- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

“My mother gave me a houseplant in a little pot when I was a boy,” Howard Cohen says. “I was hooked.”

The evidence is on display starting today at the four-day Washington Home & Garden Show. Mr. Cohen, a landscape architect and vice president of Surrounds Landscape Architecture & Construction Co. of Sterling, Va., is one two dozen designers whose lavish exhibits anchor the annual flower extravaganza, expected to draw 80,000 visitors through Sunday.

This year, he has built an indoor meadow that sprawls over what seems like acres of interior space at the new Convention Center downtown. It’s a creek bed meandering through a lush wood of river birch and evergreen trees. A pathway leads to a quiet little sitting area of dappled dogwoods and Adirondack chairs.

Stop and listen, and soon the gentle sound of water hisses near a small waterfall rippling over stones beneath overhanging branches. Perennials splash a little color in what is a textured green meadow evoked from the calmest uplands imaginable. All that’s missing are deer nodding in the pines, a moose pulling its nose from a bog, jumping bunnies, birds singing, or mosquitoes biting.

“We can make it any way you want,” says the 32-year-old father of two and graduate of the universities of Maryland and Georgia. Last year, Mr. Cohen’s entry featured a roaring waterfall over boulders in a rough and ready alpine setting.

Judges awarded it best of show in a competition among the 24 full-sized landscaped gardens on display last year. Homeowners could have had the original packed up and installed in their back yard for about $80,000, Mr. Cohen says.

This year, another two dozen jumbo gardens like Mr. Cohen’s Surrounds showcase are on display in addition to more than 800 smaller exhibits filling the cavernous Convention Center.

One can spend a day just walking the floor to check out everything from the expansive serenities of Mr. Cohen’s sets to little doodads and other fancy stuff offered for sale at row after row of booths aligned over a single floor stretching the length of three football fields.

• • •

To see it all requires hoofing nearly two miles of aisles, passing eager sales representatives, demonstration staffs or the owners of small businesses. They’re showing off such items as copper garden sculptures, outdoor lighting, water fountains and ponds with fog machines, children’s play sets, rubber mops, hand-blown glass figurines and jewelry, awning arrangements, patio ensembles, fake boulders shaped from crushed stone, and every imaginable type of outdoor furniture.

There are kitchen ceramics and stone tiles to see, billiards tables, doors and windows, security systems, and bonsai garden kits. One can buy cheesecake mixes, carpets and countertops, brass ornaments, cut roses, and bulbs and seed packs for every flower extant. On display are concrete coatings, Oriental rugs, fabrics, pillows, rubber mulch and standby generators for survivalists.

Full-size landscapes range from the bucolic meadow of the Surrounds display to a Roman ruin evocation, a lazy swamp, severely formal evocations of Versailles, country club geometries of green grass and white picket fences, even a Gothic-novel-like romance setting of dramatic ponds and raised love seats on banquettes swathed in vines.

All weekend, visitors can avail themselves of free workshops and demonstrations held throughout the day and evening at the stage area. Classes are conducted by local experts rotating in through the four-day show; schedules are posted daily by the stage and announced hourly over the public address system.

• • •

Most of the big displays come with running or standing water. Some of the water features are waterfalls, some are raised pools or tanks with fish, and some are lazy streams at floor level. Lighting brightens some, while shadows are conspicuously part of the design of others. Fog machines, arrays of lights that twinkle and undulate,, and single-lens lamps frame other water creations.

All around are thousands and thousands of golden daffodils, rainbows of tulips, starbursts of orchids nodding by their protecting trellises, and clumps of purple and white and pink hyacinths, all filling the vast room with the sweet smells of spring.

As if that weren’t enough, the curious can spend the weekend at the stage area, where a changing cadre of area experts volunteer their time in demonstrations, workshops and seminars on such things as floral design, making candles, growing orchids, getting the lead out of water pipes, and myriad other topics.

A food court offers everything from Thai noodles to hot dogs and fries, beer and wine, and plenty of sit-down area is available for the weary. Dining within the Convention Center includes the Wolfgang Puck Express, Quiznos and Phillips Seafood eateries. Chinatown is two blocks south, and a little farther is the throbbing MCI Center-anchored Penn Center neighborhood filled with restaurants, bars, theaters and booming night life.

Metro has a station within the Convention Center, making weather and parking nonissues for many suburban visitors, and outlying Metro parking lots are free weekends and evenings. Parking lots with 20,000 spaces for rent start at about $15 adjacent to and spreading within a few blocks’ radius of the Convention Center.

