You might expect a bidding war over luxury box seats at Fenway Park or a February trip to the Caribbean, but a tree?

That’s actually happened at the plant auction that comes at the end of the Portland Flower Show. Last year, the crowd went all “Market Warriors” on a $225 Japanese maple, and a lucky bidder snatched it up for a C-note.

It’s that kind of bargain on everything from lilacs and pansies to lawn mowers and fences that attracts gardeners to the afternoon auction like, well, aphids to a bed of roses.

The Portland Flower Show gets under way Wednesday with its annual opening gala and awards show, followed by fours days of winter-weary Mainers drooling over exhibitors’ lush garden landscapes covered in the cloak of spring.

Little waterfalls cascade down through a wildly colorful display of tulips. Greenery brightens spirits and gets gardeners thinking about what their plantings will look like this year — and how they can they set off their creations with beautiful stonework.

Visitors prowl rows of vendors like Carrie Bradshaw looking for her next pair of Manolos.

There will be 16 gardens at the flower show this year, including three new ones, and close to 90 vendors, said Joanna Sprague, the show’s producer.

The theme this year is “Timeless Gardens,” a concept that exhibitors can take to mean whatever they want it to mean, Sprague said.

“Some of them are doing some garden designing that is a little more traditional and (with) older plants,” she said, “but some are taking it to where it would be a simple garden requiring less time.”

Aronson Stonework in Litchfield is creating a garden called “Old Cellar Hole,” which is the designer’s vision of what a garden would look like in an old cellar hole someone stumbled across in the woods.

Tightlines Landscaping in Brunswick, Sprague said, will be creating a “Garden of the Phoenix” with plants, and will reflect ancient Rome and Victorian England.

Mike Silvia, a landscape designer at Tightlines, has been attending the flower show ever since he moved to Maine 15 years ago, and has participated in it as a designer as well.

“For me personally, I like that we have the opportunity to sort of push the design envelope and give people ideas that, maybe they may not use the whole thing, but they can take a little bit away from it and possibly use it in their yard,” Silvia said. “And for me, it’s the interaction with the public and talking about gardening.”

Silvia thinks one thing that makes gardens timeless is that there are certain elements you can see throughout history. In ancient Rome, gardens had fountains and birds. The gardens at Versaille were designed with aviaries and resting areas.

Modern gardeners can use plants that are popular today, but by incorporating these other features, they can “still keep that feeling of antiquity.”

Silvia’s “Garden of the Phoenix” — which has a double meaning, because Portland’s city seal features a phoenix rising from the ashes — will have an aviary with red golden pheasants. The strong red, gold and auburn colors found on the birds will be reflected in other elements of the design — the flowers, for example, and a piece of garden furniture — tying it all together.

“People are paying good money to come to a show,” Silvia said, “and they should see something that they’re not going to see at the Home Depot display.”

Even if local gardeners probably won’t be running out to buy pheasants for their little plot of land, they can still take something away from the design, Silvia said.

“I think as a culture, we really are losing our connection with natural worlds,” he said. “Even the aviary — you don’t need to have an ornamental pheasant, you could have a few garden chickens and collect some eggs from them. But there’s some living things in your garden. There’s something moving and interacting.”

‘HORT COUTURE’ AND MORE

Other highlights will include a model train exhibit, which will make its second appearance at the show. “Kids love it,” Sprague said. And the book store outside the lecture hall will be back, because Books a Million agreed to sponsor it.

Estabrook’s garden center, a longtime flower show participant, will not be designing a garden this year, Sprague said, but will be decorating the entrance to the flower show and showing off its new line of “Hort Couture” plants.

When it’s all over on March 10, exhibitors will be donating many of the flowers, flowering shrubs and small trees from their gardens to be auctioned live at the Cumberland County Master Gardener Plant Auction that afternoon.

Vendors and businesses from the greater Portland area have also donated a lot of non-gardening-related items for a silent auction, ranging from culinary gift sets to yoga classes.

The auction typically raises $6,000 to $11,000 for a good cause. This year, the proceeds will go to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Demonstration Garden and the Maine Harvest for Hunger Gardens in Cumberland County.

In the market for 500 square feet of sod or a funky-looking garden fence? The plant auction’s got you covered.

The auction list also includes a field-dug Currier McEwen iris (a pop star of the iris world), 7 cubic yards of gravel or soil, a 2-ton boulder and two pick-up truckloads of sheep manure.

“To people that are die-hard gardeners, that’s really primo stuff,” said Amy Witt, a horticulturist at the Cooperative Extension. 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com