The Northwest Flower and Garden Show: Seattle

This year, I finally attended Seattle's Northwest Flower and Garden Show. It ran February 11th/15th, but I was only able to attend one day, February 14th (yikes - Valentine's Day!), so this will be a super-condensed version of the massive event! I was so excited, anticipating it for months having missed it the last few years for various reasons.

When I say massive, I mean it. It is held at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle and it filled two huge convention spaces with more than 300 vendors and several professionally designed display show gardens competing for gold. The theme for the show gardens was "Romance Blossoms" as it was Valentine's Day Weekend.

While I like most everything about gardening, I was probably overwhelmed here in Seattle so you will find there is a tinge of criticism here. Chalk it up to two month's worth of unrelenting migraines, but there was something off about the whole thing to me. There were moments I really enjoyed, which I will try to focus on, but there was an undeniable overtone of plasticity to me. More on that in a bit.

First off, here are a few of the 23 themed gardens by the region's top landscape designers. The first three photos pictured above are of one I really liked and from which I can actually glean some ideas. The garden is "Birds Do It, Bees Do It", created by West Seattle Nursery. It is constructed using recycled materials, including homes for birds, bees and other insects.

 That's the idea here with these display gardens. People come to these shows and collect ideas from professional designers for their own gardens in one convenient location, and, hopefully, the designers are on top of the hot horticultural trends. My thought is that often times the designers are more drawn to the hardscaping and bling aspects of design, so more often than not the plants take the back seat. The results can be, well, confusing at best. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's all just someone's opinion and it's what you the consumer thinks in the end that really matters. For me, what matters is if I feel connected to the garden and to the plants, and, if it's my garden, I want to leave a light footprint. OK, Moving on.

This is a garden titled "Rekindled Rendez-Vous". Nice, but no sparks for me. I do like the plants, though.

More plants...can you tell what I was drawn to? There were lots of tulips, hellebores, hyacinths and daffodils in the display gardens.

This one was called "The Root of True Romance: Beautiful Chaos...Love, Art, Nature". OK, I love the idea here with the really wonderful old snag but I'm not sure how it translates indoors.

This sculpture is pretty cool. Not sure what any of it has to do with "Romance Blossoms"...maybe it's the lighting that's throwing me. Plus, you can't walk around in any of these exhibits like you can at the Yard Garden and Patio Show here in Portland. I want to crawl through it and onto the lawn, but you can't…no touchie-touchie here.

I picture the uprooted tree on the Oregon coast. I don't know. What do you think? Nice use of rocks, though.

This was part of the "A Woodland Nymph's Dream" garden. This is a nice dry bed effect. I liked this one. It felt naturalistic and manageable.

A bit garish overall for my tastes.

This is the "Over the Moon" garden. Kind of romantic, and a lot going on here, for example the owl coming in from the right. For some reason I keep thinking of a Stevie Nicks song when I see this garden.

I do like this idea; it could be used for an insect hotel.

Or this. I like how they are integrated into the wall of the garden.

This is part of the "Love the Space You're In" garden. I just didn't take a lot of great photos of all of these display gardens because there were so many people here on this busy Saturday (mid-day, too). Admittedly, I was overwhelmed, the lighting is, well, it's warehouse-ish and the whole thing just had an overall quality of being here for sheer entertainment. I was not inspired. Is that awful of me to admit? I know these designers put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into ther work, and it must be quite a Herculean task to put it all together inside of a convention center in the middle of a bustling city. But there is some essential element missing here, and I can't quite place my finger on it. Maybe it's this: There was very little that jumped out at me that declared: "This is an idea worth replicating in my garden" - and most of these gardens seemed remote (as in you can't get up-close-and-personal by getting into the displays, which I kind of understand), replicated (nothing new), and sometimes on the ridiculous side. Yes, it felt like entertainment. Break out the popcorn and have a look around, don't take this stuff too seriously. Well, I guess I do. I take it very seriously.

OK, so this is what it felt like to be at the show. Hot pink and electric blue lights, a steampunk garden in a warehouse in downtown Seattle. Hmm…it just does not translate to gardening to me. Forced and really ridiculous. Wow, am I grumpy. I usually love these things, really. I love imagination, but this had an air of in-authenticity to it.

 People everywhere, weird lighting, crowds. Blah. Again, just my opinion and I wasn't feeling my best, so take it for what it's worth.

Now, there were bright moments. Cornell Lab of Ornithology teamed up with Subaru, a sponsor of the show, to talk about birds and attracting them to your garden.

They made this giant seed feeder in the middle of a sunny atrium area where you could learn about birds and sign up for Project FeederWatch (which I did recently myself) through Cornell if you are interested in birds and citizen science. It's all pretty cool stuff.