• • •

Home and garden shows are thriving as never before, even in the age of Paris Hilton, couch-potato living and reality TV. The Philadelphia Flower Show in early March recorded more than 270,000 visitors, up nearly 30 percent from 10 years ago.

“We’ve become nesters,” says Tom Stafford, producer of the Washington show, whose family owns the production company that puts on both this show and the annual Washington Boat Show. “After 9/11, families are staying together more and vacationing less, spending more on remodeling and landscaping, and staying home to enjoy it.”

In response, Mr. Stafford says, new shows are popping up on the gardening and home-improvement circuit — Des Moines, Iowa, plans to mount its first flower show next year — while old standbys like the Richmond Flower and Garden Show, its New England cousin in Boston, the Cincinnati Flower Show (to be held outdoors in April), and the Rhode Island and San Francisco flower and garden shows increase in popularity every year.

“In the old days,” says Mr. Stafford, who has been involved with the Washington production for more than 30 years, “we had first ladies come over from the White House to ceremonially open the show. Rosalynn Carter did. Jackie Kennedy visited, and old-timers say Mamie Eisenhower came by.

“More recently, because of security concerns, we’re seeing fewer famous visitors,” he says. “Or they come unannounced to enjoy the show without publicity.”

Meantime, the pace continues to pick up from the days when the Washington show began in 1960, says the former carpenter and home builder with Stafford Builders.

“We use to have it at the D.C. National Guard Armory. Then that got too small, so we moved it first to the old Convention Center, the one they just tore down, and now the new bigger one. Every year more people come, and more and more exhibitors ask to show their stuff.”

• • •

“Plants really are the final touch,” offers Mr. Cohen, a Loudoun County resident whose first passion in college was architecture.

“It’s the ‘hardscape’ — the buildings and trees, roadways, patios, brick walls and neighboring homes or structures — that defines or sets the stage for gardening.”

Using this philosophy, he says most designers want to customize flowers and planting to work in harmony with the environment. His firm has designed and built hundreds of outdoor environments in the area, from intimate courtyard gardens for city folk to palatial estate landscapes for dot.com billionaires. He completely renovated AOL’s Dulles headquarters a few years ago.

“Everyone has a different response to gardens,” he offers, recalling that after his mother gave him the potted plant, he immediately got plant books and read about horticulture and gardening. The book reading deepened and broadened, and he ended up hanging out at the horticulture society in his boyhood Baltimore.

“Probably the only kid who ever walked in their door,” he says today with a laugh.

By college, however, he had decided to become an architect — “I liked to build things,” he says — and almost by accident while at the University of Maryland, he bumped into horticulture classes. “Suddenly, I discovered what I wanted to do, like a light going off over my head,” he says.

“The beauty of gardens, of course, is that you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy them, or make them,” he says. “It seems to come from, I don’t know, a desire for beauty and nature.”

• • •

Mr. Cohen suggests that visitors to this year’s Washington show not become intimidated by its size or the breadth of products and design resources. The supersize home-improvement stores and garden mega centers popping up all over the place present similar options, but at the Home & Garden Show, Mr. Cohen says, “You don’t have to buy a thing — just look.”

Better to use the show for what it is, a vast collection of ideas and providers, he urges. Besides, consumers can never have too much information, and once they begin to understand what they’re seeing, it becomes clear that a landscaped garden at the show isn’t there for the purpose of their buying it, but to make them think about their own back yard, he says.

“What consumers need to look for is the quality of the work,” Mr. Cohen says. “How does it look? How does it fit together? Is it harmonious and in balance? That’s a first step you need in judging who to hire for your landscaping needs, whether you want a simple pond or a Louis XIV formal garden.

“When you spend this kind of money, or any money,” he continues, “it should be about quality and how the garden works for you.”

“The purpose of the show,” says Bill Mann, director of landscaping at Behnke Nurseries Co., “is both a kickoff to spring, and showing what you can do in your own yard. Basically, it’s a display of color, form, texture and design elements that can be incorporated into your home and yard.”

“For folks interested in making big changes, the best advice in the world is to come twice or more,” says the Bowie resident and graduate of Parkdale High School and the University of Maryland. “The first time can be overwhelming, but coming two days gives you a better sense of what’s happening. Bring a pad and pencil to write down what you see, and a camera is a great idea.”

Digital cameras, in fact, are used more and more by professionals, he says.

“You can take pictures from the show back home to see what something might look like in your back yard, or you can take pictures of your yard and bring them back to the show to see how your place may fit in with displays here.”

• • •

For Behnke’s, which started in the Beltsville area more than 75 years ago and is still family owned, “this kind of attention to detail is normal,” Mr. Mann says. “We sell at four locations, everything from a plant in a pot for a lady to carry to her car to very complicated landscaping solutions for local governments and businesses.”

