Garden Hits and Misses at Chicago Flower and Garden Show

Our Town Your Garden Chicago Flower and Garden Show.png
Today was the last day of the Chicago Flower and Garden Show and the themed concept was a hit, and a miss in some respects. Personally, I’m a big fan of garden themes. A themed garden can be fun, interesting and a good opportunity to teach and engage other people about your garden. Last year when I heard theater companies would be given creative control I was a little skeptical because it could’ve been over the top or looked liked like a high school stage production. Some of the gardens deserved a standing ovation and some shouldn’t have made it past a staged reading. So here is my opinion that nobody solicited. 
Garden Themes:
Hits: Alice’s Wonderland: Visually striking, some creative touches that can be incorporated into any garden. After the crowds dwindled it was even a bit interactive with kids playing in the croquet field after the Lookingglass Theater performers had gone for the day. 

Good VS. Evil: Inspired by “Wicked” this garden had some nice touches like the “A B C” created out of marigolds the visual pun of the garden beds and the green baby. 

Our Town: Your Garden: A collaboration between the Arthritis Foundation and James Martin Associates. It highlighted accessible gardening for people with disabilities or mobility issues. The icing on the cake was just how beautiful it was and how all the colors tied the whole set together. 

Great Performances Through the eyes of a Child: This was the storybook gardens depicting The Three Little Pigs, Hansel & Gretel and Three Billy Goats Gruff by the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. It was pretty much a flawless execution of a theme that kids of all ages could enjoy. 

Spring Awakening: I’m a big fan of Growing Power and this garden didn’t let me down. The grouping of edible and ornamental plants was creative and attractive. The mounded spiral bed is something I’d like to recreate. 

Jeckle and Hyde-Prairie Restoration: This garden was beautiful, the issue is timely and I liked the use of the felled logs to create the shape of the garden and pathway. With every other garden using stones and bricks the rustic qualities of tree trunks really made it stand out. 

Shakespeare in the Garden: The container garden of herbs mentioned in Shakespeare’s play can be recreated in the smallest of balconies in Chicago. The knot garden can also be recreated in many of our postage-size front yards. 

Best in Show: A replica of the Garfield Park and Lincoln Park conservatories was a big hit. The line to walk through the exhibit wrapped around the exhibit itself for most of the day. Visiting this exhibit was like touring both of the conservatories in one day. 
Many of the gardens could be walked through where you could get close-up views of the planting and flowers. The use of vertical gardens and living walls was kept at a minimum and this is a good thing. Living walls and vertical gardening was so last year and was done really well here and here in last year’s show.
Misses: I imagine creating a garden exhibit is a costly endeavor and I don’t mean to diminish the hard work and dedication of the people involved. But a lot of the exhibits didn’t feel as grand as last year. Some people commented on it being a result of the economy. Others thought perhaps it was because they weren’t structures weren’t as tall. Whatever the reason- here are some, IMO, misses. 
Product placements are a part of life and the majority of the exhibits are good exposure for the companies that sponsor them. Some, like Our Town did a good job of balancing them and some didn’t. 

Good VS. Evil: This garden should really have been the scale of Alice’s Wonderland. Most of the things I found interesting about it you’d have to be three feet tall or shorter, to have glimpsed and truly appreciated.  

Best in Show: Should have incorporated the model trains from the Winter Flower Show, just because it is rad. It also would’ve benefited from someone working the line with a cattle prod to get people to move along and keep the line moving.
Music Man: This garden could’ve been fun but the execution wasn’t there. It felt…well…flat. Can a gardener at least get a bed planted in the shape of a treble clef? I didn’t understand the brass instruments tucked in the plantings. It looked like a graveyard for a high school marching band. Actually, zombies would’ve made this garden a lot interesting. Is there a play about zombies? If there isn’t, there should be. I didn’t even take a picture of this garden. 

Bye Bye Birdie: Again, some interpretation of the theme could’ve gone a long way. One giant birdhouse with a giant Tweety Bird knockoff wasn’t enough. 

