San Francisco Flower & Garden Show: display gardens

In yesterday’s teaser post about the San Francisco Flower & Garden show I mentioned some of the general trends I noticed. Today I want to take you to the display gardens where you’ll see these trends interpreted in different ways. Since taste is extremely personal (and in my case barely predictable), I may make some unflattering comments about displays you yourself may like. If that’s the case, please apologize my frankness. I’m not trying to step on anybody’s toes or belittle the hard work that went into each and every display. However, some display gardens I simply couldn’t stomach. But a strong reaction like that is still better than indifference and boredom. There was really nothing that bored me!

Walking into Expo Hall where all the display gardens are located, this was the first thing I saw and I loved it. Minimalistic, serene and involving water and stone: right up my alley.

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The second thing that jumped out at me was this rusted sheet of corrugated sheet metal forming the backdrop for a freshly leafed out tree. I love textures like that, and I was wishing I had enough of this sheet metal to cover the wooden fence in our backyard. This is the look I’d been thinking about for years.

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The first display garden I focused on was “Dynamic Reflection” by French’s Waterscapes, LLC & Mariposa Gardening & Design.

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According to the official statement:

Dynamic Reflection is a public gathering space, dedicated to the community. The garden is inspired by the way the Occupy Movement has brought people from across the globe to fight for justice and equality in their own nations. The garden is a tribute to those who have used public spaces to gather in peace and in unity. It is a space where people have come together to build the leaning flagstone wall, in collaboration. In addition, we demonstrate many ecological uses in the garden; it uses gray water filtration techniques to bio-activate the water; it incorporates a native grass seed lawn, mixed with native wildflowers; it creates habitat for butterflies, birds, dragonflies, frogs, and other pollinators; and it conserves water by cleaning and reusing water that is diverted from the storm drain and sewer systems.

Well, I can’t say I got all out that of the display, but I loved the stacked-stone walls that incorporated a variety of things, from the Buddha face I showed you yesterday to urns and even boulders.

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The water garden was on top of the display. Pretty nice, but a bit too cluttered for my taste.

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The next display I checked out was “SAVANNA!” by Rock & Rose Landscapes & Greenlee & Associates. Just so you know what you’re looking at, here’s the official blurb:

Take a walk on the wild side. Refreshingly new and exotic, yet a home in our climate, the sub-tropical, tall-grass Savanna is an exciting addition to the Bay Area garden palette. Stroll through rustling reeds and gargantuan grasses, and be alert to the sounds and the smells, the textures and the colors, the drama and the mystery. Now, Garden Voyager, sally forth, the Savanna beckons; but watch your step! Who knows what exciting treasures lurk around the bend, hidden in the grass?

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At first glance, the display seemed overgrown and not very inviting, but when I began to look closer, I noticed lots of plants I love: restios and aloes from South Africa, dyckias and beschornerias from Central and South Africa, bamboo and giant grasses from China. Interspersed between the plant material were various pieces of garden art.

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As much as I ended up liking the previous display in spite of my initial response, the next one was just too over the top. The concept of of the Darjit garden:

[…] is to empower by demonstrating how to reuse cultural waste to create and beautify outdoor living space without making more demand on natural resources.  It will be a sculptural garden made from recycled material, featuring Darjit and Mosaics, old car tires, plastic bottles, shattered safety glass, broken bottle glass, glass bottles, scrap steel, etc. There will be a central steel tower holding up a canopy of hanging gardens. Entrance columns lead to Darjit sculptures that create seating/congregating areas. An aeration water feature pond, three gray water systems demonstrating how to safely irrigate with the different types of gray water produced by a home, and some cleaning system’s that are good for use in the garden.

I’m all for reuse and recycling, but the display I saw didn’t jive with that description. I think a simpler design would have brought the message across much better. Instead, this is what my eyes focused on: a giant golden dragon and a weird suspended flower disgorging water from up high. Too much spectacle and not enough substance for me to sink my teeth into.

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The garden right next to it was just the opposite. San Francisco-based Academy of Art’s “Urban Habitat” was unpretentious and gritty and seemed content to just be there, waiting for people to come explore. My response was pretty much what the space’s creators had intended:

The world has reached a population of 7 billion people! This astronomical jump in the number of humans that inhabit the earth has spatial and environmental consequences which in turn have societal, economic, and cultural implications for each and every one of us.

As cities become denser with buildings, and the number of people that live in each square mile grows exponentially, the need for accessible and dynamic open space increases. Please for respite, places for play, and places for social interaction, become the relief that we need from our otherwise hectic lives.

