Student Greg Heiner, the project manager, stands in front of a poster-size photo from the Pacific Crest Trail that will be part of the exhibit.

Take a hike

Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit features natural beauty of scenic trail


1:02 p.m., Feb. 26, 2016--The Pacific Crest Trail, a West Coast counterpart to the Appalachian Trail, stretches 2,600 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian border, spanning terrain that ranges from deserts to snow-topped mountains, bare lava fields to thick evergreen forests.

Hikers might spend half a year covering its length, but a group of University of Delaware students is hard at work on a different kind of challenge — distilling the essence of the trail into a 23-by-33-foot exhibit that visitors to the Philadelphia Flower Show can experience in just a few minutes.

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“Our goal is to give everyone the sense of actually walking along the Pacific Crest Trail, so with all the variety on the trail, there are a lot of things for us to think about and try to include,” said Greg Heiner, a junior majoring in criminal justice who’s the project manager for the exhibit’s construction. “We’re partnering this year with the Delaware Nature Society, and they’re giving us help with the best way to spread the message of appreciating nature.”

The end result will be on display for the duration of the Flower Show, March 5-13, in the Pennsylvania Convention Center. For more about visiting the show, including hours and ticket information, see the website.

On a recent evening in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Worrilow Hall, Heiner and some two dozen other students were busy sawing and painting plywood for the exhibit’s walls, mounting poster-size photographs depicting scenic views of the trail and making papier-mâché boulders. Some walls were being covered with green chalkboard paint to encourage exhibit visitors to leave a personal message sharing their thoughts about the experience.

Student involved in the project represent a diverse assortment of majors from nearly every one of UD’s seven colleges. Some are working on the exhibit as part of the Design Process Practicum class, taught by Jules Bruck, associate professor of landscape design in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, while others are members of the Design and Agriculture student organization.

“Everyone is so engaged in creating this project and wanting it to be a great experience for the people who will come to the Flower Show,” Bruck said. “I see students who aren’t even taking the class for credit — they’re members of the club — but they come to class just because they’re so enthusiastic about it.”

This will be the sixth consecutive year that an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students is contributing an exhibit to the show, which is the oldest and largest indoor flower show in the world. The show’s theme this year, inspired by the centennial of the National Park Service, is “Explore America.”

At UD, students in Bruck’s class last year came up with the design concept for the 2016 exhibit once the Flower Show announced its theme encouraging exhibitors to draw inspiration from the nation’s parks. 

Students chose the Pacific Crest Trail, a designated National Scenic Trail, and made drawings and models of their proposed exhibit, which will be UD’s first walk-through entry in the Flower Show. Bruck’s current class dived into the construction work as soon as spring semester began.

Because the exhibit must be partially disassembled, trucked to Center City Philadelphia, and then reassembled inside the convention center, the class got some expert help from a faculty member accustomed to that kind of process. Stefanie Hansen, associate professor of theatre, has been working with the students to help them construct the kinds of modular, lightweight pieces that are used in set design.

“This is a more interactive exhibit than the ones they’ve done in the past,” Hansen said. “Everything we do in theatre work is built like this, in manageable pieces so it can be moved around and reassembled, so I was able to help them with that process.”

In fact, she said, she hopes more theatre minors get involved in future Flower Show projects at UD because the skills involved are so similar to those used in stage-set design.

As construction proceeds in Worrilow Hall, another key part of the project is flourishing in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ nearby greenhouse. The exhibit’s plant manager, senior horticulture and design major Sarah Morales, has been ordering and caring for the succulents, moss, evergreens and other vegetation that will complete the display.

“This is a flower show, after all, so the plants are the most important part of the exhibit and a major element in how the judges will evaluate us,” Bruck said. “All the plants are sustainably grown, and we want to be able to reuse them after the show closes, so they’re representative of what you’d find on the Pacific Crest Trail but they’re not the exact plants that grow there. We’re using ones that are native to our area, so they can be planted here after the show.”

Morales said she and the team of students working with her have researched the plant life found on the trail and view it as “a source of inspiration” for their choices. They’ve taken that inspiration and used it to develop their own creative ideas for the exhibit.

Like others working on the exhibit, Morales said the project has been time-consuming but highly enjoyable and rewarding.

“It's such a large event that ends up making an impact on a significant amount of people, and being able to help create that impact is incredible,” Morales said of the Flower Show. “Plus, I've made a lot of great friends outside of the College [of Agriculture and Natural Resources] that I wouldn't have met otherwise.”

Just as the students come from a variety of colleges and majors, faculty assistance with the project, primarily Bruck and Hansen, has been interdisciplinary as well. Anthony Middlebrooks, associate professor of leadership in the School of Public Policy and Administration, and Jon Cox, assistant professor of art and design, worked closely with Bruck on previous years’ Flower Show exhibits, although they were less involved in this year’s project.

Middlebrooks called the project “an amazing opportunity for students” and one that is valuable every year in engaging his leadership students.

This year’s team will transport the exhibit to Philadelphia and set it up to be ready for a special preview show for Pennsylvania Horticultural Society members on Friday, March 4. Students will staff the exhibit throughout the show and, after closing time each night, will water and care for the plants.

When the show ends, the team will bring materials back to campus, and Bruck’s class will continue to meet as students immediately begin planning next year’s exhibit.

“Long-term projects like this encourage and promote interdisciplinary learning among faculty, students and the community,” Cox said. “We all stand to benefit from the unique perspectives presented from the various disciplines involved in this massive undertaking.”

Article by Ann Manser

Photos by Wenbo Fan

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