Expert judgment at the Philadelphia Flower Show
From sweet peas to tactful brotherly love – a judge at the city’s flower show needs a broad eye for detail.
By the time Philadelphia says “arrivederci” to Bella Italia on Sunday, about a quarter million tourists will have stepped through her Roman arches, strolled past her Venetian wedding scene, envied her vegetable gardens, and ogled her opulently laid feasts. Italy is this year’s theme at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the giant redwood of such shows, the Olympic Games of horticulture.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Every visitor is an expert here, dropping, like petals, a trail of judgments about the authenticity of this 25-foot dogwood, or the appropriateness of that color stucco next to terra cotta.
And for validation of their horticultural acumen, visitors look to the pronouncements of the official judges – the American Beauties, if you will, in a world of wildflowers. Aha – you were right about that garden path – there’s the silver bowl. Here – here’s the blue ribbon. There’s the comment card that reads, simply, “WOW!!”
Judge Ginny Purviance is one of those charged with deciding what constitutes a Philadelphia Flower Show “wow.” She arrived at the cold and cavernous Philadelphia Convention Center late last week during setup. The air was sweet with mulch, and armies of workers moved plywood and rock and trees and sod hither and yon, constructing what would evolve into a show that’s a little bit marketplace, a little bit 4-H competition, and a whole lot of drop-dead, life-sized samplings of Italian life.
Deftly dodging it all, Ms. Purviance, in her red-rimmed glasses and leopard-print scarf, set off in search of perfection. One of 160 judges in the nation’s oldest and largest horticultural extravaganza, her job is to reward the best, yes, but in the process to educate exhibitors and viewers in the hallmarks of a winner.
“Your eye doesn’t want to be assaulted,” she explained at one stop in the academic display area. “It wants to be rested.” She found the country garden “very nicely done” with an interesting villa, an inviting terrace, nice flow, and a good mix of plants in top condition. And there’s good open space. Her one concern? That the exhibitors might litter their masterpiece with too much signage – a common flaw in educational exhibits.
She also found a roof garden thoughtfully exhibited at waist height, with access through a path up the middle. But she cautioned that roof gardens, while fashionable, are “very hard to achieve.”
But ethics dictated she avoid a certain area of the 10-acre floor until Saturday morning – the “display garden – floral” area (a new category here this year showcasing very sophisticated floral arrangements, separate from the usual “display garden – landscape” category that focuses more on grasses, trees, and shrubs). These exhibits are usually the showstoppers, and this year Purviance is chairing a three-judge panel charged with critiquing them. Previewing or learning the identity of an exhibitor you’re judging are flower show no-no’s.
Still, judges can sometimes tell who created a display, even with the signs covered. “If you’ve been doing it a while, you recognize a style,” she says. One tends to feature orchids; another has a characteristic lack of restraint.
• • •
Expert judging “gives the show credibility,” says Jane Pepper, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which produces the Philadelphia show. Widely considered the best of its kind, the 180-year-old production will add an estimated $35 million in business to the region this week, from tourism, vendor sales and show costs – not to mention kindling spring fever in all manner of Saturday diggers. The show also underwrites the countless projects of Philadelphia Green, the Horticultural Society’s urban revitalization program.
The economic boon is especially welcome this year, when many shows nationwide have had to cancel, close, or look for buyers. While a win here might bring some extra business to a florist or landscape designer, participation itself is the honor, conveying status on judges and exhibitors alike.