In addition to these spaces being dynamic and accessible, Urban environments have a need for “dual use” spaces that cane have completely different functions based on the time of day or week, For example an urban open space could be a: Park by day, and parking by night, or outdoor food vending space during the week, and gallery exhibit during the weekend, etc…

“Urban Habitat” is a dual-use parklet that is designed to provide a public place for citizens to relax and enjoy the atmosphere of the city around them, while allowing for participation in activities such as gardening. This parklet embraces the recycle and reuse of urban elements such as “dumpsters” to provide planting areas, seating, while also acting as “urban art” canvases for graffiti artists.


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The contrast between “Urban Habitat” and the next display couldn’t be any greater. “Timeless Peace” has a great name but to me it was the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink (or in this case bathtub) garden. The intent of the creator was this:

The world’s natural beauty is all around us. Award winning landscape designer Dan Pozzi specializes in creating themed gardens to transport the most stressed into another dimension. Our garden title “Timeless Peace” incorporates rustic focal points and natural elements in a natural style of design. We will combine a native woodsy feel with proven showy ornamentals. “Timeless Peace” is our goal for all viewers.

But my response with this: AAAARGHHHHHH! My eyes didn’t know what to look at. Foliage plants, flowering plants, bamboo, rocks, wood, water, a rusted wheelbarrow, a wagon wheel, the entire front of a Depression-era car: I had a hard time taking it all in. I can definitely see the “rustic” part, but peaceful? That it was not.

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While I couldn’t wait to get away from the previous display, I could easily have spent an hour or two relaxing in the next one. “Windows” by McKenna Landscape ended up being one of my favorite two displays. I loved the seemingly simplistic, yet sophisticated and luxurious oasis presented here. The giant boulder that was both a water feature and a garden table was ingenious. Here’s the official write-up:

Each of us sees the environment from our own point of view, our own window. This garden offers a new window through which to see landscape design in our back yards. A unique melding of an eclectic, vintage style with modern lines to keep it fresh and comfortable. The use of primarily recycled and re-purposed wood and metal products are used in a new way to create a welcoming and personalized style suitable for anything from a cocktail party to a quiet afternoon with a book. These recycled products alongside stone, that will not need to be replaced in our lifetimes, and drought tolerant botanical provides an intriguing and exciting tableau for any Bay Area garden.

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The nook shown in the next photo was also part of the “Windows” garden. It was the most inviting space in the entire show. If there was one thing I truly coveted for my own garden, it was this corner. Magical!

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“La Vie En Vert” by Outdoor Environments sounded intriguing on paper:

Serenity surrounds you; the peaceful sweep of the pendulum, the lovely green of the palms. All is quiet here. Water flows by the power of the sun. The patterns in the sand compel meditation. Patiently, the carnivores lie in wait. The only sound is water flowing.

I didn’t see any carnivores lying in wait (although I must admit I was very hungry at that point) and the only sound I heard was the chatter of a few thousand visitors. I thought the daybed with its giant canopy was a guilty pleasure but the pendulum was just as contrived as the French name.

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However, there were elements in “La Vie En Vert” that I really liked. The use of pavers to replace 1/2 of the grass was great. You still get the lushness of a lawn but at half the water consumption.

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And this table—suggesting a gas fireplace—built on top of a gabion filled with rocks was fantastic.

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The swinging pendulum propelled me to the next garden, and I was wholly unprepared for the onslaught my senses were about to suffer. The name “Imagine… Endless Possibilities…” did suggest a certain richness:

A garden for a green earth can be dramatic, fabulous, and magical. We will create an inspiring garden filled with fantasy and fun using simple tenets of green gardening that anyone can do. Rediscover the celebration of nature with recycled natural and reclaimed materials. Reduce your carbon footprint using simple steps to create a dramatic and exciting retreat for you and your loved ones. There is no limit to the ways in which an individual can contribute. We invite you to take a deep breath…relax and delight in the possibilities and the shared desire for a greener earth.

“No limit” is the key phrase here. I have never seen a space filled with more stuff than this one. I couldn’t help but wonder if the designer had the bought the complete inventory of a home design store and a Walmart garden center. Chinese umbrellas, Buddha statues, Indian elephant gods, leatherette-covered seat cushions, white picket fences, concrete pavers, crushed glass mulch, azaleas, tulips, vegetables, bromeliads, succulents, bust-shaped floral forms stuffed with orchids, AAARGHHHHH, will someone please make it stop?!?

