What it Looked Like to Me -- FIRST LOOK 3

      First Look 3 was held back in the Sheraton Parsippany (NJ) and we all remembered why we liked that hotel so much. It's just perfect for our meeting, and they even gave us a better deal than we had for First Look 2. The deal was so good, that some attendees remarked that it was the best meeting for the money they had seen. Once more we had perfect weather before and on Sunday for the garden tours and all was well in New Jersey. Reservations continued to be a little light, making us very nervous as the date approached. Only in the last week did our attendance figures show us we can still have meetings in nice hotels like this. 

       We got some bad news two days before when we found out that Barbara Jones had been laid low with the flu and wouldn't be able to attend. That left us scrambling for a Head Judge at the last minute. With only one other Master Judge coming, we could be in serious trouble. To makes things a little more scary, that Master Judge was none other than Mark Zilis. Mark is perhaps best known for his book The Hosta Handbook, but also has won a Summers Award (The American Hosta Society's top honor) and is credited with pioneering hosta tissue culture, and is the "Z" in Q and Z Nursery. Mark is also known, unfortunately for us, as someone who signs up at the last minute. We weren't really all that sure he was coming, and if he did, would there be time to get him acclimated to being our Head Judge? With this problem still unresolved, we packed up all the stuff and headed for the meeting.

        Every year with First Look, we try to add some of the things people have been nice enough to suggest to us. We're not shy about taking on criticism. If there is something you think would make First Look a better meeting, let us know and we'll see what we can do. For First Look 3, one area that several attendees had suggested needed a little work was hospitality during the time when the meeting wasn't actually running. We were lucky, very lucky really, to have the New England Hosta Society Co-Presidents Paula Lehtola and Mary Arnberg step up and offer to help out with that. A word to our hotel meeting manager and we were all set up in no less than their Executive Boardroom with food and drink for both Friday and Saturday nights. We're grateful to our new Hospitality Chairs, and luckily for us they've offered to repeat in the position next year. 

       Because so many attendees waited until the last minute to register, we started to realize that we were going to be paying for more lunches and dinners than we would need. These things must be arranged with the hotel in advance and make up the greatest part by far of the hotel's bill to us. When it came time to decide how much food we would actually need (and pay for), we realized that we had ordered too much for the numbers we thought we had coming. Since we were already committed to paying for the food, we were lucky that the hotel let us convert some of it to a continental breakfast for the attendees on Saturday morning. Everyone came out ahead, and it made the meeting that much nicer. 

      Mark Zilis did show up Friday evening, and I was able to catch him just as he was heading out for his evening run. He graciously agreed to fill in as Head Judge, so we were set. Although our rules don't specifically say the position must be filled by a Master Judge, their experience is not something we'd be happy doing without. We feel we owe our Competition entrants the very best judging we can manage to get, and a highly respected Master Judge like Mark certainly fits the bill. Mark formed a judging team that for the first time included more junior Judges. In the two prior meetings, the Competition was judged only by panels made up of Master Judges. As this was an entirely new type of judging, Barbara Jones had worked out the whole judging system and wanted to test it with judges who had a lot of experience. Now, after two meetings, Mark felt the time had come to let the other judging ranks participate. They formed into one panel with Mark in the lead and did an excellent job in their first outing. Of course, Barbara must have called Mark to tell him which plants were mine so he wouldn't accidentally pick one for one of the awards. Yes, I was blanked again. And I brought some nice plants! Unfortunately for me, other entrants did too, and it made for a great Competition for all to see. Just look at some of the ones pictured in the First Look Photo Viewer.   

