Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: At this year’s Northwest Flower & Garden Festival, the floral creations from Fleurs de Villes, like this one made of lunaria, all had a Rosé theme that supported breast cancer survivors.
Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: At this year’s Northwest Flower & Garden Festival, the floral creations from Fleurs de Villes, like this one made of lunaria, all had a Rosé theme that supported breast cancer survivors.

For the first time since its inception in 1998, the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival was missing in 2021. The second-largest horticultural show in the country, the show marks the unofficial end of winter and a vision of gardens to come.

This year the festival returned to the Washington State Convention Center from Feb. 9 through Feb. 15 — to appreciative crowds.

Some familiar ingredients — like display gardens, seminars and the lively marketplace — welcomed them like old friends. Elandan Gardens Ltd, http://www.elandangardens.com/, of Bremerton created a display garden weaving together ancient bonsai, stonework and driftwood.

Ugandan-born batik artist Paul Nzalamba, https://www.nzalamba-artworks.com/, from Los Angeles, California, was back in his booth sharing the poignant stories behind each scene.

Area garden columnist Marianne Binetti, http://www.binettigarden.com/, was emceeing the raucous “Container Wars” event that pitted designers against each other and the clock to create the best potted arrangement.

There was no escaping this was a different show this year, however. Vaccinations and test results were checked before tickets could be taken, and attendees were required to wear masks. The festival offered tests on the street level of the convention center.

Leading up to the show, fear of the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 took its toll on the numbers of vendors, exhibitors and speakers, as well as visitors attending. Ticket sales were down from previous years by 30 percent. With five fewer large display gardens than in 2020, the entire City Living display — usually packing the Skybridge — was brought over to fill a wall in the main display area. Tour buses canceled, speakers bowed out and longtime vendors like Swansons Nursery, https://www.swansonsnursery.com/, and Butchart Gardens, https://www.butchartgardens.com/, begged off.

But resilience rang through the event in the spirit that has gotten designers to build mountains and waterfalls in days for decades now. Experienced speakers with multiple topics in their repertoire stepped up to do two or three talks if needed, so the 90 seminars promised would still go on.

Garden designer Sue Goetz of Gig Harbor, www.thecreativegardener.com, was asked to add an extra lecture in January because another speaker couldn’t make it. She had reservations at first and intended to go only when scheduled and leave if areas became too crowded.

“I think as much as could have been was done to be able to have the show and meet in person — it worked.”

Ravenna Gardens, www.ravennagardens.com, was offered Butchart Gardens’ usual booth space, allowing a generous flow with wider aisles, which was helpful with a crowd-spooked populace.

The scheduling of the show had distinct impacts. With the show ending a day before Valentine’s Day, some florists skipped this year to maximize the industry’s big day. It also meant there were fewer flowers and plants available for sales, display gardens and floral sculptures.

One of the more impressive floral achievements given the situation was the Northwest Orchid Society’s http://www.nwos.org/ display garden — designed, built and planted by volunteers with orchids loaned from home gardener members.

This year’s design was a tropical vision — a large greenhouse from Hartley Botanic, bursting with orchids on every plane. Outside, orchids of indescribable variety were crammed into garden beds looking like a flower farm on Maui.

The intricate floral creations from Fleur de Villes, https://www.fleursdevilles.com/, were back after their 2020 debut, but this year in the all-glass Skybridge. With a “Rosé” theme supporting breast cancer survivors, these life-sized mannequins wearing nothing but biomass wowed the crowds with flower power and artistry. One strutted in go-go boots, one defiantly dangled a bra.

One display garden, by Farmer Frog, https://farmerfrog.org/, detailed the effects of the pandemic, from nurturing nature to a memorial made of masks visitors inscribed with loved ones’ names.

The display garden by Redwood Builders, http://www.redwoodbuilderslandscaping.com/, in Maple Valley and designer Tony Fajarillo, https://bonsaiko.com/, swept three awards —  the “Best in Show” Founders’ Cup, Best Use of Color and Best Use of Horticulture.

Titled “Shinrin Yoku,” the Japanese term for forest bathing — nature walks for wellness — it incorporated a massive enkianthus tree, large cedars, a bridge crossing a river fed by waterfall and bonsai.

On Facebook, Fajarillo thanked, among others, Kent East Hill Nursery for loans of plant material, Lake Washington Tech School Environmental Horticulture for helping hands, the Pacific Bonsai Museum and the festival staff who have “worked so hard to make this happen through COVID.”

Overall, the lighter crowds made for a relaxed experience without long lines to get into a display garden or grab coffee. Talks were well-attended but not at capacity.

The show runners said they were pleased with the event’s performance under some challenging circumstances and are optimistic about next year.

“The return of the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival after a one-year hiatus proved to all of us that the show still has a huge following and brings the joy of spring to life in February,” manager Jeff Swenson said. “Despite attendance being down 30 percent, the pent-up demand for plants and garden accessories was evident over the five days of the festival. Many of the exhibitors had all-time sales and were out of product early in the weekend. We are thrilled with the results given the circumstance and look forward to 2023.”