In the Garden:
Meadowbrook horticulturist Diana Weiner checks the wall flowers that will end up in the Philadelphia Flower Show.
Forcing for the Philadelphia Flower Show
A vase brimming with gorgeous, freshly cut pink and white cosmos brings smiles to gift shop customers at Meadowbrook Farm in Abington, Pennsylvania. Forced branches of wavy yellow witch hazel flowers ('Arnold Promise') remind visitors that spring's just around the corner. As is the Philadelphia Flower Show.
Behind the scenes, Meadowbrook's greenhouses are packed with plants for the show, with the theme "Legends of Ireland," March 4-11, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, garden clubs, and exhibitors contract with Meadowbrook to grow and force shrubs, perennials, annuals, herbs, tropicals, and topiaries.
This is one astonishingly intricate and extended piece of choreography that begins the September before the show -- seven months of TLC by a dozen Meadowbrook staff devoted to plant forcing under high-intensity lighting plus carbon dioxide gas.
Behind the Scenes
Touring the greenhouses on Thursday, Feb. 1, sales manager and horticulturist Diana Weiner stopped at an expanse of exuberant fuchsias in the holding greenhouse. "Here's an example of a nerve-wracking experience," she said. Some white flowers were just starting to bloom, though the show was still four weeks away. In October, shrubby fuchsias had arrived for the show's central feature, The Mythical Land of Tir-Na-nOg. Staff cut them down to the wood. Now the varieties 'Magician', 'Lechlade', and 'Grandma' stand at 3 to 4 feet, cascading with plump flower buds.
Rows of delphiniums, columbines, candytuft, meadow rue, campanula, and dianthus 'Ideal Violet' await their flower show debut in cool temps of 58 to 60 degrees. "We've got these plants where we need them, now we need to hold them over," Diana said, pointing to salvia -- some with, some without flower spikes. In nine other greenhouses, plants are in all stages of maturity.
"It's all a timing game," Diana emphasized. "We babysit them every day. We coax them along." The staff does a weekly assessment of each and every plant, adjusting light or temperature as needed.
Watering petunias, head grower Jessica Story stopped to chat. "One of the things you learn when forcing plants out of season is the incredible amount of factors you need to consider to replicate nature." Temperature, light, pH, humidity, water, and fertilizer all need to be manipulated. Meadowbrook's job is to break down the big picture into specific growth conditions, then replicate each condition in synch with all the other factors. Even within species, what works for one doesn't work for all. For example, blue petunias may respond quickly while yellow petunias may take twice as long under the same conditions. Jessica marveled: "What nature does is truly breathtaking."
Impatiens are the easiest to grow. "They're unstoppable when warm enough," Story said. Foxglove is challenging. "We're still working to perfect forcing Digitalis. Temperature and light, we've got figured out. It's difficult to control humidity in the greenhouse in winter, though."
Perennials grower Sue Keppley urges flower show visitors to take a paper and pencil to jot down their favorites. Don't expect your garden to look like the exhibits, though. "When visitors see plants in this gorgeous setting, sometimes they're not in their natural cultural situation."
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