In the dead of winter, Vermont’s Flower Show gives us spring

After this cold and somewhat erratic winter many of us have a touch of the “winter blues.” I know that I, for one, am positively aching to see and smell some welcome signs of spring. However, in my own garden, I must wait until mid-April before spring actually arrives.
But this year — in less than two week’s time — winter weary Vermonters have a delightful treat in store — our very own Vermont Flower Show will be held March 1-3 at the Champlain Valley Exposition Center in Essex Junction.
This extravaganza, which is expected to draw around 10,000 visitors, happens every other year. And is a vast labor of love on the part of the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association — the VNLA.
During the warmer months all VNLA members work, in one way or another, to help Vermonters enjoy lovely gardens. Some raise beautiful plants,  while others help you select just the right plants at your local garden center.  Still others design and plant bountiful gardens, or help us keep our gardens looking lovely from spring until fall. So, it stands to reason that all VNLA members are passionate about gardens and about plants.
A PANSY DESTINED for the flower show peeks out among the foliage. Photo by Dick Conrad
When Dick and I moved here (over 20 years ago now) we were impressed with the Vermont  Flower Show which, at that time, was located at the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington and was considerably smaller. Regardless, the Vermont Flower Show was so much better than the one we had attended in a certain much larger state to the south  — which shall remain nameless.
In particular we were bowled over by the excellent seminars and by the  Grand Display Garden, full of colorful flowers, green grass and — that particular year — live chickens.
To get the highlights and background on this year’s show, I talked with several Addison County folk who are helping make it all happen.
The Grand Garden Display
The heart and soul of the Vermont Flower Show is surely the expansive Grand Garden Display where you can soak up the sights and smells of spring.
“For me participating in the Vermont Flower Show makes spring come a bit sooner,” said Shari Johnson of Cornwall, who organizes the Master Gardeners who help at the show. “Smelling all the flowers and the bark mulch just warms the spirit.”
“I’ve been to the Boston show countless times and there is no comparison,”  Bristol resident Michelle Blow said. “The Boston show doesn’t have a ‘Grand Display’ although they have smaller vignettes. The fact that the Vermont Flower Show has a cohesive theme and a Grand Display is what sets it apart.”
Blow volunteers over 75 hours of her time to help create the Grand Garden Display.
Over the years this main garden display has gradually expanded in size, now covering about a quarter of an acre — the size of a small suburban garden.  And, since there is a completely new design for each show, it never fades.
For the past five shows Melita Bass of Shoreham has co-chaired the Grand Garden Display Committee and has already devoted countless hours to this year’s show (she could not even begin to estimate how many).
This year’s extravaganza, with the theme of “Wonder — a Garden Adventure for All Ages,” features an urban courtyard, an indoor garden room, a woodland walk, a meditative glen, and a sensory maze, all connected via gently curving paths, and was designed to help us reconnect with nature, both in our lives and in our gardens.
Imagine over 15,000 flowering bulbs and 1,000 beautiful perennials, set off against a backdrop of more than 400 shrubs and trees, and savor the sights and smells of spring. You will find all your springtime favorites — pansies and tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, as well as flowering crab apples, rhododendrons and azaleas, lilacs and magnolias, and many more.  But also be on the lookout for a few unfamiliar plants. Since everything is labelled; you can jot down their names and seek them out when spring finally arrives.
Several elegant stonework creations, especially crafted for the show, are also an integral part of the design. Jamie Masefield, a skilled stonemason from Monkton, has already created a Horse Shoe Bench to provide a contemplative place to sit and relax.  Now, utilizing the new Maker Space at Middlebury’s Patricia Hannaford Career Center where the students can watch him work, he is constructing a unique sphere that he calls “The Orb.”  Fashioned from local slate shingles it incorporates an illuminated internal cavity to gently light the pathway.
FOLIAGE PLANTS ARE coloring up in time for the show in Claussen’s greenhouse in Colchester. Photo by Dick Conrad
“Working on the Grand Garden Display offers me the opportunity to create unique stone features that intrigue me and it also allows me to share with the public the great diversity of things that can be done with dry stone construction,” Masefield said.
A delightful pop-up market
The approximately 100 vendors together form a delightful pop-up market — another huge component of the show.
Some offer all manner of elegant accoutrements for the well-appointed garden — decorative sprinklers and trellises; energy-efficient greenhouses; ceramic pots that can remain outdoors all winter; and much more.
Others will be selling plants and seeds, specialty foods and unique hand-made craft items, as well as beautiful paintings and photographs of our beloved Vermont landscape.
Still others represent a variety of non-profit organizations connected with horticulture.