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat: The only thing I know about Joseph are memories I have of commercials for the touring production starring Donnie Osmond (in a horrible wig) playing at the Rosemont Horizon. I looked and looked for this garden and didn’t realize until late one day that the circular groupings at one end of the exhibition hall were the exhibit. 

I’d Like to thank the Academy: I get it and all, but with all the props and used clothing it looked like a yard sale. The kind of yard sale you don’t even slow down to look at because even at 20 mph you know there is nothing there you want to buy. The Illinois Landscape Contractors Association should’ve teamed up with Macy’s and displayed that collection of award show gowns they have on one of the floors if they wanted to do Hollywood. Considering that at one point Chicago was the motion picture capital of the country, this display could’ve gone two ways: either reminding people of that history or really doing the Hollywood glam theme justice. 

Lanie’s World: I know I’m not in the demographic for this garden but it just seemed to stand out as one big product placement for this line of expensive dolls. 

On the Street where you Live: Again, it just was a big product placement, this time for KIA Motors. I don’t think I would’ve minded as much if there had been more plants or if the street facade didn’t remind me of the cinder block monstrosities in gentrified neighborhoods throughout Chicago. Every time I walked past it I felt stabby. Although, the potted echeverias on the stoop were something I drooled over many times while visiting the show. 
Overall Hits:
The flower show this year was one giant potager that exemplified the way edible and ornamental gardening can coexist in the garden. A lot of the plant and color combinations were bold and impressive and a lot more theatrical than some of the exhibits. The quality of the vendors seemed better this year. In particular, the D. Landreth Seed Company afforded many gardeners the opportunity to buy seeds and tools to create great edible gardens and that was something I thought was sorely lacking last year. The flower show was open until 8PM on weekdays and they even had evening lectures that the 9-5 crowd could’ve attended. Most of the gardens could be walked through allowing us a chance to get a better look at plants and plantings. Sheila King Public Relations continued their outreach with local garden bloggers allowing them to attend the show as press so they could blog about the flower show. The horticultural competitions and window box displays were a fun addition. 
Overall Misses:
The flower show was open until 8PM and had evening lectures without much support to market them. Around 5PM the exhibition hall looked like a ghost town. One late afternoon I took both of my 5-year-old nephews to see the show and as one of them handed his ticket over and entered the hall he asked me why people had left their grandmas there. Ouch. Within a few moments the hall was clear of grandmas and the kids had the run of the exhibits, much to their delight. After sending them home with their parents I attended an evening lecture where a total of three people showed up. If you’re the kind of Chicagoan who stays away from Navy Pier, and the flower show in general, because you don’t want to deal with the grandmas, tourist and strollers: you really missed out by not attending in the evening when things were quieter and walking away with some garden inspiration and new plants. 
I hope the later hours and lectures are kept for next year but more effort is put into marketing them to locals. Perhaps, a series of themed nights would help draw in a crowd in the evenings. Nights like: industry night, where employees of garden centers, garden club and plant society members attend at a discount to mingle. Or nights that cater to the various ethnic groups that make up Chicago. For many of us in working-class neighborhoods the only plant buying options are places like Home Depot. As you can imagine, some of our gardens start to look repetitive. 
The Chicago Flower and Garden Show as a whole was very enjoyable. I got to take my nephews for the first time and I hope those memories of visiting the Red Queen and taking pictures are something they remember for years to come. I got to catch up with a friend who came to the show because we never see each other outside of Facebook any more. I held a seed swap with friends I only knew through blogging, Twitter and Facebook and reconnected with others. I learned a lot and came home inspired, ready to tackle the gardening season upon us. The Chicago Flower and Garden Show should be like this for everyone, every year. 


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  • Your pictures make the show look better than I think it actually was.

  • In reply to Sydney:

    Ouch. Did you at least get to visit the D. Landreth seed Company booth?

