Sweet Lillie Landscaping of Bar Mills will celebrate its coming-out Wednesday at the gala opening of the Portland Flower Show.

Stephanie Shaw, company founder, has been thinking about her flower show exhibition garden since last summer when she could actually see and smell some of the flowers she planned to have in her display. But her planning was complicated by a move this winter, which required that she dismantle her greenhouse and nurture most of her plants in the guest bedroom of her new home – boxwoods, needled evergreens, junipers, heather.

Sweet Lillie’s depiction of a Maine café will be one of the 13 gardens covering 9,800 square feet and using 300 cubic yards of mulch at the Portland Flower Show this week. The exhibition gardens and that wonderful smell of mulch after an especially long winter will greet the 10,000 to 13,000 people expected to attend the show, through March 8, at the Portland Company Complex.

The flower show garden is a big step for Shaw, who graduated from the University of Maine in 2009 with a degree in landscape horticulture and has put in time working for O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham since then. “We’re trying to build ourselves as a larger company and get some exposure,” she said. Her spare bedroom-cum-nursery this winter has meant some challenges: “The big failure was my leafy things,” she said. “I dug them out too late from under the 4 feet of snow we had.” They didn’t thaw out until Presidents Day. Her perennials have sprouted but not yet blossomed, and without her greenhouse she will be buying the flowering annuals for her display.

Joanna Sprague, who has coordinated the Portland Flower Show for 16 of the past 18 years, says that typically, the tougher the winter, the higher the attendance. So if that holds true, the Portland Company Complex should be jammed to the rafters this year.

Each year, exhibitors at the show create gardens based on a theme; this year it is “Taste of Spring,” so the displays will use early-spring vegetables and flowers. Gardens built by companies from throughout southern Maine are the show’s prime attraction.

Sprague is especially pleased that her show is one of only two remaining flower shows in the East that are professionally judged – the other is the huge, historic flower show in Philadelphia – and that winners earn prize money: $500 for Best in Show and People’s Choice and $250 each for winners in 11 other categories.

The creators of display gardens, especially, “need to benefit from this show as they put in at least a week of many labor hours building the gardens, planning since October, and they pay for all materials,” Sprague said. “And getting flowers at this time of year is horrendous.”

Jeff O’Donal of the Gorham nursery, who in past years has won the Best in Show and People’s Choice awards, said he builds a display garden because his customers expect it; in the years he has skipped the show, they’ve let him know. Also, being in the show brings business, he and other exhibitors agree.

While some attendees study the plant labels for exciting varieties, gather design tips for their own gardens or pick a garden center to shop at in May, others simply want to escape the frozen, snow-covered streets and revel in the enticing smells of mulch and foliage, the vibrant colors of flowers and vegetables and the joy of spending time with like-minded gardeners.

Once visitors have toured the displays, they can check out the nonprofits. As always, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension will have its children’s discovery center; the Maine Soil Testing Service will help you figure out if your garden is ready for the season; and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, McLaughlin Garden and the Garden Club Federation of Maine will discuss the values of membership.

And then there’s shopping: In addition to plants, past shows have featured items from paintings to poison-ivy treatment, patio furniture to jewelry. Keep in mind, if you buy a granite birdbath, you may have to carry it home yourself.

The Morrison Center in Scarborough will be selling orchids and other houseplants at bargain prices. Morrison’s clients are developmentally disabled, but their gardening talents are shown to great advantage in the hardy container-grown plants they produce.

Every year, I bring home a bunch of fragrant Maplecrest lilies. Sometimes I buy lily bulbs from the Parsonsfield company, but my wife tells me our gardens are out of space. And I’m always tempted by tools to make gardening easier – not to mention fudge. (Every garden show needs fudge.)

Speakers range from the mundane – I’m discussing invasive plants and answering questions at 10:30 a.m. Thursday – to the exciting – Kerry Ann Mendez, an author of several gardening books, including her latest on small gardens, will give a presentation on “The Right-Size Flower Garden” at noon Sunday. Other talks include O’Donal on deer-proofing your garden (not to be missed if the deer ate your daylily blooms last summer); Peter Felsenthal, who will discuss and show photographs from his book on six Maine organic farms; David Homa of Post Carbon Designs on bee-friendly permaculture landscaping; and Christopher Paquette of Robin’s Nest Aquatics on garden swim ponds.

If your schedule permits, get to the show early – both early in the week and early in the day. The gardens are at their best early in the show, and the show is less crowded Thursday and Friday. Also, the Morrison Center’s selection of orchids is much bigger early in the week.

This year’s show could be the last at the historic industrial site, where it has been held most years since 1998. The Sprague family sold the complex in 2013 but has been allowed to hold events there while the new owners work on redevelopment plans.

“We are in negotiation for next year,” Sprague said, “so I’d never say never.”

If the show can’t be held there, it may not be held at all for a couple of years. Maine Landscape and Nursery Association members have discussed sponsoring it, but have yet to vote on the proposal or find a large enough location with on-site parking. So don’t miss it this year – it might by your only bit of warmth for a while.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]

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