Garden Show Gadgets

I’ve just returned from the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle. It’s going to be a busy, garden show-ish kind of spring for me: I’m trekking to the Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco shows this spring to teach workshops, always with my worms in tow. So this column is the first of what may turn out to be a two or three-part series on the wild and wonderful world of garden shows.

Last weekend, for the first time, I checked a worm bin through as baggage. When I presented it at the ticket counter, packed neatly in a cardboard box, the guy behind the counter eyed it suspiciously.

“Uh, whatcha got in the box?” he asked.

“Yes. Well,” I said, having prepared myself for this question, “it is an empty, unused worm composting bin. Basically it’s a big plastic box.”


“So it’s…new?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s worm-free.” (The worms were in my carry-on.)   

“You’re going to have to sign a waiver for that,” he said, and I signed a little form to indicate my agreement with the premise that it is perfectly ridiculous to check a worm bin as baggage and that if anything went wrong, I had only myself to blame.

I arrived at the show on Friday afternoon—too late, I realized, to see Noel Kingsbury give any of his talks. He’s become a very hot commodity in the gardening world lately for his naturalistic approach to gardening—if you’ve been reading this column for a while, you may remember me raving about his book Natural Gardening in Small Spaces a while back. He’s got a gorgeous new book called Designing Borders, in which he asks his fellow hip garden designers to each contribute a section. Penelope Hobhouse, Piet Oudolf, and others take up the challenge, and the result is a compact and beautifully illustrated guide to the very best work of the very best naturalistic garden designers out there. (More coming soon about Piet, by the way. It’s all I can do not to pack my bags and move to Holland to work for this guy. Just turning his compost pile would be a privilege.)

Kingsbury had a talk scheduled on “Men, Women, and Gardening” that was billed as, “An entertaining look at whether men and women garden differently. If so, how and why? And is there really a gay garden?”

The answer is, I hope, yes, yes, and yes, but I deeply regret that I missed Kingsbury’s take on it. Please write to me with your own thoughts on the subject—if you say something clever, I just might print it.

I did get there in plenty of time to wander the convention center, stunned at the size of the crowd that turns out on a weekday to go to a garden show. Seattle is a city of hardcore, serious gardeners. Over 70,000 people were expected to attend over the show’s five days. A couple of the vendors explained to me that the real gardeners show up during the week, their routes mapped out, their programs marked so they don’t miss the best seminars. Then the amateurs come on the weekend. After all, if gardening isn’t worth missing work for, you can’t be that serious about it, right?

But in spite of the uncomfortably crowded halls, I realized that it is impossible not to be happy at a garden show. The display gardens—crazily fake displays of potted plants jumbled together to resemble a real garden, often around some over-the-top piece of garden architecture like a treehouse with a sod roof—come together in the main hall to create a kind of theme park for gardeners. You can step into these tiny little fantasy worlds for just a minute, just long enough to imagine yourself as the kind of gardener who builds retractable window boxes that allow you to move your plants in and out of the sun, and the kind who recirculates the fishy water from your pond into your greenhouse as fertilizer (a process that allows the plants in the greenhouse to clean up the water so it can flow back into the pond, of course).

I am not one of those kinds of gardeners, so eventually I got bored with the display gardens. The flower show was also a little difficult to connect with—take a look at the photo on this page and try to imagine this arrangement on your hall table—so I moved on to one of my favorite aspects of gardening: shopping. The north and south halls were filled with vendors selling The Next Big Thing. Two of my favorites: Y-shaped plant supports with bendy arms that allow you to use the support to grab just one stem or embrace an entire shrub (available from and these crazy little muddy things called SeedBallz, which are basically flower seeds mushed into a ball along with some clay and some good compost. You toss the balls around the garden, water them, and the flowers sprout as a big cluster. I have no idea if this works better than planting seeds the old-fashioned way, but I can’t resist a gimmick so I bought a few of them. You can check them out at

And because I was traveling by air, and I already had the worms in tow, I resisted the temptation to buy orchard mason bees, which come packed in straws as near-adult larvae, ready to hatch and fly off to pollinate the spring garden. The bee guy and I got to talking about traveling with bugs; turned out he was once minding his own business on a flight to the Philadelphia Flower Show, his bees stashed in his carry-on, when he heard a familiar buzzing.  A young female had hatched and landed on the window, where she peered out at the impossibly high clouds. He asked the flight attendant for a couple of cups and carefully scooped her up. “She rode with me like that to Philadelphia,” he said, “and I took her to the flower show and set her free.”

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