And, if you want to buy more, plan on staying for the plant sale at the end of the show —  an opportunity to take home a few of the plants from the Grand Garden Display. 
Combine Learning with Pleasure
For me, the seminars are always a personal highlight. This year 26 seminars are scheduled in the upstairs meeting rooms on subjects ranging from growing great berries to visiting outstanding public gardens. Look for the complete listing on the VNLA website (greenworksvermont.org/vermont-flower-show).
Meanwhile downstairs in the Blue Ribbon Pavilion there are plenty more opportunities for fun and learning, including 14 live demonstrations on everything from pruning to bonsai; beautiful  cut-flower arrangements by the Federated Garden Clubs of Vermont; an “Ask a Master Gardener” table where you can bring your gardening questions;  as well as the Vermont Garden Railway Society’s amazing model railway, complete with moving trains and decorated with — you got it — plants.
What about fun for the kiddos? They can let off steam in the special “family room,” digging for worms and playing in the dirt. Different craft activities are planned for each show day, while at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., talented guests provide live entertainment.
A labor of love
The Vermont Flower Show is the culmination of months of dedication and hard work by individual VLNA members with vital assistance from over 150 UVM Extension Master Gardeners and several student organizations.
Two committees were formed way back in October 2017; one responsible for the overall show and the second devoted to the Grand Garden Display.
HUNDREDS OF TULIP plants growing at Claussen’s Greenhouse in Colchester will be in bloom for the show. Photo by Dick Conrad
The show committee oversees the logistics for the entire show including all the vendors and food suppliers.  While Leonard Perry (UVM Horticulture Professor Emeritus), as always, single-handedly connected with potential speakers and then set up the impressive schedule of seminars and workshops.
Meanwhile Bass, along with Gabe Bushey of Vergennes and Marie Limoge of Essex Junction, head up the Grand Garden Display committee.
First the committee brainstormed about the theme and design for this year’s display garden. Once a design was in place, they specified the thousands of flowers, trees and shrubs that would be needed and then connected with local growers about donating them.  Here in Addison County, John Padua of Cobble Creek Nurseries in Monkton contributed trees and shrubs, while Greenhaven Nurseries in New Haven supplied evergreens and equipment. 
Last November all these plants were transported to Claussens Greenhouses in Colchester to spend the winter and then be coaxed into leaf and bloom in perfect time for the show. 
And finally, for four action-packed days before the start of the show, members of the display committee will oversee the hundreds of volunteers including VNLA members, UVM Extension Master Gardeners, plus students from the Center for Technology Essex and the Northlands Job Corps Urban Forestry Program, who will descend on the Essex Expo to actually set everything up.
So what motivates VNLA members, who work long hours outdoors all season long, to then spend their precious winter down-time to make this show possible for all of us? 
“To me, the most remarkable thing about our show is the collaboration among those who are essentially competitors in their industry,” said Bass. “Unlike other shows, we build one cohesive display together. Individual businesses are not showcased within the garden display; there is no signage or advertising to detract from the beauty. Many of the core group of designers and builders have been working together on shows for several years now. We have formed bonds within and outside of our craft which go beyond networking, that I would call true friendship.
“It is an overwhelming amount of work, but in the end, when the last plant is placed, the lights come up and the doors open to thousands of people coming to enjoy what we have built it, all feels worth it,” Bass continued. “And one of the best parts is when the students who worked with us on set-up come back to visit the finished product once the show opens, when you catch their eye walking past and there’s mutual acknowledgement and pride over what we all built together.”
“What keeps me coming back is the camaraderie and the amazing group of people who work on the show,” Blow echoed. “It’s always amazing seeing the process go from an idea to a physical manifestation over the course of 18 months. The huge crew that puts it together are simply incredible people and with all the different personalities and skill sets every single person is necessary. The show is such a great way to see everyone in the industry as well as enthusiastic home gardeners. It’s always a great way to jump start the season.”
For more information about the Vermont Flower Show and/or the VNLA and its members, contact Kristina MacKulin of Ferrisburgh. She is the VNLA Executive Director and Flower Show Chairperson, and can be reached at [email protected]. For general info and to pre-buy tickets visit greenworksvermont.org/vermont-flower-show. Day tickets range from $5-$20; 2- and 3-day tickets are also available.
Judith Irven is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist.  She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She will be giving two seminars at this year’s Vermont Flower Show: “From Classic to Whimsy: the Art of Decorating our Outdoor Spaces” on Friday at noon and “The Roving Gardener: visiting five great gardens in Massachusetts” on Saturday at noon.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.com.

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