Bloomin’ Hard Work

Montgomery County Town & Country Living MagazineArticle: Montgomery County Town & Country Living, Winter 2002/03 Issue
Story and Photographs: Rob Cardillo

Two weeks before last Christmas, three rain-soaked employees of Burke Brothers Landscape Contractors unloaded a large refrigerated trailer in the muddy back lot of Meadowbrook Farm nursery in Abington Township. Moving double-time to minimize their exposure to the bone-chilling wind, they worked brigade-style to quickly fill the floor of a flatbed truck with hundreds of black nursery pots. It was time to bring the pots back to Burke Brothers in Glenside, PA.

Each pot was tagged with the name of a familiar perennial flower, but the browned wisps of foliage that peeked above the rims gave no indication of life. The men stacked the pots, row upon row, like firewood, filling the truck completely before another flatbed pulled in for the next load. It was a desolate scene that one wouldn’t associate with spring blooms, yet these pots, and thousands more like them across the region, held the future of the 2002 Philadelphia Flower Show.

For major exhibitors Burke Brothers and Meadowbrook Farm, it takes 365 days of careful planning and horticultural wizardry to prepare for the Philadelphia Flower Show

Sponsored for nearly 175 years by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Philadelphia Flower Show is the largest indoor flower show in the world, annually showcasing spectacular gardens created by fifty local nurseries or landscapers, as well as florists and garden exhibitors from around the world. And despite the increased use of theatrical lighting, surround-sound music and live storybook characters popping in and out of the scenery, what really keeps the crowds of 300,000 coming is the chance to catch a sniff and a glimpse of a million blooms in late winter when everyone starts longing for something green.

It’s a monumental effort that involves thousands of hours, months of preparations and millions of dollars,but the toughest challenge is undoubtedly getting ten show-floor acres of annuals, perennials, herbs, shrubs and trees to be at their peak of perfection by the first week of March.

Making plants grow and bloom in a season when they should be dormant is a technique known as “forcing.” It’s a horticultural skill that involves a little chicanery and a lot of talent, way beyond what most people need for a windowsill pot of paperwhites. The undisputed master of this practice is John Story, the seasoned and mustache-trimmed general manager of Meadowbrook Farm. In fact, he’s written “the” book about it. Over the two decades that Meadowbrook Farm has exhibited at the Philadelphia Flower Show, Story has compiled data for more than one thousand types of plants and explained how each one responds to being pressured into bloom. Notes on pot size, start dates, optimum temperatures, staking techniques and more fill a voluminous binder that he constantly refers to as he checks on his greenhouse charges. And although his book will probably never see print, he’s generous with his hard-earned knowledge and frequently advises other exhibitors whose plants lag behind or zoom ahead of schedule.

While the Burke Brothers’ crew was retrieving their chilled perennials from the refrigerated trailers in the back of Meadowbrook, Story and his staff were busying themselves with thousands of other plants already growing in one large and eleven small greenhouses. (Meadowbrook Farm grows thousands of plants each year for other Philadelphia Flower Show exhibitors as well as for its own exhibit.) With long, quick strides, Story moves about the buildings, simultaneously fielding questions and troubleshooting environmental controls.

“By adjusting the heat, light, humidity and carbon dioxide levels in each greenhouse, we create a climate best suited for a specific set of plants,” he explained, while closely inspecting an unusual group of Cape Cowslips. But even with years of experience, there are always surprises. So Story inspects the plants once or twice daily, making subtle adjustments to encourage or delay bloom times.

“Some plants get left on the floor to keep their roots cooler, while others are lifted up on shelves to be warmed by circulating air,” he said. And within each greenhouse, there are slight differences in growing conditions from one corner to the next.

“That means we can fine-tune the environment to an even greater degree,” he added. Plants are shuffled about with regularity, and a large electric generator sits outside ready to back up the heaters in case of a power failure. For extra protection, an elaborate alarm system, triggered by quickly dropping temperatures, is also in place.

