Philadelphia Flower Show lets its hair down

|      Adrian Higgins      |

FROM afar, Nick McCullough’s display at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show is dense with June-flowering perennials, and there is something of the English cottage garden about it.

But close up, he wants viewers to be transported to the stage of Woodstock – yes, that Woodstock – looking out to a sea of tie-dyed, peace-loving children of Aquarius, reincarnated almost 50 years on as astilbes, yarrows, salvias and coneflowers.

“The idea is you’re onstage and you have all these eyes staring back at you, and the sequence of flowers is meant to overwhelm you,” he said. In sum, it is a garden more for Jimi Hendrix than Beatrix Potter. McCullough, by all appearances, is not smoking anything.

Woodstock seems an odd subject for a fresh-faced designer from Ohio, but it comports with the show’s theme, ‘Flower Power’.

The organiser, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, urges visitors to “dust off the bell-bottoms and love beads”, and a few of the visitors this week have taken them up on the idea. The show, which began 190 years ago, runs until next Sunday at the downtown Pennsylvania Convention Center and is expected to draw a quarter of a million visitors lusting for spring.

Visitors attend the Philadelphia Flower Show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center
Nick McCullough in his floral display at the Philadelphia Flower Show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia
Floral artiste Sofie Danielsson Sohr of Sweden works on a display at the Philadelphia Flower Show
A woman poses for a portrait at the Philadelphia Flower Show

McCullough, who is 39 and was born more than a decade after Woodstock, has made a name for himself designing, installing and maintaining high-end gardens for wealthy corporate executives and venture capitalists in Columbus

He gives them terraces, hedges, the structure they need without the nouveau riche trappings of outdoor living rooms and patio kitchens, and then softens his garden architecture with exuberant container plantings and lots of flowering perennials. He is inspired by the elegant, relaxed formality of Belgian gardens.

He calls his style Midwest modern, whose tailored look is leavened by “organised chaos”. It offers a way forward from the lawn-driven model without radically upsetting the common view of what constitutes a respectable domestic landscape. His garden elements and compositions are photogenic. He has about three million followers on Pinterest and publishes an image-rich blog named Thinking Outside the Boxwood.

He has a broad grin, a shorn-sided haircut somewhere between hipster and Marine Corps, and exudes a Midwest geniality while being open about his ambitions and competitive nature. “I love sharing my story. You have to create your own luck,” he said. “I see so many people who are afraid to put themselves out there.”

The hordes who shared McCullough’s vision over the show’s opening weekend may get the references to America’s most famous musical event – two sentinel towers replicate the ones at Woodstock that became viewing perches – but they are unlikely to grasp fully the effort behind it.

The viewers of the Instagram videos he made of the process, however, will have a better idea. McCullough, his wife, Allison, and three assistants finished putting the exhibit together last Thursday night after a four-day effort that he described as a marathon raced at a sprint: Framed by a wall of 6.5 cords of stacked firewood, the 3,000 perennials and bulbs – tricked into bloom in a Pennsylvania greenhouse over the winter – are set in the beds under a blanket of moss.

Six 25-foot birch trees form a backdrop, and the structural elements, apart from the towers, consist of a rust-patinated reflecting pool, two opposing L-shaped walls of mirrors, and 20 or so polished stainless steel gazing balls.

In its underlying structure and symmetry and its avoidance of literality, the exhibit is as effective as such a temporary garden can be in a concrete cavern devoid of natural light.

The walls of mirrors are a clever trick, high and wide enough to bring illusory depth but small enough to be invisible. The circular pool offers another reflective feature that plays with the distortions of depth and boundaries.

Last summer, he knew he had to come up with a ‘Flower Power’ exhibit but was waiting for the muses.

Then he took his wife and two children to the ‘Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors’ exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Visitors spend a few moments alone in the Japanese artiste’s mirrored installation.

He could see that where two walls of mirrors meet, the reflection is compounded. “I came home and designed this garden in about 2.5 hours,” he said.

The show this year dispenses with a big central display and instead hosts an international floral competition run by FTD, the global florists’ retail network, and last held in 2015 in Berlin.

In Philly, it features 23 floral designers from around the world, each qualifying by winning contests in their own lands.

They advance in this ‘World Cup’ by making a series of judged floral creations.

At a preview opening last Friday, many of the designers were making highly architectural arrangements using flowers with strong forms and colours.

In her studio booth, Swedish designer Sofie Danielsson Sohr followed another course, creating a large but effervescent confection of poppies, goldenrods and other meadow flowers topped with wiry stalks of bleached ferns.

“I think about Swedish summers,” said Sohr, who lives in Stockholm.

“All the colours and flowers. It looks like a big bouquet from nature.” – Text & Photos by The Washington Post