Nico Wissing is understandably nervous. His perhaps most famous design, the Ecodome – a 36-foot-tall mobile monument to Dutch advances in sustainability – is nearing the end of its most arduous journey ever, having been shipped in three containers from Rotterdam to New York, then trucked to Philadelphia. To complicate matters, the dome's exterior is covered with moss panels, which, he said, had to be heat-treated for import.
Moss, notes Wissing, is among the world’s most resilient plants.
“Now, we can see how fast it will recover,” he said. He paused, then added, “I think the moss will come back.”
These are the logistical challenges of putting on a Philadelphia Flower Show that is not merely a tribute to the Netherlands, but a true transatlantic collaboration that brings in leading Dutch landscape designers, as well as Dutch plants, technologies, and innovations.
As a result, "Holland: Flowering the World," which runs Saturday to March 19 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, aims to present a nuanced take on a familiar trope.
Yes, there will be the fields of tulips stretching in rows of pink, gold, and red; after all, the Dutch export 77 percent of the world’s flower bulbs, the majority of which are tulips. But the underlying theme here is green – as in environmentally sound, and as in the color of the grasses, mosses, and shrubs that are staples in the Dutch Wave, or New Perennial movement, an approach to landscape design that emphasizes drought-resistant and native perennials and the use of natural materials.
“It’s making more of a sustainable and conscious design, versus just putting in a beautiful landscape,” said Sam Lemheney, chief of shows and events for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which runs the annual event that is its biggest fund-raiser.
Still, Lemheney designed PHS’s own grand entryway as a fantasia of the traditional Dutch imagery your average Flower Show-goer might be craving. Overhead, there will be a 60-foot floating flower field of (mostly dried) tulips, daisies, and hydrangeas, in a color gradient that meanders from yellow to lavender. Below, there will be a waterway, navigated by bridges and flanked by the requisite windmills, animated with an LED light show. The PHS garden also includes an impressive 30,000 fresh tulips, which will be swapped out halfway through the show with 30,000 replacements.
As for the Dutch designers’ contributions, they address contemporary trends, most directly with the Ecodome, which will be filled with Dutch-grown plants and technologies representing sustainable innovation.
And somewhere in between is Carrie Preston, who grew up in New Jersey going to the Flower Show with her mother each spring, and participated in the show as a student at Delaware Valley College, before taking an internship with a Dutch landscape architecture firm and eventually opening her own firm there, called Studio TOOP.
When she was invited to participate in this year’s show, she said, “it was like coming full circle.”
PHS paired each Dutch designer with a local landscaper. In Preston’s case, it was Wyndmoor’s Burke Brothers.
So, months ago, she flew from the Netherlands to Philadelphia with a suitcase full of bricks typically used as pavers in Dutch designs, hoping to get her vision just right. It is a landscape inspired by Dutch aristocratic homes that, in early spring, are surrounded by fields of plants, the Dutch call stinze: bulbs that self-propagate over years or decades to create self-sustaining plant communities.
“It’s like millions and millions of snowdrops or crocuses or anemones early in the year, and they’re naturalizing,” Preston said. “So it looks wild but it's cultivated over centuries.”
(It’s an approach she said Americans could use to turn their lawns into carpets of blooms in the early spring, then mow back for grass through the rest of the summer.)
Preston said her work reflects a union of Dutch and American sensibilities. And she added an all-American touch: chain-link fencing, though the Dutch-made version she selected is woven to look like lace.
“The Dutch are more logical, clean lined, and orderly in their approach,” she said. “Americans have a much more romantic idea of nature and gardens, so there’s a wildness and nonchalance in my designs that a lot of my Dutch colleagues don’t have.”
For contrast, visit the exhibition by Bart Hoes, a Dutch designer who created a vision of an urban roof garden, showcasing sustainable technologies
“We see the technical side of inventing new products is on a high level in Holland,” he said. “I wanted to translate those new ideas to domestic gardens.”
Those products include composite wood decking and a pathway of olivine stone that binds carbon dioxide, cleaning the air. He added a mix of flowering perennials, vegetables, and kitchen herbs to show how gardens in small spaces can be nourishing in every sense.
Or, look to the exhibit by Wissing, the Ecodome designer, whose contribution to the Flower Show is a rain garden framed by a structure of woven willow branches. Wissing aims to convey how anyone can return to nature, even in the middle of the city.
“If you capture the rain from the pipes and gutters into your plot and you break the asphalt and let plants grow, you can make your own wilderness, your own piece of nature,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dutch engineers will support a team of union workers to assemble the Ecodome at the Convention Center.
“It was really a huge logistical challenge for the Netherlands, but also for the Philadelphia Flower Show,” said Ton Akkerman, agricultural counselor for the Royal Netherlands Embassy in the United States.
The dome will include a cutting-edge air purifier, as well as effective natural air purifiers in the form of lots of hanging ferns and that blanket of moss on the dome’s exterior.
It will also include a beehive (“I’ll protect you!” Akkerman assured a reporter), a micro-vegetables growing system, chairs made of driftwood (yes, more places for attendees to sit, to answer a perennial complaint at the show), and a wooden bicycle.
Not quite so green: More than 12,000 tulips are being shipped by air from the Netherlands for this exhibition.
Lemheney said PHS does what it can to manage waste, though of course the world's largest and oldest indoor flower show has made its name on flowers forced in greenhouses to bloom out of season. They will recycle and compost what they can, and buy Green Mountain Energy carbon credits to offset the rest.
As for Akkerman, he said even the environmentalist-minded Dutch have their limits: “It’s the Flower Show. We like to show the world our famous tulips."