Apologies to T.S. Eliot, but Atlanta thinks February is the cruelest month.
It’s a long, muddy slog to spring, and it can’t get out of the way quickly enough.
For decades, the Atlanta Flower Show (and then the Southeastern Flower Show), held every February, served as an indoor oasis of green in the middle of the gray, giving gardeners a chance to fantasize about the season ahead.
After disappearing for five years, the event has come back in a new, smaller incarnation as the Atlanta Botanical Garden Flower Show, taking place Feb. 23-25.
It’s a breath of fresh air for many.
Longtime participant Havalyn Hensley said, “In the dead of winter, you walk into this show and the fragrances that hit you — just smelling dirt at that time of year is worth it.”
Attendees will note the scale of this event is different. While past shows, staged in places like the Georgia World Congress Center and the Cobb Galleria, filled up acres with examples of landscape design, the Botanical Garden has limited indoor space.
Only four competitors will enter the landscape design contest this year, and there won’t be rows of supplies for sale by gardening company vendors. “We’re going to make it not about quantity, but about quality,” said Mary Pat Matheson, president and CEO of the Botanical Garden.
The Midtown garden has enclosed space in Day Hall, Mershon Hall and the Gallery, where the horticulture, floral design and photography competitions will take place. It also has some extras that wouldn’t be available in a conference center.
Thousands of blossoms will be on display in the Fuqua Orchid Center during Orchid Daze, which opened Feb. 10 and will run through April 1 and will be free to flower show attendees. And despite potential chilly weather, the outdoor beds at the Botanical Garden will be showing some color, where daffodils, camellia, Daphne and witch hazel will be in bloom.
Members of Atlanta’s garden clubs, who haven’t had a chance to compete in the big arena for the past five years, will be excited to show off their skills.
The floral design and photography competitions are already full, according to Matheson, but the horticulture competition stays open until the day before the flower show begins. That contest is an effort to produce the most perfect exemplar of a given genus and species of flower, and many competitors won’t know whether they’ve got a specimen worth entering until the last minute.
The show will also host lectures by two gardening experts at the nearby Piedmont Driving Club. Bruno Duarte is a floral designer and television personality. James Farmer is author of best-selling gardening books and an editor at large for Southern Living.
Floral arrangements by Duarte will be auctioned off after his presentation. Farmer’s newest book, “A Place to Call Home,” will be available for purchase during the event.
The theme of this flower show is “Ingenue: A Toast to Georgia’s Film Industry.” (We can only hope the killer bromeliad from “Stranger Things” doesn’t decide to make an appearance.)
Honorary chair of the festival is Pat Hartrampf, who was a founding chair of the Southeastern Flower Show, president of the Peachtree Garden Club and is qualified as a judge in horticulture, flower arranging and photography.
“It’s a good feeling,” to see the show come back, said Hartrampf.
The show was a pleasure, she said, and she never walks through town without having someone ask her when the show will be coming back. But it was also an exhausting slog. Did she miss it? “It’s like a having a child who tap-dances: Have you missed her or not?”
The three-day show, which often drew 40,000 visitors, was expensive to stage, particularly as conference center costs went up. And though indoors, it was prey to bad weather, which would keep crowds away. Consequently, it frequently lost money, or broke even, and never found the corporate support that it needed, said Hartrampf.
The same thing is happening to flower shows around the country, said Matheson. “Flower shows all over the U.S. have really been challenged. People are busy, and they don’t get crowds on weekends. … We’ve done studies that show people don’t have more than two days of leisure time a month. We’re all competing for that.”
A year-round operation like the Atlanta Botanical Garden is better positioned to support such a show, she said. “I wouldn’t be in the business of doing a large-scale flower show today, but for us, it’s right on mission. If we have a bad weekend, the garden as a whole still supports (that mission). It’s about celebrating plants and the arts of horticulture and floriculture.”
Atlanta Botanical Garden Flower Show
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Feb. 23-25. Entry included with garden admission: $21.95; $15.95 ages 3-12,; under 3 free; $10 members. There is also a preview party, 7 p.m. Feb. 22, at the Botanical Garden’s Longleaf Restaurant; $100. 1345 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-876-5859, atlantabg.org.
The show will host lectures by Bruno Duarte and James Farmer. 2-5:30 p.m. Feb. 24. $50. Piedmont Driving Club, 1215 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta.