Pacific Northwest Magazine :: COVER STORY, Seattle Times Feb 2018
In it's 30th year, Seattle Garden Show aims for a younger crowd....Even if you’re not a Master Gardener, you’ll find there’s no experience required at this year’s show.
JUDITH JONES sent me a picture when she and her son finally sorted out how to erect the extremely heavy, 30-foot-high, three-sided ladder structure they had just built.
“I’m headed into the greenhouses now since the sun just peeped over the mountains,” she wrote. “It only shines for two hours this time of the year.”
Jones spends each day in January working in one of five greenhouses on the Gold Bar property where she lives and works, running a mail-order fern business she has owned since the 1980s, Fancy Fronds Nursery. A one-woman show, she is an international expert on ferns and has more than 1,000 taxa of ferns in her collection.
She calls her 5-acre piece of land the “Fronderosa,” and it’s exactly the sort of home you’d envision for a woman who has dedicated her life to working with ferns. Damp, woodsy and wonderful — you half expect a woodland nymph to hop out from the undergrowth and join the daily routine.
For the past 30 years, Jones has used winter to prepare in some way for the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival, and this winter is no different. Jones can stand at her kitchen window and look out at the small glass greenhouse (made from repurposed sliding-glass doors) that glows at night from the grow lights. Here, rows of forced plants sit next to small ferns, ajuga and eucharis that are among the 100 plants she will bring to the show. Outside the greenhouse, her yard is full of structures used in past exhibits — including a colorful 500-pound snail she calls Meryl and a Thai pavilion from her 2009 “King and I” installation.
This sort of visual cacophony of artistic expression is her thing. In 1995, she dressed as a dead spirit for the Victorian graveyard theme, complete with two large Griffin statues that now live on the porch of her cabin.
“It’s a good way for the public to understand that you are associated with the booth,” Jones says. “It also helps clear an aisle (which allows more people to pass), because you’re strange,” which, to Jones, is excellent.
THIS YEAR MARKS the 30th anniversary of Seattle’s garden show. The oversized displays, as usual, will be captivating, over-the-top whimsies of dream gardens, and the seminars will provide excellent information for gardeners. At its core, the event has always been a garden show for gardeners.
The first time I attended was well before I started exploring gardening professionally. I was in my early 20s and had an interest in growing something, but with a small deck and little firsthand experience, the size of the show was overwhelming. And those display gardens? I wasn’t inspired. I was intimidated.
So if you lack a green thumb, or don’t have any land (calling all apartment and condo dwellers!), it might seem easy to pass this show over. Really, what’s it in for you? As it turns out, this year, there’s quite a bit.
Where once the show was all about the display gardens (of course, they continue to be a major draw), the show staff has added elements meant to attract all sorts of gardeners, enthusiasts and wannabes.
“In recent years, we’ve placed greater emphasis on small-space and container gardening, growing edibles and the role of garden spaces in home entertainment,” says Jeff Swenson, festival manager.
It’s no secret that every business these days is hoping to entice millennials, and the Flower & Garden Festival is no exception. Organizers are working to broaden its appeal by adding engaging elements, a larger marketplace and a local food court.
Says Gayle Payne, who designs the display garden for Flower Growers of Puget Sound: “The industry is having a hard time getting millennials into gardening. It’s something the industry is worried about: how to attract more people.”
THE GOOD NEWS is, there are newcomers to the show this year who have both the vision and the business savvy to think about what’s happening in the garden industry.
Heather Jellerson has built display gardens for other companies, but decided to give it a whirl with her own company, Millennium Landscape & Construction, Inc., which she operates with her husband.
“In our (display) garden this year, we hope it will be much more approachable and something DIYers can actually do themselves,” she says. Tired of seeing grandiose ideas that didn’t seem practical, she wants people to leave the show feeling empowered.
Her overall design relies heavily on metalwork, one of the most commonly asked-about features among new garden clients (she swears it is not difficult or intimidating to work with), and low-maintenance plants for the trendy, time-strapped consumer.
With the show only a month away, she was still working on final plans for her garden exhibit.
“I’m probably the one who is least prepared for the whole show,” Jellerson says.
She says she plans to use COR-TEN, a weathering steel that patinas into a stable rustlike appearance, to build garden beds and fencing. It’s a relatively easy project for anyone with the know-how to drill into metal. She says there’s not a huge budget for building the exhibits, and, “That’s what most home gardens are working with, as well.”
And while plans and materials are coming together for the physical structure, the plants are sitting in wait. Focusing on plants that need only occasional attention throughout the year — ground covers to give a sense of lawn, grasses and evergreen shrubs that flower across seasons — is a way to showcase easy ideas that attendees can imitate at home. For now, these plants are lined up in the nursery, about 20 feet from Jellerson’s back door, where they’ve been stacking up for months.
Also new to the show this year is “Floral Wars.” With a format similar to the festival’s popular container-planting competition, local floral designers will use American-grown buds and put together large floral arrangements in real time while on stage. Not everyone is interested in fawning over catalogs to find a new favorite bulb, whereas any home can accommodate a vase full of blooms.
