A Breath of Spring

Vermont’s very own Flower Show

After this cold and somewhat erratic winter many of us have a touch of the ‘winter blues’. I know that I, for one, am positively aching to see and smell some welcome signs of spring. However, in my own garden, I must wait until mid-April before spring actually arrives.

But last weekend winter weary Vermonters have a delightful treat in store— our very own ‘Vermont Flower Show’ which was held on March 1-3 at the Champlain Valley Exposition Center in Essex.

This gala, which was expected to draw around 10,000 visitors, happens just every other year. And it seemingly offers ‘something for everyone’.

The Vermont Flower Show is a vast labor of love on the part of the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association—the VNLA.   During the warmer months all VNLA members work, in one way or another, to help Vermonters enjoy lovely gardens. Some raise beautiful plants,  while others help you select just the right plants at your local garden center.  Still others design and plant bountiful gardens, or help us keep ourgardens looking lovely from spring till fall. So, it stands to reason that all VNLA members are passionate about gardens and about plants.

When Dick and I moved here (over 20 years ago now) we were super impressed with the Vermont  Flower Show which, at that time, was located at the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington and was considerably smaller than today. It was SO much better than the one we had attended in a certain much larger state to the south which shall remain nameless!!

In particular we were bowled over by the excellent seminars and by the  Grand Display Garden, full of colorful flowers, green grass and—that particular year—live chickens!

To get the highlights and background on this year’s show, I talked with several local people folk who had a huge hand in making it all happen.

The Grand Garden Display

A lovely pansy waiting inside Claussen’s Greenhouse for its time in the limelight at the Vermont Flower Show

The heart and soul of the Vermont Flower Show is surely the expansive Grand Garden Display where you can soak up the sights and smells of spring. As Shari Johnson of Cornwall VT, who organizes the Master Gardeners who will help at the show, said:

For me participating in the Vermont Flower Show makes spring come a bit sooner.  Smelling all the flowers and the bark mulch just warms the spirit. 

And Bristol VT resident Michelle Blow—who volunteers over 75 hours of her own time to help create the Grand Garden Display— had this to say:

I’ve been to the Boston show countless times and there is no comparison. The Boston show doesn’t have a ‘Grand Display’ although they have smaller vignettes. I feel the fact that the Vermont Flower Show has a cohesive theme and a grand display is what sets it apart.

Over the years this display garden has gradually expanded in size, now covering about a quarter of an acre—the size of a small suburban garden.  And, since there is a completely new design for each show, it never gets stale.

For the past five shows Melita Bass of Shoreham VT has co-chaired the Grand Garden Display Committee, devoting countless hours to each show (she could not even begin to estimate how many).

Thousands of tulips destined for the Grand Garden Display being coaxed into flower at Claussen’s Greenhouses

This year’s extravaganza, with the theme of ’Wonder—a Garden Adventure for All Ages’, featured an urban courtyard, an indoor garden room, a woodland walk, a meditative glen, and a sensory maze, all connected via gently curving paths, and was designed to help us reconnect with nature, both in our lives and in our gardens.

Imagine over fifteen thousand flowering bulbs and one thousand beautiful perennials, set off against a backdrop of more than 400 shrubs and trees, and savor the sights and smells of spring. There were all our springtime favorites—pansies and tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, as well as flowering crab apples, rhododendrons and azaleas, lilacs and magnolias, and many more, as well as quite a few unfamiliar plants.

Tulips on display at the show


‘.Several elegant stonework creations, especially crafted for the show, were also an integral part of the design. Jamie Masefield, a skilled stonemason from Monkton VT, created a Horse Shoe Bench as a contemplative place to sit and relax, together with a unique sphere called ‘The Orb’. Fashioned from local slate shingles it incorporated an illuminated internal cavity to gently light the pathway.


Jamie carefully cutting a piece of slate to size for the Orb
Positioning the slate piece within the circular template



As Jamie said:

‘Working on the Grand Garden Display offers me the opportunity to create unique stone features that intrigue me and it also allows me to share with the public the great diversity of things that can be done with dry stone construction’.

The finished Orb on display in the show


A delightful pop-up market

The approximately 100 vendors at the show together formed a delightful pop-up market— another huge component of the show.

