Better Luck Next Year, Charlie Brown…

Bad to the phloem! And when I say “Charlie Brown” that’s code for “Chicago Flower and Garden Show“…

My goal here is not to dissuade anyone from going to the show, because it’s a real pickle, if less people go will the show get even suckier next year? As my Magic 8 Ball says, “Signs point to yes”.

I don’t want that. I LOVE my town.  Why can’t a world-class city like Chicago have a world-class show?

Well, some would say- “It’s the economy, stupid” and that’ssomewhat right. But I’ve been going to this show for about 10 years now and I’ve been underwhelmed the whole time. There’s some amazing stuff but… there’s always a shocking “high school variety show” quality to some of the gardens that just bring the whole thing down.

Here’s a slide show from last year, which had some weird parts, but was overall buckets and buckets better…

And all that being said? What’s the incentive for someone to enter the show at all? I don’t know. Does a display garden bring new customers around to landscaping companies and local garden centers? Do people do it just to bring awareness to a cause or idea, like green roofs or recycling? It’s brave of them to put it all out there like that. Or dumb. Hard to say.

I know I could build a kick ass display garden if someone gave me $100,000 to do it with… And I’d probably not even dip my toe in the water for less. You don’t build a garden to take up space, it’s got to be something people want to photograph, take inspiration from and talk about. It should be a source of pride for the creator and for the event.

There were a lot whole lot less gardens this year, with a big gaping hole where the Chicago Botanic Gardens used to have massive display gardens. And oddly, there used to be a bazillion floral displays, hence the “flower AND garden” part of the name. For years I’d complain about how many there were- bouquets, tablescapes and random avant garde weirdness… but recently I’ve really gotten inspired by them. There were less than a handful this year. In their place was a bizarre display of handmade, fiber-art hats that had nothing to do with anything (even though I liked them, sorta).

"Vertical Gardening?" I see 1 gallon cans strapped to a grid....

Perhaps it was the sucky theme? “The Sport of Gardening” brought a hockey themed garden, several boats, an over sized croquet set and a Buddha from the company that was smart enough to ignore the objective. Word on the street is that next year’s theme is “Hort Couture”  which should be a TON of fun and I’m really hoping they run with it…

So, go to the show, but don’t have any expectations. And think twice if you’re coming in from, say, more that 80 miles away.  It sucks that it’s so expensive but at least you’ll get to see the rockin’ Smith and Hawken at Target booth. Maybe with some support it’ll get better.

And hey, it does help to know that the Los Angeles show is even worse

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About Amanda Thomsen

Big, loud and fun- Amanda Thomsen landscapes by day and blogs at night. Her blog, Kiss My Aster, on Horticulture magazine's website has alienated/enraptured dozens. She co-authors a blog called Plants That Suck that is about plants that suck. And she is the less popular half of the podcasting team, Good Enough Gardening, which makes her feel like the "Roy" of of Siegfried and Roy, but without the mauling. She lives in Chicago and does not EVER put ketchup on hot dogs.

14 thoughts on “Better Luck Next Year, Charlie Brown…

  1. The Chicago Flower and Garden Show…I got free tickets and it STILL cost too much! I agree about the fab Smith and Hawken booth, and I must say it made me wonder…if folks who AREN’T horticulturists can make a small area look uber inviting, why can’t the folks IN THE GREEN INDUSTRY? I know for a fact that Chicago is home to a multitude of talented L.A.s and Designers (with a capital D ;)…so why the humdrum show?

    Yes, the economy sucks… but a few folks still made it interesting despite that challenge. It might be worth noting that the things that caught my eye and camera as I wandered through the show tended to be smaller more interesting spots. Perhaps that’s the answer…see how creative design firms can get with LIMITED space and budget. Yes, bring the designs and ideas out of the abstract and into reality. If they tried that I think more people would attend, more businesses could afford to participate, and good design (or lack thereof) would be evident to all. Some controlled whimsy would be pretty great, too!

  2. This was my third year attending the CFGS, and I agree I was really disappointed. I thought perhaps I was just getting jaded about it, but nothing really stuck with me afterwards. I still remember the garden with four seasons interest from two years ago, and even the Japanese Garden that year really impressed me. But this year the most impressive display to me was the mass plantings of tulips. Nothing spectacular about that, but at least I felt like spring had arrived for a few moments. By the way, I did drive over 80 miles to get to the show! But I spent the weekend with two good friends and met up with some other blogging buddies at the show, so the socializing made up for the lack of inspiration:)

  3. I just wrote an eerily similar review of the Mpls Home and Garden Show, with the “home” part maybe the problem. I too blame the economy, the motivation of the show garden creators, etc. Maybe these shows have already seen their best.
    But go to, of all places, the Wichita Lawn and Garden show sometime, it will blow you away.

  4. Ours in Cleveland used to be a lot better too. Now we have two competing ones and they both suck. I hear that the Independent Garden Center show at the Navy Pier in July or August is a pretty good show, though.

  5. I went to the show as a writer/blogger on the weekend. I had not been there for several years for all the reasons you mentioned. Most displays would be difficult or too expensive for the home gardener to achieve, but there were some general trends that were evident throughout the show.

    I have already tried several of them on a very small scale, such as intense color, tropicals and integrated vertical gardening.

    The show went out on an edge stretching our vision of what we think of as “annuals.” Instead of the typical petunias, allysum, geraniums. they expanded the imagination into using orchids (way too expensive for a basket) houseplant ferns, rex begonias, philodendrum, schefflera, dracena, etc.


  6. Well said, Aster. I wholeheartedly agree about the no-expectations warning. This being my first visit to the show, I expected world-class! Alas, it was not to be. At least I got to spend time with you, a couple other Horticulture contributing editors and lots of fun garden peeps. (And, yes, the Smith&Hawkin / Target booth made me want to transport the whole setting into my own backyard. ~Patty

  7. I would guess there are several reasons why the show sucks. The economy for one–most folks in our related businesses are hit hard and can’t afford to spend the kind of money required. Secondly, a show in Chicago in march? All there can be are forced flowers because there are no nursery materials even leafing out yet. You can only get so creative with those, arborvitae, and sticks for shrubs. And a garden with good bones, ie hardscape, is very expensive to install. So, no bones + forced flowers = yuck. I recommend shifting to another part of the year, such as this show in CA (which we participated in)

    • I have gone for a decade or more and there had always been beautiful gardens. Sure the plants are forced or brought in from out of state but it can be done. Florists do it all year anyway. And March is when we Chicagoans need to see color and smell soil. Plus those in the business are busy with retail and design, etc. during the garden season.

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