  • In reply to Sydney:

    One thing I didn't realize at all was that the talks were an hour long, not half an hour. The way the schedule was printed, I assumed they were half-hour slots... which is neither here nor there because since I missed my bus, I missed the native plant talk I wanted to see!

    Also, your nephews will remember. I wasn't really sure about this, either. I did a ton of stuff with my niece and nephew when they were little and had no clue if they remember it or not, now that they're 24 and 21. The other day, my niece was waxing all nostalgic not only about a trip to Greenfield Village, but how I was always so positive about her self worth. [Misty.]

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Starting on the half-hour did confuse me a bit and then when the talk was over I was surprised I'd been there for the whole hour. Some talks, like the one by Anna Pavord, really could've been longer than an hour. Her talk was AMAZING! I'm glad I got to meet her in person after talking with her via the phone a couple of months back.

    I hope you're right about the memories. I try to take one of the nephews with me when I go to places like this because I want him to have good memories of plants and gardening growing up.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Ramon; i enjoyed all the gardens as every year, guess because i realize how much work goes into every one of them. thanks for the thumbs up for evening seminars, had more than 30 for both Nancy Clifton's containers and Beth Botts's veggie talk.

  • In reply to chigardening:

    All the gardens were good in that there is no such thing as a bad garden. But when interpreting a theme some gardens will do it well and others won't. Like with acting and actors.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    talks were staggered so we didn't all let out at once. so they were all an hour with 30 minutes in between....

  • Thanks, looking at the pics others have posted I wish I had gone back the final day to retry some pics and catch some thing I didn't see the first time. The KIA was dusty during the media preview and someone has written "Wash Me" in the dust. I wish I would've gotten a picture of that.

    I've had that same reaction...people didn't know about ir or had no interest in going. I'm probably the wrong person to ask because I find myself paying less attention to stuff that doesn't come across my eyeballs in Email, Twitter or Facebook so I don't know how well marketed it was in places like the print world.

  • As always I love your thoughts and ideas you share on your article / review of the Chicago Flower & Garden Show. This was truly my kind of show because gardening is all about expressing yourself with what you create in your garden. I still can't get over all the work that was going on before the show opened on the second to the last day of the show. I was there before the doors open taking photos and was able to meet some of the designers. Their time and dedication to gardening and their designs truly showed when the doors open at 10 a.m. Most of the tired blooms had been replaced by new ones. I am already making plans to attend this show in the years to come!

  • In reply to BGgarden:

    Bren, Glad you enjoyed the show and you have plans to come back.

  • I'm going to the San Francisco Flower and Garden show in a about a week. I'll let you know how many grandmas I spot.

  • In reply to AnarchyGarden:

    LOL. My nephews are a never-ending supply of funny quotes. It is pretty awesome to see the world through their eyes sometimes. Since everyone they see on a daily basis is either their own age or 20-30 it must have been puzzling to see so many "grandmas" in one place.

    Do let me know how many you spot though.

  • Picture of the dusty Kia on my blog! Plus I've got a close-up that I didn't post. I wish I could have gone back more often, and that I could have gotten to some of the lectures-- the ones I was really interested in were all in times that I couldn't attend. Since it was my first year at any kind of garden expo (I also went to the Family Farmed one, and had an equally curmudeonly experience) my expectations were way off my experience. I will definitely go back to both expos in future years, hopefully with a more open mind.

    Still wish there had been a traditional We Grow Food To Eat garden. Plus, I would probably NOT have gone, and certainly not more than once, without your help and encouragement, so thank you so much for getting me in.

  • In reply to naxn:

    Your comment here and on your blog have me wondering about traditional food gardens and what they look like. Maybe I will turn it into a blog post or something. There's something interesting in there, in how fashionable they are becoming and the negative connotations people have with them.

