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The Flower Show

PHS Gardening Contest: Growing Together Amid "Peas and Quiet"

October 05, 2020

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By Marion McParland

During a summer like no other, the desire to get outside and garden grew exponentially. Demand for gardening supplies, seeds, and how-to advice skyrocketed, and this year’s PHS Garden Contest, judged virtually, drew more than 500 gardeners from New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

In total, PHS awarded Blue Ribbons to 122 gardens, with an additional 160 receiving Gardens of Distinction. “The Contest spoke to many people this year,” says Sam Robertson, PHS Program Manager. “We received more first-time entries than ever before.”

An Indoor Oasis
Bobbi Harman, a Blue-Ribbon-winner in the newly created indoor houseplant category, and a first-time entrant in the Contest from Bedford, Pennsylvania, credits her cousin for tagging her in the Contest on Facebook. 

“When new articles came out showing how to prep your garden for the Contest and how to take the photos, it was wonderful,” she says. Advice from longtime contest judge Dorene Martin and a series of online workshops on garden photography with professional photographers Laura Ducceschi and Debbie Laverell “were my go-to, having never entered any contests before,” says Harman. “Their advice and direction were very helpful.”

What started with free propagules she carried home in a plastic bag has escalated into an obsession. (See her indoor garden pictured above.)  “I can’t talk about favorites, they can hear me,” she says. “They’re sitting right here. They’re all special.” 

She says social distancing has been made less painful by being able to post plant pictures on Instagram and join some plant groups online (such as PHS’s Home Gardening Facebook group) to share cuttings and plant starters by mail. Harman also leaves little starters that she was able to propagate on the doorsteps of her friends to spread a little cheer. 

Hummingbird close_up
Photo: Lisa and Ken Arni, Fenwick Island, Delaware

Pollinator Paradise
Lisa Arni and her husband Ken from Fenwick Island, Delaware, received information in the mail about this year’s Garden Contest. “I was intrigued to see what others thought of my garden,” says Arni, who entered for the first time. Her garden, “Old World Style Pollinator Garden,” won a blue ribbon in the Outdoor Home Garden category.

Arni and her husband have been planting, weeding, and creating gardens on their waterfront property since 2000. “The property was covered with phragmites, a large perennial reed grass, from the road to the bay,” she says. Over the years, they have learned how to garden with salt spray, high winds, and Nor’easters constantly challenging them. 

“We have many butterfly and hummingbird-friendly plants, such as butterfly weed, milkweed, marigolds, zinnias, daisies, catmint, salvia, Pentas, Joe Pye weed, native passion flower, lilies, cardinal flowers, roses and cuphea.” Ruby-throated hummingbirds return each summer. “This summer we planted Cuphea ‘Vermillionaire,’ not a native plant, but surprisingly a big favorite of the hummingbirds,” says Arni. 

Gibbsboro Community Garden
Photo: Gibbsboro Community Garden, Gibbsboro, NJ

A Community Effort
Christina Ritz and Donna Weston, co-founders of the Gibbsboro Community Garden in Gibbsboro, New Jersey, entered the contest for a second year, and won their second blue ribbon in the Public Space Garden category. 

Ritz emphasizes that every project they begin in the garden prioritizes their tiny borough of 2300 residents first. “Our goal is always how can we benefit our community and get them involved.”  The garden benefits from volunteers who want to fundraise, a retired engineer who helps work on the bricks and borders, and couple people who want to fill the bird feeders. “Everyone wants to be part of the garden.”

Set on the top of Blueberry Hill Conservation Area on just under one-third of an acre, the space is divided into five gardens: thirty-eight community vegetable raised beds, a whimsical walk through a perennial bed, a pollinator pathway, a large rain garden with a bridge and bio-swale (created out of necessity), and an herb and meditation garden. 

The entire garden supports pollinators and other beneficial wildlife, including a vast variety of native and friendly, non-native plants. Ritz and Watson are proud that the garden has become a certified Wildlife Habitat and Certified Monarch Butterfly Habitat from the North American Butterfly Association

Self-Sufficient in the City
Jessica Powers of Reading, Pennsylvania decided to take matters into her own hands this past spring. “When I saw China was building a 1,000-bed hospital, the writing was on the wall,” says Powers, who went into a self-described red alert in response to the pandemic. “I was worried and thought I should grow some produce from seed, just in case,” says Powers. When she happened upon the PHS website and found the PHS Garden Contest, she decided to enter and give it a try. A first-time participant, Powers earned a blue ribbon for her outstanding work, which fed herself, as well as her husband, mother, and grandmother fresh produce this summer.

“I will absolutely garden and enter the contest every year,” she says. “It’s healthier, fresher, and it costs less.”  She attributes her interest in gardening to her grandparents. “I looked up to them, and I enjoyed it.” Her gardening enthusiasm spread to her family and friends as she inspired her uncle into growing a garden and her friend into keeping a pepper plant on her fire escape.  “I love to inspire others,” she says. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money, it’s actually cost-saving.” 

A Silver Lining
Nicole Juday Rhoads, Director of Engagement at PHS, summarized this year’s increase in participation as “one of the really special outcomes. Pivoting to an online contest allowed so many more people to foster camaraderie with other gardeners.”

View the full list of 2020 Gardening Contest winners.

Photo at top: Bobbi Harman, Bedford, PA


Become a PHS Member today!

Become a PHS member today to garden for the greater good year-round. 

When you join PHS, you help support programs that increase the health and well-being of our region through horticulture and gardening. Your tax-deductible gift of $50 or more entitles you to a number of year-round benefits and, for a limited time, you’ll receive a special Gardening Handbook, filled with ideas for making your next planting season your best!