Decidedly Not Wild

– Posted in: Garden Photography

pot mum at 2011 california spring trialsFor someone who loves flowers as much as I do, going to the California Spring Trials can be a surreal experience.  It is a trip into the high tech world of germplasm, growth hormones, growth inhibitors, and secret breeding techniques for incredible flowers – that are decidedly not wild.

One of the reasons I blog here at Gardening Gone Wild is to promote  wild, natural, uninhibited gardening, much like my own garden, now at the height of the weed season.  Wild is OK.  We don’t expect perfection.Sygenta Spring Trials floor display

So, facing the abundant perfection of flowers at the Spring Trials, I don’t for a minute imagine any of these beauties in my own garden.  But millions do.  These flowers end up in WalMart and Lowes.  They are sold on QVC television, where SunPatiens alone sell by the millions of 2″ pots.

Beauty is good.  Let us not be judgmental about who plants out all these annual bedding plants, or how far from wild flowers they may be.  But I do admit, it is mind numbing to contemplate that many of these are test tube creations, only available as germplasm, which may be rooted in Guatemala, grown to potting size in Ecuador, and “finished” in Southern California.

sakata breakthrough blue

I will not for a minute longer wonder what amount of resources are lavished on this industry.  Here is the pursuit of beauty. Big corporate business ?  This is not Haliburton, BP, City Bank, or Monsanto after all.  If you do want a real inside story of the flower industry, I refer you Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart.

Here, at the California Spring Trials, I am a kid in a candy store; a garden photographer hyperventilating on visual overload.  If you have ever drooled over the macro photographs of exquisite flower close ups in calendars or books like Alan Detrick‘s, and wondered why the heck you can never find perfect flowers to photograph like the ones you see in the slick magazines, it is because many of those photos are the result of garden photographers’ feeding frenzy at Spring Trials.

sygenta columbine Origami Red & White

The photos we take here are the ones that get chosen when publishers need some eye candy.  Yes, the camera always lies, and flowers don’t really look like this in real gardens, but wouldn’t you rather we feed the fantasy of what we ‘think’ we see when we admire a flower ?  Besides, photographers just can’t help ourselves when the breeders tempt us so.  We are like bees on honey.

I ran into some colleagues from the Dutch photo agency Visions at the Sygenta display and we challenged ourselves to interpret one flower, with one photograph.  A flower photographer shoot out.  We chose a marvelous Pot Mum “Pueblo”, with the only rules we could not move the plants.  Stay tuned and I will show the results here in a future posting, and let you guys chose the “winner”.

pueblo pot mum

Most of my time at the Spring Trials was not spent taking close-up flower shots however.  When you realize how many professional photographers are taking great photos, one quickly realizes there is only so big a market for these things.  So I do spend time freshening up my stock, look for new trends and plants . . . and do what my clients ask me to do.  More on that in a bit, but one of the clear winners in garden trends is edibles and small space gardening.

I am sure it is no surprise to followers of the popular Life on the Balcony blog from Fern Richardson that the garden world is picking up on balcony gardening.  Here is proof it will be mainstream before too long:

balcony living

And vertical gardening is now a recognized trend.  New books from Rodale by Derek Fell and Cool Springs Press Garden Up! authors Rebecca Sweet and Susan Morrison surely will entice gardeners to use garden pouches filed with edible greens or compact flowers.

vertical primroses

vertical greens

Most of my time was spent photographing new and experimental flowers for my clients Sakata and Oro Farms.  With so many corporate spies no doubt following Gardening Gone Wild, I can not reveal what new wonders they are working on, but I was certainly impressed with the amount of science that goes into growing perfect flowers.

After admiring the beautiful clear colors of the Sakata Gerberas, and mentioning they are my wife’s favorite cut flower, I found 8 big cardboard boxes, each with about a dozen pots like the ones seen in the photo below, by my truck when I left my last day.  Sad to say only seven boxes could fit.

sakata gerbera display

It turns out Sakata has written “the” book of Gerbera cultivation, down to germination times, rooting sizes, day length propagation studies, and temperature variables in greenhouses.  But they were particularly proud of the new Pansies.

sakata pansy display

I suppose I was expected to get excited by the big new Majestic Giants, but I just love the little ones.

rebelina pansies

Sakata calls these their Rebelina series.  And I can grow these.  They even remind me of the yellow flowered California native, Viola pedunculata – Johnny Jump Up, which were blooming in the wild hills of Monterey County outside the greenhouses.

gilroy hills with oaks

Believe me, the Violas are there, but after shooting all those flower close-ups, at the end of the day I would rather shoot big oaks and rolling hills.  I do need the wild.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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Alan @ it's not work it's gardening April 16, 2011, 7:56 am

Great post! I think I would enjoy going to one of these just for the experience, but I’m a “run away from the common bedding flowers!” gardener. Petunias are just not my thing.

I too stay away from bedding flowers in my own garden (except for a dozen or so zinnias I always find room for), but it is an amazing show to see what variety within any one flower. – Saxon

photine April 16, 2011, 7:44 pm

What a great post. Thank you for the sneak peek into your world. I am most decidedly NOT a gardener especially since I have a teeny balcony that can hold about 3 potted plants. Plants don’t usually last with me but recently I’ve been making a concerted effort to change that. I’m probably who those plants are designed for. Someone who is attracted to the bright colors and knows nothing else about the plants.

