No one ever told Ian Cooke that he couldn't grow Tradescantia Zwanenburg Blue -- "Sweet Kate" to green-thumbed insiders -- on American soil. But the mere fact that it had never been done made the rare perennial a tempting horticultural challenge to the award-winning English garden designer. "If you tell a gardener he can't grow a plant, he's going to grow it," Cooke boasts.
This weekend, Sweet Kate's azure blue petals and vibrant yellow foliage will make their North American debut at the Cleveland Botanical Garden Flower Show -- the largest outdoor flower exhibition in the country. Once known as FloralScape and held in the concrete jungle that is Cleveland State's Convocation Center, the Cleveland Botanical Garden decided to move the show home to its 10 acres of secluded outdoor gardens, a horticultural gem surrounded by the arts district of University Circle.
"It's a very big deal," flower show director Katherine Campbell says. "The real venue you need is the outdoors." Using Europe's oldest flower exhibition -- the Royal Horticulture Society's Chelsea Flower Show -- as a model, the Cleveland flower show offers the rare chance to rub elbows with gardening celebrities and witness the intrigue of a high-stakes floral competition, as well as the opportunity to take home an exotic beauty -- such as this year's featured flower, the Himalayan Blue Poppy -- and try growing something you've never grown before.
But the highlight of the more than 20 outdoor gardens is six specially designed "living exhibit" gardens, created by both English and American landscape architects to give visitors a firsthand look at the differences between English and American gardening.
"It's very common to fill [an American garden] full of stuff," says Cooke, who designed a subtle, flowing English garden for his living exhibit. Instead of an array of eye-popping colors strategically placed between rocks and artificial water fountains, Cooke uses soft, soothing colors -- blue and white, with a touch of silver -- for his traditional English garden, which features towering hornbeam trees, a cobblestone walkway, and overflowing fragrant urns. "We're trying to stimulate all the senses -- fragrance, color, emotion, and sight -- so that you feel that you're somewhere else than Ohio," he says.
Developing the six living exhibits was no small feat, even for the greenest of the Mr. Green Jeans. Each landscaping crew -- DeWeese Landscaping, Eagle Landscaping, Impullitti Landscaping, the Pattie Group, Redwood Stone, and R.J. Stovicek & Associates -- was assigned an undeveloped plot of wooded land on the garden's grounds. From there, they had approximately nine months to transform their raw spaces into tranquil gardens with lush, colorful flora.
Cleveland's Impullitti Landscaping created the Serenity Garden from not much more than a pile of "rubble and debris," says landscaper Ken Pachasa. Now the area flaunts chiseled rocks, mixed perennials, bushy shrubs, and an unusual waterfall created by head designer Dan McClaren. "I wanted to combine fire and water," says McClaren. "So we have a grill suspended from the arbor, and then the fountain acts as a backdrop for the grill." McClaren hopes the garden will serve as a "quiet, calming, soothing area where you can relax and escape the day."
But just in case you can't find a Calgon moment when having to share the show with the thousands of other rubberneckers roaming the living exhibits, you can always come back later for the fabled calm and quiet -- the six featured gardens will remain on view for the next two years.
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