A trip to Cleveland’s Great Big Home & Garden Expo whets the appetite for great landscaping

The International Exposition Center (I-X Center) in Cleveland, Ohio, is a massive, low-slung building in the shadow of Cleveland Hopkins airport. The brown, square structure hosts about 200 events and draws more than 2 million visitors annually.

The Great Big Home & Garden Expo is one of the most eagerly anticipated annual events at the I-X Center. It takes place over eight days early each February, and tens of thousands of northern Ohioans flock to the sprawling building to view the wares of several hundred home and garden service vendors, tour two model houses, and walk thousands of square feet of meticulously landscaped gardens.

It may be cold and gray outside, but everything is color, noise and excitement inside, especially the corner of the center that hosts the Expo’s feature gardens. That’s where some of the region’s most respected landscape companies showcase their creative talents. These are award-winning companies that have been invited to be a part of the Expo.

Long lines of visitors “ooh” and “ahh” over the gardens and the outdoor living spaces that landscape companies spend months planning, and more than a week installing. The 19 landscapes obviously represent a huge commitment in time and expense.

Worth the expense, effort?

Why do companies spend tens of thousands of dollars and put so much creative energy into gardens that will only be around for eight days?

The answer, of course, is that these landscape company owners want to attract clients and line up projects for the coming season. But, that’s just part of the reason.

“At the end of the day we want to see names on contracts. But a part of it – a big part – is the pride that we build within our company. It’s a challenge for the guys, and they want to show what they can do,” says Jacob Grimm, Brothers Grimm Landscape & Design Co., Clinton, Ohio.

This was the second year that Grimm’s company installed a feature garden at the I-X Center. Each year the gardens are built around a theme, and this year’s theme was classic television shows. Grimm’s company selected the television show Northern Exposure, and six employees worked for a week building the garden on their 35-by-45-foot section of the showcase corner of the building.

While the colorful displays of forced spring bloomers and other living ornamentals will suffer from lack of sunlight and may not be recoverable at the end of the Expo, the hardscapes can be removed and landscape structures taken apart and used in designed landscape projects this coming season.

“We pre-built our pavilion at the shop. It’s built to code and we can disassemble it and reassemble it when we need it. The same with the fireplace” says Grimm, pointing to the two structures around which much of his northern-themed garden was designed and built.

Grimm says he will assess the results of his company’s participation in the Expo after it’s over to determine whether it will compete as a featured garden again in 2013.

From Bombers and Tanks to Gardens

Massive buildings rarely figure into the reporting of the landscape industry, but the history of Cleveland’s International Exposition Center (I-X Center) is fascinating and needs to be shared.

The structure was built in 1942 as the Cleveland Bomber Plant. Owned by the Department of Defense during World War II, it was operated by General Motors as the Fisher Body Aircraft Plant No. 2 and made the B-29 bomber.

During the Korean War, GM selected the Bomber Plant as the manufacturing site for army tanks. It then became known as the Cadillac Tank Plant, and by 1953 was producing the Walker Bulldog. By 1960, workers were producing the self-propelled T-195 and T-196 howitzers and M-114 armed personnel carriers. Later in the 1960s it produced the M-551, 16-ton Sheridan tank.

In 1972, the Defense Department announced it was selling the plant. The Park Corp. of Charleston, ., bought the facility in 1977 to create an international trade mart and, in 1985, opened the former tank plant as the I-X Center, promoting it as the largest single-building exhibition facility in the world. In 2001, the Park Corp. sold the building to the city of Cleveland, but continues to lease and operate it.

The I-X Center has 2.2 million square feet of enclosed space, and more than 1 million square feet of exhibition space. It sits on 90 acres of property literally on the edge of Cleveland Hopkins Airport about 20 miles southwest of downtown Cleveland.

Curiously, the I-X houses a 125-foot-high Ferris wheel, the top of which protrudes in an enclosed, translucent dome above the building.

One event he never misses, though, is a similar, although smaller home and garden show, in Akron, Ohio, which is closer to the company’s headquarters and primary market area. That home and garden show took place February 24-26.

Tim Connelly, The Connelly Landscaping Co., Avon, Ohio, was graciously sharing time with visitors at his company’s fun “Life and Times of Grizzly Adams” themed garden. The hillside landscape featured a natural waterfall flowing into a tranquil stream covered by a bridge with a walking path.

Creative uses of natural stone and blocks, more so than pavers, dominated many of the featured gardens. Another common theme was the sight and sound of moving water, whether from streams or fountains, with most of them involving stone.

Two noticable landscape trends at the Expo were natural stone features and the sound of water, whether in fountains or small streams.

While you would be hard-pressed to describe the small pool of brown ooze (“black gold, Texas tea”) burbling at the Beverly Hillbillies-themed garden as decorative, most visitors were visibly blown away by the garden’s pool (“cement pond”) and surrounding landscape. This entry by Barnes Nursery, Huron, Ohio, was the showstopper in terms of scale and imaginative effort. The pi<0x00E8>ce de résistance was Granny Daisy Moses sitting in her favorite rocking chair perched atop the family’s 1928 Model A pickup.

Not every landscape or lawn care professional at the annual Expo built a feature garden. Some participated by manning booths outside of the showcase garden area, and one company, Morton Landscape Development Company, participated by landscaping the “Idea Home” that attracted a seemingly neverending stream of visitors.

Morton Landscaping, headquartered in Columbia Station, Ohio, installed pavers, retaining walls, colorful beds and a beautiful and functional backyard retreat for a popular model home.

Finally, several landscapers competed in other events. Jeff Cerny, owner of JLC Landscaping, Inc., Mentor, Ohio, was one of three landscape companies seeking votes from visitors in the Belgard Hardscape Challenge. Cerny, a young owner who runs a full-service company on the east side of Cleveland, won the event in 2011 and was working the crowd to win it again.

Tim Connelly at The Connelly Landscaping Co. Life and Times of Grizzly Adams featured landscape.

Most home and garden shows take place in late winter. You can find them in most major cities, and a lot of smaller cities, too. Supported by homebuilders, related construction trades and their associations, they’re often organized, promoted and run by professional event companies.

Blending the carnival, sideshow atmosphere generated by an incredible variety of vendors with the creativity of skilled trades people like professional builders and professional landscapers is a hard-to-resist temptation – especially in the middle of a long Great Lakes winter.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 27 years. Contact him at rhall@mooserivermedia.com.