       Some really stunning new hostas were brought to the Seedling and Sport Competition by the likes of Mary Chastain, Ran Lydell, Bob Solberg, Doug Beilstein, and Ron Livingston. Other entrants included Kent Terpening, Alttara Scheer, Jim Schwarz, Alex Malloy, George Donsky, Mike Pinterics, Viktoria Serafin, John O'Brien, Mike Koller, and myself. We even had a group entry from the Western New York Hosta Society. Overall, I'd have to say it was the most exciting batch of plants we've seen at First Look. Once again, there were just about 100 entries in the Competition. Watch for some of them to be available in the next few years. Our judging team really had their work cut out for them with so many first-rate plants to weigh for consideration. They spent quite a while in their deliberations, and when their judgment was in, there was much leaping for joy and gnashing of teeth. Alright, I made that part up, but everybody did run in to see how their plants did when we opened the Competition Room. To no one's surprise, Mary Chastain had won no less than four Best Of Class Awards of the nine that were awarded. We knew she'd bring plants that were tough to beat. Under the First Look judging system a plant must qualify for a Blue Ribbon (First Place) with over 90 points to be eligible for BOC consideration. This is why some classes that did have entries did not have Best Of Class winners.  

       I guess I tend to focus a little more on the Seedling and Sport Competition because of my job as Competition Director, but there's a lot more to First Look than just that. Our vending is first class, bringing in vendors from as far away as North Carolina. There were lots of nice plants to be had there, and it's Heaven for those who are a little uneasy about buying mail order. Everything from the more common varieties to really rare stuff can be had there, and the vendors often bring plants that they don't have enough of to list in their catalogs. Because the hosta hybridizers like to come to First Look, the vendors usually toss in a few streaked plants too. I bought a huge single-division plant of 'Lemon Meringue' that was going to bloom for my own hybridizing program. It was a real bargain too at only $20 from Greenhill Farms. 

       Our Classroom part of the meeting is doing well too, offering classes in the style of Hosta College. This year, Carol offered one on garden thugs, something she's come to know a lot more about since she started gardening. Some plants make very bad neighbors indeed, and she gave us all the lowdown on them. Hopefully everyone will remember to stay far far away from the likes of Houttuynia, variegated Glechoma (also called Ground Ivy, the weed), and the red-variegated Hawkweed. One tip that seemed obvious on reflection was "Never buy anything for the garden that has the name 'weed'". In another class, a panel of Doug Beilstein, Alttara Scheer, and Kent Terpening presented a discussion on the direction of hosta hybridizing as practiced by the new generation of enthusiasts like themselves. Expect some great plants from these three and their FOoSF (Fraternal Order of the Seedy Fellows) compatriots. More on them and their plants can be found at the website www.foosf.com . The FOoSF gang netted a number of Awards at First Look 4, including the William and Eleanor Lachman Award, which went to Ron Livingston.   

       After lunch and the attendee voting phase of the Competition, most of us were happy to sit for a while. The auction went well, with some unusual plants being available there. That was followed by the Town Meeting, in which Ran Lydell brought up a surprise topic - "What can we do to make First Look a better meeting?" The most interesting suggestion came from Bob Solberg, whose become a real fan of First Look after two meetings. He suggested that the attendees might find it interesting if some of the big name experts would take the time to openly review the plants in the Competition. This idea was pretty well received, so we all headed back to the Competition Room to give it a try. Bob, Ran, and Mark Zilis took on the "critic" roles and we went along the show benches with them as they gave us their thoughts about the plants that were entered. One by one, they pointed out what they felt were strengths and weaknesses of the entries, and we all got to know hostas a little better by listening to what they thought. Sometimes you'd find yourself agreeing with them, other times not, but it was definitely an interesting hour or so. We'll be keeping this as part of our meeting for the future, so you'll get a chance to experience it yourself if you can make it to First look 4. 

