What They Sow
The spring show in Greenwich offers outstanding gardeners
to compete and show off all they've learned.
springtime? Head indoors for the flowers.
Above, entries in A Matter of Taste, the 2003 38th Preview
Frankie Hollister and FiFi Sheridan, co-chairs of the
For two days in early March, the parish hall at Christ Church
in Greenwich, CT, will fill with the heady aroma of freshly
turned earth and flowers in perfect bloom at Circus! The 39th
Preview of Spring, the only major flower show mounted by a
single garden club in the Northeast.
On March 4 and 5, the Green Fingers Garden Club, a member
of the prestigious Garden Club of America (GCA) for 55 years,
welcomes throngs to view stunning horticulture, flower arranging
and photography entries from New England, the New York region
and beyond. Each entry, lovingly groomed to comply with the
Big Top theme and exacting national standards of excellence,
vies for the coveted Fenwick and Elizabeth Platt Corning medals.
The sheer number and high quality of the entries over the
years, as well as additional conservation and educational
exhibits, qualify the event as a GCA major show, putting it
in the same class as well-established shows in larger locales
such as Chicago, San Francisco and Honolulu, says Kirby Williams,
an auxiliary member organizing publicity this year.
“Some of the participants are so talented,” says
FiFi Sheridan, who is co-chairing the event with Frankie Hollister.
“They can take a bouquet of flowers and make something
that should be painted in oil, it's so stunningly attractive.”
But getting to that standard of excellence doesn't just
take a pair of sharp shears and a cut crystal vase. The women
who compete at this level have usually spent years studying
horticulture and design and practicing their craft at home,
in classes and workshops and at shows.
Green Fingers members begin in the auxiliary class, a two-year
program in which they study all aspects of horticulture, flower
arranging and conservation, says Beverly Watling, a flower
show judge for about 20 years who has been arranging since
she joined Green Fingers in 1971. In addition to monthly educational
meetings, auxiliary members are expected to participate in
civic improvement projects and exhibit often to boost their
skills and learn from judges' suggestions.
Watling has won the Fenwick Medal, the top GCA floral arranging
prize, and the Margaret Clover Symonds Medal, another high
honor that emphasizes modern design and the creative combination
of man-made materials and fresh and dried plants. Though each
participant prepares the arrangement from scratch in two hours
before judging, she knows well the behind-the-scenes work
of a winning grouping.
Most competitors start planning a few months before the show,
when the show's schedule, which explains each class
and the exact measurements to which the entry must conform,
Most show entrants will construct an exact replica of the
scene at home. From there, imagination rules: They can use
nearly any plant material to construct an artful design that
fits the theme and space and can be re-created in two hours.
Watling says it's not unusual for contestants to practice
making the arrangement many times in the months leading up
to the competition.
“There are a lot of things to consider. I remind people
that a flower arrangement is like a piece of sculpture,”
she says. “It's three dimensional and the judges
will view it from the front and back. That's important.”
Entries run from the traditional to the avant garde and Watling
expects this year's show to include lots of cutting-edge
techniques, including intricate leaf cutting and weavings
of grasses and flowers, as well as vibrant tropical plants,
which hold up well.
On the horticulture side, show hopefuls must conform to exacting
rules that govern everything from how long a gardener has
tended the plant to the particular species that must be exhibited
in the entry, says Trish Stefani, who has judged nationally
and has won the Corning Medal twice for her excellence in
horticulture. Some are known to spend years tending a single
orchid or rare, delicate fern to make sure the perfect bloom
flowers in time for the biannual Preview of Spring, one of
the earliest shows.
Stefani, who has judged nationally for about ten years, is
chairing the horticulture judges at Circus. The early timing
of the show tests a gardener's skill as entrants can't
just head out to their gardens and dig up prime plants, she
says. Among the highlights this year is the Mud Show, a bog
garden category featuring intriguing plants that enjoy wet
soil. Stefani is also intrigued by the challenge category,
in which entrants compete for the best plant grown from the
same Kosmo Purple Red Celosia seeds.
Awards chair Gaby Hall has twice won prizes for her team efforts,
most recently a four-by-five-foot Chinese landscape complete
with rock formations and rice paddies. She has also won certificates
of excellence for her work with forced bulbs. She's
looking forward to seeing the competition for the top honors,
which are presented only if the judges believe entries truly
constitute a work of outstanding beauty.
This year's circus theme certainly lends itself to the
possibility. With classes dubbed Daredevil Thrills, the Contortionist
and the Fire Eater, creative options abound, says Sheridan.
The theme, a nod to the Barnum Museum in P.T. Barnum's
nearby hometown of Bridgeport, CT, will carry over into the
show's boutique and the March 3 preview party, the club's
All proceeds go to another club passion – active community
service, says president Andi Putnam. Since 1936, Green Fingers
Garden Club has worked to conserve, preserve and enhance the
quality of life in Greenwich through education and conservation
The club hopes Preview of Spring offers top gardeners a prime
chance for challenging competition and encourages visitors
to consider entering their world.
“When you grow things, you really become part of the
universe,” Watling says.
Guinness is a freelance writer who lives in Bridgeport, CT.
Image 1,2,3,4: Jeanne Host, image 5: Karen Royce.