorns, and fragrant orchids hanging against cold gray stone walls.
This year's award was the third in a row for the Schaffer outfit, which assembled designers from as far away as California to pull together its display. The line waiting to walk through the exhibit was consistently 50-people deep on the day I roamed the exhibit.
The planning for major invite-only exhibits such as these begins two-to-three years ahead of time, when the planning committee meets with respected designers to brainstorm about upcoming themes that will appeal to the masses and inspire exhibitors to travel here from far-flung locations such as Asia, Europe and South America, says Alan Jaffe, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS).
Next year's focus, ARTiculture, will celebrate the relationship between great gardens, architecture and art. "Like any good gardener, we plan at least one season ahead," Jaffe says.
The annual international flower show staged by PHS has grown substantially from its first year, when 25 members showed off their "horticultural treasures." Over time, the event has become the organization's biggest annual fund-raiser, with a portion of this year's proceeds dedicated to the PHS City Harvest community garden program, which supports more than 1,000 families each week during the growing season. The show also has bloomed into big business for the local economy, generating about $61 million in recent years, according to PHS estimates.
Aside from the showcase exhibits, there is plenty to keep visitors busy each year including culinary demonstrations and all sorts of specialized garden club competitions for everything from window boxes to pressed flower arrangements. This year's "make and take" room encouraged attendees to pay $10 to try their hand at designing floral "fascinator" headpieces like the ones featured prominently at the recent royal wedding. As the show traffic built on the day I attended, dozens of these creations could be seen bobbing up and down the show aisles.
Staging a major exhibit is a serious undertaking, especially considering that many participating florists must manage their usual busy spring schedule of events from the busy show floor.
The co-owner of second-year exhibitor Petals Lane, Michael Phinney, estimates that it took two weeks to actually assemble the flowers for his Philadelphia-based company's tribute to the surreal Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice in Wonderland (pictured below).
But it took months to arrange for the bronze sculptures, books, trees and cakes that are included in the display and borrowed from booth partners as far away as England. Exhibitors are given about four days to set up, and most of them will wind up replacing their cut flowers at least once during the show's 10-day run to keep them looking fresh, Phinney says.
The stipend that Petals Lane received to help with its exhibit helped with about half of those costs, but the company put up the rest itself, he says.
"Being associated with this show is an absolute must for us," Phinney explains, pointing out that about 80 percent of his company's sales come from weddings and other events. This year, his investment paid off with The Phyllis M. Craig Award for innovative or unique design. And as I walked away, an exuberant bride-to-be rushed Phinney -- who she has hired to handle her big day -- to gush praise over his company's exhibit.
The business of floriculture
While many of the florists and landscape artists who choose to display in Philadelphia are from the immediate region, the event attracts visitors and marketplace exhibitors from all over the United States and (increasingly) from countries that stand to benefit from this burgeoning industry.
In 2012, the business of floriculture generated about $34.3 billion in sales, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Jaffe says participation from suppliers based in the Netherlands, South America, China and Japan has been building for the past 15 to 20 years. That's not strange, consider that many cut flowers, plants and bulbs sold in the United States are from foreign producers: especially Colombia and Equador, according to the Society of American Florists.
Although the international presence seemed relatively subdued this year, high-profile clematis supplier Raymond Evison and bulb dealer Jacques Amand International both made the trip here from their home bases in the United Kingdom. The Netherlands, which exported approximately $21.3 billion in horticultural products in 2012 globally, invested in a large informational booth.
Far more than flowers
While flowers and plants are the main attraction, the sheer variety of wares sold in the marketplace area representing more than 140 vendors was mind-boggling. Vermont Nature Creations hawked glass hydroponic terrariums for apartment-bound plant enthusiasts, and British art print specialist Gladstone Jones traveled here from Washington, D.C., to appeal to anglophiles attracted by the show theme. There were jewelry crafters, pottery dealers, gardening tools companies, and candlemakers galore.
Along the way, I chatted with limestone sculptor Scot Schmidt from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who creates original art tiles made out of the limestone and calcium carbonate that are a byproduct of the paper-making process. The show seemed an unusual venue for his work, but Schmidt considers the $5,000 investment for his booth worth the cross-country drive.
"I can't think of another place where I would get this much exposure," Schmidt says. While he wished out loud that his show-floor location didn't change every year, this was his eighth year of participating after reaching the top of the exhibitor waiting list.
Benchsmith from Warrington, Pa., which sells custom teak wood garden and patio furniture, has made the return visit for 15 years. This year, its presence sprawled across several booth spaces.
General manager Darren Rufe notes that the mindset of attendees has changed significantly in the past three years. The marketplace now features more vendors that would traditionally be associated with home design shows, not just those strictly focused on landscape and gardens and he has mixed feelings about that.
But Benchsmith easily recoups its show investment most years, and it has no plans to skip this event anytime soon. "Being here is totally worth it," Rufe says, before greeting another visitor who has come in from the cold on this gray March day to plan ahead for the Northeast summer season.