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.




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

  1. I have no idea how you pulled off this awesome display, Dawn, but I’m going to keep reading your installments to find out! You certainly seemed like a cool cucumber at the show: “Who, me? Win People’s Choice? Nah, it was easy!” LOL

    • Honestly, Jenny, looking back, I have no idea either!! I’m surprised my family and friends didn’t abandon me–all I cared about/talked about/obsessed over was garden show, garden show, garden show… And I felt like the total opposite of a cool cucumber at the show: I think it was more like complete body and mind fatigue and post-traumatic stress syndrome…:)

  2. It was an estatic time at work when your mother told us of your success and showed pictures of your design garden. WOW….. How talented you are! WIshing you all the best for your next San Francisco show. Your originality, imagination and art with gardening is to commended. GO FOR IT! I can’t wait to see your next production. Juliana

  3. Dawn, thanks for sharing what many show garden designers feel but don’t admit! I built a garden for SFGS in 2005, and while my stress didn’t fill the entire nine months prior (I was teamed with an experienced designer who had done the show several times before) the last month or two definitely took their toll on my sanity (and, sadly, my marriage). When you care a lot about what you do, you can’t help but give everything you’ve got AND a little more to an effort like this. In the end I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world, and consider it one of the major milestones in my life. But it wasn’t gained without cost. But what valuable lessons in life ever are, really?

    • Hi Laura–I always admit everything (maybe too much sometimes!)! I’m planning on two more parts to the post: the next one will probably be angst-filled again, but the last one–the show!–will be joyful! It was all so worth it. It sucks to hear your experience had such a high cost. But it was still exciting, eh?!?

    • Hi Jenn,
      Obsessing does have its place–especially when you’re about to present something so personal to the media, the gardening public, and all of your designer colleagues and mentors! It took me months to recover… And it sounds like I need to get to Belize! And thank you for the kind words–more photos to come in the next installment.

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