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Canada Blooms, More Criticism & Change Ideas
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

March 30, 2008

Above, three shots from the 1966 Garden Club of Toronto Spring Flower Show at the O’Keefe Centre, the first two of the Sheridan Nurseries exhibit after the water had been removed from the pond (!) and the third an outstanding display of roses from Ellesmere Nurseries done by Mr. John Schloen. Below, four shots from the 1974 show, also at the O’Keefe Centre, showing the smaller gardens but nevertheless the attention paid to details and the crowds that attended. Author photos.

Two weeks ago I wrote a fairly critical piece about this year’s Canada Blooms flower and garden show in Toronto which was the 12th annual. I visited and saw each and every one of them, plus I also hardly ever missed Canada Blooms’ predecessor, the Garden Club of Toronto’s annual flower show which started at Casa Loma, moved to the O’Keefe Centre and then to the CNE Automotive Building (with one return to Casa Loma in the mid 80s, and one detour to the Royal Ontario Museum). I hope my comments here will be taken in the spirit I write them, from someone who has quite a history with flower shows generally and Toronto particularly.

From the early 60s on I was also a regular attendee at the New York Flower Show and the old Chicago Flower Show at McCormick Place where I judged the large gardens annually. Likewise, slightly later, I became the ‘Toronto fixture’ as a judge of the super-high-quality horticultural classes at the Philadelphia Flower Show. And, I have lost count of how many Chelsea Flower Shows I have attended, as well as international shows in Holland, Germany, France, Belgium, New Zealand, United Kingdom and South Africa.

Over a period of 34 years, ever since the 1963 O’Keefe Centre show, I didn’t just attend these shows I virtually always participated in at least one major way. Well do I remember the 1966 show for which I had headed the team from Sheridan Nurseries installing a beautiful garden (designed by Jesse Vilhelm Stensson, a Harvard-graduated landscape architect and the company’s managing director until the death of Howard Dunington-Grubb whom he succeeded as President) with a long narrow pool and beautifully forced small trees and shrubs all aglow in their height of spring beauty (under the direction of nurseryman Joerg Leiss at Oakville). The whole display right in the centre of the O’Keefe’s main lobby, on the west side was, as usual, to be installed by our landscape department. Early in the planning process I asked landscape manager Harry VanDyke if he was planning to use a galvanized liner for the rectangular pond and he said “No!” they are far too expensive. I responded to that by saying “what are you worried about, the entire thing is coming out of my promotions budget!” But I did not prevail. Little did I know in January of that year that I would very much regret not having pushed Harry harder to use a metal pond liner!

At the opening night party toward the end of the evening, I was standing beside our garden, and had noticed a slight bit of wetness on the lovely green carpet of the O’Keefe upon which all the gardens were built each year. Suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder and a gentleman introduced himself to me as Walter Godfrey, the O’Keefe’s House Manager. He informed me that they were sure there was a leak in our (poly-lined) ornamental pool, and that something would have to be done that night. Walter then welcomed me to use his office and I tried desperately to contact either Harry VanDyke or his more cordial assistant Tom VanRyn. Not until almost 11 PM did Tom call back (Harry left it all to Tom!) and he said he needed about an hour to raise a crew and another 30 minutes to get back down to the O’Keefe Centre. He said he would bring their largest pump and that it would likely take almost two hours to empty the pool, but what were we going to do with the pool area within the garden? I suggested and he concurred that if he brought some nice white sand with him we could easily apply a layer of sand to the base of what had been the pond, and rake it in a Japanese-style design, and it might not look too bad considering all of the lovely flowering plants we had in the rest of the garden, surrounding the ‘pool’.

So, Walter Godfrey (who became one of my best friends after that frightful night, and while in Toronto this month I got together with him again and some other older friends for a fun dinner) and I spent several hours in his O’Keefe office telling stories and sipping the occasional glass of wine until Tom and the crew arrived. They pumped, swept, cleaned shovelled and raked sand, and generally re-tidied up until somewhere around 4 AM as I recall. Walter left his night watchman in charge, and he and I departed for our respective homes around 1:30 AM. When we returned the next morning at 9:30 AM all had been beautifully redone, and our prize ribbon (the exhibit was judged a winner before the ‘incident’ occurred!) re-installed for all to see.