Story’s proficiency at forcing led Meadowbrook Farm to take on the growing for twenty-seven other exhibitors at the 2002 Flower Show, as well as all the plants needed for their own exhibit, “A Sense of Time.” Meadowbrook Farm took care of all the plant materials for some clients, but for others, such as Burke Brothers, they handled only a part of the process- in this case, the refrigeration of perennials. All the clients know that while their plants are under Story’s care, they can comfortably turn their attention to the hundreds of other details involved with designing and building their exhibits.

The truckloads of black pots that Burke Brothers retrieved from cold storage at Meadowbrook Farm were moved into the landscaping firm’s rented greenhouse in Fort Washington. The eight to ten weeks of refrigeration at Meadowbrook was necessary to fool these perennial plants into believing that they had been through an entire winter. Now, once more under the Burkes’ care, the plants began their growth cycle again.

Alongside these warming perennials, Burke Brothers’ employees potted more than 1,700 small seedlings or “plugs” of cleome, nicotiana, petunias and other annual flowers into larger containers. This was the first year that Burke Brothers handled ninety-five percent of their own growing, and although the greenhouse seemed empty, in a few weeks it would be so jammed with healthy plants that just turning around would be difficult.

Planning a full-scale Flower Show exhibit each year was becoming a little easier for owners Kevin and Sean Burke of Burke Brothers. With four years of award-winning displays under their belt, these two boyishly handsome and talented siblings still felt challenged by the task but held confident in their ability to deliver. For the 2002 show, they were originally assigned a three-sided site toward the back of the floor, but due to a cancellation, the show managers asked them to take over a more prominent four-sided island at the main entrance. Thorough planning and organization are paramount for these professional landscape designers.

The Burke brothers and their staff carefully conceived, sketched and submitted their ideas to the Horticultural Society last June.

“Once we got final approval from the Society in August, we started lining up plant sources and tagging select tree specimens around the region,” said Kevin Burke. “The perennials then go into refrigeration by October.”

Burke Brothers’ 2002 exhibition, “A Garden Fantasy,” showcased a five-columned pergola with a dome of living forsythia. Four oversized topiary watering cans with waterspouts circled the dome, and a dry “stream” of recycled glass flowed throughout. Faux stone walls and other stage-set pieces were built in sections and then assembled on site. A small grove of flowering trees and a well-groomed lawn rounded out the tableaux.

One of the highlights of the Burke Brothers’ exhibit was a robotic plant-covered alligator. An eight-foot steel skeleton was shipped from Florida in December and with a little skilled welding and grinding, Sean made a few structural modifications to allow for the mechanics and plant materials. Sound City of Glenside developed and installed remote-controlled devices that allowed the alligator’s eyes to glow and the creature to rise up out of a pool of dry ice. Burke Brothers’ head garden designer, Laurie Clabbers, enchanted with the recent popularity of living succulent wreaths, devised a planting scheme for the alligator’s “skin,” using sedums, aloes and echeverias. Once the beast’s internal workings were installed, it was covered with chicken wire and sphagnum moss to hold the small succulents in place. A little misting every now and then was all that was necessary to keep these plants happy for the show’s weeklong duration.

By mid-February, Burke Brothers’ greenhouse manager, Jessica Wilson, wasn’t sleeping well. She was concerned that the forsythia buds of the plants that would eventually cover the exhibitor’s focal point pagoda were swelling too quickly, while the coreopsis were growing too slowly.

It was then she decided to move the plants around the greenhouse to take advantage of thermal differences making notes along the way. The ‘Zebrina’ malva were nearly six-feet tall and blooming, and the ‘Sonata’ cosmos had surprised her with their lushness.

“Everyone warned us that this cosmos would get hit with powdery mildew disease, but at this point they looked so stunning that I had wished we had started more,” she said. She also observed that some of the salvias were sluggish and probably wouldn’t be ready for just such a situation and made a note to use them later in the Show. Ever efficient and forward thinking, Wilson always has backups and replacements. Her eight-hour days at the greenhouse were filled with constant assessments and juggling of plants. She fussed with a few rhododendrons that had been in their own plastic tent with extra lighting in the hope that the increased light, heat and humidity would push their reluctant buds forward. (It did.) Some, like the flowering cherry trees, needed to be checked almost hourly to monitor their quickening. Others just required routine watering and staking.

