Through the Gilded Door - Into First Look 4


         The trip to Schenectady, NY, for First Look 4 started off on the wrong foot last summer. Despite our posting excellent directions and a picture of the hotel, we managed to become lost on the way to the meeting. Embarassing is the only word for that. As a result, we got to the hotel fairly late and were thrust immediately into the preparations for the meeting.

       The Friday before the meeting always involves a lot of work to get the show off the ground. Even though the meeting was being run this time by Kent Terpening and Meg and Jim Dalton, there was still much to do. It only took one meeting for us to learn that we had to get some of the Plant Entry process for the Seedling and Sport Competition out of the way the night before if we want to get our Judges into the room early in the day. It takes quite a while for the Judges to deliver a fair opinion of the entries, and our goal has always been to get our attendees in to see the Competition before lunch. At traditional leaf shows, now called Hosta Shows since the addition of some new divisions, the mornings are spent preparing and entering the leaves. Often the Judges do not begin the judging until lunchtime and can be in the room for three hours or more. It is a difficult and disciplined job going through each entry and grading it on a complex point scale. I think it's great that so many volunteer to become judges and do the hard work of making the decisions on our entries. Now that we are a fully accredited show for our Judges, they can at least have First Look counted against their AHS obligations. We have the tireless Barbara Jones to thank for that. She and her crews have labored without accreditation for three years before we finally earned this important step in recognition.

      So, we arrived at about 5:00 pm on Friday to find the vending room almost completely set up. Two to three thousand plants all spread out among the tables of seven different vendors. The eighth, Seneca Hill Perennials, would not arrive until the next morning. Three of our vendors have grown along with First Look, having started out fairly small in our first year and grown steadily during the four years we've been holding this event. These are John O'Brien (John O'Brien Nurseryman), now offering 400-500 varieties of hosta and numerous other interesting plants, Chuck and Sue Anderson (Mason Hollow Nursery) who were vending for the first time with an assortment of exciting new varieties, and Mike Koller (Long Island's Home of Hosta), who brought an assortment of large, well grown and well-priced hostas. All three now rivaled the established internationally-known nurseries of Bob Solberg and Ran Lydell in what they offered on their tables. Also available were some interesting rare hostas from Eva Jones (Azalea Patch), including an exclusive introduction from Alex Summers by way of her father Arthur Wrede called 'Candy Dish' - a must-have plant for all. New Hosta Lottaree boss Janet Vinyard also set up a table with some very unusual and interesting perennials, including a spectacular collection of unusual lilies. Wow! There was an amazing selection of material there, clearly better than any previous First Look meetings.

    As I was wandering around the Vending Room in something of a daze, Kent Terpening grabbed me and hustled me off to the Plant Entry station. It was time to try and get as many entries ready for the Competition as we could, so we settled down to start filling out tags and applying stickers and whatnot. We spent the next few hours logging in most of the entries, leaving only a few for morning. Part of our Plant Entry process involves taking photos of each plant that is entered. These are the photos that normally fill our Plant Album in the Photo Viewer. In the past, these photos were taken by our Staff Photographer and Awards Chair Alttara Scheer, but this time we were in trouble. Alttara, quite pregnant and still handling all her duties admirably, was required to attend the Judges Clinic being held by our Head Judge Barbara Jones. These clinics are a necessary rite of passage for new judges, and Alttara was set on becoming a Judge too. That left us without a photographer during the Plant Entry phase, so Carol stepped up to offer to do the job. Carol is rightly famous for her outstanding outdoor photos of hostas that have often graced the pages of The Hosta Journal and been featured in many hosta vendors catalogs and websites. Unfortunately, she had little experience with indoor photography and was working with a digital camera she had never used indoors. Many of the photos came out blurry and indistinct to her horror, and left us a little shy on useable pictures for the site. Fortunately, after the meeting a number of people including Arthur Wrede and Kathy Sisson shared their pictures with us and we were able to put together our now-standard 150+ photos from the meeting.  We're sorry that a lot of them aren't as good as they've been in past years, but at least they do give a good idea of what the meeting was like.

    After finally wrapping up the evening's Plant Entry activity with Kent, I headed off to the Hospitality Room to see if there was any chance to find some food since I hadn't had a chance to eat since breakfast. It was after 10:00 pm now, but since New England HS Presidents Paula Lehtola and Mary Arnberg had taken on the role of Hospitality Chairs, I was sure there would still be some food left. I have to believe that First Look now has the absolute best Hospitality Room in the nation with these two in charge. Paula is a former owner of a catering business, you see, so our hospitality sparkles with a professional shine. When I got up there, all I heard was how good the homemade soup was, and how good that was, and how all those were gone, of course. There was still quite a bit of great food left, though, even a few things they had nicely set aside for us late-coming staffers. Their soup recipe so impressed Tri-State HS President Roberta Chopko that she placed it in the Tri-State Newsletter.