There were many other smaller-scale, themed "City Living" gardens that I took photos of but I will omit here for space sake - plus other bloggers have covered it so well, check out Danger Garden, for example. They had nuances that were sweet but overall I saw nothing that blew me out of the water. There was a whole area filled with Seattle-area garden clubs and hardy plant societies and so much much more than I can cover here. For that alone, it was worth it. Living in Portland, however, they were not my main focus - but the equivalent groups and clubs in Portland do demand my attention when I am at the Yard Garden and Patio show.  

Moving along to the marketplace.
The REAL reason I attend these things is for the plants, people! A flower and garden show is about the PLANTS. Guess what? There weren't any! Well, hardly any. Seriously. I guess I expected with a venue like Seattle that they would have more than any garden shows in Portland but I was wrong. There were some 300 vendors: You could buy eyeglass cleaner, jewelry, olive oil, clothing, wine, any number of items you could find at the mall. There were a plethora of hand-crafted garden decor items and bookstores that were very garden appropriate. There was a vintage mall and lots of landscaping businesses and artists, seed vendors and bulbs. Butchart Gardens even had a booth but there were so many people in front of it I did not get a good photo. But there were surprisingly very few plant vendors. Let's have a look at what I saw:

Lots of garden art and stuff here. OK, I can get on board with these items, and although this is not really my taste, I can appreciate the pop of color it these can bring to a space.

Pottery, signs, etc. in this area. Fun and colorful, I like these too. Again, not my taste but I do like them.

Great glass for the garden in this area. I did end up buying a "bee preserver" glass float from Glass Gardens Northwest at the show (though not at the booth pictured here), it was nice to see their booth and meet these people.

Metal farm animals. We all need some of these!

Aaaanddd...the vintage marketplace. Oh my gosh. I was completely overwhelmed here. While I know others love this, I couldn't help but think to myself "I drove three hours to come shopping here?"

These are very cool, but again, for me, not on this it's about the plants. Not the buckets.

At the "Release the Flying Monkeys" booth you can buy any variety of metal letters you like. I never did figure out how much they cost. Again cool, but a distraction.

Do you think the vintage sign is vintage?

More of the very well-designed vintage marketplace.

Sweet little vignettes, but again, a distraction. I had one afternoon to spend here but as a blogger I felt it my duty to see the whole thing and bring it to you all. I should have dodged this stuff and gone to the lectures. Next time.

OK, we're leaving the vintage marketplace.
On to the plant market place.

To Ravenna Gardens, a place that I really wanted to visit and it did not disappoint. This was worth it.

See? Plants, and cool, plant-related things.

And why I did not buy a couple of these is beyond me. All I can think of is that I was alone, overwhelmed and probably hungry.

Plants! Makes me happy.

And bun buns and frogs.

And flaming red Tillandsias.

Since I once lived in Seattle, this view is still special. This was in the atrium connecting the two large convention halls.

 More plant vendors:

This Italian seed company has the best graphics.

Christianson's had one of the only and best displays of plants. In fact, most of the photos of plants that follow are of their booth. The rest are from one other booth, I did not record the name. I heard that it was just too expensive for nurseries to have booths this year. I hope the organizers are listening and make it feasible for them to come back next year. That's why a lot of my gardening friends attend. soul is soothed.

Isn't this better than stuff you can find in a mall?

Aloe 'Hedgehog'

A lot of plant vendors had bare root plants or bulbs for sale. There were many more of these kinds of plants than plants living in pots.

Like this.

I guess overhead lights and concrete floors just get to me after a while. Boy, I am grumpy. Just give me dirt, a shovel, and the sky and I'm happy.

Nice use of succulents in a vertical format.

Another vendor, I think this was from the nursery Dig Nursery in Seattle, although I could be wrong. Like an ocean creature...nice!

Whatever this nursery was, it too was a highlight.

It felt a little picked over by the time I got there. Speaking of picked over, another thing I noticed is that overall there was NO swag! I mean I did not get one free bag, one pack of seeds, nothing! I found that quite odd. Maybe it was due to my late in the game arrival - Day four of five - but at least hand me a bag upon my arrival to advertise such an impressive venue as the Seattle Flower and Garden Show! Nothing. Zilch.

With a respite of greens here and there.

If I go back, it would have to be with fellow bloggers or gardeners. I would have to have more time and I would definitely want to attend the seminars. Apparently, there is a meet up for bloggers early on which I did not know about, and that could make all the difference for a better experience. This time I went as a consumer on a regular Saturday like everyone else, crowds and all. On Valentine's Day.