In the cooler back area of the greenhouse, sheets of moss from a New Jersey grower sat on cardboard flats next to long rows of rolled-out sod. Both had started to green up in the balmy environment. Though this was a good thing, it also meant that the grass would need to be mowed once or twice before show time.

Meanwhile, Julie Haroutunian, Wilson’s counterpart at Meadowbrook Farm, was also having her share of restless nights. “It’s like catering a dinner for thousands of hungry people,” she said. “Everything has to look great and be prepared just right.” She was counting the hours left to the show while fellow employees were tying more than eight hundred eagerly flowering snapdragons to wooden stakes. Plants were moved more frequently at this stage within and between the fragrant greenhouses, and the staff’s walk-throughs to monitor all the blooms increased daily.

But the day finally came to move the plants to the convention center – four days before the Show’s opening. The morning was cold with occasional snow flurries. Before the plants entrusted to Meadowbrook Farm started their somewhat perilous journey, a crack team of packers began sleeving the top-heavy potted plants into brown paper envelopes, managing to empty an entire greenhouse in twenty minutes. Each sleeve was then color-coded with a dash of spray paint to indicate which client’s exhibit it was destined for.

Quickly but carefully, the sleeved plants were loaded onto large rolling racks which were then eased onto panel trucks. Someone was whistling the theme from the movie “The Great Escape,” and the plant handlers moved with a snappy cadence. It’s a tricky business: a little careless jostling or too much time in the cold could ruin weeks of gentle nurturing. Waiting for them at the convention center was Haroutunian. With clipboard, walky-talky and Aussie bush hat, she coordinated each arriving truck and the fast-moving packing crews with military precision.

When the truck crews arrived at the Philadelphia Convention Center they unloaded their precious cargo amidst an ear-splitting construction site – so loud that yelling was the norm and cell phones were useless. Hundreds of shouting workers, using bobcats, cranes, golf carts and hand trucks, climbed and wove around one another to get their materials from the loading docks to the sites where carpenters had been busy earlier constructing sets. A mountain of mulch sat in the center of the cavernous space, and workers chipped away at the pile like worker ants. You would think that the competition would be fierce as the clock ticked, but that wasn’t the case.

“If we worried about being competitive then it wouldn’t be fun,” said a beaming Kevin Burke. “Besides, most exhibitors are so focused on their own sites that they don’t have much time to look over their shoulders.” In fact, there’s a Friday night tradition of donating extra plants to other exhibitors who may need them. This spirit of cooperation, perhaps, was exemplified a few years ago when a power failure cost one exhibitor the entire contents of his greenhouse. Other participants responded generously with their surplus and helped the exhibitor create his display. The Flower Show must go on.

Once most of the heavy construction was finished, all that was left was to finesse the plantings and work with the lighting technicians hanging spots from forty-foot high cherry pickers. The noise level dropped, but an energetic hum was still strong late into Friday night. The judging would take place Saturday morning, and no detail was overlooked. Individual plants were gently oriented, and foliage was dusted with soft paintbrushes. Wires, screens and support pieces were hidden with mulch, and pathways swept clean. The Horticultural Society’s nomenclature committee made a quick check of everyone’s labels, and the Burke Brothers’ alligator was tested over and over to iron out any bugs.

Only judges were allowed on the floor Saturday morning. In small groups, they quietly moved from exhibit to exhibit, murmuring, smiling and making notes. Meanwhile Story, and Sean and Kevin Burke went over their staffing schedules once more, making sure their creations would be preened, primped and watered each evening after the show closed. The winners were announced Saturday afternoon before the annual black-tie gala dinner began. Applause, smiles, handshakes and back pats were all in order for two fine Montgomery County organizations. Meadowbrook Farm won two awards: “Best Use of Forced Plants” and “Best in Show for Invitational.” Burke Brothers walked away with the “Special Panel Award” medal from the Chicago Horticultural Society. Story and the Burke brothers admired their silver plaques and certificates and basked in glory for just a little while. A very real spring was fast approaching, and they would be turning all their attention to helping their winter-weary customers create their own flower shows but this time outdoors and under the sun.

Rob Cardillo is a contributing writer to Montgomery County Town & Country Living magazine and a free-lance photographer and writer who lives in Ambler. He is also an avid gardener.