Mar 20, 2009

Best In Show

If you were following me on twitter yesterday you know I was at the SF Flower & Garden Show. It's an interesting show for a number of reasons: the new venue, the specter of finality (since lifted), and — I'm sorry, I have to say it — the meh-ness of the gardens themselves.

Why do people go to garden shows? In a word, for inspiration. We want to see the newest plants, the prettiest pots, the brightest flowers. We want to be captivated by bold visions and ooh and ah over their realizations.

(Now, a disclaimer: I have never exhibited in a show like the SFFGS. It is an extraordinary commitment of time, energy, goodwill and money, none of which I have in excess. And anyone who does undertake a display has my respect and admiration — regardless of my opinion of the results.)

Rebecca Coffman's outdoor indoor showerSo to my mind, there are two kinds of show gardens that really knock socks off: one is the garden you, the viewer, could actually implement at your own home but had never thought to. This is the triumph of creativity over reality, doing more with less, making your rooftop into a succulent paradise, using radiators for retaining walls, breaking rules of logic (but not of nature: there's no pretending that the purple Dodonaea will stay a cute little foundation shrub, no matter how cool it looks against the blue spruce). Last year Rebecca Coffman did a nice job bringing the indoors out, and Michelle Derviss took my breath away with her zen spa garden.

Livin' Cheap in BajaThe other type is the garden that you, the viewer, could never possibly implement because it has never existed before and can never exist again. This is the triumph of imagination over reality: doing more with more, creating soaring masterpieces that Kublai Khan would envy. The best example from my recent memory was Gary Gragg's 2006 pipe dream: you couldn't do this at home, you wouldn't, but it really engaged your imagination and inspired that "what if...?" feeling that gives designers like me the bum's rush.

At this year's show, I saw a bunch of pretty plants; I saw a lot of big plants crammed into small spaces; and I saw a lot of ideas — but not a lot that successfully made the leap to reality. I liked Studio Replica's oversize concrete pots. I loved Andrea Hurd's dry-stacked stone wall and arch. I was impressed with Tilden Landscaping's craftsmanship in stone, metal and wood. I was utterly confused by the Urban Garden from UC Berkeley students (hey "kids": show, don't tell). But I didn't see Xanadu; and only one garden really stayed with me after I had left: Rebecca Cole's "Sky's The Limit," which earned too many awards to list.

Alice has some nice images of Rebecca's show (as well as others) over at Bay Area Tendrils; and you can see and read Rebecca's own experience with the exhibit on her blog. The reasons I think it was successful are straightforward: she had a simple concept, executed with a simple palette of colors and materials. Period.
Rebecca didn't try to shove two acres of plants into 200 square feet. She didn't try to pretend that Ceanothus and Lavandula bloom at the same time. She used materials available to us all, creatively, artfully. And we ooh and ah, and go home to figure out how we might achieve a little of the same. In other words, she inspired us.

Brava, Rebecca. You truly are the best in show. And to every other designer reading this: how are you going to raise the bar over the next year?


Ryan said...

Garden shows are interesting; it's a blank slate, you can do anything you want. Having done the garden show, I can say that one huge factor is the budget. Last year the garden sponsored by Garden Design magazine won the most awards, this year the garden sponsored by Smith and Hawken won the most awards. It would be nice to design your own curtain and tile patterns, pay a wholesaler to grow your green wall... I had more respect for Zen Spa Garden and Rebecca Coffman's garden, ul;timately, than I did for the Garden Design magazine garden last year, and I much prefer the living wall done by Fiddleleaf over the one by Rebecca Cole. I guess I just come in much more strongly on the 'this would actually be possible'/DIY side of things.

John said...

Ryan, you make a good point. We should all be so "lucky" to have big name sponsors for our gardens! And you're right that Rebecca Cole played it safe by outsourcing a lot of her set, as opposed to Michelle Derviss who spun gold from thin air. Frankly, as much as I liked Rebecca's design, I thought it a standout only in the context of the current show; it doesn't hold a candle to Michelle's in terms of visual impact and sheer ingenuity. I actually am a little tired of succulents at these shows - they are just too easy to pop into place wherever you need a little (or big) punch, without worrying about bloom cycles, irrigation, etc. And for us DIY types, I think it would be really valuable if the exhibitors would post their gardens' cost per square foot!