THE Northwest Flower and Garden Show is only six years old, but it already draws the third-most visitors of any flower show in North America.
The five-day show here, which closed Feb. 13, drew a paid attendance of 81,000. Only Philadelphia and Boston draw a bigger crowd, but they have each been around for more than a century.
Show President Duane Kelly attributes much of the success to the quality of the exhibits.
Lyle Gerrits, a pleased visitor from Mt. Vernon, Wash., notes another reason: Residents of this temperate, rain-soaked region are thoroughly devoted to gardening. In February, when other parts of the country are still blanketed in snow, crocuses, daffodils, and tulips have already pushed their green leaves above the soil here.
Under the sheltering roof of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, however, the flowers were fully developed - many having been forced into bloom in artificially warm conditions.
``You get to look at spring before it actually gets here,'' says Mr. Gerrits, who came to the show with his mother. Among the out-of-town visitors for several years has been world-renowned garden-planner Rosemary Verey, who says she sees a kinship between the Pacific Northwest and her native England.
``You grow the same plants that I do. They're in exactly the same state as my own garden when I left 10 days ago,'' she told an audience at one of several dozen seminars given at the show by gardening experts and authors (see related story, left).
Ms. Verey, who says England may be ``the best climate for growing plants,'' is eager to see Northwest gardens in summer - something, she will be able to do for the first time this year. ``I just feel that I've got to learn all about it,'' she says.
She got a preview of sorts at the flower show, but the exhibits here were indoors under artificial light, unlike London's famous Chelsea show, much of which is in the open air.
``Water, Water Everywhere,'' was the appropriate theme of this year's show. The weather obliged by pelting the Seattle area with rain during part of the time.
The many pools and fountains throughout the show added a splash of credibility to the water theme and used 25,000 gallons of water.
The water focus invited an Oriental influence in many of the exhibits, including ``way more rocks'' and bamboo than in previous years, says Mary Booth, the show's garden-design coordinator. One of several stunning examples among the 34 exhibits was by Iseli Nursery of Boring, Ore., whose Japanese maple and Japanese black pine trees helped it win the Arboretum Foundation Award for best use of woody plants.
Top prize, however, went to a garden with neither water nor a Far East feel: The show's three judges presented the Founder's Cup to Christianson's Nursery for ``Enchanted April,'' which was centered around a rustic gazebo with a picnic laid out on the grass beneath. A fishing pole and an old-fashioned water pump on the periphery hinted at the aquatic theme.
Though this exhibit was one of the smallest, viewers seemed taken by the simple elegance of a variety of white flowers, with hints of pink or blue, set against contrasting green foliage. The display was lit as though bright sunshine were streaming down on it. Designers John and Toni Christianson are based in Mt. Vernon, a town north of Seattle that rivals the Netherlands as a home of splendid bulbs.
Another crowd-pleaser was the show's largest exhibit (3,000 square feet), ``Summer Rain,'' where a brief simulated shower hit promptly every quarter hour, supplied by spigots hidden in trees. The storm was followed by sounds of birds singing and shafts of ``sunshine'' from spotlights. The exhibit, a collaboration of three companies, won the People's Choice Award by vote of the visitors.
Show President Kelly says he is pleased that many exhibits were modest in size (as small as 200 square feet). ``A lot of people have small yards,'' he explains. ``We don't want people to feel you have to be a millionaire to have a nice garden.''
``Education is a very important mission of the flower show,'' Kelly adds. All plants in the exhibits are labeled, and Sunset Magazine sponsored 82 seminars, which were often packed with participants.
Among the show's other highlights:
* ``Jardin Encore,'' an herb garden in which pathways and the facades of two French row houses were made of recycled materials (hence the ``encore'' in the title). This was created by the King County Commission for Marketing Recyclable Materials. ``People are really excited about it,'' says project manager Joyce Gagnon, who gave out brochures listing suppliers of recycled products.
* ``ABCs of Water-Wise Gardening'' featured a colorful children's playhouse to entice kids to learn about the drought-resistant plants used in the garden. ``A typical Seattle summer has about a month and a half of no rain,'' notes Denise Dennis, who works with exhibit-creator Sue Moss Garden Design of Seattle. The exhibit uses plants that originated in the hot climate of the Mediterranean such as rosemary, lilacs, and bulbs.
* Gardener Hendrikus Schraven designed ``A Place of Mystery'' around a 4,700-pound pyramid-shaped crystal that is 1 billion to 2 billion years old. The translucent white crystal was on loan from Seattle's Museum Associates Gallery of Planetary Art. The gallery's associate director, Miriam Dyak, says the beautiful natural objects such as this one send out a ``strong environmental message.... You start to value what the earth creates, not just what people create.''
* Minter Gardens from Chilliwack, British Columbia, produced ``A Step Back in Time,'' a colorful array of flowers with a white Victorian porch in the background. Two white doves sat in a cage, with their backs shyly turned, as observers streamed by. Sweet-scented clematis climbed its way up one side of the garden.
* ``I'll Take Romance'' featured a pair of 10-foot topiary swans, which faced each other so that their curved necks created a heart shape appropriate for Valentine's Day. The creator was Topiary or Not Topiary of Hillsboro, Ore.
The show also included separate exhibition space for amateur floral arrangements and miniature gardens by children. Three hundred companies operated booths hawking everything from newfangled hoes (seen in the hands of many departing visitors) to hammocks.