December 30, 2010

Planning Plant Purchases for Plant Shows

I just noticed that Amazon has added a new feature for their wish lists:  Add to Amazon Wish List Button.  This Firefox add-on allows you to browse a variety of websites, not just Amazon, and add items (e.g., Saturn's Rings coleus) to a wish list you create.  I have been told repeatedly just how difficult I am to shop for.  My friends and family both have difficulty finding something that I haven't already purchased for myself, fits within my needs, or fits within my aesthetic, so I started making wish lists on Amazon a few years ago since I can generally find a product that I want on the site (e.g., some nice pens).  However, with the gardening fetish, it's becoming a bit more difficult to add items because what I really want are plants, and Amazon isn't exactly a specialized nursery selling gorgeous miniature African violets.  Just saying.

I also like wish lists because they help me remember what I've been wanting or a particular product that I researched and decided would solve a problem (or desire), so they're also helpful to me.  I probably purchase fewer things because there's a certain satisfaction in adding something to a digital cart, but the satisfaction diminishes with the knowledge that those items will disappear from the cart which puts a bit of pressure to purchase.  If I'm not certain of the items, I end up not purchasing rather than giving it a couple days to stew in my head.  If I'm not certain of a item, wait a couple days, and forget that I ever wanted it, then I know it wasn't something I really needed or wanted.  This is how it was with the pink skull boots.  After a year of letting them stew, I finally decided that yes, I really wanted them because I never forgot them, but I've managed to forget a lot of other things I wanted at one particular moment or another.

The wish list reminds me of things that perhaps I would prefer over something else I'm considering at the moment, and then I can decide if I really want to have it in real life or just on the wish list for someone else to purchase.  That's the funny thing about gifts - they're better if it's something you really want but wouldn't necessarily purchase for yourself.  It's not exactly exciting to get a 12-roll pack of toilet paper even if it's something you really want and need because chances are that you are more than willing to purchase it for yourself.

I just got the Amazon add on, and so now I'm going through nursery websites adding plants and items I'm considering for the next year. It feels like I get easily suckered into purchasing plants that sorta, kinda fit the bill of what I'm looking for because it's there and it's easy, and I buy a lot of plants and seeds on a whim rather than considering alternatives or what I already have.  I got lucky a few weeks ago when I found a 'Pee Wee' Dwarf Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) at The Natural Gardener, and it happened to be exactly the shrub I was wanting for a particular corner around my house.  I was very proud of myself for having already done the research and being diligent enough to actually check the label just to see if it was the one I wanted.  Score!

However, this never seems to happen.  For example, I love coleus, which is completely unexplainable as I'm not a considerable fan of other plants that coleus-lovers adore.  I mean, I like banana trees, caladiums, and elephant ear alright.  I even have all three in some manner or another, but I think I like coleus for the same reason I like rex begonias - there's some crazy diversity, and the price point is right for collecting.  It also helps when I find a plant which appreciates my care and style of gardening, and I've had rather surprising success with coleus and rex begonias.  I'm not bragging.  I'm just confused because I can kill a lot of other plants that people find easy, but I suppose that's how it is with everything.  Where one person fails, another excels.


This last year I made multiple trips to The Natural Gardener looking for some fabulous coleus, and of course, I found some stunners.  Like so many coleus being sold in retail nurseries, I only got the names of 4 when I would have liked the names of all, but to be fair, I only purchased 7 different varieties, which isn't so bad.  However, coleus, much like daylilies, are near impossible to name based on available pictures and descriptions alone.

For the next growing year which starts in a couple months around here, I would like to plan and order plants and reduce my purchases based on whims.  Like a moth to a flame, I will go to plant sales and nurseries and discover plants that I hadn't considered or seen, and more than likely, I will buy a few.  I just want to be sure I'm making the best purchases for what I want to do.  There's a plant show in June, which means gathering a few potted plants to exhibit in February/March.  Based on what I've seen and experienced from these shows, it helps if what you're exhibiting is unusual and large.  Miniatures don't seem to fair as well, so there's no point in purchasing minis for the show but rather for myself.  I'll probably submit some minis to the show, but I won't count on them winning me any awards.  I suspect the problem with miniatures is that they look rather unexceptional when grouped with much larger plants on a table full of diversity.

