Philly Flower Show
American genius in full flower
By Jacqueline L. Urgo
Inquirer Staff Writer
The everyman spirit of Benjamin Franklin - poet, philosopher, printer, author, diplomat, scientist and gardener - can easily inspire those passing through his "secret garden" at the Philadelphia Flower Show this week.
But the exhibit "Ben Franklin's Secret Garden: Sowing the Seeds of the American Paradise," which yesterday won a Philadelphia Horticultural Society Award of Merit, has actually become more of an influence on the urban youths from the Camden City Garden Club and others who created it.
"Imagine how empowering it is for these kids to be at the world's largest flower show and winning an award for an exhibit they helped build that is based on a American genius who believed in the education and the power of the human spirit," said Michael Devlin, executive director of the club. It also operates the Camden Children's Garden, adjacent to the New Jersey State Aquarium.
A group of about two dozen Camden youths, including students from a carpentry class at Camden County Technical School, built a wooden structure - imagined as the conversion of an 18th-century stable - where Franklin himself might have been inspired by the view of his garden.
Inside, one of Franklin's own printing presses - on loan from the Franklin Institute - is the centerpiece of the primitive room.
Lining shelves and tables are handmade reproductions of printing tools and equipment that Franklin would have used in publishing Poor Richard's Almanack. The pieces were created by Camden City Garden staff members.
The group also built other antique-looking elements for the exhibit, including a printer's cabinet and an 18th-century garden till and wheelbarrow.
But holding true to the theme of the Flower Show - "Destination: Paradise" - is the exquisite garden, which draws visitors into the ambitious exhibit with its weeping mulberry, Northern red oaks, and hemlock, all buffeted by an overflow of pink azaleas, purple rhododendron and astilbe. Also featured are deep-green-leafed Franklinia trees - named by Franklin's contemporary, botanist John Bartram. Topiaries of a turkey and chickens created by youth members of the club add a fanciful element.
At the center of the colorful garden is a statue of Franklin, also on loan from the Franklin Institute, for which he posed in 1751.
"The jumping-off point for the exhibit is that Franklin was the unofficial host of the Constitutional Convention in 1787," Devlin said. "And there is a mural in the Capitol depicting Franklin hosting representatives from the convention under a mulberry tree in his garden."
Emily Zayas, a garden youth employee and student at Camden County Technical School, said the garden had inspired an interest in American history she never had before.
Zayas stained and antiqued shingles and helped install the workshop's roof. Her sister, Sandrea, was one of the students who created the topiaries and other plantings.
"These sisters are examples of the Camden youth who may never have had the opportunity to be a part of something like this Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit without the Camden Children's Garden project," Devlin said. The nonprofit organization provides horticultural, recreational and educational opportunities such as its community gardening project, and attracts as many as 20,000 visitors a year.
When the Flower Show is over on Sunday, the Franklin exhibit will be moved permanently to the Camden garden.
Other New Jersey winners
The Camden City Garden Club's award was one of five won by major exhibitors from New Jersey. The other major exhibit winners from New Jersey were E.P. Henry Corp., Woodbury, the Best in Show by Invitation Award; Waldor Orchids, Linwood, American Orchid Society Show Awards; Flagg's Garden Center, Moorestown, Silver Trophy; and J. Cugliotta Landscape/Nursery Inc., Southampton, Special Achievement Awards Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania.