The San Francisco Flower and Garden Show takes place this week, replete with rare plants, elaborate and unusual display gardens with themes ranging from high concept to the horticultural equivalent of comfort food, and a myriad of garden-related products and services for sale.
Full garden displays, thematic displays, and sales areas make up three major elements of the five-day show inside San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
If you go, a sensible agenda is to start with the big garden displays, take a swing through the thematic exhibits, and finish up with the sales areas. Allow at least half a day—there are six acres of displays and sale booths.
The main oval arena of the Cow Palace is geographically central to the show.
The arena floor is subdivided into irregular garden plots. Each garden is planned and assembled by a different designer or design team. Curtains block off the surrounding galleries of seats, and the displays are brightly and artificially lighted from above.
Look up above the arena floor and a bit of the effect is lost, but seen up close the displays do give a pretty convincing impression of outdoors.
Most of the exhibitors are in professional practice as landscape architects or designers; a few are teams of students from landscape design programs (including that at UC Berkeley), and this year there’s even a display garden sponsored by the Mycological Society of San Francisco.
These are opulent productions. Whole ponds, working fountains, and waterfalls often appear, along with woodland glades, room or cottage-sized garden structures, tons of soil, mulch, and decorative stone, lawns and patios, meandering paths, and full sized trees and shrubs in either ornamental planters or boxes concealed by hardscape and other plantings.
The styles of the gardens are very eclectic, but if these displays could talk, most would probably say one of two things. “You can have me, but only if you have enough money.” “Never seen anything like THIS before, have you?”
Some displays are just landscape eye-candy with little connection to reality. For example, plants that require a bit of room to spread their roots and leaves are sometimes shown packed impossibly close together for visual effect.
In other displays in recent years, “outdoor rooms” complete with fine wooden or upholstered furniture looked enticing at first glance. In the real outdoors moisture, sun, and insects would quite quickly make them less attractive and useable, unless the owner is a Martha Stewart with endless money and staff to keep up appearances.
Still, the displays are fun to walk through, and some can be quite simply beautiful for their specimen plants or overall design.
This year some of the more intriguing display descriptions include “a contemporary San Francisco Garden,” “Waterfall Fantasy with Countryside Comforts,” “American Arts and Crafts Garden,” a garden inspired by a Petrarch love poem, and a Japanese tea garden layout planted with succulents, called “Succulent Origami.”
At each display there should be someone on hand to answer questions if you want to know what that stunning flower is or who built the remarkable pergola, or why “enormous bales of aluminum scrap” are incorporated in one garden.
Beyond the big exhibits, smaller thematic displays are scattered in the outer pavilions and even the hallways. The San Francisco Bonsai Society’s display is worth a lingering look, as is an annual display of newly introduced plants.
A section of one pavilion is devoted to educational organizations, mainly government programs, and non-profits. Spend some time there if you want to bond with fellow iris, rhododendron, or native plant lovers or to learn about water conservation, bee-keeping, invasive plants, or mosquito abatement.
More than 60 free seminars, demonstrations, and presentations will be offered by various gardening experts during the show, and several food service areas. Check the program for exact schedule.
Next, the shopping. The show offers hundreds of vendors and dealers with booths. A sizable pavilion is devoted to orchid dealers and another contains mainly garden furniture and outdoor spas and cooking equipment.
The “Plant Market” houses specialty nurseries and growers from big companies to backyard operations, most offering hard to find and good quality potted plants. Some of these dealers sell direct to the public only at shows like this.
Besides plants, vendors offer bird feeders and bird houses, hot tubs, pole pruners, concrete pavers, ornamental stones and fountains, miracle fertilizers, amusing and weird garden sculpture, outdoor lighting, greenhouses, benches and barbecues, and almost any other garden product you can imagine.
Some shopping tips. If you see a type of item you’re interested in, take a quick turn around the rest of the sales area to see whether anyone else has the same thing at a different price.
Ask yourself whether that plant will really do well in your home and garden. Instant allure can easily turn into disappointment or regret.
Scattered package check areas can temporarily relieve you of your purchases; just make sure you get back to pick up your items before the show closes each day.
Finally, if you are interested in something that’s beyond your budget at full price, Sunday afternoon, the last day of the show, is the time to look for discounts.
Dealers who have traveled long distances or don’t want the cost or bother of hauling merchandise back home, especially if it’s heavy, bulky, or perishable, can offer enticing discounts on all or part of their remaining stock.
The show runs Wednesday, March 16, through Sunday, March 20, 9 a.m.-8 p.m., except Sunday, when the show closes at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets are $20, free for children under four, $7 for children 4-11, $13 “half day” discounted ticket if you arrive after 3 p.m.
Call 1-800-569-2832 for ticket information, or visit www.gardenshow.com.
The Cow Palace is on Geneva Avenue in southeastern San Francisco, west of Highway 101. Pay parking is available in lots at the Cow Palace.