Debbie Arrington

Seeds: San Francisco Flower & Garden Show aims for the low-water mark

In time of drought, a gardener’s instinct is to pull back. Conserve. Be cautious.

Chris Woods sees it as inspiration to go all out.

“People have been cautious about gardening in drought,” said Woods, an internationally known horticulturist and garden designer. “In my mind, it constitutes an opportunity to rethink the garden.”

Woods and his colleagues have been doing plenty of brainstorming on low-water gardening as they prepare for the biggest event on the Northern California garden calendar: the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show.

On the verge of extinction during the recession, this perennial favorite has sprung back strong as ever under new ownership and leadership. Fresno’s Sherry Larsen, who owns and produces several shows including Sacramento’s California State Home and Garden Show, and Maryanne Lucas, founder and executive director of the garden education program Kids Growing Strong, purchased the show last May.

About 60,000 patrons attend the five-day show each March. It still ranks third among the nation’s top flower shows behind only the 185-year-old Philadelphia International Flower Show and Seattle’s Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

Set for March 19-23 at the San Mateo Event Center, this year’s San Francisco treat features 20 designer gardens and more than 150 speakers. Early-bird tickets are on sale.

Woods recently was hired as show director. London-born, he started his horticultural career at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In the United States, he turned Chanticleer, a private estate near Philadelphia, into one of the nation’s best-known destination gardens. He comes to San Francisco from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, host of that gigantic Philadelphia show.

Love lured Woods west; he met and married a woman who got a job in the east Bay Area. They moved to Fairfield. Woods, who had experience gardening in Southern California, suddenly plunged into almond country – and the state’s worst drought in a century.

“Drought is not a limitation,” he said. “A drought year is not the end of the world, and it’s not the end of gardening. Five regions of the world have Mediterranean climates like us. They have droughts, too. We have lots of choices, both native and (from) elsewhere, to garden pleasurably and properly.”

This year’s show gardens will focus on low-water and Mediterranean-minded gardening. Besides southern Europe and California, the other Mediterranean zones include South Africa, Chile and Australia. Plants from those regions will be part of the palette.

“It’s going to be a much bigger, better and more sophisticated show,” Woods said. “The show gardens will more than reference drought gardening. It’s an obvious, very pertinent and timely message for us all in the West.”

Succulents, which will be part of several displays, are just the tip of the low-water list.

“There are thousands and thousands of plants that work better with low-water use,” Woods said. “We shouldn’t be celebrating the worst drought in years, but we can remake our gardens with a forward-thinking approach. We can respond with a little intelligence. In California, we should be saving water any way.”

Meanwhile, Woods plans a flora extravaganza like no other with knockout visual displays as well as plenty to think about.

“Our theme this year is ‘Inspired!’ and it will be,” he said with a chuckle. “Flower shows are theater, and this one will have some very dramatic highlights.”

Folsom’s flower show

Today, the Folsom Garden Club welcomes patrons to enjoy a breath of spring at the historic Murer House, 1125 Joe Murer Court, Folsom.

In November, the club along with volunteers from Folsom High School and Intel planted hundreds of daffodils and other spring bulbs in 56 large pots. Those bulbs are now at peak of bloom and putting on quite a show.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, visitors can tour the home and gardens during a free open house.

“The historic gardens also have 75-year-old camellias, beds of sweet-scented violets, flowering quince and old-fashioned iris in full flower,” said Rhonda DesVoignes, who coordinated the garden project.

Recent rain has prompted the daffodils into bloom, she noted. “Our goal was to plant the Murer House version of the massive spring display at Filoli in Woodside.”