        Because Walter Cullerton, our former Master of Ceremonies, was unable to attend because of pressing family matters, we were also looking for someone to step into his shoes for that position. Fortunately for us Doug Beilstein, who is Awards and Honors Chair for the American Hosta Society, was on hand and willing to do the job for us. Doug was great up there and added a nice bit of class to the Awards Ceremony. We continued the tradition of having last year's winners hand the trophy to the new winners. It's an idea that we all liked - the passing of the torch. As before all the Best Of Class winning plants from the judged phase of the Competition were lined up on the winners' table and no one knew which would be the Award winners. Our winning entrants only find out which plant won right there when the Master of Ceremonies opens the envelope and reads out the entry number. Of them all, I think Kent was the most surprised. Our system chooses the winning plants without anyone having any knowledge of who entered them. Even the judges are not privy to that knowledge. We wanted it to be a fair appraisal of the plants on their own merits. One of the things we have seen as a result of this approach is that you don't have to be a famous "big name" hybridizer to win at First Look. Some of the plants brought by beginning amateurs were just as nice as those brought by the likes of Mary Chastain. This  is especially true in the Sports Category, where last year's double award winner Mike Koller found his entry in a Home Depot store. It's the plants that are judged, not the people, and we think it's the only fair way to do things. In three Competitions so far, I haven't heard of any cheating attempts or of any real complaints about how we're doing things. Not only does our system seem to work well, but it shows that our entrants are really great people, even.... no, I better not say that here! Just kidding, so don't start trying to figure out who!

       Our Meeting Chair Carol really outdid herself with her Japanese theme. Items she bought in Japan and carried all the way home were everywhere at the meeting. Starting with interesting Japanese snacks in the Hospitality Room, and ending with a surprise at the dinner table, most attendees got a little taste of Japan at one time or another. Her dinner table surprise contest was a particularly fun idea. In that one, Japanese one-Yen coins marked with numbers were randomly placed under the dinner plates before the attendees came to dinner. Once they were found, they came forward to choose from a bunch of neat little Japanese prizes stacked at the end of the Awards Table. Each dinner table had as its centerpiece a battery-operated Japanese paper lantern, another nice touch. 

       Mary Chastain was on hand to be our Keynote Speaker, and most of us had no idea what to expect. It was Mary's first trip to a hosta meeting in the Northeast from her native Tennessee, so we up here in the Northeast only really know her by her fabulous hosta introductions. The person behind the plants turned out to be just as charming as they are once we got to know her. She talked at length about the concept of selection, not just in hybridizing, but in life. Her mingling of pure hosta material, which featured some photos of truly exciting new plants she had under development, and life philosophy was a wonderful and thought-provoking way to end our third meeting. Thanks so much Mary for giving us such a nice turn at the podium. I think I can say that we all appreciated it very much. It was a perfect note to close First Look 3 on.

       But this year it wasn't really over when the Keynote Speaker finished. Thanks to New England's dynamic duo Paula and Mary, our new Hospitality Co-Chairs, we had a Hospitality Room to head for afterwards. Some of us meeting workers had plenty to do closing out the Competition and Display areas, so it was a while before I could get to the Hospitality Room to see what was going on there. When I did finally make it into one of those comfortable Board Room chairs, I found that Bob Solberg was busy giving a lecture with slides about red petioles. Bob offered us an in-depth look at the phenomenon of red coloring in hostas, talked about his own breeding efforts in that vein, and gave us his thoughts about what he was seeing and where it would go in the future. It was almost as if the meeting was still going on in impromptu form while we were breaking down the displays. 

       Well, my yearly recap wouldn't be complete without my totally impartial discussion of why my plants once again didn't win even a single award. Once again, I didn't win even one Best Of Class ribbon, although I did manage two blue First Place ribbons this time. I've been thinking it over, and I think I found the answer - it's a conspiracy. Even having a new Head Judge for the meeting didn't change my luck, so it must be a conspiracy. Barbara Jones must have called Mark Zilis secretly to arrange that my plants wouldn't win. Mark did an excellent job of concealing this secret program so that I didn't notice anything was funny during the judging. I still haven't figured out how they rig the attendee voting, since I'm there to oversee the process, so I have to say they are very talented conspirators. Next year I'll have my eye on those judges, and I'll figure it out. There were strange rumors about Elvis being seen in the building, and Mary's from Tennessee, so there might be more to this than it looked like on the surface. For First Look 4, Kent Terpening will be taking over the position of Competition Director, and I want it said in print here that that has absolutely nothing to do with my investigation into this conspiracy. I will find out the answers someday. What could Elvis have against me..... ?         

                                                            ........Bill Meyer