   First Look Saturday dawned bright and pleasant and the last minute preparations got underway. The Daltons and Kent were a blur, racing to get it all set up and ready to go. First up for the attendees is shopping, and they went to it with a will. It was another good year for our vendors, and a great year for hosta fans looking to find some exciting new plants. Ellen Hornig of Seneca Hill Perennials finally showed up with a great collection of unusual perennials, including the exquisite but very hard-to-find Symphytum 'Axminster Gold'. It wasn't long before the Judges were given control of the Competition Room and the Hosta Lottaree was opened for business. With Janet Vinyard in charge, our always popular instant-winner Hosta Lottaree had some great plants and there was a total of some 64 or so plants. The tickets (350) sold quickly, leaving some disappointed that it was over so fast.

   Kent and The Daltons added something new to the somewhat long wait for the Judges to finish - a trip to a garden! Dave and Cindy Jennings' house was near enough to make it a quick jaunt so they not only volunteered to let our attendees drop by for a visit, but arranged some refreshments and a great fun contest of their own for us. Arranged around the garden were 25 different stakes with numbers on them. Each marked an unlabelled plant and we were to fill in our guesses as to what they all were on the sheets we were handed. Although I have to admit to some suspicion that Dave had lost his labels and was using this as a novel way to get them all identified again, he offered such a wonderful prize (picture in Meeting Album) that no one could be less than thrilled. In Dave's contest, unlike Kent's official Name That Hosta contest at the meeting proper, the winner would be chosen at random from among the submitted entries. The winner ended up being Amelia Cardinale, wife of Vincent, who has come to several meetings so far. It was great to see them take it home.

   The Competition was again a wonderful collection of exciting new hostas, many of which were being seen for the very first time. As you can get a pretty good idea of how it went from looking through the pictures on the site, I won't go into a lot of detail about it here. My intent this year was to focus on some of the other activities, which may still be a little mysterious to many. The only new addition to the Competition this year was new Best of Section ribbons in the Seedling Category. Remember that unlike the AHS Hosta Show, the importance of Classes and Sections is reversed, with Classes being the highest tier. To make it easy to remember which are which, I use this simple line - "Classes are colors, Sections are sizes". We had 21 separate entrants this year, including a number of first-timers. Surprisingly, but perhaps not too surprisingly if you know them, two of our first time entrants won major awards. You'll find them and their plants in the Awards section of the Competition pages.

    So, what else did we do at First Look 4? Kent Terpening introduced a new contest that will be part of our regular line-up from now on - the Name That Hosta Contest. He brought ten huge beautifully grown plants from his garden (in pots of course) and lined them all up on a semi-circular bench around an indoor fountain in the hotel lobby. Before lunch, and after we all had our "first look" at the competition entries, we all took pencils and paper and tried to figure out which hostas they were. None were terribly new, and I suspect most all of us had seen every one before, but not necessarily as huge mature plants. This was a serious test of skill, and I have to confess I came in tied for second with Mark Zilis and a few others, while John O'Brien finished in sole possession of first place.  Some of the trickier ones I remember were 'Emily Dickinson' and 'Brother Ronald'. Don't think I got either of those right. I still can't recall seeing such great examples of these two anywhere before. Next year, watch out John, I'll be studying up to try to win this one. It's a shame we didn't get any pictures of these plants, because they were really beautiful specimens. To get a taste of what it was like, try our web version of this contest in the "Contests" section of the site.

   Not only did we add Kent's all-new contest, but we had some changes in our existing contests. Best Plant in a Pot finally split into two divisions - a move we had talked about for the last couple years. It had become a mix of great plants in ordinary pots and highly decorated entries with some wild themes. It didn't make sense for the two distinctly different types of entries to compete against each other, so we split it into Black Tie Formal (black pots only like the competition) in which the best plant would win, and Casual Dress (anything you can think of) in which entrants could let their creative energies run wild. Azalea Patch Nursery continued to sponsor one prize with a $100 gift certificate, and John O'Brien stepped up to offer another $100 gift certificate for the second division.

   Following the lead, the loathsome Ugliest Garden Shoes Contest split into not two but three separate divisions. It also split into two sections with genuine worn apparel (Ready to Wear) and fanciful creations (Decorated) like this year's winner from Ed Pollick. That's not all, though, as we added Ugliest Garden Hat to the mix. If you haven't been to First Look, it is virtually impossible to describe the sheer ..... , well ....... Ugliness is the only word for the table on which these are displayed. They provide quite a contrast to the hallways  and meeting rooms chock full of beautiful plants. They are testament to the long hard hours we all spend on our gardening endeavors, though, and as such they have earned a right to be displayed among the foliage finery. Preferably somewhere in a far corner, maybe.

  Hosta Oddities is an unusual conversation-piece of an event. The entries on the table are often very strange and it's hard not to stop by for a chance to look them over and talk about them with whoever is standing there. This year, Viktoria Serafin's oddly beautiful hosta-cum-calla lily was the talk of the meeting. Many thought the highly horticulturally savvy Viktoria had somehow engineered the strange creation, but she denied it, saying that it just came about naturally among her sale plants. Whatever the origin, it was strange and wonderful at the same time, and a deserving winner of the Oddities Prize - this year a highly streaked and colorful well-grown form of 'Francee'.

