Hartley Botanic’s classic Victorian greenhouse was the centerpiece of one of the most relatable gardens at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show, which was themed “HABITAT: Nature’s Masterpiece,” and geared to exploring “the beauty of life through nature’s kaleidoscopic lens.”
At 189 years old, this is the first time the PFS has been held in the open air and in early summer. By all accounts it was a hit with visitors, who basked in the kind summer weather, strolled easily through the spacious displays, enjoyed the good food on offer, and generally came away inspired (despite socially-distanced, timed-entry waits were lengthy). I have to say, I wish I’d been there, not least because while a member of the PHS Board of Directors, I hoped for the day when the garden show, always staged in early spring inside the vast cavern of the Convention Center, would move to the great outdoors…and natural lighting. That’s not to say it wasn’t its own spectacle: Flower shows by their nature are like giant flower arrangements, a fact emphasized by walking in from the frozen winter wastes of Pennsylvania to a floral fairyland of plants, from trees to groundcovers, cajoled into looking their best out of season — no mean feat for the nurserymen who achieve this, while also prepping for the upcoming growing season and summer sales.
Would the PFS ever make a permanent move outdoors? Speaking to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sam Lemheney, [long-time] chief of shows and events for the PHS pointed out that it would be complicated: the PHS has a standing contract with the Convention Center, and the logistics of laying on utilities to serve the crowds and the needs of the displays in the show’s three Districts: Plants, Gardens and Design are, I suppose, like trying move an army over the Alps…with elephants. As Lemheney described the work involved, “It took us about three weeks to set up, whereas normally we’re looking at 10 days. It is a completely new show we designed, and the biggest challenge to me was, we all did this from our homes, from our basements, over Zoom and Microsoft Teams.” I say, let’s hope that lockdowns won’t be an ongoing part of the complications.
The entry to the showground was by the iconic Olmstead Pavilion. This classical element of the historic FDR Park was decked out in what I can only describe as feathery-ferny boas in shades of orange and lavender. Again, I wasn’t there, but considering it from afar I wonder if the display was a comment on how nature (in nuclearized shades of the rainbow) will reclaim the vanities erected by humankind once we’ve trashed the planet and expunged ourselves.
Moving quickly past that thought and returning to my distanced photographic review, life continued as normal, and as the show, it’s a life full of hope and optimism, and some quite exciting visions of the future of landscape design as well as reassuringly familiar tropes of garden-making. Ashley Spender, point person for the Hartley Botanic team at the Flower Show remarked to me, “the show was a huge success! It was such a beautiful event to see outdoors, it’ll be hard to go back inside after experiencing it this way.”
And isn’t that just how we all feel about leaving the garden?
©Ethne Clarke, 2021. All photos courtesy of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society.
If, like me, you couldn’t make it to the show, visit via this link: PFS video tour: https://youtu.be/ll1S2DKCl7Q
And find the individual PFS exhibitor’s info here: https://phsonline.org/the-flower-show/exhibitors