The 2019 Philadelphia Flower Show is rapidly approaching, and as I did my research for this week’s column, I noticed the words “exciting,” “vibrant,” “colorful” and “fun” - all of which would be apt for this year’s theme, “Flower Power.” But in this case, the words weren’t describing the flowers on display, but rather the personality of this week’s Portrait, Michael Bowell. A gardener by vocation and avocation, Bowell has become a staple in the horticultural community — known for his infectious spirit, generosity and expertise in the plant world.
Bowell’s awards for horticulture and artistic design are numerous. Just a few examples include several American Orchid Society Show trophies, three “Best in Shows” at the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Flower Show (including a “People’s Choice Award” for Best Exhibit), the “Silver Seal Award” by the Garden Club Federation of Pennsylvania and the 2010 “PHS Award of Merit” for service to the gardening public as a volunteer, educator and promoter of horticulture in the Delaware Valley.
PGN: Michael, you are known for your use of tropical plants, and bold color and form. Do you come from some exotic place?
MB: Ha. Yes, the exotic Gloucester City in Camden County. It’s actually a small conservative town located on the other side of the Delaware River. At age 62 and looking back, it wasn’t a bad place to grow up. A lot of my neighbors were my first mentors — the ones who taught me about plants and gardening.
PGN: Who were some of them?
MB: There was Mrs. Colletti, who grew 8-foot-tall tomato plants from seeds she saved year to year. She taught me that not all seeds come out of a store-bought pack; Mrs. Percival from next door, who had a beautiful garden that included marigolds, hollyhock, roses and what she called “zee-nias.” They were one of the first plants I ever grew, and I still love them.
PGN: How old were you?
MB: About 9. The most influential was my neighbor from the end of the block, Pat Fitzgerald. She had an incredible garden and she really took me under her wing. She taught me about cultivating, and the importance of learning the Latin names for everything. She’d take me on trips to local nurseries to buy plants, and once a year we’d make a pilgrimage to the Philadelphia Flower Show. After I went to Rutgers and got a B.S. in plant science, the student became the teacher, and I’d share things with her. After that, I went to North Carolina for graduate studies but didn’t finish. We remained friends all these years and we even spoke about the possibility of her moving into our place when she retired. Sadly, she died of cancer before we had a chance. I’m still mad at her for leaving.
PGN: That’s so sweet, though, that she was in your life for so long.
MB: Yes, I’ve been lucky to have many good mentors. I have a neighbor where I live now, Joanna, who taught me how to plant for large plots of land. We have five acres out in Chester County.
PGN: Tell me a little about your company, Create A Scene?
MB: It’s a horticultural company that I started in 1986. We had a different name then, but “create a scene” is exactly what we do, and when I found that the name was available, we were ecstatic. Over the years, we’ve done many things, but mainly we are a full-service plant and floral design company. We plan, create and maintain indoor and outdoor gardens, as well as seasonal decorating and party work. Along the way, we’ve also done a lot of flower show exhibits, trade show exhibits and events. But I love creating gardens the most. Planting gives me a feeling, I wouldn’t say of control, but that I had a part in it. Where an exhibit goes away after a week or so, a garden can last for decades, sometimes generations.
PGN: What is the AOS?
MB: The American Orchid Society. I’ve been a member since 1981, and I’m currently a judge with them. I became a student in 1996 and it takes six years to get through it.
PGN: What got you so involved with orchids?
MB: Orchids thrive well under lights. I have a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It’s where short days of little sunlight affect you. Before I even realized why, I knew that working under the plant lights gave me great pleasure. I had several light rooms and I would stay in them for hours at a time. Looking back, I realize that in addition to enjoying working with the plants and flowers, I was also getting the light stimulation I needed, working with the orchids. The other thing is, there’s such diversity within the orchid family — it’s incredibly varied and that’s something that kind of sucks you in. The plants themselves have a lure to them; they’re very detailed, so there are lots of places for your eyes to go. And there’s something kind of sexy about them.
PGN: [Laughing] Uh yeah, because a lot of them look like genitalia!
MB: That’s true. I’ve seen close-up pictures of some of them that definitely look like little naked men, and some lady parts. There’s a femininity and a masculinity to a lot of the plants.
PGN: I laughed when I read a description of your visit to The Gardeners’ Club. The person wrote about your “colorful” commentary and the fact that you came dressed in “a bittersweet orange outfit that echoed plant colors of the ilex and the flower pots!” Another of your lectures was titled “Cultivating Orchids, A Socially Acceptable Addiction.” I’m guessing you like to keep things light.
MB: Oh, I keep things as funny as I can make them. I try to incorporate humor when I can, and people love it. I don’t think I’m flamboyant particularly, but I can be! I certainly don’t back away from being as gay as I want. One of the nice things about being my age is that I don’t feel the need to filter anything about myself, whether I’m with the ladies of the garden club or in the city. Forty years ago, I might have tried to hide who I was with certain crowds, but I certainly wouldn’t do that today. Besides, they already know!
PGN: I know your business partner is also your life partner…
MB: Yes, his name is Simple.
MB: Yup, just the one name, like Cher or Madonna. And he… well, he’s crazy. Incredibly creative — he does craft things that are amazing. He does these podcasts that are really funny, but with some good tips, too. I think you can find them under, “Simple, the Roving Garden Artist.” If you check his Christmas video, it’s great. It’ll give ideas for all sorts of things. You can see our greenhouse in the video. It’s twice as big as our house!
PGN: I understand people are welcome to picnic at Create-a-Scene and feed the critters you have there.
MB: That’s correct. It’s a cool place. We’ve been featured in several publications like “Family Circle,” “Green Scene” and the book “Eden on Their Minds.” We have ducks, chickens, peafowl and funny native turkeys who free range the gardens. They love to eat canned sweet corn, cheese, scraps of bread and Japanese beetles. The quail’s favorite is stink bugs. There are two water dragons named Dino and Norma, frogs, and a gecko named Mr. Henkel, who are all quite fond of crickets. Then, we have the more conventional species of animals, nine cats and three dogs. The dogs are quite friendly when we are expecting company, but they may react like guard dogs when folks “drop in” unexpectedly on days when we are not open.
PGN: I’ll keep that in mind.
MB: You know, it’s interesting how my involvement with the Flower Show has evolved over the years, first going with my neighbors back in the ’60s. That’s where I bought my first orchid. Then, when I was in school at Rutgers, I went on field trips with a bunch of horticultural students and that was the fun, being there with a bunch of plant nerds. In grad school, I remember being in Durham, North Carolina, and they’d had some crazy amount of snow. Small by our standards, but I was over it. I had to get out of there and get to the Flower Show. I started participating in 1986. I submitted as an amateur grower and later I participated with several organizations like the American Orchid Society.
PGN: What are your favorite exhibits?
MB: I always like the ones that look natural. Because I grew up liking to explore nature, whether it was exploring the swamps growing up in southern N.J., or the plant life in the Amazon River basin or some coastal town in Indonesia, I love finding things in their natural state.
PGN: I know you’ve traveled extensively in your quest to find plants. What’s a favorite find?
MB: Surprisingly, it wasn’t an orchid — it was a type of lily that I’d never seen before. I found it at a hydro-electric plant on the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. I was able to propagate it and give buds out to lots of people.
The 2019 Philadelphia Flower Show runs March 2-10 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. For more information, visit theflowershow.com and createascene.com.