Saturday, September 6, 2003

Winners dig deep for inspiration

Gardening champs talk about their love for toil in the soil

By Michele Day
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] John Schultz grows more than 250 varieties of cacti and succulents, as well as hostas, ferns and dahlias, in the back of his South Fairmount business.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
Amateur flower show competitors, such as those who will compete in the fourth Cincinnati Flower and Farm Fest next month at Coney Island, share a passion for perfection.

Some are horticulturists. They prune and pamper, propagate and prod to produce chrysanthemums with vibrant blooms, ornamental grasses with thriving stems, roses with precisely groomed foliage.

Others are floral designers. They must possess both the eye of the artist and the green thumb of the gardener to create exhibits that display not only healthy plant life, but imaginative shape and theme.

Where do amateur flower show champions find their inspiration, dedication and determination? We asked two top winners at the Cincinnati Flower Show in April to share some of the secrets for taking home a blue ribbon.

Cactus king

You won't find many gardens in the urban South Fairmont neighborhood John Schultz has called home for more than 25 years. But down the narrow passageway behind Schultz's plumbing business on Queen City Avenue lies some of the most well-cultivated ground in Cincinnati.

Schultz's backyard garden showcases more than 250 varieties of cacti and succulents, along with hundreds of hostas, ferns and dahlias. Burro's tails, whose long drooping tendrils resemble the name, spill from hanging baskets above a wooden deck; Schwartzkopfs, candelabra-shaped cacti with dark purple leaves, blossom in pots, and 3-inch-tall hens and chicks cover the ground like a thick carpet in a massive succulent bed.

"I call it my 'garden in the ghetto,' " Schultz says, grinning with delight at the surprised look on the face of a visitor seeing his world for the first time.

Schultz, a plumber whose past includes a reputation for partying, says those who know him are shocked to discover the slice of utopia he's created in South Fairmont.

"People come back here and flip out," he says. "They say, 'How does somebody as nasty as you have something this nice?' "

He recalls one contractor he'd worked with on a plumbing job who asked to see his garden. When the contractor's jaw dropped, Schultz told him: "This is what I do instead of drugs. This is my therapy."

The contractor shook his head, Schultz says. "He said, 'You must have done a lot of drugs.' "

Schultz gained an appreciation for plants as a child helping in his father's garden. About 20 years ago he met a cactus collector from Illinois. The friend gave him several starts of new plants and soon Schultz had his own collection.

Later, he volunteered at the Krohn Conservatory, where Mark Lawhorn, a florist, taught him to nurture and propagate cacti and succulents.

"There's a trick to getting things to grow," says Lawhorn, who's now an independent garden designer. "John learned the intricacies of getting roots of plants. That's half the battle. He also learned about the subtle watering needs of desert plants. It's more of a type of gardening using restraint than anything else."

Energy and enthusiasm

But the characteristics that make Schultz a successful garden-show competitor are energy and enthusiasm, Lawhorn says."He has a real collector's passion for the stuff. He's over the top."

Schultz began accumulating blue ribbons in the 1990s when he joined the Cincinnati Cactus Society.

He enjoyed the recognition of competition. Sometimes, he says, he'd stand near his entries and eavesdrop as people ooohed and aaahed.

But he "felt like a round peg in a square hole" in the cactus society. He dropped out, but continued to enter the annual amateur horticulture contests at the Cincinnati Flower Show. This year he took home the Evans Trophy for top horticulture entry.

About four or five months before the show, he chooses his best prospects. He then gives them lots of light, water and attention to force them into bloom by show time.

"I think I know what they want now," he says of competition judges. "They're looking for the visual. I don't think the variety of the plant has anything to do with it. It's more about originality. There's an art form in this."

Turning cacti into art comes naturally for Schultz, but some of the other competition requirements do not. He's especially frustrated by the task of labeling the plants with their botanical names.

But the history behind his winning entry makes its accomplishment even more satisfying, he says. Three or four years ago, Schultz gave a Schwartzkopf to a sick friend named Ruthie. She loved it, he says, but her health began to deteriorate and she couldn't take care of it.

By the time of Ruthie's death, the Schwartzkopf looked scraggly, Schultz says. He trimmed its dead branches, gave it appropriate amounts of light and water - and soon the plant revived.

Earlier this year, Schultz decided to pay tribute to Ruthie by taking her cactus to a Vegas-style fund-raiser at Elder High School, a function that his friend used to help organize. That night, Ruthie's cactus helped Shultz's friends win big money at the gaming tables.

Afterward, he decided to enter the plant in the flower show, where Ruthie brought him luck as well.

"It's really amazing how that worked out," he says "I know her spirit was there."