I am also trying to kick my flower photography up a notch and I would LOVE to run around that show with my camera. Seeing all those colors is almost overwhelming.

Add a pot of annuals to your balcony. Use an annual suitable to your exposure and light, and then have some flowers to shoot with your camera… – Saxon

Town Mouse April 16, 2011, 9:41 pm

I love the idea of more balcony gardening. In Europe, when I grew up, it really was NOT ok to have an empty balcony, and there was a bit of a competition about whose hanging geraniums were the most splendid. I’m waiting to see that here, how encouraging!

This is exactly why Fern’s blog is so popular, and books like Garden Up are created. Too many balconies are wasted – Saxon

B Shah April 16, 2011, 9:41 pm

Beautiful, do let us know of your visit.
I am an Organic Gardener

Thanks – stay tuned . . . . Saxon

JACK HOLLOWAY April 17, 2011, 4:22 am

I live near the area where gerberas (Gerbera jamesonii) grow wild. I remember the species in my parents’ garden back in the late 50s, and recently I chanced upon a deserted homestead in the mountains, and all that remained of the garden was thousands upon thousands of gerberas in full flower. If ever there was a plant where the wild flower and the modern lab hybrids differ, it is this one! All those thousands of red flowers made an impression that could still be called subtle and natural. And guess what – despite having 15 acres, I’m keen to explore vertical gardening!

Would LOVE to have seen that deserted homestead in the mountains ! Did you take photos ? – Saxon

rob cardillo April 17, 2011, 5:47 am

Thanks for the valuable insights, Saxon, into this wonderfully weird world. I most enjoyed your final frame of the rolling hills and oaks. After all that concentrated chroma, I can feel my eyes relax!

Thanks for dropping by Rob, and yes the hills were a true tonic after the overload of flowers – Saxon

Rebecca Sweet April 17, 2011, 10:38 am

I’ve never been to the trials, but loved walking through with you Saxon, if only through this post! I think you and I are similar in that I much prefer rolling hills and meadows to photograph, but it’s wonderful to see this other world of gardening and photography, isn’t it! And thanks for the link-love, too!!

The trials are an amazing event. For another tour, In 2008 I posted a series of postings here, especially concentrating on the marketing aspects, even the soft porn allusions – Saxon

Susan Morrison April 17, 2011, 10:57 am

A book mention is always appreciated, but the part about the spring trials is particularly interesting. I never even heard of them until this past year, so I appreciate you spreading some light on the process. I’m still a little confused though. Are the attendees primarily nurseries looking to scope out new stock and garden writers looking for content?

The Trials are a nursery / breeder / grower event to highlight new introductions. Target audience are growers and distributors – and those that market them. Buyers from the big chains like Lowe’s and Walmart seek new introductions and exclusives. For a lot more insight follow my series of 3 posts linked to my response to Rebecca. – Saxon

Fern @ Life on the Balcony April 17, 2011, 10:39 pm

Yay for garden companies who recognize that there are a lot of us out there that “only” have a balcony. Unfortunately, I think the economy has had it’s role in increasing the number of gardeners who garden on balconies and patios. I get a lot of emails from people who are experienced gardeners who used to have a yard, but have had to downsize to an apartment or condo. Anyway, regardless of the reason why we are gardening in small spaces, I think it’s awesome that people are making the most out of their outdoor spaces.

Fern – Thanks for stopping by. Too often photos in garden publications seem to presume large gardens. Thanks for the work you are doing to help folks use whatever they have. – Saxon

Thomas April 18, 2011, 8:28 am


I really appreciate this post. I think you highlight the tension very well between the excesses of a mega-industry dedicated to engineering non-stop blooms, and the allure of those plants for gardeners. This tension causes me quite a bit of angst myself. I support wild gardening, straight species, and open-pollinated plants, but the designer in me is always tempted by newly engineered cultivars promising a new shade of color or another month of blooms.

I appreciate the thoughtfulness you give to the impact of your photography. More than anyone else, your lens decides what is beautiful. As the photos you take move into magazines and books, it informs public taste. The more photos that show how wild, native, and ecological gardens and landscapes can be beautiful, the more it will create a demand in the marketplace for those spaces.

Thanks for this thoughtful post,

Thomas Rainer

Thank YOU four your thoughtful comment. I try not to think too much of the overall implication of flowers as a mega-industy – to much angst in the pursuit of beauty makes for much dizziness. – Saxon

Tess The Bold Life April 18, 2011, 9:29 pm

I would have loved this show. Grew up on a farm were we planted acres of flowers to sell. I love gerbera daisies and Martha Stewart taught me to put johnny jump ups in my ice cubes for ice tea. I don’t care where they come from or if they are wild. Just color my world pretty with any and all.

Truly, it is hard to complain about how flowers come into our lives, but I do confess a little guilt about my role in perpetuating an ideal beauty that does not grow on acres of a farm but in a scientifically controlled greenhouse. But only a little guilt, as the joy overcomes …. – Saxon

Tovah April 18, 2011, 9:59 pm

I just wanted to echo Thomas’s comment — after all, wasn’t it a photo essay that jumpstarted the High Line renovation in NYC? The camera doesn’t lie — it focuses. True, it can sidestep blemishes, but it can reveal beauty that we all just walked blindly by.

Thanks for the positive perspective on what a camera can reveals, Tovah. Like well chosen words they can provoke ways of seeing we might not otherwise consider. – Saxon

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