But I have digressed! That is only one story of many. Gosh, those were great flower shows! Yes the garden displays were smaller--the overall space was much smaller--Alex Raab the owner of White Rose put in wonderful displays of fantastically forced perennials, Leslie Solty Jr. installed great gardens featuring large forced trees, and there was always at least one great annual flower display and John Schloen’s wonderful forced roses from his Ellesmere Nurseries, to say nothing of the huge swaths of forced bubs. The reason the Garden Club moved their show was that a tiny percentage of the 50,000+/- folks who came to see it at that time generally complained that the aisles between the gardens were too narrow--it wasn’t a reasonable complaint because only the first couple of rows of people at the edge could really admire the gardens, but nevertheless it caused a re-think by the leaders of the Garden Club at the time.

The shows at the Automotive Building were large and great, but only held bi-annually and thus lacked the drawing power for bus groups. In fact I was even more closely involved with the Garden Club for one of the CNE Automotive shows as agent for the sale of all commercial booths. It was that show where I realized the need to make concessions to some small companies and individuals who might come in to sell fresh plants. Keith Squires of The Country Squire’s Garden was a good case in point. We made a deal with him for a free booth, and even some selling help from volunteers in exchange for him bringing a wide selection of plants and paying a percentage of sales to the show.

It seems to me Canada Blooms needs to change their policy toward people selling plants, or at least unusual plants, compared to the mop sellers etc. I hear a lot of complaints about one individual selling booths in the Marketplace. Langford Rose Gardens, new this year, were not told just where their booth would be exactly, until they arrived to install it. That is ridiculous. In the old days at Sheridan, I always went to the venue to check out just where we would be before we did the final design of the booth/garden. Langford wanted a corner but didn’t get one, yet right near them there was the ugly booth of a building seller in such a position.

Some of the growers and sellers of plants/accoutrements obviously missing this year included Valleybrook Gardens/Heritage perennials, Richters, Orchids in our Tropics, Clarksburg Hardware, Marjorie Mason, Terra Greenhouses and M.K. Rittenhouse & Sons.

Design-wise, I believe the show needs a new overall designer. The present designer has been with it since its inception in 1997 and has done some outstanding presentations--no question! However there is not one show that I know that keeps the same designer for a decade or more. That is a crying need!

General Manager Gerry Ginsberg did get rid of the PR firm who had been doing the same thing for the last ten years, and told him she was going to do the same again for this year. I had been bitching about that situation to Tony and anyone else who would listen for the last eight years at least. Gerry, by the way, is of the opinion that a show such as Canada Blooms should change PR agencies about every three years. I’m with him on that, and I think generally he could be very good for the show if he is given a free hand to solve some of the major problems. More on that in a moment.

I had Michael Caine, the president of radio station AM740 on my programme to comment last Saturday. I did that because when I talked to him outside the building while I was there earlier in the week, he initiated the conversation by saying that he was very disappointed in Canada Blooms “this year.”

He said that the “Wow factor” was entirely missing and that just about nailed it. We also talked about the lack of quality purveyors of plants and other gardening products. I reiterated that at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle, last month, there was a huge commercial area and one orchid vendor alone, had about ten booths and all his stock had been certified by the USDA, so Canadians could get [free] phytosanitary certificates to take any of his plants back to Canada. This guy was also there last year, and his booth always has a large plant of every orchid he is selling to show people what they are getting. What a range, and he comes from Honolulu! Compare that to the orchid ‘suppliers’ who were at Canada Blooms! They just did not make it!

After long talks with some prominent longstanding members of Landscape Ontario, following the show, I think what is needed is basically a new business model. This would see the organization, Canada Blooms/Landscape Ontario, in addition to making the floor space for the garden exhibits available at no cost to the designers/installers of the gardens, also make cash or inkind grants to them, say to the extent of 50% of each designers/installers’ costs. There likely could be an upper limit of $50,000 per grant as well. I also understand that money could be available for such a model, even for next year.

Such a policy would likely bring back some of the big name participants (such as The Niagara Parks Commission, Royal Botanical Gardens, Melo Landscaping, Sheridan Nurseries, Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries and even Oliveira Landscaping from last year’s show) who staged the stunning gardens of the past. Once it became known that the show was back to the excellence of the past an active PR and marketing campaign should be able to bring vastly increased numbers of visitors which in turn would provide much better revenue for ongoing grants to the garden designers/builders.

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