The urge to produce their own food remains strong among Mainers – at least the ones attending the Portland Flower Show earlier this month – and they want to do it as organically and easily as possible.

Yes, people enjoyed the flowers, water features and hardscaping (such as patios and walls) in the display gardens, as well as the chance to feel a little spring-like warmth. But food, whether from vendors or in the display gardens, grabbed the spotlight.

For example, the Highland Avenue Greenhouse and Farm Market’s vertical gardens, which were jammed with edible greens and herbs. The Scarborough company wasn’t planning to sell anything when it rented space at the show’s main entrance. Chad Churchill, nursery manager, said he was just trying to get some attention for the company, which opened as a nursery in 1949 but in the past few years has expanded to grow winter greens and vegetables, formed a CSA (community supported agriculture) and opened a farm market and bakery, where people can eat lunch or buy food to take home.

The vertical gardens, which included 36 plants growing in a wooden pallet, were supposed to be conversation starters, allowing Churchill and other employees to talk to potential customers.

Instead, viewers wanted to buy the display.

Churchill did some figuring, came up with a price of $149, and took several orders for the gardens during the show. “They couldn’t believe the price included the plants,” Churchill said.

Andy Cole of Andy’s Agway in Dayton took orders for baby chickens, and he had the perfect location – right across from the Children’s Discovery Garden, where youngsters picked up a list of items to search for in the flower show treasure hunt.

If the fuzzy chicks didn’t attract the children, the big spring-mounted rocking horse did. And most of the people who bought chicks, which eventually will produce eggs, did so because of their children, Cole said. “It gives kids some responsibility,” he said, “and a chance to see where their food comes from.”

Flower show-goers were interested in the Hollis-based Robin’s Nest Aquatics’ natural swimming pools, which, as it happens, can grow food-producing plants. (Incidentally, the business – with O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham and Hill View Mini Barns – won both Best of Show and People’s Choice awards.)

Robin’s Nest owners Christopher and Terri Paquette install swimming pools in which plants filter and clean the water, so homeowners can avoid chemicals such as chlorine. Christopher Paquette was excited that some of the plants are edible, including Chinese watercress, water celery and most parts of cattails.

Having experimented with growing mushrooms in a block of coffee grounds over the winter, with little success, I spent some time at MoTown Mushrooms of Morristown, Vermont, which offered kits for growing mushrooms in pails. The Fungipail works better, I was told, than the coffee-grounds method because the container is larger and the mushroom spores and growing medium are shipped live in a plastic bag that does not require extensive soaking. Maybe I’ll try this method next winter.

NEW IN HARDSCAPES

The show wasn’t all food, of course. A lot of it was rocks and/or concrete.

Most of the display gardens featured hardscaping.

Jon Snell of Jaiden Landscaping, which just moved to West Bath from Brunswick, was excited about the Belgard pavers he is now using – displayed in a prime position in his garden – because they are one color all the way through. The advantage? Chips, if they occur, aren’t noticeable.

Anna Cudmore recently moved with her partner to Oxford from North Dakota. She was trying to figure out a way to make a living and noticed that almost no one in Maine uses extruded concrete in the landscape. So she is launching Cudmore Curbscapes; she said she was quite busy fielding inquiries at the show.

The garden edges, which cost $10 a linear foot, are formed when a machine extrudes concrete with cable reinforcing. The concrete, which comes in several colors, is stamped into forms that resemble rocks or bricks, and include frost cuts to prevent breaking.

“If it works in North Dakota,” Cudmore said, “it will work in Maine.”

And since it was a flower show, naturally some people were selling flowers.

Sawyer & Company and Harmon’s and Barton’s florists were selling blossoming cherry branches, but the biggest sellers were succulents – which are extremely popular now.

Stems from Maplecrest Lilies headed out the door regularly, as did some lily bulbs.

The purpose of all these booths and displays was to help us make it to May, when we’ll be able to do all of this in our own, ice-free gardens. I have confidence that our gardens will eventually be rid of snow – but I wouldn’t bet the farm on when.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]