Back to top

Orchids and Cheesesteaks

The crowd begins to pour into the rain garden at the 2018 Philadelphia Flower Show. Designer Gary Radin is at left. Photo by John Solem

The rain forest UMass Amherst graduate Gary Radin ’91 designed for the 2018 Philadelphia Flower Show can be perilous. Visitors stop short and arch their backs to gape up at lush vines trailing from bamboo scaffolding. They thrust pointing fingers at a 25-foot-high waterfall. And they step blindly backward to frame just the right photo of a rope bridge.

This was the 11th year Radin designed the entrance garden for the country’s oldest, largest, and most prestigious flower show. Every March, 250,000 people, anxious for spring, converge on the Pennsylvania Convention Center to see the latest garden trends, view prize-winning plants, shop, learn—and linger in Radin’s garden.

Radin eavesdrops as the first visitors crush in. For him, the most satisfying comments show he nailed his goal to make the rain forest display immersive: “I wish I lived here,” says one woman. “I’m in Hawaii,” marvels another.

An interior design major from Connecticut, Radin trained his eye early: as a child, he built elaborate cityscapes from cardboard boxes and at age 13 got a job constructing architectural models. At UMass Amherst, he designed sets for UMass Theatre Guild productions and traveled to Montreal to research his thesis on Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. He and his Swedish roommate furnished their off-campus apartment from the first IKEA store in the U.S. 

All this and work as a creative director for a cosmetics company, as well as many years running his own firm designing television studio sets, concert stages, exhibits, and more prepared Radin for the rich convergence of theatrics and mechanics it took to transform the dark expanse of the convention center into an amped-up rain forest.

Radin was calm as he supervised the final hours of the nine-day installation: riggers added tropical flowers to the flanks of the waterfall, a worker wearing waders floated lilies in a pond, another calibrated the light rain falling in a fern-filled corner. The 2018 show ran for 10 days; after a short spa break, Radin was back to work on next year’s entrance garden.

The flower show has twice been named “Best Event in the World,” by the International Festivals & Events Association; Radin has won many other awards. He says, “I hate asking, ‘Can I outdo myself?’” Visitors to the 2019 Philadelphia Flower Show will see if he can.  

Gary Radin’s award-winning entrance garden at the 2017 Philadelphia Flower Show. Rob Cardillo/Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

The 2018 entrance garden featured more than 40 fresh-cut floral arrangements. Rob Cardillo/Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Tropical plants hang from elaborate bamboo scaffolding. Rob Cardillo/Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Radin’s rainforest included a fish pond and a wooden suspension bridge. Rob Cardillo/Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

The Philadelphia Flower Show’s 25-foot tall, flower-festooned waterfall in all its glory. Rob Cardillo/Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Radin used a rain barrel to demonstrate one of the “wonders of water,” the show’s theme. Rob Cardillo/Pennsylvania Horticultural Society