My Flower Show Jollies

Or were they follies?

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The year was 1990. The occasion was the very first meeting with my staff after I became Editor-in-Chief of Organic Gardening magazine. I asked what they thought of the previous year’s Philadelphia Flower Show, themed, “Kaleidoscope: The Wonderful World of Color.” (Deep breath for a flashback; that was the name of the Walt Disney show back when color TV was a big deal).

No one had gone to the flower show. Nor any previous shows. Here we were 60 miles away, and the staff of The World’s Greatest Gardening Magazine had never been to the World’s Largest Indoor Flower Show!

At 4 pm every day I made a well-publicized ladybug release into the exhibit.

I made a few calls, and a dear friend invited us to visit the 1990 show (“Gardens for the Senses”) BEFORE the official press preview, which meant that we were wandering through a sea of very serious judges. I had been told pretty clearly to behave (the note scrawled on my ticket envelope said, “Leave these people alone!—Lisa”). So what did I do? Look at exhibits and say things like: “Whoa! Those flowers look worse than Grandmom Elsie—and she’s been dead for 15 years!”

We had some extra time after the show (having been escorted out a few minutes early), so I took the staff into nearby Chinatown for hot and sour soup, chow shu bo, and Peking duck. The next week, I got a phone call from our accounting department: “That was an extremely interesting expense report. Did all of you really drink that much tea??” (I knew the restaurant owner and so rice wine had become “tea” on the check. Hey—it was March in Philly and cold outside!)

A few years went by, a few of the judges who weren’t ever going to forget me went on to their Eternal Reward—and we were invited to submit plans for a major exhibit. I noticed that Jane Pepper, Empress of the PFS, had located said exhibit at the base of the main escalators, so that the crew wouldn’t have to strain themselves if they decided it needed to be removed early.

Instead, we were a hit. A few stray ladybugs used for aphid control in our greenhouses had hitchhiked on the sunflowers we grew for the display. The day after the show’s opening, they were featured on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, my fair city’s “paper of record.” I was awakened early that morning by everyone who had my phone number, including Lisa, who remembered her gentle admonitions about conversations with the judges back in 1990 (“I’m trusting you! Do NOT speak to any of the judges!!”). A fellow Phil-Elf-Yan, she simply said, “You OWE me! Do you have any more ladybugs?” I knew we had a fridge full, and so at 4 pm every day I made a well-publicized ladybug release into the exhibit; kind of like feeding time for the big cats at the Philadelphia Zoo—without the giant hunks of raw meat.

We won the award for “Exceptional Exhibit” that year, and after the luncheon where they took back the silver pitcher that had sat in the exhibit screaming that we were officially the Cool New Kids on the Block and replaced it with a certificate (at least it was mounted on a plaque that might even have been real wood), I was approached by Empress Jane, who graced me with, “Good work, Michael.” (She never called me Mike, and she stretched “Michael” out into a 30-second word.) “What do you have planned for next year?”

I wanted to say, “Sleep in all Winter,” but the Flower Show was one of my most memorable links to my mother. When I was a child, as soon as I was able to walk, she and I took a bus to the Frankford El (As the Early Philly Band Sweet Stavin Chain used to croon: “You can’t get to heaven on the Frankford El, because the Frankford El goes straight to Frankford. Can’t get to heaven on the Frankford El!”) every year. And every year at the show, she’d point out people and say, “They’re rich and live on the Main Line, while that family had to save up to buy tickets. This is the only place on earth where you can rub elbows with Grace Kelly and a woman who cleans offices in the middle of the night.”

It was fabulous. I thought the Philly Flower Show was like Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Christmas—something everyone celebrated.
My mother passed before she could see me stage my first Flower Show exhibit. But I know that she knows. To her, seeing her ”difficult” son win awards at her favorite event would have been transcendent.

So, standing there before the Empress, I blurted out: “Hot peppers!”

“Really,” said Jane in a tone like she was on the edge of send-ing me to detention, “and what else?”

“More hot peppers—every single named variety that we can find!”

She smiled. I had accidentally chosen something that fit perfectly in the ’94 Show’s theme: “Islands in the Sun.” I lit an imaginary candle to The Blessed Mother to say thanks, and then Jane said, “What about the ladybugs? I have to admit that they were the hit of the show.”

“Toads!” I blurted. “Toads! They‘re fabulous pest control both here and in the tropics!”

In my brain, I had been suddenly pulled over by 16 police cars, couldn’t find my Proof of Insurance, and was not wearing any pants.

“Toads!” I blurted. “Toads! They’re fabulous pest control both here and in the tropics!”

She said, “Fine. Make sure the people can see them, and have your model and drawings ready by a month from now.”

I panicked more and said, “Yes, Sister,” confusing this tall British woman with my elementary school experiences with Sister John Wayne and Sister Charles Bronson.

I pulled my crew together and told them what I had promised. As they were good, decent Christian people under other circumstances, I will not repeat their comments, except to mention that I did say to one of them: “Really? Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

Seeds were ordered, plants were grown, and my own brand-new backyard greenhouse was assigned to grow about one-third of the rarest peppers. Things went well. The parents of one of the magazine’s researchers raised a LOT of toads, the greenhouses at The Rodale Institute were loaded with peppers, and the independent greenhouse I had contracted with to grow many others…

…froze solid during a power failure.

We were down to JUST enough plants. Then February arrived. It snowed and it snowed so much that I couldn’t get my green-house door open. But our electric clothes dryer had been rigged to exhaust into the greenhouse, and we washed everything in the house without doing the final spins—so soaking wet towels went “Katumph, Katumph” at three in the morning, sending both heat and moisture to the greenhouse.

Finally, load-in day approached. We had already hauled in the hard goods, like the faux house and patio furniture. But a massive storm was on the way, and all the peppers were still at large. I called in everyone we knew, and they shoveled a path to my greenhouse. It was beyond waist deep and the sky seemed ripe for flying monkeys. I called Fred—our Master Planner—and said, “We have to move these plants NOW!”

Fred: “Well, you know that I’m technically not allowed inside until tomorrow morning…”

Me: “You got the house in! Do whatever you need to!”

Fred: “It might cost a bit…”

Me: “Fine. We’ll just write it off as more tea.”

Fred made a trip to Rodale’s greenhouse and then came by to collect my plants. He had outfitted a very large truck with heavy sheets of plastic. Multiple propane heaters were roaring in the back. I had a crew ready to fireman-pass the plants out quickly, and when I looked at the setup, I asked Fred if this was legal.

“Hell, no!” And he was off into the rapidly developing snow. An hour or so later, he called: “I was the last truck they let in.”

“Fred! That’s great!”

“I wasn’t supposed to be the last truck in. I was supposed to be the first truck left outside; so don’t thank me until you get the bill for all the ‘tea’ we had to provide to keep those doors open.”

And in the end…: We won our first of what would be four consecutive Best of Show awards. And naturally, we celebrated our victory in nearby Chinatown—with toasts of {ahem} “tea.”


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