The San Francisco Garden Show Achieves Permanent Wilting Point

  I have not attended the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show for two years , after a s***storm of negative reviews blew up Yelp the first two days of the  2017 event. Reports from people I know weren't much better. The show had been in decline for several years and after the horrible publicity from  2017 it was moved back the the Cow Palace-the site of it's glory days-for 2018. The speaker line up seemed pretty solid but the exhibitor list did not inspire me to attend.

 Inexplicably the show announced this February a sudden move to Cal Expo in Sacramento for the 2019 show . There is anecdotal information that the show vendors were not advised of this change of venue until January, not much more than two months before the publicized dates. Scheduling conflicts were cited by the show organizers. My personal speculation is that the very small footprint of the show would have been overwhelmed by empty space at the Cow Palace, and that there was not enough vendor participation to offset the cost. 

 Because Sacramento is a much less annoying commute than the drive to south city, I decided to go this year just to see if things were really as dire as reports indicated. Dan Hinkley would be speaking -surely that lent credibility to the show ?  I had very low expectations which as it turned out were justified. This was clearly the last gasp of a  legacy Northern California event .

 I arrived at the venue at 10:30 am, a half hour after the doors opened. Here is a shot from where I parked.

 The line to get in. Anyone who has ever attended this event either at the Cow Palace or the San Mateo Event Center on a Saturday can appreciate the bomb-at -the-box office vibe seen here. This was the moment that indicated for me that the show was on life support.

Entry to the hall.

 The map listed 7 display gardens but I only counted 6-maybe I missed one; it wouldn't have been hard. I can't tell you how it felt to see this empty space. The display gardens were always jammed with visitors 3 deep, attendees crowding around the designers . The cost and resources required to install these gardens need to be justified by exposure to a public that are likely  to have the funding to hire  a high profile designer.

  This garden was the best of the lot, and could have held it's own at any major garden show. I hope the creator of this garden was able to justify the expense of building this garden.

  This garden seemed pretty pointless. I think they were featuring the block wall.

 And the vendors ? Well good old reliable Dans Dahlias was there, the one and only plant related vendor I recognized. In fact , looking at the exhibitor list I would say there were less than 10 who were selling actual plants.

 Instead we had these county fair regulars:

The window washing dudes.

 The skin cream folks.

Beef Jerky !

 These folks were giving facials. I guess business was a little slow.

A wine opener booth--at least wine comes from a plant .

 This young lady was wowing the attendees with humidifiers. Maybe people who move to California from the east coast miss the humidity ?

 A Big Sponsor and doors. They look out to the garden. There is the connection.

 The aggressive hand lotion folks had three booths !  All strategically placed to accost the unsuspecting attendee.

 In my day , a fresh lid was an entirely different product.

 An actual garden decor booth. One of the few, such as it was.

 The line at the restroom .

 This guys booth probably got more crowded as it became apparent that having  a beer was likely going to be the most redeeming feature of this show.

 I arrived at the show about 10:30. I left at 12 noon.I bought nothing. I looked back as I walked out to see others leaving as well. So damn sad.

   It is truly heartbreaking to see the demise of this event that was an annual rite of spring , unthinkable to miss, a family outing , a Napa County Master Gardener field trip, a showcase for Norcal garden designers,a plant shopping mecca. I can't imagine how the show will survive after this year unless it changes hands. And even then, how difficult would it for a new proprietor to overcome the downward spiral of the last few years ?

 I went from the show to Green Acres Nursery -they had plants.


  1. Replies
    1. No kidding. It leaves a big hole in my spring !

  2. What, in your own opinion , has caused the demise of our great local shows such as the The LA Garden Show at th Arboretum used to be?

    1. I don't know that it's any one thing Jane, but I will say that the 1st sign I noticed that indicated things were not going well was when the plant vendors started to stay away. About the same time the display gardens reduced in number and size. From this I infer that the fees went up to cover a revenue shortfall. The recession probably didn't help matters. The show changed hands in 2013 and the decline continued.

  3. This is so very sad, and disappointing. Have you ever been to the Northwest Flower and Garden Show? Maybe next year's show would be worth a flight north. You'd love it.