Hey, at least she has a hydrangea!
All joking aside, there were a lot of very worthy vendors and the lectures looked top-notch. I missed them this time as my window to be there was so narrow. I guess it was just too big for this small-town woman…ha ha…I was just looking forward to lots of plant vendors and finding some special plants to take home. It looks like will have to wait for my very favorite plant nerd event, Hortlandia put on every April by the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon which is really the place for me to find those special plants to take home.

These shows do have something for everyone, but the trick is to know what you are looking for and to go find it, strategically, and to pace yourself. And bring snacks. For me, a map of the damned place would have been oh-so-helpful to help map it out before hand but their website does not provide a printable map - it's some wonky version that only added to my frustration. The program for the whole thing was also a tiny little thing that also frustrated me - I wanted to study my material before arrival so I had a game plan. Seattle, I had higher hopes but now I know what to expect for next time. I will be stealth, I will be strategic and I will come with fellow bloggers to egg me on, I promise.

Well, I made it through a relatively headache-free week and for this I am grateful. For you, dear readers  I am also grateful, oh so grateful. For gardening, plants, bees and an early spring out west I am truly grateful. And yes, for garden shows I am also grateful. Even when I'm grumpy.

Thank you for reading and until next time, happy gardening!


  1. Hmmm... I wonder if we ought to go next year...

    1. Oh, gosh, you guys would have a great time. I'm just ranting there are so many great nurseries to hit in the area AND we could all see you two AND you could visit Portland so YES you should come for it next year!

    2. Mark and Gaz, I worry that you will be dreadfully disappointed, like Tamara was. You have the best garden shows in the world (outside in the open air), there in England!

    3. Oh noes! I hope my silly post doesn't keep you from coming. Agreed outside is the best, Alison. But these guys need to come visit again, don't you think?

    4. Yes, definitely but if they're going to come to Seattle, they should come when it's the growing season -- June, July or August.

  2. Thank you for putting into words what I could not understand about the weird pink and blue lighting. Reminded me of the time years ago that I was taking an important test that lasted 2 days, in a huge venue. Near the end of the second day, I looked at my hands and thought I was jaundiced. Panicked. Looked up to see a yellow light bulb overhead.

    I hope the Portland show exceeds our expectations. I look forward to your photos and comments.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Jean! That lighting was something, wasn't it? Must have been something for you to see yellow skin years ago! Wow. I am looking forward to the Portland show myself, at least we have the "Green Marketplace" with the HPSO tables and the wonderful vendors like Cistus, Dancing Oaks, etc. - that's where I always make a straight line for. Plus the Master Gardeners put that portion of it on and do a smashing job.

  3. I enjoyed your take on this show. A friend has suggested we try to go next year and since we live in Texas, it's got to be worth it! Having all points of view will be helpful. It's a lot better than our Home and Garden show which has too much home and not enough garden. A great place to find a roofer or granite countertops, not so much for the garden.

    1. Thank you Shirley and thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Oh, of course do go - it's worth it, I'm sure I'm being a bit of a snob because we do have a lot of garden events here in the Pacific Northwest...we are quite spoiled. I guess I just thought that since Seattle is so much bigger than Portland that it would have a larger green market but I guess not...but do come, and Portland has several ones worth checking out too.

  4. So sorry you were so disappointed. The display gardens are almost never about the plants. I was so surprised and thrilled last year when I went to the YGP show and found that we could walk through the gardens! Even when I lived back east and went to the Boston garden show, we could never walk through those gardens either. I'm one of those weirdos who loves the Vintage marketplace. I hope you got my email about the Tweetup and the link to the PR company. I went a couple of days on my own and found that I got really annoyed at the crowds. Seeing it with friends is much better.

    1. Oh Alison, you are right, and I should know better. I'm being a big baby - there really was a lot to like about the show, I had such high expectations is all. I will DEFINITELY go with a group next time if you'll have me :) And yes, I got your message about the Tweetup (I messaged you back, hope you got that). Seeing with friends always helps.

    2. Tamara, I didn't see a response. I wonder why?

    3. do you see one now, Alison?

  5. It's not just you! I've never had a chance to go to the bigger Garden shows, but it seems like the one in St. Louis is quite similar although on a smaller scale: lots of barely gardeny stuff, very few plants, and display gardens that don't quite delight. I think it's the indoor setting that throws things off for me. Plus all taxidermy should be banned in displays -- I feel more "museum display" than "garden design" from a lot of these.

