AFTER 38 years, the L.A. Garden Show is finally on the verge of its quinceanera.
For many gardeners, it's a coming of age that's more than 23 years overdue. For decades, Southern California -- arguably the gardening capital of the country -- has watched other cities stage sequoia-sized exhibitions with lavish demonstration gardens and standing-room-only talks by botanical experts of national renown.
In Philadelphia, the annual garden show draws more than a quarter of a million people, whereas organizers of the L.A. show this weekend are hoping for 10,000. In Seattle, the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in February had 100 lectures aimed at gardeners of all levels; the L.A. Garden Show will have 10. The San Francisco Flower and Garden show a month ago had 23 garden displays. L.A. will have 12.
And that's the good news.
Mark Wourms, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, has led a crusade to raise the size, quality and prominence of the local show, doubling the number of landscape designers crafting displays and vendors selling plants since last year. It's Wourms' statement that the show -- and, indeed, the arboretum -- is not just for San Gabriel Valley residents but for all of Southern California.
One highlight this year is the premiere of a permanent exhibit at the arboretum: the Madagascar Spiny Forest, the Western Hemisphere's largest public collection of the island's bizarre flora. Other displays include designer Heather Lenkin's 900-square-foot garden planted with nine varieties of roses and mulched with colored glass, all to re-create the design of a Tiffany & Co. brooch; and Workshop Levitas' 250-foot bamboo installation, dubbed Minipi, that snakes its way from the main lawn to the Madagascar forest.
"Los Angeles leads the world in outdoor lifestyle," says Wourms, who has seen membership at the arboretum triple since he arrived in 2004. "What better place to have a world-class garden show than this setting?"
Indeed, Wourms dreams that the event formerly known as the Baldwin Bonanza plant sale (after the Arboretum's Baldwin Avenue address) will become an international attraction, in the same league as London's Chelsea Flower Show and the four major U.S. shows -- Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco.
To outsiders, the goal may seem like a stretch. Philadelphia and Boston go back more than a century, and Seattle and San Francisco each have budgets of about $2 million, not to mention paid staffs working year-round. The L.A. Garden Show is the product of arboretum staff backed by 450 volunteers and a budget of $150,000, plus in-kind donations.
Consider past attempts to ramp up the L.A. show to international status, and you realize the daunting challenge ahead. In 1991 Duane Kelly, founder and producer of the Seattle and San Francisco shows, came to L.A. to repeat his magic for the arboretum. After six months, he closed his office and went home, frustrated by the lack of industry support.
"These shows are just too difficult and too complex to be done as an offshoot of a botanical garden or an arboretum," he says. "The only way that nonprofits in Boston and Philadelphia are able to do it is that the shows started in the 1830s. They've matured and have a dedicated full-time staff.
Garden shows, Kelly says, "are financially very risky." His shows run five days to get maximum attendance with a minimum of expense. Wourms says he plans to extend his show next year to three days from two, and to keep increasing the length until it's a week-long event.
What the arboretum lacks in funding or staff, it makes up with one obvious advantage: the setting. All four of the major U.S. garden shows are held inside, usually in the last throes of bad winter weather. The show here, as in Chelsea, is held outside. Visitors to the arboretum find themselves on 127 acres framed by the San Gabriel Mountains -- a fine selling point for an event trying to establish itself as the largest outdoor garden show in the Southwest.
"We're different," says Jane Herrmann, L.A. Garden Show chairwoman. "Other shows are indoors and very commercially oriented. We do want to be a commercial success, but we're carving out a unique niche."
If organizers do elevate the show, says prominent Santa Monica landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power, it will be thanks to the cohesiveness brought by Wourms, who arrived at the arboretum after turning around the failing Kansas City Zoo.
"For a long time the arboretum had a lot of strife between people," says Power, whose Weaver's Garden is a permanent attraction at the park. Five years ago the garden show was "really sad," she says, "but every year since it's been getting better."