    1. Alison, I have wanted to go to the NW show for years. It has always conflicted with a business trip that I make every year at that time, but I'm really thinking of begging off that trip next year so I can go.

  4. I'm majorly depressed after reading your post. I'm glad you took one for the team to report on what surely must have been the last gasp of this once-great event. So sad.

    Glad to hear you went to Green Acres. I hope they managed to lift your spirit a bit.

    1. I loved Green Acres ! I went to the Sac location , but want to go to one of the others at some point this spring.

  5. these legacy garden shows are slamming up against ruthless demographic trends -- boomer homeowners downsizing, wanting less garden, while millennials are unable to afford houses with gardens. Areas where the garden culture is strong (UK, PNW) can ride it out longer. We'll always have the Cow Palace memories!

    1. For a couple years the SF show made a real effort to capitalize on the popularity of food growing-that tapered off , though it's popularity has not. And it never recognized the ascent of houseplants. I spoke to a nursery owner that used to have a booth in the plant market a couple years ago and she told me that the new owners were horticulturally ignorant and would not take suggestions from their plant vendors. As I told Alison above, I think I will try to do Seattle next year.

  6. How sad and depressing. I remember when The SF show was in direct standing with the NWFGS, and they both were the premiere events on the west coast. Do you think this demise is because of poor management, or just general lack of interest? The latter is hard to believe, given what we see up north...

    1. Jane, I believe at one time they were owned by the same company. Judging by the crowds that used to attend the show I don't think there was a lack of interest-maybe attendees weren't spending as much money ? I still think ultimately it was the inability of the show to generate enough revenue to keep it at the high level of the past. We definitely do not have the rich garden culture that exists in the PNW, though in it's glory days this show was attended by casual and even non-gardeners as well.

  7. How incredibly sad. The turn-out appears far worse than my "local" Spring Garden Show, which is held at South Coast Plaza, a shopping mall. After a debacle in which the mall vendors took over and booted most of the garden vendors years ago, the Plaza has been able to bring back a large number of vendors with both plants and garden-related goods. (I can't remember ever seeing hand cream sales people!) The display gardens usually aren't anything to write home about, especially given the mall's space limitations, but most are at least a shade better than the block-wall garden you photographed, if usually not up to the standard of the first garden you featured. I'm aiming to get to the Northwest Flower & Garden Show/Festival next year.

    1. Kris, I am wanting to go to the NW show as well ! I think those hand cream people are exclusively found at fairs and home shows. The retailers at South Coast Plaza probably would not have appreciated the invasion of the county fair folks. This show cost 18$ to get into and 10$ to park. I guess since I bought nothing I got off cheaper than I used to back in the good old days.

    2. Wow, that makes our sad little SCP garden furniture show look good.

      And you had to pay $28 to see a beef jerky booth? OMG.

      There was an article in the LA Times about how the future of California was apartment blocks. Miles and miles and miles of apartment blocks. Who will garden then?

      Did you get to hear Dan Hinkley?

    3. Dan was at two pm and I had seen all there was to see by noon. I've seen his talks multiple times and they are so good, but spending another two hours there was just not desirable. I'll have other options to see him if I travel north.

  8. I'm late to this conversation but the title caught my attention because I remember wanting to attend but saw the location and thought what the h$!!. My only experience with the cow palace version was back in the early 2000's when at the time I lived just down the road in Brisbane. it was pretty awe inspiring.

    I can't help but think there is a bigger story here as Hoover Boo and Denise above mentioned. Even our local garden club seems to have passed it's hey-day years ago. Currently it has a dwindling and aging membership. Cost of housing certainly has an impact - the young can't afford it, let alone a backyard garden, the middle aged are too busy working to pay the mortgage and just hire mow and blow guys, and the older folks with actual plant knowledge are cutting back because of health issues. Truly I think this topic deserves an in depth article.

    1. I think the first time I attended was in 1999. It was not unusual for me to attend 2 days -I barely made 2 hours this time. I'm sure that your observation on housing has an impact , thus the renewed interest in house plants .They have published the dates for the 2020 and have renamed it the 'San Fran-Norcal Flower and Garden Show' San Fran ??? Better than Frisco I guess !


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