When Philadelphia Horticultural Society president Jane Pepper announced her retirement last April after nearly three decades of service, it was big news. Since 1964, the Philadelphia Flower Show has only had two organizers: Pepper—who lives in Media—and her predecessor, Ernesta Ballard. In honor of Pepper’s tenure, PHS launched the Legacy Landscapes campaign in hopes of raising $12.1 million in endowment funds dedicated to maintaining the city’s most treasured neighborhoods and civic landscapes. The organization is committed to reaching that goal by spring, to coincide with the departure of its dedicated, forward-thinking and accessible leader.
MLT: How have PHS and the flower show evolved over the years?
JP: The show has changed a lot since 1979. In those days, the plants in the exhibits were mostly early spring bloomers—daffodils, rhododendrons, azaleas. Over the years, our exhibitors have become very sophisticated in what they’re able to force into bloom with the help of heating, special lights, excellent timing and extraordinary skill. Now, we can offer our visitors the opportunity to see delphiniums, foxglove, daylilies and other summer bloomers in early March.
Our exhibitors in the amateur section (the competitive classes) have also grown very ambitious with their exhibits. Another change has been the quest among our visitors for information on gardening, greening and all the programs that PHS has to offer. The show is full of educational opportunities, which our visitors respond to with great enthusiasm.
The biggest change for us was in 1996, when we moved the show to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Our exhibit space grew from 6 to 10 acres. We’re very fortunate to have this building.
MLT: What has been your biggest contribution to PHS?
JP: Everything we do at PHS is a team effort. Together, we attract some 225,000 people to Philadelphia each year to enjoy the show, providing an economic impact to the region of $35 million and raising some $1 million each year for community greening projects. These projects come under Philadelphia Green, which has made enormous contributions to our downtown and neighborhoods.
MLT: What have been your biggest obstacles over the years?
JP: At PHS, we always have a thousand ideas for wonderful projects we’d like to do in the Greater Philadelphia region. Our limitations are time and money.
MLT: How many hours do you put in?
JP: Like everyone else at PHS, it’s not the hours we clock on the job, but the pleasure we get out of the contributions we make. We’re fortunate to be in a business where you can see results.
MLT: What are some of your proudest accomplishments in the city?
JP: The re-landscaping of Logan Circle, which we executed with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts and in cooperation with the Fairmount Park Commission. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we greatly improved the landscaping surrounding the building in collaboration with Fairmount Park and the museum.
MLT: Is there anything you’d like to see happen under the next president?
JP: There is still so much to do in Philadelphia and the region. We have thousands of trees to plant, landscapes to improve and gardens to plant—not to mention all of the people we want to encourage to start gardening.
MLT: What would you say to someone who’s never had a garden?
JP: Just get started—and don’t be too ambitious at the outset. Get it going, but remember you have to keep it going, even in the hot, hot, dry days of August.
MLT: Can you tell us about the Woman One Award you received in 2009?
JP: I was thrilled. Lynn Yeakel and her team from Drexel University invited two of my brothers to come from Scotland. I had no idea they were even in town, and they just showed up at the award ceremony. It was a very special evening—and one we’ll talk about in my family for years to come.
MLT: Filling your shoes won’t be easy. Do you have any idea who might be up for the task?
JP: We have a wonderful search committee—of which I am not a member, as it should be. They’ll make an announcement at the appropriate time.
MLT: What are some of the things you’ll miss?
JP: The daily interaction with an extraordinary group of people—from the staff to our volunteers, to the partners we work with so closely in many organizations.
The Philadelphia Flower Show runs through March 7 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Call (215) 988-8899 or visit theflowershow.com.