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For the nearest world-class flower show, head north: San Francisco's dramatic event will be dazzling visitors for five days next week.

March 11, 2004|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

Despite its size, Southern California has never had a world-class flower show like the justly famous Chelsea in London or the Philadelphia show in this country. Shows like these are the gardener's equivalent of auto shows -- dreamy events that inspire and aim to sell a few vehicles or a little vegetation.

We do have the Southern California Spring Garden Show, a good-sized and genuinely fun event held in early April at a Costa Mesa shopping mall, but it hardly compares to the huge, awe-inspiring Northwest Flower and Garden Show, held earlier in the year at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. Or to the slightly smaller but still spectacular show in San Francisco, which opens Wednesday and runs through next weekend at the venerable Cow Palace.

This show is no simple, aw-shucks production, and if it had been in the recent Oscar competition, it would probably have won in multiple categories, perhaps for art direction, visual effects and makeup, and probably a Technical Achievement Award as well -- for the dramatic stage lighting and the organizers' ability to keep living plants looking fresh and vibrant for almost a week indoors (don't try this at home).

The dramatic display gardens -- built especially for the five-day event -- fill the arena, while other buildings house about 350 commercial vendors, exhibits by local gardening groups and other related displays and events. There are 35 talks by expert gardeners, this year including heavyweights such as writer Ken Druse and Michael Marriott from David Austin Roses.

Sometimes the scale of the display gardens is immense. They are lighted by banks of theatrical lights -- 350, in fact -- not sad rows of flickering fluorescents. Most of the gardens are tiered and two stories tall. Even the walls are draped with plant-themed curtains so nothing distracts from the dramatically illuminated gardens.

This year's crop of 22 gardens and 13 vignettes sounds promising. How about one called "Contemporary Pompeii" by Arborealis Landscape Design, "Imagineight" by Organic Mechanics or "Bedouin Sands" by Garden Design Magazine/Jack Chandler & Associates. "A Garden of Sustainable Delights," by Second Nature Design: Sustainable Landscapes, is right on the money when it comes to new gardening trends and directions.

Just remember that this is a show, and, as with sculptor Robert Irwin's Getty Garden, everything you see may not actually grow harmoniously together in your home garden, or bloom at the same time as the plants do here, or even survive in our more southern clime. But it's guaranteed to get the gardener's heart racing and ideas flowing.


California shows

San Francisco Flower and Garden Show: March 17-21. Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. For information, call (415) 771-6909; Regular admission: $20.

Southern California Spring Garden Show: April 1-4. For information, call (714) 435-2171; Admission and parking are free.

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