   The Judges' Review that Bob Solberg suggested at First Look 3 has rapidly become one of our most popular events. It turns out people have really been wondering what went into the Judges' choice of Awards. We've all gotten used to the concept of waiting for the judges to finish, then going in to see what won what, but it was always a mystery why and how the judges chose what they did. We've all heard bits and pieces of point systems and standards and such, but few of us really had any idea how the judges really made up their minds when it came down to their final selections. What arcane systems did they use to make those last final determinations that would give one plant the named award and the other a simple Best of Class ribbon? Did they get out microscopes and calculators, or did they just flip a coin? In the Judges' Review, some of the AHS' top Master Judges take the stage to explain how they arrived at their decisions before a rapt and attentive audience of attendees and entrants. These discussions are just fascinating, and reason alone to not miss First Look.

  Of course we had an auction, late in the day so as to give the vendors time to ply their wares. There were a number of interesting plants to be had there, including a 'Blue Lightning' (the streaked 'Blue Umbrellas' from Walters Gardens) donated by Amy Bergeron and Walters Gardens, and a really first-rate streaked seedling raised by the Daltons which I missed out on the bidding for. I sure hope they offer another piece of that one this year, because it looks like a winner.

  Dinner held another neat little surprise for us all, as we sat at our tables to find great little packets of homemade cards and envelopes made by none other than Meg Dalton. How did she find the time? These were in the form of beautiful hosta pictures from the First Look website, and at every table, there was one packet with a "wild card" - a picture of our own Ran Lydell done up in his paramilitary garb as running mate for Chick Wasitis in the Hosta Party primary held before last year's auction. Those who found the lucky "Ranbo" card received door prizes, and I was one of the lucky winners myself. My prize was a frog-shaped boot brush with bristles not unlike the new crew-cut Kent was sporting at the meeting.

   After dinner we held the Awards Ceremony, where the winners of the major Awards find out for the first time that they won. We were sitting at the same table as Arthur Wrede and his daughter Eva Jones and can report that no one was more surprised than Arthur was to win not only one (his first in three First Look meetings), but two of our major Awards. Glen Williams was a first time entrant winner, and he got to share the great event with his new companion Kierkegaard, who can be seen in one of the pictures in the Meeting Album.  Last but not least by any stretch was Dave Chopko, who had attended all four First Look meetings but was entering for the first time with just one plant. It was quite a plant - a huge sport of Mildred Seaver's rare solid-gold 'El Dorado' with a green center. There were gasps of shock as Dave did his patented move and pulled a leaf from the huge plant to pass around for all to see. We may see three of the winning plants on the market in 2006, so start saving up some pocket change now for these. They were all great plants.

   AHS President Kevin Walek finished out the evening giving us a closer look into the world of hosta registration. He was a veritable font of little known statistics about the registrations, and taught us how little we really knew about the process. The subject of registration is especially important at First Look, where so many exciting new as-yet-unnamed-and-unregistered plants are found. Registration is an important step of introducing new plants, if only to preserve the name. After Kevin finished his talk, we all put First Look 4 to bed. It was a great day, filled to bursting with everything hosta you could ask for.

   Sunday brought us some cloudy, but not too threatening skies. There were two gardens on tour for those who still had the energy. Although we were a little run down, we packed up all the stuff and headed out to find the gardens. We were running pretty late by then, so couldn't make it to the Ferguson Garden.  We went straight to the Daltons' woodland paradise for a little relaxation and garden sightseeing. It was truly amazing what Meg and Jim have done there in just a few short years. They have a truly huge collection that rivals any in the East, though many are still small. In a couple more years, this will be one of the prime must-see hosta gardens in the country. The gardens are as extensive as the collection is, seeming to go for a mile under the mature old trees. Many of the attendees had stopped by despite the light rain that had begun to fall. There was a light lunch to be had and so so many plants to see. Markus the Measurer was out amongst them with tape measure in hand, gathering more info for his next book. Janet Vinyard was selling plants to benefit the Upstate NY society. She had some great new varieties and I bought a 'Stingray' and a 'Blue River'. We all sat out on the deck and discussed the meeting, hostas, and the garden for hours after most attendees had gone.

  So, I've finally run out of steam on typing all this up. It was a great meeting - the best one yet - and the credit for that goes straight to Kent Terpening and Meg and Jim Dalton and all of those who worked with them up there in New York. Great Job, all of you! Oh....... I guess I forgot to mention whether I won anything this year in the Competition. Well, I set off for the meeting with a dozen or so of my best plants, feeling pretty positive that I had at least a couple BOC's among them, and just maybe an award-winner too.  With Kent taking over as Competition Director, I thought to escape any jinx that might entail. So, did I win? No No No! Rats! Well, I'm not the sort to give up, so I'll be back with more (maybe different ones) next year.

   Hope to see you there too!

                            ...........Bill Meyer