How to Attend a Garden Show – Part 1

I’ve attended the NW Flower and Garden Show for more years than I can count, usually tagging along with my mom, when younger.  As a new member of the Garden Writers Association, this year was the first time I attended as a member of the press.  I even got to drag my son along over the weekend, hopefully passing on the love of gardens to a new generation.

It took me a few days of visiting, taking photos of the exhibits, attending talks, speaking with the designers and garden creators, and listening to comments in the crowd, before I realized that there ought to be a guide on how to get the most out of attending Garden Shows.  After all, you’re going to need it when you attend the 185th Garden Show in Philadelphia; it even has nearly the same theme, ‘Where Art Meets Horticulture’.  Garden Shows are unlike other fast-paced, buy-buy-buy trade shows because they are experiential … you have to really slow down to feel the mood, hear the birds, smell the Daphne and Hyacinth, and imagine being in your own perfect, sun-lit garden.  (To tell the truth, the garden I see out my window is not the one in my mind.)

Over the next several posts, I’ll share with you my observations of this past week.  I hope they’ll help you at next year’s show, and even when you attend local garden tours with friends this summer.

  1. Look for Themes (Part 1 and Part 2)
  2. Look for Stories (Part 3)
  3. Look for People (Part 4)
  4. Look for Spaces (Part 5 and 6)
  5. Look for Details (Part 7)
  6. Look for Things you Hate (Part 8)

This year’s official show theme is “Art in Bloom”, a little easier than last year’s “Silver Screen”.  Garden designers work on ideas for many years, and pull out one that best fits each year’s theme.  So, I’m often amused when many designers come up with similar ideas.  This year, the exhibits were brought to you by the letter ‘O’ and the colors purple and white.  No, not really, but you did see a lot of circles, similar colors, elaborate glass art, and the shrub Edgeworthia.

Let me kick off with Susan Browne’s “Circles All Around Us”.  At first, I loved this garden, then after a couple of days, I began to dislike it. I think it is because I ‘got’ the theme and then I didn’t have any relief from it.  (But, please keep in mind that these are show gardens to make you think, not necessarily what you would copy exactly at home.)  Her circular patio contained a circular table, with round placemats, plates, and even a round centerpiece.  The theme continued beyond to a spherical stone fountain, round white pots containing round white hydrangeas, glass balls, and clipped conifers.  While white-gardens are so Vita Sackville-West, the tulips and daffodils looked refreshing.

Susan Browne Landscape Design | #eTilth
Susan Browne Landscape Design

I really liked the metal walls and gates created by Iron Idiom. Here, you can peer through the flower gate and the garden to the bold metal wall at the back.

Iron Idiom Circle Gate
Iron Idiom Circle Gate
Scrap Wall
Scrap Wall


But let’s circle back to my original opinion.  I do like this garden; the details are carefully considered.  I liked the complementary pot selection, and using the scrap pieces to edge the raised beds. I’m not sure I care for the glass flowers, but maybe that’s because I have small children who like to play football.

Pot Details
Pot Details
Glass Flowers
Glass Flowers


Let’s press on to another Susan’s garden, this one by Susan Calhoun, Plantswoman Design.  Again, a lot of white, circles and glass.  Here, the exhibit is terraced with softly curving steps.  The plant choice is calm and you can hear the water flow down the rill.

Terra Cadence Curves | Susan Calhoun Design | #eTilth
Terra Cadence Curves

I liked the lighting on the birch trees underplanted with galanthus, and I learned a new plant, Abeliophyllum distichum, the white forsythia. Laughingly, Ms. Calhoun shared an overheard comment, mocking the difficulty of mowing the narrow terraced lawn.

Terra Cadence Birches | Susan Calhoun Design | #eTilth
Terra Cadence Birches

But the real gem of this garden is the rill down the center. Inspired by Irish garden designer, Helen Dillon, a rill is a must-have water feature for children (think pooh-sticks) and adults alike. Can’t you hear the cadence of the water flowing from the glass chandelier, down the rill, and splashing into the pond below?

Terra Cadence Rill | Susan Calhoun Design | #eTilth
Terra Cadence Rill


These gardens are both surprisingly similar and different.  Each designer brings their own interpretation of the theme to the space, and invites you to think about your own spaces. Perhaps you can use some of the elements like uniform colors, shapes, or materials at home.

2 Replies to “How to Attend a Garden Show – Part 1”

  1. I’m looking forward to reading further posts about the garden show. My problem with the Terra Cadence garden was that none of us could see the plants, they were all too far away. It was impressive to look at, but I’ve since seen her plant list, and there were some great plants in this garden that no one could appreciate, because all we could see from where we stood was grass and trees and a mass of indistinguishable white flowers.

  2. Thank you, Alison. I would not recreate this garden. However, there were elements that were intriguing. I liked the terracing, and I lust after a rill. I’m a plant-nut, so I would love to see lots of interesting plants. I think overall the whole NWFGS had very lame plant selection (some years have been better, but not always). That is surely a fault of shows in early Feb, and usually we are inundated with forced bulbs. [But I’ld rather have local forced bulbs than things flown in from foreign climes.]

    I was pleased to see the use of an unusual shrub, Edgeworthia chrysantha, but that was just about the only unique plant (other than the bog-plants), that you might actually plant IN your garden. Someday I would like to visit the Philadelphia show to compare. I see that Andy Sturgeon is doing an exhibit there this year. I enjoyed meeting him last summer in Vancouver. I HATE his gardens, but I LOVE his ideas. Or rather, the more I think about them, the more I like them. And I like to think. And when I spoke with both of the Susans that’s what they were trying to get at … that these are SHOW gardens. They are over-the-top on purpose, to get you to think. More later, on that, in the post on Spaces.

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