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The Old Sod Blooms at Philly Flower Show

Photo by Laura Beitman

By John Kernaghan, Contributor
June / July 2007

It wasn’t merely the classic ‘bit of the auld sod’ when the Legends of Ireland commanded center stage at the Philadelphia Flower Show in early March. It was an attempt by North America’s largest garden showcase (and at 178 years, the world’s longest running) to mirror the Irish landscape as well as polished gardens in an indoor setting.

Some 258,000 visitors (up 18,000 from 2006) were enchanted with the concept guest designer Chris Woods and permanent director Sam Lemheney conceived.

“We roamed the countryside and visited gardens and tried for a synopsis of 400 years of Irish garden design,” said Woods, the British-born horticulturalist, who brought his life-long love of Ireland to the show. “We wanted a weaving of Ireland’s long history of gardens, arts and crafts.” He also hoped for a show that mirrored “the vibrancy of the Irish people. Ireland is one of the most civilized places on Earth,” he said.

Woods is director of VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, moving there after finding another Irish passion. “I fell in love with an Irish woman.”

The centerpiece, which told the story of Tir-Na-nÓg, the land of the young, through Celtic gardens, music and entertainment, evoked an “emotional response” said Lemheney. It played to myth and imagination with a ‘living” archway featuring flowers, ferns and artfully woven tree limbs inspired by art from the Book of Kells at the Ealain Wood, where ‘creatures’ roamed under giant trees and flutes and harps trilled.

“It’s hard to depict the old oak woodlands or beech trees of Kerry in fabric but we hoped for a sense of scale,” said Woods, who toured gardens like Powerscourt and Mount Stewart for inspiration for the for- mal garden portions of the show.
Beyond the wood was a magnificent courtyard and the Knot Garden, shimmer- ing with crystals and flowers and flanked by two 40-foot waterways with spiral fountains and Celtic banners.
This formal setting provided a grand platform for the Castle of the Emerald Kingdom, an estate with tiered garden, turrets and towers. Inside, performances of traditional Irish music were staged.

A favorite display, the “Rose of Glendalough” by Celtic Gardens of Dexter, MI in which designers recreated the haunting ruins of the 13th-century St. Kevin’s chapel in Wicklow, won the horticultural society’s best in Show. Other highlights were: Thirty varieties of Irish Ivy at the American Ivy Society’s exhibit;

Burke Brothers’ tranquil golf course and lush green vistas; an Irish garden of gold- en plants by Stoney Bank Nurseries. Entertainment at the garden showcase included performances of Ragus, and noted Irish garden author Helen Dillon was on hand to dispense her expertise. ♦

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