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Thank goodness relief was only a few steps away. West Valley College’s “PLANit Green” display was the polar opposite of the pull-out-all-the-stops approach of the previous display. Created by the Landscape Architecture Student Club under the tutelage of Leslie Peluso and Jeanne Eige, this is:

A symbolic garden, itself inspired by Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech (1994), is intended to inspire guests to re-connect with our home planet by thinking globally and acting locally.  A swirling “Milky Way” planting area surrounds a pervious “Earth” pavilion.  Fabricated of materials which include recycled plastic bottles, four living columns, each representing a classical element, provide cooling to counter the heat-island effect created by hard-scape materials, including recycled “Urbanite.”  Other sustainable concepts demonstrated include the use of recycled metals, reclaimed wood, eco-friendly finish products, locally-acquired rock, recycled glass, and LED lighting.  PLANit Green is responsible, provocative, and beautiful.

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I loved the simple color and plant palette offset by the seductively shimmering steel wall.

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The highlights of this display were the metal columns planted from top to bottom with lush green. The column on the left was dripping water from the top, creating a micro oasis of lush coolness. The column on the right had a fan recessed into the ground that set the leaves of the plants aflutter, suggesting a cool ocean breeze. I would have gladly taking the entire display home with me, even if it meant ripping out our existing landscaping.

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There were a few more display gardens but they didn’t speak to me, either positively or negatively, so I just walked through them.

The rear half of Expo Hall was taken up by over a hundred vendors. (The plant vendors were in Fiesta Hall, a separate space. I will talk about that in tomorrow’s post.) Candy and I were mentally exhausted after having spent two hours plant shopping, taking in Debra Lee Baldwin’s presentation and walking through the 20 display gardens. We did check out the vendor section but didn’t spend too much time here. Still, a few things leaped out at me and I want to briefly touch on them.

I had already admired the rock-filled gabion at the “La Vie En Vert” garden. The Lyngso Garden Materials booth also featured rock-filled gabions, including this one sitting in the middle of the floor. In a way I can’t fully explain, this simple wire cage was to me the most beautiful object I saw at the show. I want a few of these for my own backyard. They’re very relaxing to look at and offer great seating—just throw a padded cushion on them.

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After I broke our glass-top patio table earlier this year, we’re still in the market for a new table. There were plenty to choose from. However, this one was definitely not it. It would look perfect in the “Imagine… Endless Possibilities…” garden I showed you earlier or in a Nevada brothel, but just like heavy gold chains nestled in a bed of chest hair, it’s just not my thing.

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However, these teak lounge chairs and oversized lamps were mighty tempting if it hadn’t been for the sticker shock-inducing price tags.

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I’m a big proponent of raised vegetable beds—the soil warms up quicker so vegetables grow faster, and harvesting your spoils is easier on the back—but these were were the tallest veggie beds I had ever seen. Picking these veggies would require virtually no leaning over at all!

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The last display we stopped at before heading home was the DYI succulent table built by Matti Salomaki of Far Out Flora. It was featured in Sunset Magazine and has been a big hit. Count me among the ardent fans of Matti’s design (and do check out Matti and Megan’s fantastic blog).

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Check back on Saturday for a tour of the plant marketplace at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show.

As I said yesterday, the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show runs through Sunday, March 25th at the San Mateo Event Center in San Mateo, CA. All the info you need is on their web site:

Other 2012 SF Flower & Garden show posts:


  1. Another incredible post on our super trip. Your photos inside the expo building are fabulous. You really know how to adjust your setting's. I just don't get this concept so my indoor photo's are not as great as yours! Great information and I am so right there with you on your interpretations!

    1. I forgot to mention in my post how awful the light was. Lots of orange (!) lights that really messed up my photos. I had to spend quite a bit of time in Photoshop removing the orange cast as best I could.

    2. I want to thank you for taking the time to clean up your pics. I know that the lighting makes it a challenging venue to get any photo. BTW, really great selection you have of the show! Matti

  2. A fabulous post as always! I was looking forward to this as I'm always interested on what's on show at various garden shows happening around this time. And there's always so much inspiration you can 'take home' just by looking at the photos. Even if the entire element of the photo/display is not to my liking, some bits of it can be applicable.

    It was entertaining to read your reviews, of which nearly all of it I agree. The first display is gorgeous, imagine that outdoors in daylight! And love that earthen vase/urn incorporated on the stone slab wall is fantastic!!

    1. The stone wall in that first display was truly spectacular. So much texture! They had also stuck small plants in crevices, and I was envisioning all the things I could do with succulents, which wouldn't need much water.

  3. Great tour! Like you, some of these I couldn't live with, but others have some fantastic features. I really love that bench/couch and some of the other elements.

    These gardens really are about inspiration, and I am inspired. Thanks!

    1. Inspiration is the name of the game at these shows. It was like being invited to 20 different houses to see their backyard.

      And I learned something even from the gardens I didn't like, including the need to edit myself and not stuff too many disparate elements into one space.