It’s a smart move for show organizers, as the local flower business is booming — a trend with no signs of slowing. Flower farms are the new “it” factor in agriculture, and designers using local flowers are in high demand.
“I think, as a whole, the concept of seasonality has really been embraced,” says competitor and floral designer Gina Thresher of From the Ground Up Floral in Kent. “We have the most amazing local product and great farmers that stay on trend.”
Thresher contributed to the American Institute of Floral Design booth last year and is a fan of the show. “I’ve attended for so many years — my mom and I have so much fun.”
SEMINARS ALWAYS have been a large part of the programming, though Janet Endsley, the seminar and judging manager who has been involved with the show for the past 18 years, has made big changes lately. When she started, speakers were mostly regional. It was rare to see someone outside the Pacific Northwest come in to talk. Today, though, “Publishers send authors to us, and people can see speakers they normally wouldn’t ever see during the course of the year,” she says.
It used to be that plantaholics filled the halls, eager to learn more about certain plants, or looking for design inspiration for their yards. Today, the quest for inspiration is coupled with the desire for information, and the programming reflects that by offering a more diversified range of seminar topics.
“People are highly interested in growing edibles — 10 years ago, there were very few edible (seminars), and now I have a significant block of those,” Endsley says. Do-It-Yourself-themed classes remain popular, and Endsley has worked to add topics for urbanites in small spaces — classes on growing air plants, or a focus on hydroponics that promises to teach how to grow edibles on countertops.
Most of the younger gardeners I spoke with come to the show (with a parent, often) for the seminars, seeking information on how to get started, so Endsley is right on. Container gardening is a big draw, as is anything having to do with growing food at home.
“Heavy plant geeks can pick out what they’re interested in, and people in apartments can learn specifics for them, too,” Endsley says. “We’re looking back at the history of the show, and as the show evolves, we are trying to accommodate people’s lifestyles and give people useful information.”
EVEN WITH ALL the additions, it’s safe to say the main draw of the show is still the “garden creations” — a massive installment of more than 15 Puget Sound-area gardening and landscaping businesses.
Elandan Gardens of Bremerton is a fixture here — this will be its 29th year at the show. The company specializes in specimen material — trees of considerable size that are artistic in form.
“For the last 60 years, I’ve been training trees and turning them into spectacular pieces of art,” founder Dan Robinson says.
This year, Elandan Gardens will showcase two special trees, both of which stand about 12 feet tall. One is a large and gnarly 125-year-old laceleaf maple that Robinson has been caringly pruning for 45 years. The other is a twin-trunked, 56-year-old Japanese black pine that was grown from seed by his hand. As Robinson walked his 7-acre property one recent afternoon, he excitedly reminded me that I needed to get to the show to see them — “It’s fantasmagoria!”
Anthony Fajarillo of Redwood Builders Landscaping will showcase a selection of small bonsai trees — one of which you can hold in the palm of your hand. It’s his attempt to create a relationship between attendees and nature.
“Trees represented in miniature form through bonsai can become our portable connection with nature, especially now with our fast-paced digital world,” Fajarillo says. It’s a lofty message to convey through a garden display, but a timely one.
Fajarillo’s garden has a modern, Zen vibe to it and includes old hemlocks, conifers and moss, along with the bonsai trees. In the center, Fajarillo will place a floating deck set up to mimic a tea ceremony in progress.
A DECADE AGO, the displays imitated the seasonal influence of the time — winter. This steered booths and displays into a minimalist feel and kept the big, bold blooms to a minimum. For the past several years, though, “We’ve made an effort to bring in tens of thousands of flowers,” says Endsley. “People come to escape the dreariness of what’s outside — they want that fantasy; they want that now, and we’ve definitely brought that up.”
But not all gardeners are convinced the changes are for the better, and a question lingers: Can show programming satisfy the hard-core gardeners while simultaneously engaging garden newbies with a small space?
Michelle Meyer, owner of Gardening GaGa!, is on the fence after having attended religiously in years past.
“Quite honestly, last year I thought the exhibits and speakers were not very interesting to plant people,” Meyer says. She will, however, attend a daylong event on Friday specifically for garden professionals — the GardenPRO Conference, which was introduced this year.
For its big anniversary, the festival feels like a mixed bag — a bit of something for everyone. Time will tell whether this all-inclusive strategy works for or against planners, but with reasonable pricing for entry, I think it’s worth a visit. You can pick up interesting plants or garden art in the marketplace if you’re willing to shuffle past booths of unrelated paraphernalia like hair accessories or beef jerky.
The seminars offer solid information for beginners and midlevel gardeners. Same goes for the garden displays — for anyone with a blank slate who is looking for ideas, it still is a great place for inspiration or, at the very least, to satisfy a curiosity about how others build out their garden spaces.
And pending all else, you can swing by Fancy Fronds and meet the lively Judith Jones. That alone is worth the cost of a ticket.
Amy Pennington is a Seattle cook, urban farmer and author. Visit her website at amy-pennington.com. Look for her garden-featured NW Living stories to debut in Pacific NW magazine on April 15. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.