It takes a  full year of planning and a flair for the dramatic to create a Summer Flower Show that’s always ready for its close-up

Planning the Summer Flower Show at Marjorie McNeely Conservatory is a little like designing the set for a beloved Broadway revival. As the audience descends into the Sunken Garden’s  theater-in-the-round of bright colors and fragrance, Como horticulturist Ariel Dressler wants visitors to feel at home in Minnesota’s most beautiful room–and to be pleasantly surprised by the ways that unfamiliar plants and fresh pairings can bring new life to old standards. 

“Of course, the real challenge is making sure the whole thing looks absolutely amazing no matter what day or time you visit,” says Dressler, who came to Como from the U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington, D.C. and recently celebrated her first full year of designing Como’s five seasonal flower shows. The Como Friends Insider recently asked Dressler to share her tips for designing a showstopping garden that always hits its mark. 

1).  Concentrate on the main characters

“For me, designing a flower show really starts with finding the right stars to feature,” says Dressler, who began brainstorming ideas for this season’s Summer Flower Show a year ago. The longest-running display of the year, the Summer Flower Show can also be the most challenging, with large crowds, high temperatures, and frequent flower swaps to ensure every plant is at its peak. To stand up to the demand, Dressler chose two very dramatic plants to build her design around, the phlox-pink Chicago Peace Rose and the cantaloupe-colored lily “Salterello.” “They are our two star players and you’ll see them in groupings all around the room.” 

2). Cast the supporting players 

“Once I know who the main characters are going to be in the flower show, then I start making a list of companion plants that will complement those star features with interesting foliage or flowers that will let us vary the features and forms,” says Dressler, who added heliotrope and lemon verbena for fragrance, and foxglove and delphinium to add more interesting shapes to the display. “If we have a lot of spikes, like the Foxgloves,  I’ll make sure we have some different plants that are vase-shaped like the Begonias, or arching over the pathways to create softness like the Cuphea that brings a little fairy dust of pink mist along the edges of the pathway.” 

3). Reset the stage

With its dramatic water features,  multi-tiered flower beds, and carefully tended corners, every inch of Como’s historic Sunken Garden depends on dozens of community volunteers who come in every morning to pull fading blooms and replace spent plants.  Como’s horticulturists rely on this schematic of the oval-shaped room to sketch designs and plot out the number of plants they’ll have to grow and replace between the Summer Flower Show’s April to September run. Though one side of the display often mirrors the opposite side, Dressler likes to work in something unexpected, like this succulent garden now on the south side of the garden. “It’s a nice surprise for visitors, and it’s inspiring, too. Dry gardening is coming into style, so it’s a fun way to highlight what’s possible to grow with a minimal amount of water and gardening know how.”  

4).  Prepare your understudies 

Behind the scenes, hundreds of flowers and plants are being prepared for their moment in the Sunken Garden’s spotlight. To encourage more blooms to burst at once, Como’s horticulture staff pinch the buds on the tea roses just before they make their entrance into the show. To keep up with the growth cycle of lilies, more than 100 plants are pulled and replaced every 10 days. “It’s a very intense process,” Dressler says. “But that’s what makes it look so magical.”

5). Give yourself a hand 

With the largest audience of the season, the Sunken Garden’s Summer Flower Show always gets applause from visitors. Como Friends supporters also deserve a hand for helping to keep the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s long tradition of rotating flower shows growing strong. Private contributions help to pay for everything from plant material to the professional staff that keeps the Sunken Garden glowing. Thank you! 

Be a Friend to Como’s Marjorie McNeely Conservatory: Community support keeps the Conservatory’s gardens and horticultural collections growing.

Sponsoring a garden is a unique way to keep the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory growing strong. Your donations help to plant thriving gardens, grow new programs, and preserve the Conservatory’s historic character for generations to come.

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