Tillandsia bulbosa might look nice on its own, but a banana tree looks grander.
If you have never participated in a plant show, I would highly recommend it, but be warned that it requires a good amount of effort in some tedious gardening work to score high.  For the show I participate in, you have to own the plant for at least 3 months prior to showing, and you really need at least 2 weeks to get most plants in show-worthy condition.  This might mean repotting so that the pot enhances the plant's appearance.  Even though judge's aren't supposed to judge the pot, just the plant, the pot certainly affects the appearance of a plant.  A black pot makes plants look darker, and a white pot makes plants look lighter.  A green pot might clash with the foliage, and a yellow pot might make the plant look sickly.  A newly repotted plant requires a bit of time for adjustment, and 2 weeks is definitely cutting it close even if you're not changing the size of the pot.

Even the mulch has an effect on the showing of a plant because it reflects light and color directly into the plant, and this is one reason why I like the crushed white marble mulch so much for my plants.  The white brightens a plant in an otherwise dark room with unflattering fluorescent lights.  It covers unsightly soil and holds it in place.  Perlite floating to the top disappears amongst the white marble.  It's also kinda flashy as far as mulch goes.  Brown and tan are much more common mulch colors, and they don't reflect much light into the plant which isn't very flattering for most plants unless you have a very pale plant such as a ghost plant.  However, the taller the plant, the less the mulch matters.

If you've ever walked into a show or seen a professional photo of a gorgeous plant and wondered why your plant doesn't look as nice, it's because you came across a well-groomed plant.  Burned leaf tips are cut back to the green and shaped in a natural form.  Yellowed leaf stalks are removed entirely.  Spent flower stalks are plucked from the ground.  Individual leaves are wiped of dust, debris, cobwebs, pollen, and bugs.  I once watched an episode of Central Texas Gardener with a feature of the Ogden's place, and apparently a visitor once asked them how they managed to keep all the leaves on their clematis so green and lush to which Scott answered, "Lauren picks [the yellowed leaves] off."

Messing with the plant means it will need a bit of time to recover and relax into a natural shape which is especially true of boston ferns.  Grooming a boston fern for show is a bit of a nightmare and really should be done a month or two in advance with only minor trimming shortly before the show.  They just don't look very good after being handled, and boston ferns look best when they're very lush and full which is their entire appeal in a nutshell.  For most plants, the majority of the grooming should be done in advance (e.g., 2 weeks prior) with only minor touch-ups shortly before the show.

If you're a bit lax with pest control, a plant show is the time to jump on the ball.  Some pest problems require days, weeks, or months to correct.  Spider mites and aphids are common plagues on my property, and both require a fair amount of diligence.  My buddha belly plant gets spider mites every year but generally not to a point where the plant suffers in any considerable way, so I only worry about the pests before a show and let the plant cope for the rest of the year.  Because spider mites attack and yellow the middle of the leaves and removing a whole leaf from this plant risks the attractiveness of the plant, I have to start inspecting and spraying for spider mites a month in advance.  The day before the show I spray all my entries with a pesticide and fungicide as preventative measures against whatever else might go into the show.  Even the best gardeners will submit infected plants into the show, and that plant might be right next to yours.

Caterpillars on a Sunflower Leaf

Even though there are a lot of things that can be done to make a plant presentable, you still have to be a good gardener, and chances are that if you're willing to do all these things, you probably are a good gardener who is very observant, diligent, and careful.  Plant shows are certainly not everyone.  They require time, planning, and money, and what a judge says about your plant might not make the least difference to you.  Honestly, it's best to not let a judge's opinion overrule your opinion.  Last year, I entered a spent canna flower stalk and got mediocre results which made me sad because the stalk was so pretty in its own way, and the mediocre results told others that the stalk wasn't so very pretty.  Regardless, I enter for validation, a desire to show my capabilities, and a passion for plants.  I want people to take an interest in what I find interesting, and growing a beautiful plant for exhibit is one way of garnering public interest.

Buddha Belly Plant
When my buddha belly plant took best of section, I got a lot of questions about what it was, what it did, and how I did it.  This is a plant that can look downright ugly or completely unexceptional to many people, and it's REALLY hard to photograph and show how pretty it is.  I've tried many times to photograph its beauty, but the shot still eludes me.  I was so proud when it got best of section and so many people took an interest in it.  I couldn't tell them a whole lot about its care except that it likes fertile, fast-draining soil, more water than many succulents, and lots of sun, but I could tell them just how cool the plant was.  It blooms almost perpetually and produces gorgeous green seed pods.  Even when the flower stalks are bare, they're still pretty because they're so red.  The trunk has exfoliating bark, and the huge leaves are bright green on one side and eggshell white on the other.  The plant generally doesn't require a lot of care, but the potting soil is important which is true of many plants.

