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Flower shows in peril

February 14, 2009

By JOE LAMP'L

Scripps Howard News Service

2009-02-09 13:34:00

While getting ready to take the stage for my presentation at the recently downsized Southeastern Flower Show in Atlanta, my cell phone suddenly started going nuts, with e-mails, text messages and phone calls.

It was no coincidence that they were all related. Word that the Northwest and San Francisco flower and garden shows were closing their doors after this year had just hit the news wire.

These were not the first flower shows to close in recent months after long and successful runs. In November, the New England Flower Show, sponsored by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, announced the closing of its show after a 137-year run. Yet in spite of several notable and respected shows making similar announcements in recent weeks, this news still came as a huge surprise.

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The Northwest and San Francisco shows are the second- and third-largest shows of their type in the country. Only the Philadelphia Flower Show, the oldest and largest indoor show in the world, consistently claims the top spot. Steadily decreasing attendance, fewer corporate sponsorships and a smaller pool of exhibitors contributed to the decision by the shows' owner and founder, Duane Kelly, to call it quits after an impressive 20-year run.

I caught up with Kelly recently to get his take on the state of gardening and gardening shows in general. The truth is, it seems every day we're hearing about another gardening-related "death," at a time when the public is craving more access to gardening media and events than ever.

Like many others connected to the gardening and horticultural world in some way, Kelly sees a downsizing baby-boomer market. For this maturing group, taking in a flower show for inspiration is just not as compelling as in previous years.

And the void left behind is not easily filled. Generations X and Y are meeting their lawn and gardening needs in different ways. Although great effort has gone into reaching these young gardeners through flower and garden shows across the country, competing time demands, multiple information sources, instant desktop access and an over-committed calendar all play a role in a declining market.

Kelly's been at this a long time. He wants to spend more time with his wife and concentrate on his other love, writing plays. Sadly, as he looks for a buyer (no firm offers yet, although he remains upbeat), a company that was worth close to $10 million a decade ago is struggling to find a buyer at a fraction of that today.

If the best shows in the country are closing up shop without a buyer willing to offer a fair price, we gardening enthusiasts need to be concerned. I'm trying very hard lately to not sound so negative, but it's getting harder by the day.

As a multi-year presenter at -- and fan of -- the Northwest and San Francisco shows, I never tire of either and always look forward to them. To lose these two shows that I consider to be the gold standard and the ultimate events for inspiration would be a shame. There's no substitute for great shows like these icons and we can only hope there is sufficient resiliency to weather this storm.

If you'd like to hear my entire conversation with Kelly in audio format, you can find it on my Web site at www.joegardener.com/podcast. Look for show 013. No special equipment is required. I think you'll find this an enlightening and entertaining conversation.

(Joe Lamp'l, host of "GardenSMART" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)

THE GARDENER WITHIN

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