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S.F. Garden Show Mows Down the Competition

In California, this is the top showcase for landscape design, with dramatic displays in an indoor arena.


SAN FRANCISCO — To visit a world-class garden show in California, one unfortunately must travel north--to San Francisco. The annual San Francisco Flower and Garden Show drew 50,000 visitors last weekend to that city's venerable Cow Palace, with 6 1/2 acres of imaginative gardens, landscape designs and a variety of exhibits. There's nothing like it in the Southland.

The Los Angeles Garden Show, held outdoors at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County, had grand aspirations that were never quite reached after several years, and it was abruptly canceled in the fall. The mall-bound Spring Garden Show, at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa in April, is festive and has some delightful gardens, but it is no match for the show up north or those in Seattle, Philadelphia and Chelsea, in London.

The San Francisco show, which benefits the Friends of Recreation and Parks, has established a reputation for being on the cutting edge of garden design and innovation. And, unlike shows in Chelsea or even Seattle, the San Francisco event is relevant for Southern Californians, with lots of planning and planting ideas that work in our distinct Mediterranean climate.

A few gardeners have complained that the show lost some of its edge after being moved from waterfront Fort Mason three years ago, but in the cavernous Cow Palace (where rodeos were once held), it has picked up a grandeur and scale unimaginable at outdoor shows such as the Arboretum or even the Chelsea show.

Garden shows are not mere displays of cut flowers, neatly arranged in vases and judged on a range of criteria. Those are flower shows. Garden shows may include cut flowers but specialize in displaying whole gardens, artfully designed and planted by landscape professionals. They too are judged events and top gardens get awards, ribbons, publicity and, hopefully, lots of commissions for their designers.

The show gardens are the crowd pleasers. Sometimes practical and doable for home gardeners (but never in a dreary way), they are more often quite fanciful, even Disney-esque. The gardens are always lavishly landscaped, with living plants growing in nursery containers that are hidden by foliage or dark sawdust that doubles for dirt.

The exhibits in San Francisco were also incredibly elaborate--and big. Some gardens had frontages of 75 feet, wider than many real-life backyards. In some of the gardens there were even huge oak trees, 50-year-old grapevines and moss-covered boulders that weighed tons.

Santa Monica landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power--who is at work on the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. and just finished the Norton Simon Museum garden--was one of the judges at the San Francisco show. She is well-traveled and has seen her share of great gardens, but her comment on walking into the show was, "Wow, isn't this amazing!"

Each garden looked like a stage production, or museum display. Much of the arena interior of the Cow Palace was hidden behind huge painted scrims or black backdrops. The normal lighting in the windowless building was turned off. Instead, some 350 theatrical lights hanging high overhead spotlighted the gardens.

One show garden, "Streets of Europe," was paved with slabs of real limestone and lined with two-story, life-size structures that looked better than any you'll see on Hollywood's back lots. Designed by Kent Gordon England of Campbell, Calif., this show garden was so large that parts of it were on the other side of the main aisle. There were little landscaped gardens next to faux houses, flower-packed planters hanging from second-story windows and a small but complete street market displaying cut flowers and vegetables.

Another judge was England's respected wine and garden writer, Hugh Johnson, who found some of the exhibits "unbelievable," including "The Avant Garden," which won many of the honors, including awards from Fine Gardening and Garden Design magazines.

This innovative landscape, by UC Berkeley's Botanic Garden, also won top awards from several horticultural societies for its stunning use of unusual plants, like the explosive forms of Dasylirion longissimum or the silvery and spiky Puya venusta that were mixed with broken shards of flowerpots and feathery grasses and sedges.

Many of the gardens, including "Avant," could be seen from two vantage points: from the normal, ground-level aspect, or by walking up a ramp to a raised platform behind the exhibits. Seen from behind and above, some gardens took on an entirely different character, and a few had whole scenes--such as a complete patio and outdoor kitchen--that were hidden at ground level.

As you walked up the ramp next to the Berkeley garden, some stunning sculptural seating on the patio came into view and you discovered that the patio roof was "sodded" with succulents. Another house's roof had bright green grass and yellow daffodils--something that could only be seen from above.

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