Notes From the Lawn

Forced: A Flower Show

Gardeners love to commune with nature. Though not as much as they love to commune with ice cream and plasma screens and loud noises and personality quizzes. Our writer reports from the middle of 33 indoor acres of plants.

A flower show is to gardening what the runway is to fashion: totally beyond the reach of mortals. And yet the same person who would never dream of buying several yards of silk in order to recreate the latest Marc Jacobs might just try her luck with a specimen from a flower show. Unless you have supernatural skills, I suggest the results will be about the same. My rule: Don’t bring home anything with roots.

On a Monday morning in March, I took my daughter to the Philadelphia Flower Show, the longest-running horticultural show in the country. Olivia is three, so our goal was the pursuit of pink. Pink flowers interest her, but so do pink hats, pink tights, pink bags, and pink ice-cream cones, all of which could be found in the convention hall that morning. We were astonished by the amount of pre-11 a.m. eating of ice cream. More accurately, I was dismayed (these were not the gardeners, surely?) while she was covetous. Unable to distract her from the frozen blooms—though the show garden filled with dozens of plastic Slinkys grabbed her attention for a few minutes—I succumbed.

It was not a bad idea. When our cones were finished, we had more energy for the floor, filled now with hordes of winter-weary citizens. My daughter’s ability to weave through the crowd, pulling me behind her, did not appeal to everyone. Many people begrudged us our speed as they stood in sluggish lines that rotated slowly around the show gardens. Most often it was not the ladies in hats and feathers who smiled at us and let my daughter cut in (where she would then kneel by the edge of the garden and look up appealingly), but the men in jeans with potbellies—the landscapers, I guessed, the real-life installers of gardens such as these, who waved us in and said things like, “Go ahead. Absolutely. Let her see.” A few grandmotherly types told my daughter that she looked pretty as a flower in her purple sweater. Olivia, still learning manners, mostly remained mute. The fifth or sixth time it happened, however, she looked up at the woman and said, “Meow.” I couldn’t help laughing. (Wasn’t she saying, “I’m as much cat as flower?”) But the woman frowned.

In the back corner of the hall, a geyser shot up every few minutes, accompanied by a spooky boom. The effect seemed more suitable for a theme park than a flower show, and yet it was the most congested corner of the hall. Why are people drawn to loud noises? I steered Olivia toward a garden that was specifically designed for quiet contemplation, a gorgeous space without much of a crowd around it. Part of the problem was that you couldn’t go in. You had to stand at the edge, contemplating your contemplation. Meta-contemplation, I guess, and not very satisfying. We went to see the geyser.

I coulda been a “tulip.” During lunch, I took the garden personality quiz in the show guide, eager to see how my own efforts would be classified by the professionals. A sample question: “In the garden, I wear ___ on my feet.” (My answer: “Flip-flops, sneakers, or nothing.”) After answering eight such questions, I discovered I am a “sunflower”: Nothing makes me happier than tending my vegetable patch in the summer. But I don’t have a vegetable patch; my husband does—and he wears old hiking boots. If only I’d answered “wellies,” I coulda been a “tulip.” (“Friends are impressed by your talents and maybe a little jealous, too.”)

Elsewhere, the guide explained that the show filled 33 indoor acres, over which one million plants were exhibited, most of them flowers that had been forced. “Forcing” is the term for tricking a plant into an early bloom. Looking around the cafeteria at the winter tans, the polished nails, the garden club women in their matching hats and scarves, the school girls in sundresses despite the lingering winter, it was clear the plants had company.

After lunch, we headed over to the window box competition, passing the lecture floor on the way. An event was in progress, more than 50 people gathered to hear a lecture titled “Daffodils.” Up next: “The Intelligent Use of Water and Mulch.” I briefly considered billing it to Olivia as “The Intelligent Use of Water and Mulch with Big Bird”—I figured I’d wing it somehow with all the daffodils about. After a minute, though, it occurred to me that it was probably better to be a good mother and a bad gardener than the other way around.

Touring the window boxes, I read with curiosity the “intent” statements. Apparently it isn’t enough to grow expertly an assortment of plants in a confined space. You also have to write a paragraph about how those plants make you feel, or, as some did, how the plants themselves might feel. “The sun rises and the plants begin their morning chorus…” Olivia asked me what was so funny, but I quickly diverted her—my own expert technique—with a juice box.

Along with everyone else, we stopped a few moments in front of the second place winner, a box from New Orleans. It seemed to me the loveliest in the competition and so I wondered why it hadn’t placed first: Were the judges afraid of being biased by the tragedy? Would that be so wrong in a flower competition?

On our way out, I overheard a woman say to a friend, “In gardens, the goal is to have color year round.” So true. As one thing fades, another comes into bloom. Life with no dull patches, in other words, which is hard to achieve. When I entered the hall, I’d smelled nothing but flowers. By the time I left, with a bunch of pussy willows in one hand and a grumpy toddler hanging off the other, all I could smell was people and food.

We caught a taxi home. Olivia fell asleep, and I forgot my bouquet on the seat.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane