Show Gardens – Tips for Visitors

It’s that wonderful time of year when convention centers and show grounds across the country are transformed seemingly overnight into woodland glens, imaginary grottoes and dreamy garden vignettes. Tens of thousands of winter-weary homeowners flock to these garden shows to get ideas for sprucing up their own patios and landscapes, taking photographs for future reference, talking to designers, shopping from the enticing  marketplace and attending educational seminars.


NWFGS 2014; silver and black foliage framed this simple water feature.

I first discovered the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in 2001 when my friend Laurie whisked me off to Seattle as a ‘pick me up’ just a few months after my dad had passed away. Well it picked me up and started a tradition of attending every year and I now can’t imagine missing out on this extravaganza. I am also honored to have been asked to present seminars and demonstrations at the Seattle show for the past ten years.

With so much to see and do it can be overwhelming, however, so here are our tips for making the most of your visit, specifically for getting ‘take home’ ideas from those over-the-top show gardens.

Find inspiration you can use


Stunning design by Karen Stefonik, Northwest Flower & Garden Show 2015. Does this feel like ‘home’ to you?

Start with the magic. Just stand still, breathe slowly and let it all wash over you. Leave your camera alone for a few minutes; you can narrow your focus later. For now get the Big Picture. What does the space say to you? How does it make you feel? What is your eye drawn to first? If you had to describe it in one word what would it be? Serene? Mystical? Funky? Nostalgic? Contemporary?

In order to get ideas that you can use at home it is helpful to now study these gardens in a more ordered way.


So many ideas in this cute little shed designed by West Seattle Nursery for the 2015 NWFGS

Study the hardscape – the buildings, structures, walls  and  paths. What materials have been used? What do you find especially appealing? Is it the re-use of salvaged items or the scale of a well thought out pergola? Do the pebble inserts in the patio give you an idea or perhaps it is the color of the rustic shed that catches your eye.


I loved the burnished foliage on both the dwarf deerhorn cedar and the azalea; great textural contrast. NWFGS 2015. Be sure to check sun tolerance of both before planting together in your garden, however.

Next the foliage – snap photos of plant names as well as the plants! Then be sure to do your research. Just because it is situated next to sun loving tulips doesn’t mean this is going to be a sun loving shrub for example. This is one of the greatest frustrations for many visitors. The show garden designers are often trying to suggest concepts rather than true planting plans so there will be considerable license taken with growing conditions needed. Do take the opportunity to see which foliage speaks to you, however. Is it a new variety or just new to you? How does that dazzling white variegation play off the bark of the birch trees? Have you noticed that wintry hue on the conifer before?


Susan Browne played off the color orange in pots, twigs, metal, cushions and oodles of gorgeous tulips . NWFGS 2015

Finally the flowers – you’ve resisted so far but yes now it’s time to look at those blooms within the context of the larger garden. Why do you like them? The color? Fragrance? Do they repeat the color of a chair? Do they work particularly well with another plant – again be sure to research both for their true ability to co-exist in the garden. Many  tropical or indoor plants are pressed into service for effect at these shows. That makes them a good candidate for a summer container but probably not for your landscape.

Special details


Whisper soft grasses, a meadow style planting and sculptural art. San Francisco 2013. Can you hear the bees?

Art work, water features, lighting – what makes the garden unique? What can you take away as an idea?


Clean horizontal lines, shape repetition, interesting mixed materials, finely textured foliage in a limited color palette – all these elements contribute to this contemporary space. One of my favorite gardens at the 2013 San Francisco show.

The end review. Put that camera away again! How do all the elements you have identified work together? How is the design unified? By color? Texture? Style? What do you like or dislike about that? If the designer is available this would be the time to ask them about their design intent. Did you get the visual message they tried to convey? Or did you perceive something quite different? Chat with them about how you experienced their space – all designers love to hear these things!


Fun way to create wine storage! NWFGS 2015

With dozens of show gardens to enjoy this process will take a while and you will doubtless be jostled and elbowed by other show-goers all doing the same. Make sure you wear comfy shoes and drink water to keep hydrated. Better still stop by a wine bar (Seattle has lots of new wine gardens this year!) and enjoy a grown up beverage as you make a few notes (use the Notes app or Evernote on your phone or be sure to carry a small notebook and pen). I always carry a couple of granola bars for a quick energy boost too.

Which show are you going to this year? Do let us know by leaving a comment here or on our Facebook page.

If you’re heading to Seattle be sure to stop by and say hello to Christina and I. We will be signing copies of our award winning book Fine Foliage after each talk. At just $16.95 they make excellent gifts!

Our Seattle Show Talks;

KAREN; Small Garden, Big Impact – Container Garden Drama. Wednesday February 17th 5pm DIY stage

CHRISTINA; Gardening for Serenity. Thursday February 18th  2.15pm Rainier Room

Major 2016 Spring Garden Shows

Northwest Flower and Garden Show February 17- 21st

Connecticut Flower and Garden Show February 18- 21st

Southern Spring Home and Garden Show February 26-28th, March 4-6th

Arkansas Flower and Garden Show February 26-28th

Maryland Home and Garden Show March 5-6th, 11-13th

Philadelphia Flower Show March 5-13th

Chicago Flower and Garden Show March 12-20th

Boston Flower and Garden Show March 16-20

San Francisco Flower and Garden Show March 16-20th

Springfest Garden Show (New Jersey) March 17-20th

Cincinnati Flower Show April 13-17th


8 thoughts on “Show Gardens – Tips for Visitors

  1. Jay Sifford

    I enjoyed this, Karen. It’s the time of year I’ve celebrated the most since I was 10 years old and first attended a February garden show. I never dreamed that I would be installing gardens there, first orchid gardens, then full-blown landscapes. Thanks for giving such a good overview and providing tips to show goers on how to receive the most benefit from attending these events.

  2. Barbara Sanderson

    A lot of good tips here ladies. Also many of the show gardens display artwork from artists who have booths at the shows. If you see something you are interested in you can look to see if there is information about the artist at the garden information table in front of every display garden.

    1. Karen Chapman Post author

      Sorry you missed the show Charlie! These photos were from the 2015 show but you can bet we’ll be posting some of our latest favorites here and on Facebook

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