  4. Just discovered your blog. This is a such a fantastic tour of the show. I'm totally with you in your assessment. I've never been to one of these shows, but shows like them. You are right, you need to not react to the schmaltzy stuff and focus on the ideas within the displays. Sometimes hard to do. I LOVE the Urban Habitat and Windows seemed lovely. My sensibility with gardens and outdoor spaces is to keep them simple, include inviting features that are in tune with nature as much as possible. So these overdone acts are hard to understand. But that's just me. So much these days reminds me of the "heavy gold chain nestled in chest hair" aesthetic as you put it so perfectly!! I'm definitely going to share your insightful review!! Thanks!

    1. Welcome, Laguna Dirt! I'm very happy that you enjoyed my post. Like you, I prefer a straightforward, simple approach that is mindful of each individual element.

      I was glad to see that minimalist aesthetic well represented at the show even though the over-the-top displays invariably attracted more attention.

  5. Just discovered your blog. Thanks so much for this great post with pictures of the SF Garden Show, I've been wondering if some blogger would attend and post their photos. My reaction is similar to yours, in terms of what I like and what I don't like in show gardens. The ones at last month's Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle (I'm in the PNW) were rather similar in their over-the-top presentations.

    1. Alison, I'm so glad you found Bamboo and More. This was my first visit to a "big" flower and garden show and I enjoyed the contrast between the things I was attracted to and the things that made me shudder. And there were some surprises: I wouldn't have thought I'd like a simple wire cage filled with rocks so much!

  6. I purposely didn't read your post last night when I saw it because we went to the show today. I wanted to have fresh eyes and not be swayed by what I saw on your blog. Well heck! We pretty much had the same opinion across the board. Probably going to be awhile before I get my pictures edited and posted but I can only hope they turn out 1/4 as good as yours.

    1. Loree, I can't wait to read your post. Were you also bothered by the orange lighting in the Expo Hall? What was up with that???

    2. Not all the gardens seemed to have it (that crazy dragon business was the worst) but those that did were horrible. It was however on par with the "theatrical" lighting in the gardens at both the Seattle and Portland shows. I just don't understand why it's necessary!

    3. We DO NOT need or want theater lighting in flower and garden show! I wonder who ever comes up with these insane ideas.

  7. I loved seeing the show through your eyes. I visited the show on Friday and fairly quickly became overwhelmed with "show fatigue" and headed straight to the plant vendors. I see now in your post that there was much to admire, so thank you for the second look! Greenlee's grasses and 'Windows' were my faves too.

    1. Denise, we decided to go to the plant market first because I was afraid I'd suffer burnout. And indeed, after two hours in the Expo Hall I was ready to leave. It really does take more than one day to do everything justice.

  8. Great post, and good comment about the lighting. I created a display garden at the SF Flower and Garden Show two years ago, and I truly became a lighting diva. The theatrical lighting was all wrong, and very difficult to get from being too blue or too orange (it seems like all of the gardens used the damn orange lights this year). I had the poor lighting techs changing my lights every night of the show! Also, the orange color completely changes the true colors of the plants, which is what we're all there to see, right?

    1. I couldn't agree more about the orange light. The effect is like the sodium vapor streetlights we have: At night everything reduced to shades of orange and gray.

      Who makes lighting-related decisions at the show? I hope they'll get enough complaints that next year we'll be blessed with *white* light.

    2. The garden creators get to make the decisions, and I can see the reasoning behind the need to create a "warm" lighting effect (to simulate morning or late afternoon sun) or a "cool" effect (moonlight). It's just hard to imitate within the parameters of a convention center. However, there were a few garden creators this year that opted out of theatrical lighting all together, and their gardens seemed very stark and uninviting because of it. It's a double-edged sword. If only the orange lights weren't so deeply hued....

  9. Thanks for the great post (and thanks to Denise for the heads-up). I can get behind a 'busy' garden is there is some unifying theme (I recall fondly the New Orleans Courtyard garden from a couple years ago) --my own garden will win no awards for restraint! But that Endless Possibilites--oy !

    1. I'm not one for restraint either--even though I love the concept of minimalism--but Endless Possibilities was too "endless" for me.

  10. New to your blog, but am saving it in my favorites, love the commentaries, they made me laugh. waving hi from the hills of North Carolina :)

    1. Sandee, welcome to my blog! I'm very happy that you saved it in your favorites. I have several friends who used to live in North Carolina and they say it's a beautiful state. My only experience, I'm sad to say, is changing planes in Charlotte once :-).

  11. Charlotte is way too crowded, come on up to the hills of North carolina where the temperature is cooler and the people are laid back and friendly! Thanks for the welcome :)

  12. Really good post, thanks. I think your comments are spot-on. I almost got to go, but life intervened. Maybe seeing it through your eyes was better anyway!


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