PHILADELPHIA — Every year the Philadelphia Flower Show allows gardeners to ogle the latest plants and flowers. But this year's exhibits are as much about whimsy as gardening. It's not every day you come across:
* A Jack-in-the-Beanstalk garden that makes you feel 3 feet tall.
* A Benjamin Franklin birthday party where flowers are arranged on a Liberty Bell shaped table.
* A large garden whose central feature is a 20-foot stack of used tires - a tire spire, as it were.
Then there's John Story's mood gardens: four identically landscaped gardens in white, yellow, blue, and black.
A black garden?
Well, yes. "I don't know as black gardens are going to become popular," says Mr. Story, manager of Meadowbrook Farm nursery in suburban Philadelphia. "But these colors of leaves go well with other colors.
The plants aren't exactly black. The springtime pansy comes the closest. But there are dark purple varieties that look almost black under bright sunlight. Story has planted this garden with salvia splendens (known as "Hotline Violet"), a heuchera (known as Peek a Poo), Alternanthera dentala, and a small grass, called Black Mondo Grass.
The idea behind planting identical gardens in four colors is to demonstrate how colors can set a mood. Yellow is upbeat and joyous. Blue is cool and reflective. White stands for purity and innocence (and is also striking at night). Black is, well, a little forebidding.
Such whimsy is attention-getting, but it also gives gardeners ideas for using plants in new ways. "It's interesting to watch the stages that a flower show visitor goes through," says Jane Pepper, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and manager of the Philadelphia Flower Show. "The first time they might come to be oohed and aahed. And then they come back with questions."
The show runs many lectures and demonstrations throughout the week for the green-thumb set. This year, the show is also offering gardeners' workshops on topiary and seed-sowing. Ms. Pepper expects a record 300,000 visitors to attend the show, which runs through March 9 at Philadelphia's convention center.
Visitors will be greeted by several fanciful displays, such as the birthday tribute to Benjamin Franklin. Bruce Robertson Sr., a Philadelphia florist, has created a display around the intriguing idea of Franklin being alive today. Thus, in the garden, an old-style push mower competes for attention with a weed-whacker. Set around are tables in the shape of the Liberty Bell or propped up with fire axes to demonstrate Franklin's many interests.
Another whimsical exhibit is Rod Robinson's Jack-in-the-Beanstalk garden for the Camden Garden City Club of Camden, N.J. Everything is designed to make the viewer look small. A seven-foot tall picket fence looms to one side along with a replica bean stalk. The focal point is a bright yellow watering can - the size of a large trash container - spilling into the top of a huge flower pot. Scattered on the ground are coins the size of chocolate-chip cookies.
To make the plants seem giant-sized, Mr. Robinson has used hollyhocks, sunflowers, and white Crambe or "sea kale" that looks like oversize baby's breath, and unusual vines, such as bean plants and actinidia (a relative of the kiwi), to achieve the sense of bigness.
What people don't realize, Robinson says, is the planning and strategy that goes into creating an exhibit for a flower show. Months before, the designers have to decide which plants to force so that all elements will bloom at the same time. Nurseries have to force many more plants than they actually plan to use. That's partly because not all plants that are forced turn out. Many need to be replaced during the course of the week-long show to keep the exhibit at its peak.
This is a no-no from a horticultural point of view. Show goers are seeing spring and late summer flowers blooming together. But "you have to take a little bit of exhibitor's license with a flower show," says Ms. Pepper. The idea is to inspire gardeners.
Or shock them.
This year the show's judges bestowed the landscape award on Michael Petrie's recycled-tire garden. The exhibit has tires everywhere: tires for tractors, for cars, boats, airplanes, and earth movers. Even the garden's edging is made from cut-up steel-belteds that hit too many potholes.
And yet, somehow, it all works. A pleasant waterfall splashes down from the vine-covered tower of recycled tires. The garden's new plant varieties - including the Paris rose, a hardy boxwood known as Green Ice, and a brilliantly purple rhododendron called Purple Passion.
"The fact that the tires have dirt on them doesn't matter anymore," says Mr. Petrie, flower-show manager for J. Franklin Styer Nurseries in Concordville, Pa. "It's how the flowers are arranged. It's all aesthetically pleasing and exciting. So it's OK."
Does that mean there's a message behind the whimsy?
"A lot of the inspiration for this garden comes from the rural South, from urban gardeners, and gardeners in the country where they're forced to be resourceful - where they'll take a tire and make a planter out of it," he says. "We're trying to make people expand their horizons with gardening and get out of this little box that they put themselves in."
And, maybe, come to a flower show.