Behind the scenes with the Philadelphia Flower Show’s ‘volunteer army’

    Billed as world’s longest-running and largest indoor exhibit of its kind, the Philadelphia Flower Show is produced by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society with the help of some 3,500 dedicated volunteers who work behind the scenes.

    Behind the scenes of the competition at the heart of the Flower Show, volunteers are organized into a complex web of committees with a hierarchy of chairs, vice chairs, co-chairs, aids, assistants, judges and clerks.

    Competitive classes chair Joe Marano and vice chair Alice Bucher sit at the top of that hierarchy. Marano has been volunteering for 30 years.

    “I started when I was four years old,” Marano said. “My mother would drag me here as a little kid. She competed. So ever since college I’ve bee helping out, staging, volunteering — and I just moved my way up.”

    From a small office above the exhibit floor, they consult their maps like military generals coordinating troop movements and troubleshooting. And like the best military leaders, they hit the ground running.

    “You park the car and walk into the floor, and — then it hits,” said Bucher. “‘We need more lights,’ or ‘It’s too cold here. Where’s the electrician?’ or ‘Where’s the carpenter?'”

    “All morning, we’re just putting out fires,” said Marano.

    On with the show

    But like all of the volunteers we spoke with, they are dedicated and determined to make the show wonderful.

    “The show must go on. I remember many snowy days where I had to walk up a hill or down a hill to meet a car to get in here,” said Bucher. “And everybody involved in the show feels that way. It must … must go on.”

    Three days before the public opening, the exhibit floor was filled with miniature loaders, fork lifts, and carts dodging around unfinished displays. Large piles of dirt and pallets of plants make walking tricky.

    It didn’t seem likely that it would be transformed in three days.

    “The magic thing about the Flower Show is how it appears almost overnight,” said Thomas Hawkins, co-vice chair of horticulture. He has been volunteering for over 10 years. “It goes from a huge, empty, three-acre hall to a magical plant kingdom that lasts for 10 days then disappears again — like Brigadoon.”

    Hawkins is part of a small army of volunteers who make that magic happen. Volunteers are at work on nearly every aspect of the show, from making certain that plants and flowers entered into competition are correctly identified and logged in the database to organizing the awards ceremonies.

    “Chelsea flower show in England doesn’t have a horticultural competition like this,” said Hawkins. “They just have the big exhibitors. They don’t have an opportunity for the lay person to come in and compete, so we’re fairly unique.”

    The height of competition

    Throughout the show, competitors will submit thousands of plants in dozens of design categories. And it’s all organized with military precision, because the stakes are high.

    “Winning a blue ribbon here is a big deal,” said Diane Newberry, the other horticulture co-chair. Her 14-year-old daughter snagged a coveted blue ribbon before Newberry did herself.

    “The people who rent trucks to bring in hundreds and hundreds of entries are looking to win one of the sweepstakes prizes, and they’re very serious about what they’re doing. Very serious,” said Newberry. “When you have hundreds of entries you are moving!”

    For some volunteers, it only takes one shot at winning to be bitten by the competitive bug.

    Sally Gendler, vice chair of the Garden Gate exhibit, said, “I started out just bringing my plants to show. Then I won a blue ribbon. And then you’re hooked!”

    The entries begin flooding in on Thursday. Throughout the show, depending on the exhibit, people can swap them out, re-enter new plants and be judged again.

    “And every morning there’s a whole new set of judges and people who have to walk clerk and barriers,” said Gendler. “And that’s a whole other city unto itself right here in the Horticourt.”

    In the Horticourt exhibit alone, 11,000 plants will be entered for judging, but there are a lot of other exhibits. For each plant entered into the competition the goal is perfection.

    “This is the best part of the show, to watch the show come together, to look at bare concrete, and come in every day to do our part,” said Sharon Wong, carefully filing sediment off of her clay display pots in the succulent club booth.

    For Wong and other volunteers, the chance to win a prize is not the only thing that keeps them coming back year after year.

    “So if people can volunteer for different clubs and see the show come together, it’s much more fascinating,” she said.

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