“Every garden starts with inspiration, and you can find lots of inspired ideas at garden shows,” says Kathleen Norris Brenzel, editor of the just-published ninth edition of The New Sunset Western Garden Book.
She should know. As Sunset Magazine’s Garden Editor, Kathleen has judged countless show display gardens and presented many excellent talks on the circuit She’s also aware that walking the show floor can sometimes be overwhelming—there’s so much to see and do. Here’s her advice for getting the most out of the gardens and sales.
Plan your day. If you are on the hunt for new design ideas from the display gardens, figure out what time or day (or evening) the exhibition floor will be less populated. All shows have their patterns of interest that ebb and flow. If in doubt, ask an exhibitor. Then you can spend the crowded time shopping or attending lectures. When you do visit the exhibit gardens, you’ll have more room to study designs and styles you want to emulate.
Kathleen suggests, “Take photos, and note the new plants and great plant combos that catch your eye.” It helps to turn the flash off. And don’t forget to take pictures of the identifying signs—large ones name the designers, while the beds hold individual plant labels. If you don’t favor cameras, a small notebook can serve you well.
Plan your shopping in advance. Study your garden before you go and create a plant wish list. Are there holes you want to fill in between existing plants? Or are you making a new bed from scratch?
Sometimes you don’t know ahead of time which plants you’d like but would prefer to be inspired by what you’ll find. You can still use a list. Write down the conditions that exist in the beds you want to fill. Measure actual spaces. Are you dealing with sun or full shade, clay or sandy soil, wet or dry areas?
These notes will give you a reality check when you fall in love with a plant at the show. Will those gorgeous heathers grow in your heavy clay? Do you really have room for an eventual 30-foot Chilean flame tree?
With planning you can avoid feeling inundated by horticultural overload. You’ll take away designs and plants that will be gorgeous (and suitable). Then you can return home and, as Kathleen says, “Put those favorite ideas to work in your own garden.”