Native Garden 3.0

Going to a garden show is a lot like window shopping.

While there’s no plate glass to smudge your nose against, there’s still an invisible barrier between you and the lavish displays.

In the case of garden shows, that’s because the designers create pieces that have to be picture perfect for only a few days, not for a summer, several seasons, or many years.

But that doesn’t mean that the shows aren’t still fun. They offer everything from sweet, mini fantasies to vignettes that you wouldn’t be caught dead replicating at home. In between are the crazy stuff, and bits and pieces of take-away ideas that will fit into just about anyone’s garden.

A Case in Point

Nature By Design

Last week’s 25th annual San Francisco Flower and Garden Show featured more flowing water than ever, along with all sorts of interesting paving and rock formations.

Gazebos, pergolas and even a tree house soared overhead. At eye level and below, wispy ornamental grasses, foliage plants and lots and lots of mulch dominated many of the displays. Any emphasis on flowers continued to fade, furthering a decline that began several shows ago, with fewer displays than ever packed tip to toe with petal power.

The Living Room

One of the most striking exhibits was The Living Room, a giant cube ringed by water, much like a castle keep encircled in a moat.

Except bowls glowing with LED bulbs softly illuminated the water’s edge. And swaths of uniformly short succulents in various shades of green, yellow and brown swirled over all four walls, each of which easily measured 12 feet tall by 12 feet wide.

Around the back, large, hand-cast stepping stones that looked somewhat like oversized buttons, with holes punched in their centers, led across the water to a narrow doorway. Inside was a table set for a feast, with an enormous chandelier featuring 1910 Thomas Edison-style light bulbs with exposed filaments casting a warm, amber glow.

Via Aqua

While The Living Room tipped toward the past, Via Aqua firmly headed toward the future. A series of flat, still-water, rectangular pools led to a minimalist tableau of two sinuous chaise lounges composed of blue fabric and polished chrome. An orange cube containing a single, yellow-striped New Zealand flax sat between the two chaises, while companion orange cubes sat submerged in the pools and were filled with upright papyrus.

An ancient olive tree, easily 25 feet tall, towered above. Beneath, its smooth, gnarled roots emerged from the soil and offered an interesting counterpoint to the rigid angles of much of the rest of the scene.

Twice Upon a Treehouse

Across the hall, several even older olive trees framed a whimsical tree house in Twice Upon a Treehouse: A Modern Fairytale. The trees bore massive, fissured trunks measuring at least several feet across and were said to be more than 100 years old.

Meanwhile, more bird’s nest than house, the lofted sitting area was perched atop sturdy posts composed of thick, picturesque roots. Stubby branches filtered views of two vintage metal chairs, while frayed burlap dangled from the edges, resulting in somewhat of an abandoned, Swiss Family Robinson vibe.


Several steps away, Re-Generation was described in a show hand-out as a “post-apocalyptic landscape, a designed space transformed by the elements, yet still standing as a monument to sustainable building methods.”

Despite such an alarming tag, the display itself featured soft, billowy native grasses, a smattering of wildflowers and a positively charming metal armadillo. Nearby, a metal dragonfly with a wingspan of at least 4 feet rested in the grass, while an equally super-sized owl, wings outstretched, hovered atop an arbor.

Prehistoric Paradise

Also depicting nature at work — but many years in the past — was The Prehistoric Paradise. The centerpiece was a beautifully proportioned Canary Island date palm. Topping its 12-foot-tall trunk were long, feathery fronds gracefully arching up, out and back to earth. Interesting boulders and stepping stones were complemented by a nice display of succulents, bromeliads, dasylirions and other exotic-looking plants.

Driving home the point that this was a prehistoric garden, the designer positioned an upright, 10-foot tall, green-striped dinosaur next to the palm. And if the faux dinosaur wasn’t enough, numerous brightly colored plastic insects were scattered throughout the display. More than a few of the plastic bugs were sure to have disappeared into the hands of children by the show’s end.

Habitat Dance

Appealing to young ones — and adults — on a more subtle scale was Habitat Dance with a Red-Headed Snake.

Radiant pieces of pottery and flowers, primarily in shades of red, coral, and chartreuse, brightened planting pockets set at various heights in undulating walls of hand-formed, rippling concrete. A tall, slender fountain was cast in the shape of a crayon. A swirling mass of copper tubing bearing glass ornaments spiraled its way around a series of red-handled shovels balanced upright, on their tips, on top of the concrete walls.

What to Take Home?

The Papillon Pad

While not everyone might embrace duplicating dancing red shovels at home, there were still plenty of imaginative take-away ideas.

The Papillon Pad featured a serene gravel patio edged with a stacked rock wall. Toward one end of the wall, two sturdy, wood brackets had been inset about two feet up. Topping the brackets was a slab of natural wood for a bench. Filling out the corner were a boulder and three pots, each filled with a single specimen: a grass, a flowering shrub and an upright herb.

Tempo di Tempo

Another stone wall, this one taller and more rustic, featured 16 small, terra cotta pots filled with colorful succulents and annuals. The bottoms of the pots were secured to flat brackets that had been attached to the wall.

The mounts were simple, inconspicuous and appeared solid enough. At home, you could achieve the same effect by screwing large, flat screw eyes into the masonry between the stones.

Tempo di Tempo

Also easy to imitate was the notion of using edible plants to inject and match color in the garden.

In one vignette, a small Eureka lemon tree was underplanted with Goldie bidens, the tiny yellow daisies mimicking the yellow globes of fruit.

In another, orange marigolds were planted beneath a dwarf orange tree.

And in another, the gray-green foliage of round-headed cabbage and serrated-leaf artichokes contrasted beautifully with delicate purple, yellow and white columbine.

Seeds of Wisdom

Those Dancing Shovels

Garden shows are often filled with an overwhelming number of ideas, plants and construction details.

Shoot photos with a camera or cell phone to preserve the memories.

Shoot display signs, too, in case you’d like to contact the designer later on.

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