The designing gardener

[IMAGE] Ruth Kinder of Springfield Township
(Tony Jones photo)
Ruth Kinder of Springfield Township didn't plan to compete in the Cincinnati Flower Show this year. She'd just returned from the Garden Club of Ohio convention in Youngstown - where she'd earned four blue ribbons for her designs. She didn't think she could go through the process again so soon.

But four days before the competition at Coney Island, she got a phone call. The organizer of the floor-model category needed one more competitor to complete her roster. Could Kinder put something together?

How could she say no?

Entries in the floor-model category were supposed to reflect the theme of Ohio transportation. That night in bed, Kinder pondered the possibilities: airplanes, horses, automobiles ... Then she remembered the railroad lantern hanging on the fireplace in her family room. A mental vision began to form.

She'd need a toy railroad track to carry through the theme. A trip to Johnny's Toys in Greenhills produced a track - brass-colored with black rails.

A large quilting hoop - one of her favorite design materials and the reason some of her garden club friends refer to her as the "queen of hoops" - would symbolize a railroad crossing sign. Basket-weaving material wrapped around the design would form an S-curve - reminiscent of a road or highway. The lantern, hung on one side would carry through the railroad theme - and the track would run diagonally from one side of the hoop to the other, tying the piece together.

For flowers, she chose orange lilies, ferns and Queen Anne's lace, plants that one might find along a railroad track.

"You kind of try to interpret your class and hope that the judge understands what it's supposed to be," Kinder explains.

A flower show competitor for more than 20 years, Kinder has a photo album full of floral interpretations of a wide range of themes.

She's combined two orchids and her trademark hoops to illustrate a tornado. She's spray-painted an artichoke copper to resemble the moonlight. She's used gourds to convey an American-Indian theme, and paired a 6-foot rake with palmetto leaves to represent cleaning up and beautifying.

Rock and roll design

But her favorite design is the one she conceived for a Garden Club of Ohio convention in Cleveland in 1996. In deference to the city's Rock and Roll Hall of fame, entries in her category were supposed to interpret the Rolling Stones."When I think of Rolling Stones, I think of motorcycles, black and silver," Kinder says, so she spray-painted the backdrop black and silver. The design featured gourds, painted black and silver, and fresh orchids, picked from her greenhouse.

But the element that likely won her the convention's Creativity Award was her one-of-a-kind use of two skeletized balls of alium, a plant from the onion family. She spray-painted them silver, attached them to a fishing line that hung from a quilting hoop and wired them to a small motor hidden in the gourds. During the exhibit, the two alium balls turned slowly beneath the hoop - creating rolling stones.

Kinder attempted to balance her train piece for April's show by placing the heavy lantern on one side and the plant material on the opposite side. Then she used basket weaving strips to give the work a visual connection.

On show day, she was satisfied with the result, but not overly confident. She thought the piece clearly interpreted the transportation theme and the design was clean.

"Sometimes you can have too much in a design," she explains. Too much is not better. When you get carried away and have things too fussy, you don't know where your eye is going to end up. Sometimes it's just a mass of confusion. The principle of rhythm is that you want your eye to flow through the design and back again and not just dart here and there or off into space."

The flower show judges were impressed. They not only awarded Kinder a blue ribbon in the floor model category, but the Designer's Choice award for all three floral design categories that allowed use of different media.

Kinder downplays the importance of winning in flower show competitions. Still, she's proud of her accomplishments.

"In our world, it's a big deal," she says, referring to her friends in the garden clubs. "That's kind of our life. It's a good clean life.

"But there's not any money in it."

Amateur competition

Though flower beds will start to wither soon, Greater Cincinnati's amateur gardeners are still tending sunflowers, marigolds and zinnias for competition.

The Ohio Association of Garden Clubs Region 4 will present an Amateur Flower Show Oct. 3-5 as part of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society Cincinnati Flower and Farm Fest at Coney Island. Show organizers are particularly in need of competitors in the Artistic Design classes. Information on Artistic Design classes: Wilma Schatzman, 831-4569. Other information:

The Cincinnati Flower Show has announced the dates for its 2004 spring show: April 21-25, also at Coney Island.

The Ohio Association of Garden Clubs Web site,, lists other flower shows around the state. The site offers advice and tips on winning blue ribbons.

Judges balance rules, creativity

How a designer interprets a theme usually isn't the determining factor in winning a blue ribbon, says Ruth Kinder, who's among about 10 Greater Cincinnatians who've gone through the 13 years of training necessary to qualify as master judges for National Garden Club flower shows.

Competitors also must conform to a show's rules on the size and types of materials allowed in each category.

"That's what we call the law of the show," Kinder says. Judges try not to disqualify competitors who break the rules, but they subtract points from scores.

Judges also rate pieces on art criteria, such as color, form, scale, balance, texture and contrast, she says.

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