Gardeners in the area and beyond are busy working in greenhouses, situating plants on sunny windowsills, and adjusting grow lights in basements to get ready for the Philadelphia Flower Show (PFS), which is being held this year from Saturday to Sunday, March 3 to 11, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

These hundreds of plant enthusiasts, amateurs and professionals, have been toiling for months to prepare entries in an area of the show known as the PHS Hamilton Horticourt. This is the scene of the super bowl of plant competition, a place where close to a thousand plants — all carefully potted and gorgeously groomed — are on display and strictly judged.

The floral entries that meet the highest standards are awarded prizes, in the form of colored ribbons (blue is the premier color) or, even higher, ribbon rosettes. The top winners are exquisite specimens, plants rarely seen in any other venue. The intangible reward for the growers is the satisfying accomplishment of seeing a ribbon placed on a plant that has been deemed superior to those presented by seasoned gardeners in a very tough, exacting competition.

There is, however, one local group of competitors that can neither see their months-long endeavors at the Flower Show nor bask in the glory of watching award ribbons attached to their plants. These are the inmates at the Jones Farm, and their entries have been yearly Horticourt winners since 2009.

Located in Ewing Township, Jones Farm is a minimum-security prison operated by the New Jersey Department of Corrections. As its name indicates, it is indeed a farm — one that also features a greenhouse that allows the existence of a horticultural program.

This program is limited at any one time to 14 carefully selected inmates. For the past 20 years, it has trained these men in landscaping, grounds maintenance, and flower, tree, and shrubbery care. It has also given participants the opportunity to earn state certification as a commercial pesticide applicator and as a Class IV forklift operator as well as to earn Occupational Safety and Health Administration industry licenses.

When Debbie Mahon joined the program at Jones Farm as teacher of horticulture in 2008, she added the flower show component to the curriculum. “I told the guys,” she recalls, “that it usually takes two or three years before newcomers win an award.” She adds, “And they proved me wrong by bringing home four ribbons from their first show in 2009.”

As the inmates cycle through the program by completing the instruction period or finishing their sentences, new ones are added from a wait list. “Most students have no previous plant knowledge,” Mahon says. “That leaves teaching a bit of a challenge.”

She prepared for her role by completing the Longwood Garden Professional Gardener Program, studying at Kew Gardens in England and Durban Botanic Gardens in South Africa, and being certified as a teacher of agriculture by the New Jersey Department of Education. And she has always loved plants and has been an avid gardener. Growing up in Philadelphia with a convention planner mother and U.S. Treasury employee father she says she was 10 when her mother took her to her first flower show and has gone every year since — except when she was abroad.

Because she was familiar with the PHS, Mahon knew that Jones Farm could not enter on its own as the inmates are not allowed out of the state. To solve that problem she asked her hometown garden club in Hulmeville, Pennsylvania, to act as a sponsor for the Jones Farm entries. The members readily acquiesced in the assignment and have been contributing time and effort every year.

Mahon requires PHS participants to have completed at least six months in her program before the opening of the show (thus, early September for those grooming plants in this year’s show). This requirement ensures that the students have a sustained acquaintance with the plants. As Mahon explains, “The students use their learned knowledge to decide if a plant has the muster to be entered.” Students choosing from among those in the greenhouse know that their selections will be judged against all other entrants in the category on the following qualities: cultural perfection, distinctiveness, bloom (where applicable), maturity, difficulty, and rarity.

September is also the month that the challenge plants are named by the PHS. This category levels the playing field in that all competitors are submitting the same plant. “When the challenge plants are named,” Mahon explains, “I purchase the plants and allow the students to apply their knowledge with the care of these entries.”

The acquisition of knowledge, as is well known, is not always a smooth path. This year one Jones Farm student learned that overwatering can kill a hosta division. Jones Farm will not be entering that challenge category. To date, two other challenge plants are looking good: a dwarf umbrella plant known as Baby Tut and a succulent named Blue Chalksticks (because that is what it looks like).

