I spent the past few months participating, with my fellow Master Gardeners, in the wonderful, chaotic, exciting process of putting together a display garden for the Solano County Fair. The Master Gardeners have entered a garden into competition for the past four years. We also help to create the entry garden for the garden exhibits each year.
Creating a display garden for a brief exhibition has many similarities to creating a landscape for your home. Many of the same principles are used for design, planning, budgeting and planting. There are however some important differences.
Designing a space – whether for exhibition or home, indoors or outdoors – requires attention to color, texture, repetition and form. You want plants that look good next to each another. For a display garden, the plants need to all be at their best during the time of the display, which could be a fair, a wedding or a special occasion. It won’t do you any good if your sunflower blooms are spectacular one week after the fair ends. For a home landscape, you want to design a garden that will have color and interest in many seasons, not just for a brief period of time.
Planning involves consideration of the site, watering sources, sun exposures and soil type for both home and exhibition landscapes. For display gardens, it also incorporates the theme of each year’s fair. Once the theme is known, usually months in advance, we start having meetings to discuss how we will illustrate this year’s theme. Using that theme plus the size of our allotted spaces, 8-feet-by-16-feet, and any other fair requirements (such as a need for height in the display and a two-tier format) we start to plan.
At home, we have to take a few more things into consideration during the planning phase: wind, power lines, the neighbor’s trees, plant growth over the years, etc. Also, when we are working on a home landscape, we frequently start with what was present when we moved in.
In both forums we need to be ready to adjust our initial plans. In the display gardens, the decisions usually have to be made quickly and frequently at the last minute, as equipment malfunctions, plants do not bloom on schedule, or expected items fail to materialize. At home, we have the luxury of time to observe and assess how plants are doing. We can figure out why they aren’t thriving and perhaps move them to another location.
At home, plans may change because our needs may change over time. A large, flat lawn that was a great place for children to play may not be needed once the children are gone. The amount of time we have available to devote to our landscape may change as jobs change or other hobbies compete.
In terms of the plants themselves, and the planting process, there are some big differences between display and home gardens. In a fair display garden, you need all the plants all at once and at their peak form. As long as it looks good, you can put plants of widely differing needs next to one another because it won’t hurt for a few days. You place the plants very close to one another for maximum impact and because you don’t have to worry about future growth patterns.
In the fair display gardens, the “plantings” are actually still in their nursery pots, but buried in the loose compost. That is in stark contrast to the hard work of digging holes that our home landscaping requires. Our clay soil is usually quite a challenge. At home we have to give our plants the conditions they need, we put plants that like sun and are drought-tolerant together. Our shade-loving water guzzlers, we put in a different area. We also give the plants space to grow and do not crowd them.
At home we also don’t have to get the plants in all at once. We can spread out the plantings over time, which helps both the back and the pocketbook. We can buy smaller, less expensive plants and give them time to grow.
At the display garden, during the last hour or so before judging, activity goes into high gear. Another watering is done and then the grooming process begins. Spent blossoms and any yellowed leaves are stripped off the plants. Stepping stones are wiped down. Plantings are carefully assessed to make sure no pot rims are peeking out of the compost.
Most of our home landscapes don’t have to stand up to a judge’s scrutiny, thank goodness. We get to be more relaxed, getting to the weeding and trimming when we can. We fertilize and prune the plants when they need it and it fits into our schedules. Both types of gardens bring us the excitement of overcoming challenges and the enjoyment of their beauty, however long it lasts.
Karen Metz is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.