Sewell Landscaper Gears For Phila. Flower Show

Posted: March 01, 1989

When Sewell landscaper Greg Deibert drove to Somerset County three weeks ago to buy a dwarf bonsai bougainvilla variegata for $200, he was entering Phase Two of his planning for next week's Philadelphia Flower Show. Phase Two consists of full-tilt, total obsession.

Deibert says that most of his waking hours now are spent either working on or thinking about the exhibit that he will unveil to the public at the flower show's opening Sunday. Phase One for Deibert - the selection of a theme, the sorting of ideas and the preliminary planning - began last March.

"As soon as one show is over, you begin thinking about the next one," Deibert said. "The flower show really cuts you loose - and cuts you loose among your peers - to express your creative, aesthetic side. I'd be lying if I said that there isn't a business side to it: I know landscapers who book their entire year's business with people who come to the show. But you don't hear any talk about business at the show. I think everybody sees it as an opportunity to be creative, more than anything else."

Deibert, 38, the owner of Landscaping by Ledden in Sewell, is one of eight landscapers who will exhibit in the commercial display division of the Philadelphia Flower Show, which runs from Sunday through March 12 at the Philadelphia Civic Center. Next year, Deibert graduates to the major leagues: he has been selected to be among the 16 landscapers who exhibit in the ''commercial aesthetic" division that is given space on the main floor of the Civic Center.

On Thursday, Deibert was in the greenhouse at the mammoth Ledden's store on Atlantic Avenue in Sewell, tending to plants that will be featured in next week's exhibit. Deibert's associates, Don and Dale Ledden, are third- generation operators of the attached lawn-and-garden supply store, which is separate from the landscaping business and has been in their family since 1904. On Thursday, the Ledden brothers were planning the logistics for their trade booth at the flower show.

"All of the manpower and the resources in this entire place will be focused almost entirely on the show this week, next week and the week after," Deibert said.

The theme of Deibert's exhibit for the show is interior naturalistic landscaping, or as he puts it, "Bringing the Outside In." His water-garden atrium will feature coloful subtropical plants and shrubs, selected to stress the general "kaleidoscope" theme of the flower show itself. His featured shrubs are all variegatas - plants with two-toned leaves.

Deibert arranged for the milling of French doors to frame the exhibit and constructed a 10-by-13-foot mural that features a laser-photographed garden scene that lends the exhibit an illusion of depth.

Deibert says the exhibitors in the landscaping division are a fraternity, thick with mutual respect. Their interests are so specialized that their conversations are often unintelligible to outsiders. The hottest topic among the landscaping fraternity now, for instance, is the recent development of a new brand of artificial rock. The rock is just as light as other artificial rocks, but greatly advances the art of imitation, according to Deibert.

Judges for the show rate the exhibits and award prizes, but Deibert says the opinions that matter most to the landscapers are those of their peers. Deibert himself is a protege and former employee of landscaper Al Vick of Gladwyne, Pa.

"Al is a legend at the flower show," Deibert said. "Al and Bill Judd (a landscaper from Pitman) are the two landscapers who've influenced my style most heavily. I care very much what those guys think of my work."

Deibert said there was a friendly, esoteric competition among the exhibitors, and that the Philadelphia Flower Show was their World Series.

"Charlie Gale (owner of a plant nursery in Gwynedd, Pa.) really upped the ante last year by what he did with perennials, both in the number of flowers and the types," Deibert chuckled. "This is a tight-knit bunch. Everybody knows everybody else, and you try to develop something new from year to year."

Deibert said that trends in landscaping often reflected trends in society as a whole. Until several years ago, he said, the commercial exhibits were dominated by formalism: hedges that were carefully shaped and meticulously trimmed.

"Naturalism is the thing now," Deibert said. "With the advances in waterfall technology, the interest now is in bringing exterior landscaping indoors. Everything is more free-form, letting plants be plants.

This trend suits Deibert fine, because naturalism is his style.

"You can't go wrong with a theme that features natural rock gardens and water action," he said.

As the opening day of the flower show approaches and Phase Two continues, Deibert will be spending a lot of time in the greenhouse. He must keep a careful watch on light and heat to ensure that his exotic variegatas - bonsai bougainvilla, raphiolipsis and serissa - are in full bloom for the flower show.

He inspected buds on his tricolored dracaena.

"These are all new ones coming in," Deibert said. " You have to fool the plants to make 'em think it's spring."

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