Flower Show 2020: “Ungardening” in the Ambler Campus Greenhouse

Students cultivating plants in the greenhouse

Flowers and trees understand something that perhaps humans haven’t quite caught onto yet. A weather-prognosticating rodent is all well and good, but winter is going to end when winter ends and spring will follow in its own good time.

When Philadelphia Flower Show preparation begins at Temple University Ambler each year, that’s where Temple Horticulture staff and students come in. Their mission is to “trick” the plants into thinking that late February/early March is a perfect time to put their best blooming face forward for the signature event’s 250,000 guests.

“The process of preparing the horticulture-side of our Flower Show exhibit began back in August and early September, meeting with (Tyler School of Art and Architecture Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture) Rob Kuper and (Adjunct Assistant Professor) Michael LoFurno to discuss the plant options that would support the exhibit message,” said Benjamin Snyder, Manager of the Greenhouse Education and Research Complex at Temple Ambler. “From there, I source and order plant material, then create a schedule of how to force each species. Overall, we are using 77 different species and more than 1,000 individual plants.

According to Snyder, the four main aspects that go into forcing a plant to bloom out of season are length of cold treatment, heat, light and humidity.

“We need to trick plants into thinking that winter is over and spring is here. To do that, they need to have an early winter,” he said. “We accomplish this through vernalization, which takes place in our three on-campus coolers. Each plant is then brought out of the coolers and into our growing zones according to the schedule. For certain plants, extra heat, light, and/or humidity is needed — this is facilitated by heat mats, grow lights and forcing tents.”

At the 2020 Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Philadelphia Flower Show, Temple University Landscape Architecture and Horticulture students and faculty are inviting visitors to “start the evolution at home and reset your tack.” Temple’s exhibit, “Course of Action: A Radical Tack for Suburban Tracts,” will portray an “ungardened” suburban landscape that attracts wildlife, embraces chance, cultivates resilience through diversity, and appreciates restraint and the viability of repurposed building materials. The Flower Show, held each year at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, will run from February 29 through March 8.

“One of the primary focuses of the exhibit is taking traditional suburban yards, full of non-native plants that provide little to no ecological services to the existing biodiversity — or can even harm it — and transforming them into high-value wildlife landscapes, full of berry- and nectar-producing plants, shelter and nesting sites, and general habitat,” said Snyder. “Our plant choices reflect the transition between an existing, low-value plant ecosystem to one of higher value, mainly through the introduction of native plant species. We will be featuring a few of the common, ubiquitous taxa, such as yews and junipers, alongside attractive native species.”

Some of the new plants being used in the exhibit for 2020 include Eryngium yuccifolium, a native meadow plant; Opuntia humifusa, “another great native species that we have not tried before;” and Actaea pachypoda, or doll’s eyes, a woodland plant with “white flower spikes and small white berries with black centers that look like eyeballs,” said Snyder.

Returning favorites, Snyder said, include Aralia spinose, or Devil’s Walking Stick, returning to Temple’s exhibit for the third year in a row; Taxodium distichum, “but it will be a different cultivar than in past years,” and many groundcover species, such as Tiarella cordifolia, Carex platyphylla, and Packera aurea, “that will be familiar to Flower Show visitors.”

Temple University remains one of only a handful of exhibitors that forces its own plants for their exhibits.

“It allows us greater flexibility in our plant choices. Some commercial growers would simply refuse to grow some of our more unusual plants, like the Symplocarpus foetidus, or Eastern Skunk Cabbage,” Snyder said. “Secondly, it allows our students to get a unique hands-on experience that few other programs offer.”

According to Snyder, Horticulture Directed Study students and greenhouse student workers have been assisting with preparations for the show. They take part in all aspects of the forcing and installation of the plants, he said, from watering, transplanting, training, packing and installation.

Horticulture sophomore Chris Polidore said the hands-on learning opportunities he has been given while getting plants ready for the Flower Show has been hugely beneficial.

“Hands-on learning was one of the primary selling points of Temple’s Horticulture program. I have been working with a ton of different plants, learning the different requirements each has to grow,” he said. “Through the program you have access to this wonderful Arboretum at Temple Ambler, which includes a wide variety of gardens on campus. Each one has unique properties and encompasses different learning environments and experiences.”

Brendan McNabb, a Horticulture senior, was drawn to the Tyler School of Art and Architecture’s Horticulture program for “the broad educational opportunities that very few other colleges or universities offer.”

“I’ve always found plants fascinating. Being part of the Flower Show, working in collaboration with other students and faculty to get all of the plants ready, has been a terrific experience,” he said. “Basically we need to determine how to speed the plants up or slow them down depending on their specific requirements to ensure they are blooming right on time for the show,” said McNabb. “That takes a lot of planning and I’ve been learning a lot of new techniques. I’m looking forward to getting them to the next step, installing the plants at the show.”

Horticulture senior Ibrahim Al-Nasser was formerly a Biology major until the plants started “talking” to him, pointing him on the right path for his future.

“No matter the context, plants, I think, inspire a sense of wonder and a greater connection to the world around you. They provide a calming, therapeutic presence that is much needed in this day and age,” he said. “Working hands-on with the plants is ensuring that I will be much better prepared for the real world. I’m about to graduate so this is an experience that I find essential in preparing me for that next step.”  

Being part of the Philadelphia Flower Show, Al-Nasser said, “makes me feel like less of an observer and more of a doer.”

“I truly feel like I’m part of this amazing team at Temple Ambler getting our exhibit ready to represent the University,” he said. “I hope our exhibit inspires people to make positive changes and I hope they fall in love with the plants and our connection to them in the same way I have.”

As tens of thousands of Flower Show visitors make their way through Temple’s exhibit, “our goal is to demonstrate that it is possible to transition your conventional yard into a wildlife habitat, and that to do this doesn’t mean ripping out your entire landscape and starting from scratch,” said Snyder.

“As always, we also aim to show that native plants can be attractive and desirable for your yard. They aren’t just weeds that grow along roadsides!” said Snyder. “Ultimately we are hoping to show how attainable — and important — a high quality ecosystem is to our surrounding environment, and our day-to-day lives. Without the proper plant life to provide necessary ecosystem services, important species begin to disappear from our landscapes and you never know how that may affect your way of life down the road.”

For more information about the Tyler School of Art and Architecture Horticulture and Landscape Architecture programs, visit tyler.temple.edu/programs/landscape-architecture-horticulture. For more information about the 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show, visit theflowershow.com.