  • Love the old bike with flowers planted in the basket. I'd do that if I ever find a really cool vintage bike with a nice big basket. I'm with Xan - wish they'd had more emphasis on veggie gardening. And I wish I'd had more time at the show. I missed a lot of stuff being sick, including several talks I'd wanted to see. Especially wish I'd had more time to hang out with everyone.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Sorry I didn't get to see much of you. I said on Xan's blog that I was surprised by how much representation veggies had this year compare to last year. Last year they weren't everywhere like they were this year. Overall edible gardening was highlighted more and I appreciated it.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I was still disappointed by the absence of living wall products both in the show and the vendor booths. I had also hoped to pick up some more interesting seeds that I couldn't find locally. Considering I usually only buy one or two packets of seeds, I end up paying more for the shipping than the seeds. I had come specifically to look for Burpee "Hasta La Pasta Winter Spaghetti squash" which has a smaller size than the regular version and none to be found at the one booth that had any seed selection at all.

    Also, on the vertical gardening front and with all the buzz last year, ZERO product this year. I got more information stopping at City Escapes last Saturday for their demos. I didn't get to stay for the vertical garden demo at 3:30, but did see some cool indoor/outdoor stylish self watering containers that had some unique watering systems (they were from Germany).

    I did get to take a look at what they were going to demo though and they are actually pretty neat. You can see the different sizes and styles at . They are modular, have indoor and outdoor versions and even freestanding ones as well. They come in different colors even.


  • In reply to KevinB:


    Thanks for the feedback. Besides the living wall on the Red Queen and the wall in the Our Town garden and a small one in the exhibit that had the KIA there wasn't much for people looking for vertical gardening. There was a lot of that at last year's show though. I guess last year's was a little ahead of the times.

    I've seen the woolypockets before. They're cool.

    Although, I have to say that I was really pleased with the seed vendor because they carried a lot of interesting things. You should check out the big box stores that carry Burpee seeds and see if you can find yours.

  • In reply to KevinB:

    I guess it's all pretty and everything but it seems to me that the show should reflect the times and the times are going back to basics and with the interest in saving money, safe food sources and making the most out of what you have in resources, I'd like to see the direction of the show move that way (with a little part for the pretty stuff).

    My perfect show would be about 1/2 -2/3s practical and the rest the "I wouldn't ever be able to afford this" pretty like about 95% of the show was.

    I'd like to see a least a couple practical exhibits with container gardening both indoors and out with stuff you can buy on the cheap at places like walmart or make yourself. It would be nice to see them giving away plans and tip sheets and real life examples. I'd love to see a "victory garden" exhibit.

    I've been to Lowes, Home Depot, Walmart, Chalet, City Escapes, Lurveys ACE, Gethsemane and a few places in central Illinois last week to look for seeds. I founds some interesting seeds from an English seed company at Gethsemane.

    I did pick up a couple packs of new at the nice seed place display at the show, but all in all it was a bust and my two packs of seeds cost me $20 if you include the admission. I almost bought some of the grow lights for indoor stuff but cash flow prevented that. I'm also hoping at some point that all seed vendors will move to the resealable packs like I saw when I picked up a package at City Escapes (don't work there, just like the place). It's the only place I've ever been able to find the large plastic drip pans (12-14 in) to put under my hanging baskets and move them inside for the winter.

  • In reply to KevinB:


    I agree with your points and if I was in charge of the show it would be going in that direction. Although, considering how expensive it must be to put on this kind of show I'm not sure it would be cost effective for them to do it. I think maybe a smaller show where things like you and I would be on display is needed in Chicago. The closest thing I can think of is the Green & Growing Fair at the Garfield Park Conservatory in April, if they expanded it to be more of a garden show type of thing.

    Those resealable seed packets are from Seeds of Change I believe. I like them too and if the technology to make plastics from plants advances I'd love to see more companies make resealable seed packets.

  • You gotta love the TickleMe Plant. It like something out Of Alice or even more like that plants in Avatar that Move! The TickleMe Plant instantly closes its leaves and lowers it's branches when you Tickle It! It is becoming very popular as now they made it easy to grow this interactive plant indoors.

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