Over time different entrants are known for specific categories. In the Jones Farm case it is its begonias. Last year its begonia entries won four rosettes. These awards, as Kevin Feeley of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society explains, “are very significant.”

The Jones Farm team feels that two of its begonia entries this year are bound to win at least one prize. The first is Kit Kat, which is sought for its colorful foliage and, when groomed meticulously, its pure mounded habit. This year the plant is decorated with white flowers, a rare occurrence for any breeder to attain. And then there is the Marmaduke entry. This is such a huge plant that one has to think twice to believe it is a begonia. It is not rare, however, and there will be a lot of competition in this category.

As all Horticourt participants know, plants must be healthy and are carefully scrutinized before they can be placed in the Convention Center. “When there is such a mix of plant material grown in one greenhouse, there are bound to be problems,” Mahon says. “The students are taught to ID plants with their potential problems and know how to look out for very early signs of any distress. The common problems are scale and mealy bug on the older plants and whitefly on the younger plants.” Debugging older plants throughout the year is a mind-numbing process (mention the word mealy bug and you can hear the groans from the inmates). “It all results in a hands-on practical knowledge,” she says, “one that shows through on the success of a healthy entry.”

Every Horticourt participant knows that packing is a major part of success in literally entering the show. The Jones Farm students have developed winning packing methods with cardboard, which not only supports plants moving in transport but also insulates against cold weather. “I typically arrive at work at 5 in the morning on a judging day,” Mahon says, “and the students eagerly gather around to see their entries leave safely.”

Mahon uses her own SUV to haul the plants. There will be a tight squeeze this year since seven large plants and nine smaller ones need to be crammed in. Knowing the organized chaos that occurs as plants are unloaded to the show floor, Mahon had her students design a removable hook system to help transport a truly huge Staghorn fern (hours upon hours cleaning off mealy bugs on that one). In practice runs the hook has proven to be a time saver as well as a plant protector.

Once in the Convention Center plants go through a tedious process known as recording and passing. “My students are not able to attend,” Mahon says, “so this is a feat in of itself. Without the help of my family and the Hulmeville Garden Club I could never enter so many plants. Sometimes this is more stressful than the growing of the plants.”

There are three days of judging throughout the nine-day show. Entrants must pick up their plants and any accompanying awards at the end of each judging period. Plants can be reentered in the next judging period but must go through the same entry procedure.

Successful prior contestants and entrants this year from our area include the Princeton Garden Club, known for its tulip entries, and Mercer County Community College, a winner in the orchid section. The Trenton Garden Club and the Rutgers Alumni Growers and Exhibitors are also past winners and will be participating again. All have taken home awards that are proudly displayed.

And the Jones Farm ribbons and rewards? Mahon collects them and brings them back to the farm, where she congratulates each student for his performance. The colorful ribbons and rosettes are displayed in a special case she has set up in a lecture area. The case is getting so packed that she is soon going to have to come up with a bigger one.

Starting on March 3 and continuing for eight days, you can see the varied, beautiful entries throughout the Hamilton Horticourt. It is well worth a visit and exciting when you see a ribbon awarded to someone in your community. And now, perhaps, you can appreciate all the effort that has gone into exhibiting the gorgeous bulbs, flowers, and shrubs at the Horticourt.

Philadelphia Flower Show, Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch Street, Philadelphia. Saturday through Sunday, March 3 to 11.

The Philadelphia Flower Show — and it is definitely a show — offers many other attractions, including artistic displays, botanical prints, stunning gardens, and demonstrations and lectures on the show’s theme of Wonders of Water. You can see and enjoy all of these walking through the fragrance of flowers and an abundance of color and foliage combinations that fill the 10 acres of the show. At this chilly, gray time of year, it is definitely a treat to wander through these attractions — but do wear comfortable walking shoes.

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