Beyond plants, you can also submit vegetables, fruits, fresh cut herbs and flowers, dried herbs and flowers, pickles, herbal oils, and preserves.  Although the plants certainly steal the show, there are many ways to participate and share a variety of experiences in the garden.  For the next year, I will submit some dried 'Pesto Perpetuo' basil and an oil infused with pequin chilies.  I also hope to grow some celery, cucumbers, and okra for pickling, but since I don't have the plants yet, there's no guarantee.  Pickling is probably one of those odd things to submit to a show because the pickle has to be attractive in its jar which means turning cucumbers with the skins to the outside of the jar and jamming as many as possible into the jar so that nothing comes dislodged when the pickling solution is added.  It's a bit like tripping back to the 1950s when food items could be judged on appearance alone since the judges do not taste any of the entries and are not even allowed to touch the entries.  Clerks are responsible for handling entries for the judges.

Coleus, Banana Tree, Basil, and Portulaca
To be a judge, you have to be trained for those duties.  You need to learn what you can and cannot do at a show.  You have to learn what to look for in a plant, and you just generally have to know a lot about plants.  I entered a cutting of purple sage into the last show, and because I was there setting up for the luncheon, a clerk approached me to ask if I'd labeled the genus correctly.  I said that I did and that purple sage was most definitely in the Salvia genus as are all culinary sages and, of course, ornamental salvias.  Being asked the question definitely worried me since this was a common plant which I'd seen in many nurseries.  I'm not sure if I was asked because there was some discussion going on about sages and salvias generally or if there was some doubt about the entry itself.  It scored well, but my 'Pesto Perpetuo' basil cutting took best of section which is kinda funny because I entered it last minute on a whim after seeing how few entries there were.  It turns out I didn't really need to add it because more entries came in afterward, but it just goes to show that the more you enter, the better your odds.

As I was saying before, I need to start selecting plants to enjoy for the growing year as well as enter into the show.  I already have a few plants that I will donate for the club's annual plant sale, which occurs during the same weekend as the show, and I will enter plants I already have into the show.  Generally, the plants I will purchase are annuals or vegetables, but in some cases, the annuals will invariably wind up in my garage for overwintering because it's hard to not give them a chance.  Perhaps this year, I will create the perfect potted arrangement and take Queen of Show (aka Best of Show).  My chances might be slim, but eventually I'll grab that gold ring, right?  Perhaps I don't need to purchase any new annuals and can just work on the plants, cuttings, and seeds I already have.


  1. Thanks for the info on plant shows. One does not know what really goes on unless it is told by an insider. I was surprised by your statement that 'They require time, planning and money.' Mostly the money, because the other two are a given. I guess you are talking about entrance fees? Or plant purchase and care. I never was involved in plant shows.

  2. GWGT - I suppose there's an entrance fee of sorts since you have to be a member of the club to enter, and there are membership dues. However, there are hidden costs to shows much like all-inclusive vacations. You inevitably spend more than you might have thought whether it's on gas for transporting plants, a fresh bottle of pesticide/fungicide, or fresh mulch. It's not a whole lot or anything like that, but it's perhaps an expense that people don't consider. It can be rationalized as beautifying the plant and adding enjoyment to the gardening experience at home, but some of these expenses may have never been incurred if it weren't for entering the plant in a show. It's a bit gray for some of it. How much of the cost is for the show and how much for personal enjoyment? The costs incurred are probably negligible for any gardener who would even enter a show. Chances are that the gardener is already spending a good amount on gardening tools, trips, plants, material, etc., and gardening shows are definitely not getting into the arena of beauty pageants where people are spending thousands of dollars. Well, at least not from what I've seen anyway.

  3. Hi NSAR, I found this post interesting but don't fancy going into a competition with a judge. I guess I'm like like cheers, cm

  4. I think if I even mentioned taking a plant to a compettion my husband might really loose it! I love the list idea though, I recently started doing that with books on Amazon and what better to try next than plants! Thanks for sharing the idea.

  5. I definitely want to try and stick with a list this year when I visit greenhouses and nurseries rather than buying on a whim like you said. I've done too much of that and it doesn't always pan out.
    I'd love to start a plant wish list ~ even better if someone would give me a few from it!!
    Thanks for your comments/suggestions on my blog too. I was also surprised the kestrel didn't see the wire. I'm definitely going to try and do something to the fencing in that area so nothing similar happens again.


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