Garden magic Sonoma’s flower show tops them all |

Garden magic Sonoma’s flower show tops them all

First, allow me to apologize for not writing this column sooner. If I had, you’d have had the opportunity to see this year’s magnificent flower show, “The Gardens of Camelot” at the Sonoma County Fair, which ran from July 27 to Aug. 10.

Every year, in late July and early August, the fair’s Hall of Flowers comes into bloom in breathtaking proportions and produces display gardens like you’ve never seen, oftentimes combining plant material that would never grow together in nature. It has to be the best county fair flower show in California, and probably the nation.

What makes it even more noteworthy is that the show is staged in a huge Quonset hut that once housed B-25 bombers, but where months of preparation pays off in floral splendor in time for the fair.

What I’m suggesting is to mark your 2005 calendars in advance.

The first time I visited this show was strictly by chance. While writing about gardens for the big paper in the valley I picked up on a story idea in Santa Rosa that turned out to be something of a disappointment. On my way home I spotted a banner across a downtown street for the fair and flower show and decided to go see if I could salvage the trip.

That year the theme was something like, “The Glory That Was Rome,” and when I walked inside that metal building my feet took root and jaw came unhinged.

Fountains and waterfalls – utilizing 100,000 gallons of water – thundered in gardens using carpets of hydrangeas, begonias, fuchsias, azaleas, chrysanthemums, cacti, succulents and towering trees. Even the “amateur” gardens in an adjacent outdoor display were more than I expected to see.

I went through four rolls of film in a few minutes, and when I turned the film in for processing at our color lab the technician personally brought the boxes of slides to my desk: “Where the heck WERE you?” he asked.

That started a yearly tradition for me and each show stretched the imagination a little further. To celebrate the nation’s bicentennial the designer created a railway with a 3/4 scale engine and cars laden with flowers. Once there was a Mexican village complete with a pyramid, bursting with color. Yet another spectacle was “The Glory That Was Rome,” featuring such things as the chariot from the movie, “Ben Hur.” Another year the themes depicting an abandoned woodland lumber mill, and ferns were mounted in wooden barrels floating on a pond.

That brought some complaints from fairgoers, though, that the show was “too green.”

They wanted color, and so a rule was made that each garden must have at least 50 percent color. As in, “SHAZAM!”

And that’s how I got in trouble.

Probably because I was blowing the horn so loudly in the Sacramento paper over the annual event, I’d been asked to join the judging team for several shows.

As much of an honor as it was, the task was not a simple one and it wasn’t always easy getting three judges to decide on such honors as “best of show.”

But one year the three of us were in complete agreement that one garden in particular had craftsmanship truly above and beyond the others.

For one thing, instead of the masses of ‘mums and impatiens and hydrangeas and traditional color champions,’ the creator had used wild flowers and some highly unusual insectivorous specimen plants to enliven his display.

And (we later learned) one man had done the entire thing by himself. But it obviously fell far short of the 50 percent color requirement.

“I don’t care,” one of my fellow judges said, her jaw set in determination: “This is the best garden.”

“I agree,” I said, “But if we choose this one, we’ll never be invited to judge again.”

We did and we weren’t. And the show rules got changed again, this time with fair officials pre-judging the entries to see that they qualified under the “50 percent color” rule.

Another aspect of the fair that’s a big crowd pleaser is the horse races. Although we didn’t wager any money on the event, Felicia and I thoroughly enjoyed the races and the large and enthusiastic crowd. People watching couldn’t be any more fun than that. And the variety of food available (even fresh barbecued oysters!) during the fair rivals that of “Treat Street” at the Nevada County Fair.

Speaking of the racetrack, I was once sent to the fairground on another assignment to write a feature story about the modern remake of a movie from a Damon Runyon story, “Little Miss Marker,” in which Julie Andrews and Walter Matthau were starring.

Santa Rosa had been chosen for the shooting of the race scenes because of its old wooden bleachers (long gone now), reminiscent of racetracks in the 1930’s. My photographer, who has since won two Pulitzer prizes for his work, grabbed a snapshot of Julie Andrews staring into a compact and putting on her makeup and she stormed off the set. “Uh..she doesn’t want to be interviewed today,” explained a flustered publicist.

Matthau, though, who played the part of “Sorrowful Jones,” (a bookie who accepts a little girl as security for a $10 racing wager) was more than accommodating. He gave me the impression he was just a man who enjoyed his work, and took pride in it, too. Fittingly so.

Yes, it’s a 2 and a half hour drive from here to Santa Rosa, but if you go over on other than a Friday or Saturday (when lodging is costly and scarce) you might be able to take a welcome overnight break from the summer heat at Bodega Bay or somewhere along the coast.

And you’ll have seen a flower show to compare all others by.


Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, a trained master gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.

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