Debbie Arrington

Seeds: San Francisco Flower & Garden Show revives ‘wow factor’

Nathan Beeck got hooked on gardens at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show.

“I grew up going to the show, back when it was at the Cow Palace,” said Beeck of Folsom’s Clearwater Design. “I’d never seen anything else like it. It inspired me to become a garden designer and go into landscapes.”

Now, Beeck hopes to inspire others with his designer gardens featured in the 29th annual San Francisco show, which opens Wednesday. As his anchor, he borrowed the Nautilus – or at least a steam-punk version of Jules Vernes’ famed submarine.

“It was built for Burning Man,” said Beeck, referring to the famed Nevada alternative arts festival. “It’s pretty amazing and exciting to have it in the garden. ... But that’s what this show is all about – imagination and innovation.”

The Nautilus will welcome an expected 60,000 visitors this week as part of the San Francisco show’s elaborate garden displays. The futuristic vehicle won’t be out of place. A nearby garden was inspired by the movie “Avatar.”

Held at the San Mateo Event Center, this floral extravaganza ranks as the nation’s third-largest event of its kind. But in recent years, its prospects looked sketchy. While attendance remained relatively strong through the recession, the number of exhibitors and participating designers had started to dwindle.

With new owners and renewed enthusiasm, the flower show seems poised to regain its inspirational punch.

“We want to bring back the wow factor,” said co-owner Sherry Larsen, who closed the show’s purchase in June. “The last few months have been just a blur; so many logistics. But I’ve got to tell you – I’m having a ball.”

Larsen has been organizing – and commuting – from her home in Clovis near Fresno, half a state away from her newest venture. She also produces the Sacramento home and garden shows held in January and September at the Sacramento Convention Center.

“This show uses about 200,000 square feet,” she said. “In Sacramento, there’s 143,000 available if we use the whole building. This (event) is huge. We have 150 seminars! There’s so much involved.

“Most people don’t know I also tried to buy the San Francisco show when it was for sale before, in 2009,” Larsen said. “My crystal ball back then said the recession couldn’t go on another year. Was I ever wrong! In 2010, (the home show industry) hit bottom.”

Instead of buying the San Francisco show, Larsen attempted to launch a Sacramento flower and garden show at Cal Expo. It ran two years – 2010 and 2011 – and struggled to gain a foothold amid the sluggish economy.

“I decided to pull back and reorganize,” she noted.

Last year, she got a phone call. The San Francisco show was for sale again. “They needed somebody with passion and the heart to step in immediately,” Larsen recalled. “They asked, ‘Are you still interested?’ ”

Larsen jumped at her second chance. As a partner, she teamed with garden education advocate Maryanne Lucas, founder of Kids Growing Strong and a leader in California garden clubs as well as community gardens. They hired internationally known designer Chris Woods as their show director.

“Maryanne is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met, and Chris has a tremendous background in the public garden sector,” Larsen said. “I just turned those two loose and stood back.”

The results definitely will feel like wow, she added. “We’ve brought back the drama.”

“We’re first of all a FLOWER show; this isn’t another home show,” Larsen said. “When you walk in the door, you’ll see the difference. We’re all about flowers.”

Suspended from the rafters, a 16-foot floral centerpiece will greet visitors into the main hall. A “grand allee” leads to 16 designer gardens.

Beeck created two of the major displays. Besides the Nautilus fantasy, he also developed a more practical garden to illustrate water savings.

“It’s a great opportunity to reach out and educate people about the possibilities in their own gardens,” Beeck said. “I do a lot of ‘gray water’ designs in my own business and this garden shows what you can do with recycled water.”

Beeck started with the premise of a 2,000-square-foot home with a 5,000-square-foot landscape; how much water could a family of four recycle on that site?

“More specifically, how much water can we feed into the garden?” Beeck said. “We’re creating a garden filled with new ideas on how to save and recycle water. We’re going to give people something they haven’t seen before – which is what makes this show so exciting.”