March 20, 2013

An Anthropologist and a Gardener

We have a first today for this blog -- a guest post.

You will recall that I visited the Philadelphia Flower Show earlier this month.

Fishing for Heritage
Jane Nadel-Klein
I went with Jane Nadel-Klein, who is an anthropology professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She has written a great deal about Scottish village life and published a book on the topic, Fishing for Heritage.  

She also teaches courses on the anthropology of place, and the culture of gardeners. And now, a new book is underway about the social connections we make in gardening.

For her, the flower show was book research -- a look into two cultures, Britain and America, sharing a gardening heritage. She has lived and done research in the U.K. and studied many gardens (and the people who make them) in England and America.

She is also a gardener herself, visiting the show for a little inspiration and fun.

Here is her post on why the flower show disappointed:

Why I won’t be going back to the Philadelphia Flower Show

This year, the show’s theme was “the British Invasion.” As a gardener, perhaps I may be forgiven the assumption that this would have something to do with the influence of British design on our gardens here in the United States. 

But no. Instead, with a few notable exceptions, the show was all about American visions of British popular culture. So horticulture displays relied upon cheap, superficial imagery – Union Jacks, Big Ben, a yellow submarine, umbrellas, Shakespeare, photos of various Royals, a statue of a cricketer – to say, “here is the United Kingdom.” There was a lot of red, white and blue. Why not just go to Disneyland and have done with it? 

To be fair, one nursery attempted to recapitulate Hidcote, another presented the Lost Gardens of Heligan (Cornwall), one wall did show the names of famous British gardens (Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, Hampton Court), and there was a very witty presentation of Alice in Wonderland. The  Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades in Pennsylvania offered a serious explanation of the early seed trade between Britain and America in the eighteenth century.

But by and large, I thought the show was a flop. Overall (and again, with some exceptions), the plant palette was wan, predictable and a bit boring. Personally, I like hellebores, but staged in stiff little groups under glaring fluorescent lights, they are not at their best. And someone should ban the use of hyacinths in closed spaces. 
There were so many stiff little clumps of hellebores.
More to the point, the British “invasion,” from a gardener’s point of view, should include some of the plants the Brits rely upon in their herbaceous borders, such as campanulas and alchemilla. 

There were so few iconic British flowers like campanulas
I get that the show is intended to be a spectacle, an entertainment. But does it have to be so shallow and uninformative? Why not educate as well? The last time I went, I got ideas about design. This time, I got bored and annoyed. I’ll save the money next year and go to a good botanical garden.

Thank you, Laurrie, for the chance to rant. 


  1. I have read reviews by others who said the same thing about this show. That's too bad because I know if you're like me, you really look forward to these shows. Anyway, happy first day of spring!! We have lots to look forward to in our own gardens!

  2. You're singing my song. I swore off flower shows years ago, turned off by the artificiality and sad excesses. It'll take some doing to get me back, and calling a show "British Invasion" is not the way for this ol' gardener who'd rather have individuality – than a hoard of sameness, captured plants in a horticultural zoo.

  3. Thank you, Laurrie. And Lee, a horticultural zoo might at least have some species diversity! But yes, the plants did look like unhappy captives.

  4. I went to Canada Blooms, the big yearly gardening show here in Toronto and felt just as disappointed. I used to love this show, but the recession took a heavy toll, and Canada Blooms is a but a pale shadow of its former self.
    The large display gardens were a bit tacky, if you ask me, and that sounds not unlike the Philadelphia Flower Show. I like to be inspired and see little ideas I can use. In the end, I came away with some pretty poppy pictures and little more. Not everyone shares my view however. I have read some positive reviews on a few of the other local gardening blogs. To each his own.

  5. Thanks for your review. I've never visited a Flower Show and this review does not inspire me to do so.

    But I do love Botanic Gardens and would very much like to hear which are your favorites either in the USA or internationally...

  6. Favorite botanic gardens - pretty much every one I've ever been to: Royal Botanics at Edinburgh; Inverewe in Ullapool, Scotland; Rosemoor and Wisely in England; Montreal; Chicago. Must see more.

  7. I am glad I didn't go all that way to be disappointed.

  8. I've only been to a few garden shows (Portland and Seattle) but I think that's pretty much what they are...silly. I think they are more of a diversion at the end of winter than anything else. Every year I swear I won't go again, that they are a waste of time and money...but every February, I'm so desperate for ANYTHING garden-related that I end up going again. Sigh.

  9. Well, I am an enthusiastic attendee of the Hartford Flower Show every year, paltry by garden show standards but for me it's all about managing expectations. I go with friends and we use it as an excuse to get out, smell some mulch, maybe pick up a few things at the vendors, then scoot out for a bountiful lunch at a local eatery. Have I been disappointed? Yes and no. I wish it could be more but I recognize that never will be and approach accordingly.

    1. I get some good tools at the Hartford show. Not so wild about the smell of mulch!

  10. I am all about learning something new. If something as spectacular as this was touted to be didn't educate, then I probably wouldn't go back, either. Perhaps they were targeting the non-gardenering public.

  11. I think it's great that people hear all views about things, the yays and the nays, this way we won't feel misinformed and disappointed.

  12. Very interesting! I think gardening is often presented with the assumption that the audience is only gardening for the decorative value plants offer and that we all aspire to have gardens that resemble the plantings at Disney World. Your description of the show as a a spectacle seems to be a good way to sum up most flower shows.

  13. Interesting opinion! I love English gardens and I think that they are worthy of emulation.
    Have a nice weekend!

  14. Thanks for such an interesting perspective! I've never been to the Philadelphia show, but went to the Chicago Show a week ago. I think the exhibitors sometimes have their own agenda and make only a half-hearted attempt to relate to the theme of the show. Still, I'm always happy to see something in bloom this time of year!

  15. Some interesting remarks about the commercial aspect of garden shows, it does seem a lot of it is about selling gadgets and gizmos rather than really sharing gardening ideas and using it as a chance to explore ideas.

  16. So how is England's Chelsea flower show so different from Philadelphia Flower Show? I've only ever been to Chelsea and apart from the shoulder to shoulder crowds its pretty interesting. Winning a gold medal for a designer at Chelsea is much like winning an Oscar. The media loves to cover the stories of the show and interview designers to get their point of view so you come away with a better understanding of the concepts. I don't think I've ever seen a designers name attached to the Philadelphia show or a company bragging about winning an award from their display. Does the lack of prestige play into the attempt made?

  17. Rob - I haven't yet been to Chelsea, but I'm going this year. One big difference is that the BBC broadcasts from Chelsea during the entire week of the show, so that the whole nation can participate on some level. That makes the stakes pretty high over there.

  18. Yes, it's too bad these shows don't show a little more imagination and as you said, it could have been an interesting opportunity to delve into some gardening history.


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