Putting the Glitter
into Gardening

One of the displays from this year's gala preview of the Cincinnati Flower Show.

By Lauren Byrne, Contributor
August / September 2002

Gardening isn’t all gumboots and green fly. At the gala preview of this year’s Cincinnati Flower Show, Mary Margaret Rochford, President of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society, looked more like a fashion doyenne than a gardener, and even the brightest blossoms were temporarily eclipsed by the city’s glitterati, out in force (and considerable style) at Cincinnati’s Ault Park, home to the show Better Homes and Gardens magazine has hailed “the king of all flower shows.”

“We’ve experienced every kind of calamity. One year it was locusts,” says Mayo-born Mary Margaret (MM to her friends) who originated the show that annually welcomes 50,000 visitors. That was thirteen years ago; nowadays, thanks to a battalion of dedicated volunteers and a handful of hardworking employees, the week-long event runs like a well-oiled juggernaut, but it’s still MM’s show when it comes to keeping everyone happy — from touchy competitors, to time-pressed judges and pushy sponsors — not to mention praying for good weather.

“You hate to put it down to just one person, but it’s been MM’s drive and energy,” says John Elsley, a director of the renowned Klehmn’s nurseries, after a day of judging landscaped gardens that ranged from a mini version of Elton John’s famed Woodside garden, to the corn stalks and wild grasses of a Native-American garden.

“Just jump in, tackle it and get it done,” has been MM’s guiding principle since she left the Maris Convent in Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, in 1960, and headed for Cincinnati at the invitation of some cousins who offered to put her through college there. It was while doing volunteer work that she met the wife of the chairman of the city’s then largest department store and was offered her first job.

“I came in at the executive level without any credentials,” says the diminutive MM, adding with typical gusto, “But whatever I lacked in formal education I was willing to make up for by working like hell.”

Motherhood tempered MM’s ambition. Director of Fashion for Saks Fifth Avenue by the 80s, she retired in order to spend more time with daughter, Maeve (coxswain for Boston University’s boat crew, who has already caught the attention of Sports Illustrated magazine.) Approaching the Cincinnati Parks Department, MM suggested they contract her to organize an annual flower show. The bureaucratic route didn’t work: “I got absolutely fed up with them,” MM remembers. “`Damn it!’ I said. It’s a good idea. We’ll do it ourselves. So I took out a mortgage on my own house and started it.”

MM went straight to the top, enlisting the help of Chelsea Flower Show’s organizer Stephen Bennett who shared with her the rules and regulations of the most famous flower show in the world.

“You don’t hear about too many shows, but Cincinnati’s is in the big picture and MM started it from nothing,” observes the English-born Elsley, who also worked with the Chelsea Flower Show before coming to the United States. “To the city’s credit they see its importance.”

Named “Woman of the Year” in 2002 by the Cincinnati Enquirer, MM’s appetite for challenge is still at full throttle. Vexed by the image of Cincinnati on national TV, she recently initiated a project to embellish downtown Cincinnati with huge flowerpots decorated by artists. It’s to give people “a sense of joy,” she explains simply.

“Quite the dynamo,” is how Cincinnati’s Mayor Charlie Luken referred to MM when the speeches got under way after dinner at the gala event. Practically everyone who mentions MM uses the same hackneyed phrase: perhaps because no other description fits so well. ♦

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