    1. Whew…Glad I'm not alone. Maybe it's the crowds thing. Yeah, I should stick to the more garden-y shows, me thinks. The indoor setting is really what does it, I do believe - Alison is right, the outdoor setting in England is where it's at. We have one here put on by local Master Gardeners in Canby - it's all outdoors and wow - it's fab…rows and rows and rows and rows of plants. Just lovely. No taxidermy just plants :)

  6. Ah, the clash between expectation and reality! I've felt it too (really, every year) and our "local" flower and garden show, a 1-hour drive away in Orange County, isn't anywhere near the scale of the NWFGS. Yet, I go every year in the hope of finding a plant that I can't get during my nursery trawls, picking up an idea that I can use in my own space, etc. Thanks for the FeederWatch link! I'm going to look out for one of those bee preserver floats during our April show too.

    1. Well said, Kris…well said indeed. The FeederWatch program is great! Someone on my blog referred me to it recently and I am thrilled they did - lots of great nerdy info about backyard birding which I love. The bee preserver is also a cool idea, who knew the bees needed to hold on to get a drink of water? Whatever we can do to help them out, I'm in. That alone was worth it, that's what I'm telling myself :) Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. I read your post with interest, Chickadee, because, as I wrote on a recent post about it by Danger Garden, I just don't get the appeal of garden shows. Not that I have any first-hand experience with them because in the South they just aren't as big a deal as they clearly are in the northern part of the country. The pictures of the display gardens always look a bit creepy to me. I expect it's because they're indoors. Or maybe it's like fashion shows, which I don't get either -- all those weird clothes that no one would ever really wear! Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience. I'm intrigued by this foreign concept known as the garden show.

    1. I'll have to re-read Danger's post and your comments, Pam. I suppose that it's like what I tell people at the gallery I work at - there's something for everyone in the art world, you don't have to like everything and that's also true of gardening...there's something for everyone - it's a big industry, really. Gratefully there are so many different aspects of gardening, as a blogger I feel I should try out a little bit of everything to bring it all to my blog and to the readers with, of course, my grumpy commentary :) .....I get what you're saying Pam - thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. I loved your grumpy commentary! Hope you didn't feel like the trip was a complete waste. Making time to visit a real nursery while your up that way is a good thing, helps you to feel connected.

    1. Ha ha...yes, it was grumpy and I hope to have that changed next year. With nursery visits!

  9. Tamara, I'm so sorry you didn't have a good time at the show this year. Sometimes, it's just like that. The show used to be more plant centric with some smaller companies doing show gardens but it's become increasingly focused on beautiful hardscape. It's a thrill for lots of designers to be able to use huge and beautiful rocks that they might not even be able to rent as Marenakos Rock Center allows them to chose whatever they want to use and positions the rocks gratis. The lighting and crowds do put one off. I first saw the steam punk garden with the work (bright white) lights on and loved it but when seeing the theatrical lighting, didn't care for it. The theatrical lighting covers up a lot of wonderful details in the gardens and seeing it with bright light at the tweet up is a totally different experience and also allows for better pictures. Spending several days at the show is nice because there's time to take in some great seminars, do lunch with friends, have conversations with folks you run into, etc. So, media preview on Tuesday and Tweet up on Thursday are all about exploring and photographing the gardens without the crowd. Then as the show opens to the public after the Tweet up, I get out of the way and start visiting vendors as most of the people coming in want to see the gardens first.
    Maps don't do much for me so I just wander aimlessly until I've figured out where things are. The program for the show used to be a large newsprint thing that I found cumbersome when trying to juggle purchases, camera, etc. so I actually liked the smaller format. Later in the day, it's fun to eavesdrop on what people are saying about the gardens and sit down with others in the media room and chat. This year, we spent a night in a hotel in Seattle which made the experience a bit more vacation like than driving up from home every day. For me the show is mostly about connecting with friends, attending seminars,and finding cool stuff in the vendor areas. Give a shout next year, you're more than welcome to walk the show with Alison and me!

    1. Oh, Peter - there were moments of fun, I think what I need is to be there with you, Alison and other fun bloggers and yes, to do the Tweet Up and all the other fun and better blogger's experiences. I think I'd see the intent of the designers much clearer and get a lot more out of it. As I mentioned, I wasn't feeling well - couple that with crowds on Valentine's Day dating ritual day and it was a mess. Or rather I was. Thanks for your thoughtful response, I appreciate it :)

  10. So Much Stuff!! I'm not sure I would have made it through the whole thing. It seems a lot of these shows are more about the decor/stuff than they are about plants and true gardening. Gah!

  11. Oh man, those vessels from Ravenna Gardens! I officially NEED some. I'm so sorry you're having so many migraines. They are the worst. :(

  12. I'm so sorry that you are suffering from migraines. They are awful. I felt grumpy about the show too. I had really built it up in my mind and was disappointed. Going with our merry/crazy group saved the day for me. And Peter and Alison lifted my spirits when a vendor chewed me out for taking pictures of his gorgeous furniture. Feel better soon!


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