Attack of The San Francisco Flower and Garden Show (*Or How I Created a Show Garden And Lived To Tell About It: Part I)

Rejoice garden lovers! The San Francisco Flower and Garden Show is almost upon us. You are probably overjoyed and giddy, right? But me…? It gives me sweaty palms and an irregular heartbeat just thinking about it.

Yes, I love the S.F. garden show and look forward to it every year (like lots of other plant-lovin’ peeps from around the country). But the reason for my gut-rolling reaction is deeper than that: two years ago I shocked myself by saying “yes” to creating a five-hundred-square-foot display garden for the show. I can’t help but relive the experience when this time of year comes back around.

Flash back to nine months before the 2010 show: I scheduled a meeting with Kay Estey, the show’s producer. I nervously presented her with my concept plan for a teeny, tiny 50-square foot, New Orleans-themed “pocket garden”. I guess she liked my little idea, because she then asked if I would consider turning it into a full-on, juried show garden. As in, one that was to be front and center on the show floor, judged by a panel of industry experts. Uh, come again?? The thought of designing and building a whole garden space that would be one of the show’s featured gardens, walked through by thousands of people, and, holy crap, judged…ohmygod. I felt sick all the way home. Yet I knew what my answer had to be.

I had no clue what I was doing. Designing a garden for a show like this is not like designing a regular garden. A show garden has to be more theatrical, more over-the-top, more everything. No one comes to garden shows to see boring stuff they could see on a stroll through their ‘hood. To make matters worse, I had no one lined up to help me build this thing. I naively thought that I could ramshackle this sucker together myself. What an idiot. I was dead.


I started to obsess about it. I mean freakishly obsess, and not in a good way. I started sleeping an average of three hours a night. The rest of each night was spent rolling around, wide awake, drenched in sweat, nerves taking over: “I’m going to fail miserably and everyone will see what a shitty designer I really am.” And the nightly, “What the hell was I thinking?” Or I would be awake thinking of stuff to include, of what needed to still get done, of problem-solving. At any rate, I lost a lot of sleep in those nine months. Did I mention that at the time, I was also in college finishing my second degree, running a design business, and managing a household of teenagers? I’m getting queasy just remembering the logistics of it. Ooooooh, shudder.


The one comforting thought that I had through the process was this: I was madly IN LOVE with the little garden that I was envisioning. I imagined an enchanted courtyard space at twilight, one that was firmly Californian in nature, but resonated with the soul of New Orleans. The city is pure magic to me. I love the paradoxical nature of the place–the absurdity, the grit, the kitsch, the funky architecture, the soulful food and music, the celebration of life, the preoccupation with death. I appreciate even the dirty, ugly parts of it. I knew that if I created a garden that I was head-over-heels for–my soul’s true garden—then at least I was making something that would enjoy. If other people enjoyed it…well, I guess that would be cool, too.




Just Don’t Call It “Whimsical!”

It’s been a pretty bad work week for me, and it’s times like these—when I’m ready to go into full mental-meltdown, panic-attack mode—that I appreciate stuff that makes me laugh. Life (at least on good days) is funny and random and silly—and I love when the environment around me reminds me of this precious fact.

Humor and silliness in a garden usually ends up walking a fine line. I prefer just a hint of cheekiness in a garden. I think too many garden spaces go too far to the extremes: they either take themselves too seriously (think stark, ultra-modern design), or they are over-the-top cutesy/barfy/”whimsical” (think creepy statues of children frolicking, oversized butterflies, and nearly any garden art purchased from an art and wine festival). Hell, I don’t even like the word “whimsical.” For some reason, it gives me the heebie jeebies.

Adding humor to your outdoor spaces is therapeutic. If it makes people smile, then it’s probably a good thing. Unless you have really bad taste. I once had a next-door neighbor who thought it was “cute” to fill a couple of old toilets with plants and put them on display in her front yard. Uhhhh, no. Not cute. Not funny. Not even close.

I’ve compiled a little collection of photos (from my yard and beyond) that inject a bit of the unexpected, the silly, and the slightly ironic into the garden. Sometimes we all need a reminder to lighten up, quit taking life so seriously, and laugh a little.

This tiki guy is from a garage sale. I gave him a succulent 'fro. He's kind of a stalker, always watching, watching.

Crawfish are a pretty cool and strange addition to a water feature. Got it in New Orleans. Brought him home on the plane with me, which drew funny looks all-around.

This is part of the fountain that stands in front of the Pantheon in Rome. Even the Romans have a sense of humor.

This was part of a stone wall built by Mariposa Gardening and Design for the 2011 San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. This would be a funny little element in an otherwise serious garden.

God, I love this garden. Why didn't I think of this first? The juxtaposition of the stripes and the giraffe and the color: scrumptious and funny, too.

This vintage detergent bucket was a major score of mine. I especially love the reference to Monsanto on the bottom. "Where creative chemistry works wonders for you." Phhhhbbbbttttt.

And what's the funniest thing you can put in your garden? Why, a pug, of course. They are hilarious, and quite the cheeky little monkeys.