At the same time, last year about 750 homeowners paid a $75 consultation fee for a Behnke designer to visit their property to talk about problems and possible solutions, he says.

“Some are happy just to talk with a professional, while others will pay up to $600 for us to do a design for them based on what we see and what they want. Then they either hire us to build from the design, or hire another company, or just do it themselves,” he says.

“I think what we see in home gardening is a kind of freedom and creativity,” says Mr. Mann, who began his horticultural career in Greenbelt when his grandmother, an avid gardener, had him weed her fields. “It’s blank yards sometimes, in which we’re able to create off a living palette to build a new outdoor space.”

Design can be very difficult, he acknowledges, “but there are great resources. To be honest with you, I use Google [Web search engine] all the time if I have questions about a plant or issue. Just be sure to check if the site is in Canada or England — both big gardening centers — because their advice won’t work here because of the climate differences.”

Meantime, check the public library, where excellent books and periodicals are available at no cost, he advises. Make copies of things you like and carry them home to “try to match them with your garden,” he offers.

Most of all, “ask questions,” says Mr. Mann, who is scheduled to lead a workshop discussion at the stage area during the show. “Ask them here, ask them at your garden store. Use all of these resources.”

Anything, that is, to make a green thumb greener.

WHAT: The 45th annual Washington Home & Garden Show

WHERE: Washington Convention Center, Mount Vernon Square NW, at New York Avenue between 9th and 10th streets

WHEN: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. March 17 and 18, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. March 19, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. March 20

METRO: Mount Vernon Square/Convention Center (Green and Yellow lines)

TICKETS: Adults $10, children 6-12 $5, children 5 and under free when accompanied by a paying adult. Tickets at the door, through Ticketmaster at 202/397-SEAT (7328), or online at https://washingtonhomeandgardenshow.com. Discount coupons good for $2 off Thursday and Friday admission available at area Safeway stores

INFORMATION: https://washingtonhomeandgardenshow.com or call Washington Home & Garden Show Inc., 6017 Tower Court, Alexandria, 703/823-7960.

Home and garden tours in April

So you’re looking for an outdoor alternative to the Washington Home & Garden Show? The 72nd Historic Garden Week in Virginia, April 16-24, is the largest and oldest statewide house and garden tour event in the nation. There are three dozen tours of some of the country’s finest properties at the peak of Virginia’s springtime color.

Properties scheduled stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Allegheny Mountains and span the centuries from the early 17th century to the present day. Included are formal gardens, walled gardens, cottage gardens, cutting gardens, annual and perennial gardens, herb gardens, water gardens, and secret gardens.

Architecture and interior decorating are highlighted in renovated and historic properties, as well as contemporary residences. Some of the nation’s best collections of glass, china and American, European and Asian antiques will be on display.

Here are a few details on tours in the close-in Washington area. For schedules of tours in Fredericksburg, Leesburg, Warrenton, Warren County and the rest of the commonwealth, see www.vagardenweek.org or phone 804/644-7776.

Alexandria

• Tour of six houses with gardens and two churches: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 16. Sponsored by the Garden Club of Alexandria and the Hunting Creek Garden Club.

Full ticket $30. Includes the eight historic buildings, refreshments at the Carlyle House and admission to nearby historic properties (Lee-Fendall House, Carlyle House Historic Park, River Farm, Mount Vernon estate and gardens, Woodlawn and Gunston Hall Plantation).

Single house or garden admission $5. Full tickets for children under 12 are $12, single house or garden admission $3. Babies in arms are admitted free of charge.

Tickets may be purchased on tour day at any of the houses open for the tour and at the Ramsay House. Advance tickets are available at the Ramsay House, 221 King St. and online at www.vagardenweek.org.

Fairfax

• Fairfax Club Tour, Clifton area: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 22. The Garden Club of Fairfax sponsors this tour of five unusual homes dating from the early 20th century to 2002.

Full ticket $17 pre-tour, $20 day of tour. Children 13 and older, full price; ages 6-12, half price; ages 5 and under, free of charge. Tickets may be purchased on tour day at any of the houses open for the tour or at the Information Center at the Manse, Clifton Presbyterian Church, 12744 Richards Lane, Clifton.

For advance tickets with map and brochure, please send a self-addressed, stamped, legal-size envelope, along with a check payable to the Garden Club of Fairfax, by April 13 to Mrs. George Whipple, 11508 Yates Ford Road, Fairfax Station, VA 22039. Telephone: 703/978-4130. Tickets may also be purchased for an additional fee with a credit card before April 6 through www.vagarden week.org.

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