“Habitat: Nature’s Masterpiece”

The Philadelphia Flower Show Moves Outside

By Donald H. Sanborn III | Photo by Rob Cardillo Photogaphy. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

The annual Philadelphia Flower Show will be presented outside for the first time. The 2021 event, “Habitat: Nature’s Masterpiece,” will take place June 5-13 at Philadelphia’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Park, which will enable it to occupy 15 acres.

In a blog post for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) website, “The 2021 Philadelphia Flower Show: Five Reasons You Won’t Want to Miss It!,” Communications Manager Marion McParland notes that the 348-acre FDR Park, which opened in 1914 as League Island Park, is “a registered historical district … designed by the Olmsted Brothers company [landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted] in the early 20th century. Created with the park’s natural features as the canvas, paths were carved out of tidal marshes, through gentle hills and around huge shade trees, with Meadow Lake as the centerpiece.”

A PHS press release promises that the Flower Show’s move to the outdoor venue “will allow for new creative expression and horticultural displays as well as social distancing and the health benefits of being outside.” The release notes, “This departure from the show’s typical late winter timing is in response to the pandemic.”

Sam Lemheney, PHS chief of shows and events, recalls that, in March 2020, “We closed down the 2020 show, and a week later the pandemic shut down Philadelphia as well as the rest of the country. So we were very lucky to get our show in.”

This echoes a comment by Patricia Frawley, a past president of the Rutgers Master Gardeners of Mercer County, who has visited “at least 15” iterations of the Philadelphia Flower Show, including the 2020 exhibition. “It couldn’t have been better timing! You look back at such good memories.”

For Frawley the Flower Show represents “a promise of spring, a promise of possibility. It’s usually the first flower show, so it’s the first opportunity to immerse yourself in things that are growing. There are always new ideas, new colors, new everything.”

The Philadelphia Flower Show debuted in June 1829, two years after PHS was founded. It took place at Masonic Hall, on Chestnut Street. In “Yesterday’s Flower Show” (Green Scene, March 2000), Wilbur Zimmerman notes that the inaugural event “featured fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other plants … it was recorded in the minutes that the ‘Brilliant exhibition owes its merit to the individual patronage and contributions of gentlemen amateurs and professional cultivators.’”

America’s involvement in the World Wars caused the show to be canceled; there were no exhibitions in 1917-1918 or 1943-1946. In “Three Centuries of History Lead to Today’s Philadelphia Flower Show” (Montgomery News, February 2015), Dan Sokil observes that during the war years “flowers were luxuries. While flowers continued to be used for weddings, birthday celebrations, and funerals, the number and variety diminished and the floral trades suffered.”

Masonic Hall, the site of the first Philadelphia Flower Show in 1829.

Planning for 2021

Fortunately, the pandemic has not caused the 2021 Philadelphia Flower Show to be canceled. However, it became clear that the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the exhibition has been held since 1996, would not be viable. “We didn’t think [the pandemic] was going to last as long as it did, so for the first couple of weeks we were planning for the 2021 show [to take place at] the Convention Center again,” Lemheney says. But as it became clear that the pandemic was going to preclude an indoor event, PHS began to explore the possibility of presenting the show in an outdoor venue.

A virtual event and a drive-through exhibit were among the possible alternatives that were discussed. Lemheney recalls, “That was an interesting conversation. But we finally came to the conclusion that having an outdoor show, and then pushing it to later in the season, was probably the right thing to do.”

PHS began “looking into locations around Philadelphia and making sure there was enough room so that people could social distance,” Lemheney continues. He notes that the eventual selection of FDR Park, which is adjacent to South Philadelphia’s Sports Complex area, is largely due to the need for “access to major highways, and public transportation.”

Safety is the primary factor. “We’re working with the health department of the City of Philadelphia,” Lemheney says. Precautions include timed and dated entry, to ensure “enough room for social distancing. We’re requiring masks, and we’re going to do regimented cleaning,”

PHS has stated that it “will continue to work closely with health officials leading up to the show.” (Visit PHSOnline.org for ticket information.)

Floral designs, flowers, and plants to be judged. (Photo by Jeffrey Tryon)

Designing and Constructing an Exhibit

Like past shows, “Habitat: Nature’s Masterpiece” will provide exhibition opportunities to both amateur enthusiasts and professional designers. Lemheney admires the “amazing landscapes and designs” created by the professional designers every year. But, he is quick to emphasize, “we also give just as much attention to the novices or the nonprofessionals — who work with a lot of garden clubs, a lot of schools — who enjoy, as a hobby, doing full designs.”