Some offered all manner of elegant accoutrements for the well-appointed garden—decorative sprinklers and trellises; energy-efficient greenhouses; ceramic pots that can remain outdoors all winter; and much more.

Others sold plants and seeds, specialty foods and unique hand-made craft items, as well as beautiful paintings and photographs of our beloved Vermont landscape.

Still others represented a variety of non-profit organizations connected with horticulture.

And, if you wanted to buy more, at the end of the show there was a Plant Sale—and an opportunity to take home a few of the plants from the Grand Garden Display.

Combine Learning with Pleasure

Visiting the beautiful Berkshire Botanical Gardens in Massachusetts–part a seminar entitled ‘The Roving Gardener’

For me, the seminars have always been a personal highlight of the Vermont Flower Show. Upstairs this year there were 26 seminars on subjects ranging from growing great berries to visiting outstanding public gardens.

Meanwhile downstairs there were plenty more opportunities for fun and learning, including 14 live demonstrations on everything from pruning to bonsai; beautiful  cut-flower arrangements by the Federated Garden Clubs of Vermont; an ‘Ask a Master Gardener’ table where you could get your gardening questions answered;  as well as the Vermont Garden Railway Society’s amazing model railway, complete with moving trains and decorated with—you got it—PLANTS!

And the kids were not forgotten! They wee encouraged to let off steam in the special ‘family room’,digging for worms and playing in the dirt. There were also different craft activities for each show day, as well as live entertainment by talented guests.

A labor of love

The Vermont Flower Show is the culmination of months of dedication and hard work by individual VLNA members with vital assistance from over150 UVM Extension Master Gardenersand several student organizations.

To plan for the 2019 show, two committees were formed way back in October 2017; one responsible for the overall show and the second devoted to the Grand Garden Display.

The Show committee were responsible for the overall logistics including all the vendors and food suppliers.  Meanwhile Melita, along with Gabe Bushey of Vergennes and Marie Limoge of Essex Junction, headed up the Grand Garden Display committee, and Leonard Perry (UVM Horticulture Professor Emeritus), as always, single-handedly connected with potential speakers and then set up the impressive schedule of seminars and workshops.

The Grand Garden Display committee started by brainstorming about the theme and design for this year’s display garden. Once a design was in place, they specified the thousands of flowers, trees and shrubs that would be needed and then connected with local growers about donating them.

It is February, but already these foliage plants, destined for the show, are coloring up in Claussen’s greenhouses.

Last November all these plants were transported to Claussens Greenhouses in Colchester where they spent the winter and then were coaxed into leaf and bloom in perfect time for the show.

And finally, for four action-packed days before the start of the show, members of the display committee oversaw the hundreds of volunteers including VNLA members, UVM Extension Master Gardeners, plus students from the Center for Technology Essex and the Northlands Job Corps Urban Forestry Program, who descended on the Essex Expo to actually set everything up.

An amazing time-lapse video on the VNLA website shows this all happening for the 2017 show.

So what motivates VNLA members, who work long hours outdoors all season long, to then spend their precious winter down-time to make this show possible for all of us?  As Melita said, it is the collaboration and energy that comes from working together on a big project:

To me, the most remarkable thing about our show is the collaboration among those who are essentially competitors in their industry. Unlike other shows, we build one cohesive display together. Individual businesses are not showcased within the garden display; there is no signage or advertising to detract from the beauty. Many of the core group of designers and builders have been working together on shows for several years now. We have formed bonds within and outside of our craft which go beyond networking, that I would call true friendship.

It is an overwhelming amount of work, but in the end, when the last plant is placed, the lights come up and the doors open to thousands of people coming to enjoy what we have built it, all feels worth it.

And one of the best parts is when the students who worked with us on set-up come back to visit the finished product once the show opens, when you catch their eye walking past and there’s mutual acknowledgement and pride over what we all built together.

And Michelle Blow echoed similar sentiments:

What keeps me coming back is the camaraderie and the amazing group of people who work on the show. It’s always amazing seeing the process go from an idea to a physical manifestation over the course of 18 months. The huge crew that puts it together are simply incredible people and with all the different personalities and skill sets every single person is necessary! The show is such a great way to see everyone in the industry as well as enthusiastic home gardeners. It’s always a great way to jump start the season.

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