Spring was in full bloom inside the Seaport World Trade Center where the Boston Flower Show and BLOOMS! featured display gardens with reflecting pools, landscapes fit for a hobbit, Japanese maples, fountains, school gardens with veggies and flowers, as well as rooms filled with specimen plants and flower arrangements awaiting the intense gazes of the judges.
This year I was not attending the flower show merely as an admirer, but as a volunteer judge. Earlier this spring I was invited to join the judging panels by Libby Moor of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. While I was happy to accept I warned her I had no training. She seemed to be satisfied that on-the-job training would be sufficient so I looked forward to enjoying the whole event from a whole new perspective.
I met the two other members of my group, the elegant Jocelyn Sherman who was a trained and official judge, and Rick Peckham who was good humored and incredibly knowledgeable, understandably enough because he is the fifth generation to operate Peckham’s Nursery in Rhode Island.
It was quickly apparent that judging is all about details. We were to judge entries all grown by amateur gardeners. Our first category was hanging plants, separated into groups, those grown under lights, in the window or in a greenhouse. The conditions are considered to be sufficiently different to impact the growth patterns. There were also categories of hanging plants: flowering; foliage; or ferns.
We began by looking over all the plants in a general way and then hunkered down to attend to detail. I was instructed to look at the shape of the plant – was it balanced? Was it leggy? Was it healthy? Was there insect, disease or sun damage? Was it well groomed with all dead leaves, stems and flowers removed? Was it mature, or a young plant? Was it rare or common? Was it hard to grow?
In one category we gave a blue ribbon to a beautiful Swedish ivy. This is obviously not a rare plant, but the condition of the plant, its balanced form, health and good grooming, trumped slightly more uncommon plants.
Halfway through the judging my colleagues gave me a plant to judge all by myself as a test to see if I was catching on. I passed! Thank heaven! I did notice the lopsidedness of the plant with most of the foliage on one side, damage to leaves, and bits of leaves on the soil.
In one category we gave a blue ribbon to a mature rattail cactus. Again this was not extraordinarily rare, but its maturity and health were the winning traits.
Later, while on another panel with two other judges, Jane Cary and Sandi Joyce, I went around the room full of entries by individuals: hanging plants, begonias, succulents, and terrariums and more. There were foliage plants and flowering plants, all beautiful. I joined these two in choosing candidates for the Cruso Award which is designed to honor the outstanding effort of an individual. Then I remained silent as we narrowed down our deliberations while my two new colleagues conferred and agreed that the same rattail cactus we had chosen for a blue ribbon, was also worthy of the Cruso Award.
After attending to the hanging plants, my colleagues and I went to the four Small Bay Window Displays. Again, we looked the four large displays over in a general way, and then concentrated on each individually. Three of these windows contained between 20 and 40 plants and it was our job to evaluate each individual plant as well the whole. In this category we had to use a point system. Sherman and Peckham said to look at each judging criteria and remove points for problems.
I already knew from watching judges at the Heath Fair that consistency is a vital component in judging. We had to take off a couple of points in one display because not all the pots were plain terra cotta, and some of the pedestals were wood, some were upended pots.
We gave one display created (we later found out) by the Cactus and Succulent Society the full 100 points. Our immediate reaction (all three of us) was Wow! This was a fabulous collection of healthy plants beautifully arranged. We could not find a single thing to quibble about in any of the 30 or so plants or their arrangement. When we had recovered ourselves sufficiently we read the Statement of Intent. The intent of the creators of this display was to have viewers say Wow! Never was an intent so fully achieved. We gave this display a Blue Ribbon and the Advisor’s Award for excellence in this class.
When I checked back at this display of succulents before I left I saw that it had also won the National Garden Clubs Medal and the Garden Club of America Certificate of Excellence in Horticulture.
However, no matter how picky we got, the other three bay window exhibits also got more than 90 points. In this category if a display gets more than 90 points, it gets a blue ribbon. Four blue ribbons! Wow!
Visitors to our own gardens don’t come armed with blue ribbons or medals, but we all feel great satisfaction if they give us an occasional wow. Or maybe an admiring sigh. Still the greatest satisfaction and pleasure I get is working in the garden, kneeling to examine the details of each unique plant, reveling in its own particular beauty.
Between the Rows March 17, 2012