In her blog post McParland explains that the show is divided into three districts: Design, Garden, and Plant. “The Design District will present internationally renowned landscape and floral designers. In the Garden District, you’ll find hands-on instructions for starting your own garden, no matter what your experience level is. In the Plant District, visualize your own designs with a showcase of beautiful plants.”

Asked which designers will be presenting, Associate Director of Communications Sin Gogolak replies, “We can’t announce our list of designers and exhibitors yet, but they will hail from around the country.” Lemheney adds, “There are still a lot of designs in process [of being completed]. We have a lot of designers that have been a part of the show … and then we have some great new designers.” He is eager to see how the designers are going to interpret “Habitat” in an outdoor location.

Exhibits must be constructed quickly. The PHS website notes that designers “are given only five days to build their exhibits from the ground up to be show ready.” When the event is over they “are only given three days to completely remove their exhibit from the show floor.” To assist designers who are not based in Philadelphia, “PHS pairs them up with a local contractor that will manage the build, and help with local plant sourcing and maintenance of the exhibit throughout the nine days.”

Because the show will be outside for the first time, designers have a new factor to consider: the possibility of inclement weather. Gogolak asserts that a postponement or cancellation is unlikely. “The exhibits will be designed to withstand the weather and outdoor elements,” she says. “The Flower Show is a rain or shine event, barring a weather situation that might cause us to close the entire show for safety reasons.”

A plant to be judged. (Photo by Jeffrey Tryon)

Fundraising for Community Work

Gogolak emphasizes that “the Flower Show is a major fundraising event that supports all the community work that PHS does all year long.”

Lemheney elaborates that the show supports, “the staff and the programs that help to improve the health and the well-being of individuals, using horticulture — throughout the city, and throughout the region. We use the Flower Show to communicate that message; designers incorporate that into their designs as best that they can.”

“Adding more trees to the environment helps global warming,” Lemheney continues. “It is about the full picture. When you come, your ticket dollars go to enjoying the Flower Show, but the proceeds go to supporting all the programs that we have throughout the rest of the year.”

One such program is Young Gardeners. According to the website, “PHS works with teachers and students to explore the world of gardening at an early age with the hope of creating a lifelong love of horticulture.” The curriculum includes “hands-on training on plant and tree care,” and “support for creating a ‘Green Plan’ that explains the vision for each school’s garden.” The society’s Green City Teachers training program “provides educators, parents, and gardeners with a focused curriculum on how to start a school garden.”

Another project is the Philadelphia LandCare Program, which transforms vacant lots into gardens. In 2019 PHS collaborated with the National Wildlife Federation, which gave it funding to plant 50 pollinator gardens “on LandCare sites in proximity to Fairmount Park,” says LandCare’s Project Manager Samir Dalal in a PHS blog post. “Each pollinator garden consists of approximately 300 native plants that support a healthy ecosystem.” The post states that “Pollinator gardens like these create a healthier ecosystem by helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

A rendering of the PHS Philadelphia Flower Show grounds. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society)

Apt Theme

“Habitat: Nature’s Masterpiece,” the title of the 2021 Flower Show, clearly is apt for an outdoor event. But Lemheney says that the theme was not chosen because of the change in venue. “We choose our themes about two to three years in advance, so we actually had already picked ‘Habitat’ as the theme for the show.” The title would have been used for an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, but it “just happened to work really well for an outdoor show as well, so we kept it.”

“The designers of the exhibit will be taking inspiration from how plants impact and affect our lives in our habitats every day,” Lemheney adds. He notes that the designers will consider “how plants are habitats for all kinds of animals — big or small.”

“An outdoor location gives us a lot of options to offer the designers,” he says.

“For example, some of the larger trees can be incorporated into their exhibit to create wonderful walkways. We’re also going to create some picnic areas … that will be incorporated into the habitat theme.”

Lemheney’s passion for the exhibition comes naturally. “I’m originally from this area,” he says. “My grandfather owned a landscape nursery, and my father owned a flower shop. Both of them have exhibited at the Flower Show in the past. When I was growing up my father curated the exhibit at the old Civic Center, where the Flower Show was.”

Lemheney started his own career with the Walt Disney Company, eventually becoming area manager of the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, before returning to his roots at PHS. “I’ve always had an affinity and a love for the Philadelphia Flower Show,” he says.

He is excited about the event’s upcoming iteration. “What a great place to be: outdoors! We’ve been stuck indoors for a long time, and haven’t been able to go anywhere.

“We’re doing everything that we can do to make this show safe, so we hope that everybody will come and enjoy the Flower Show. You’ll be able to learn and get inspired.”