It might be easiest to describe what it’s like to be on the floor of the Philadelphia Flower Show the day before opening by explaining what it’s not like.
It’s not like a dinner party I recently hosted. As the hour approached, I looked desperately at a pile of unpeeled vegetables on the messy kitchen counter. Cabinet doors hung open, the candlesticks were empty. Ten minutes before my guests arrived I accepted that I would be greeting them in slippers because there was no time to go upstairs and change into shoes.
Compared to my measly dinner party, the Flower Show has about a million more moving parts. And yet as the hours count down, there is no observable panic anywhere. Forklifts zoom nimbly around the crowded floor of the Convention Center, gently depositing pallets of sod rolled up like sushi, dozens of azaleas in perfect bloom, and four-foot tall foxglove wrapped in plain brown paper. There’s a buzz of excitement in the air, and a whiff of adrenaline, but no fear.
Looking at the empty tables and racks in the Horticourt, (the central portion of the show that allows home gardeners to enter plants for competition), I feel anxious; I’ve been told that 11,296 plants brought by 368 exhibitors will be entered in the show within the coming hours. Each plant has to go through a multi-step process to be accepted, which sounds harder than getting in to college. After being submitted, it goes to the recorders who register it. The passers send it on with its registration to the nomenclature committee who ensures that the plant is entered under the proper Latin name and its cultivar variety. Finally it goes on to the stagers, who arrange each plant within the display. How do they possibly do it 11,296 times?
The answer is volunteers. Really good ones, who show up year after year- that’s what my parties are missing!The Philadelphia Flower Show is one of the ten largest events in the country, up with the Iowa State Fair. Besides the formidable powers of its sponsor the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, it takes 3500 volunteers to get to liftoff. Some are seasoned veterans who devote hundreds of hours of planning throughout the course of the year, while others commit on a more modest scale.
Although volunteering is down slightly in the US compared to ten years ago, The Flower Show hasn’t struggled to retain volunteers. And while some are experts, like the judges who arrive from all over the country, other volunteers aren’t even into gardening. The appeal of the show for them is the camaraderie. Many people I spoke with I the days before opening talked about the friendships they’ve formed volunteering at the flower show. “It’s like a stop-action film,” says Charles Cresson, a thirty-year show volunteer. “You get to know people well here at the Flower Show, and then don’t see them again until the following year. But then you start up again.”
And maybe this explains why when I visited on opening morning, everything looked perfect, as it always does at the Flower Show. Many hands make light work, and the green army that helps transform three acres of concrete into a magical paradise- this year you’re be in Britain, last year it was Hawaii- do it with synchronized coordination that looks easy but speaks of an impressive commitment. As Vice Chair of Horticulture Thomas Hawkins told me, “It’s about the plants, but it’s also about the people. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun.”