Matt Rader: Wake up and smell the hyacinths

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Matt Rader

“Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine to the mind.” 

― Luther Burbank, American botanist

Bonjour mes amis! Are you tired of these frigid temperatures? Ready for winter to be over? Well, we’re almost there. Spring is officially here on March 20, but if you can’t wait that long to get your green groove on, I suggest you head over to the Philadelphia Flower Show. If you haven’t been to the flower show before, it’s an event for the senses. Before you even enter the doors, the fragrance of earth and foliage and flowers in bloom teases you of things to come. When you get inside, you are met with a profusion of dazzling colors, shapes and sounds. The Philly Flower Show is known for its show-stopping entrances, and this year will be no different with the theme “Riviera Holiday.” 

This week we took time to smell the roses with Matt Rader, executive director of Philadelphia Horticultural Society (PHS), the organization that presents the show each year. 

How far is Mercersburg?

Mercersburg! My home town! It’s about three hours west of Philadelphia, right on the Maryland border. 

I read that you first came to the Philadelphia Flower Show when you were a kid. How did that happen? 

Oh my gosh, so my mom was from Burlington County, New Jersey. We came back here often to visit family. Both my grandmother and uncle were big flower show fans. I remember going to the flower show when it was at the Civic Center in West Philadelphia before it moved downtown and then later when it moved to Center City. 

Were you into the finer arts of horticulture as a kid?

Ha. I was more lawn and garden. I grew up in a small town of just 1,500 people, so it was a little place. My parents ran a couple of small businesses. A grocery store — kind of a small-town version of a bodega — a few rental properties and a single-screen movie theater. As a kid we had a big yard; I did hedge trimming and lawn mowing and snow shoveling — all under duress I might add. But then at some point, I got interested in vegetable gardening and flower gardening. My grandmother on my dad’s side taught me a little about growing vegetables, as did my dad, and I was given responsibility for taking care of them at home.

OK, back up. Did you just say you had a movie theater? 

Yes, they owned the little Main Street theater. Single screen, and I think it sat less than 200 people. It closed pretty early in my youth, “Karate Kid” was the last big-screen film they showed. But 10 years ago, it reopened with different owners, and they do country music jamborees there now along with a few movies. It’s wild. 

What was your favorite movie as a kid?

To be honest, I wasn’t a very good movie or TV person. I loved the movie “Clue,” but my brother was the big TV guy. I was more into riding bikes and being outside. I like to read and have some artistic pursuits but nothing too serious.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I went to third-grade at Catholic school in Chambersburg, which is very rural Pennsylvania. One career day, I decided I was going to be an interior decorator.

That’s great!

Yeah, I went in front of my class and talked all about interior design. Then in high school, I thought about being a landscape architect, a classicist (Greek and Latin scholar), a building architect or a historic preservation person. I ended up applying to a bunch of different schools pursuing a bunch of different majors and ended up at UVA studying architecture, and then switched over to architectural history in my last two years.

Tell me three of your favorite architectural structures in Philadelphia.

Oh my gosh, there are so many great buildings here! One of my favorites is a recent discovery, the Las Parcelas Community garden in Norris Square in North Philadelphia. They have two structures built by the gardeners. One is a replica of a farmhouse in Puerto Rico circa 1940, and the others are replicas of structures from indigenous peoples in the Caribbean. It’s the most amazing kind of vernacular architecture in Philadelphia that also, for the people who built them, was a way of expressing themselves within the urban fabric, which can be pretty homogenous. I also love the PSFS building; it’s a landmark for architectural history — the first modern skyscraper in the world.

Aside from the annual show, what are some of the things that PHS does?

A big part of what we do is working in neighborhoods, working with people to try to use horticulture as a way to improve quality of life and health and well-being. We help plant trees and take care of community vegetable gardens, cleaning and greening residential blocks and vacant lots, classes and workshops, and a lot more. 

What project makes you particularly proud?

Last summer, we produced a project called “Farm for the City.” We built a pop-up farm right on the plaza across from City Hall. It was a vegetable garden, and there was a team of people who were knowledgeable agriculturalists to help out. We grew food for the guests at Broad Street Ministries and taught passersby all about growing vegetables and community gardening. It was a really neat opportunity to have people encounter farming in a place they wouldn’t expect to see it. It was also a great cultural exchange, as people would stop by and talk about the traditional foods they grew that were passed down from their grandparents. It was really amazing. We also raised a lot of money to support community gardens in Philadelphia. There are hundreds of them across the city, and there’s no city agency that’s responsible for them. They’re mostly labors of love for people in a neighborhood, but as the areas get developed, people are losing these gardens.

That happened to us. There was an abandoned lot next to my house that I got fixed up, and we made it into a beautiful community garden. We would show films on the side of my house, and it brought everyone together until someone bought the property and built a giant house on it.

Yeah, that’s why we’ve been working really hard with the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, an organization that tries to make sure that that type of land gets preserved and that community gardens have access to good technical assistance, so that system of gardens can continue as the city grows. 

What do you like to do for fun outside of work? 

I like to go for long, long, long walks. My partner Michael and I will walk from Chestnut Hill into Center City on a Saturday. Last year I walked from Lansdowne to Bryn Mawr for an afternoon stroll. It’s an interesting way to see the world; it’s very contemplative. I also like to read a lot of books about history, a lot of books about cities. My partner is the organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas. He’s a musician, so I spent a good bit of time following him around and going to his performances.

What was an early sign that you were gay other than declaring to your class that you wanted to be an interior decorator?

I came out to my parents when I was 19, and at 16 to myself. But it wasn’t something I wrestled with; it was something I just realized. I never dated or had any interest in girls. I don’t know, it just was. I was concerned with how to communicate it and how it would be received, but in my last year of high school, I went away to boarding school in England, and it was a good chance for me to be out in the world on my own and figure things out. By the time I came back, I felt very comfortable coming out and moving on.

So, back to the flower show. How does your love of architecture influence what you do?

A lot of horticulture is about great design — taking spaces and using horticulture to improve them environmentally and make them more beautiful and/or productive. So for me, whether you’re designing buildings or creating gardens, you’re trying to craft something better than what you’d been given. At the flower show, we cultivate the best and brightest in the field, and we try to show how plants can make the world more beautiful, help the environment and take care of the people. We want to craft a show that is both gorgeous and educational and fun out of the concrete floors of the convention center, which isn’t a very forgiving landscape to work with, but we create something beautiful from it nevertheless. 

Indeed, you do. How do you choose the themes?

It’s a collaborative effort. We pass out questionnaires at the show and float a few suggestions out to our guests and visitors to see how they respond to which ideas, and we see which ones support our mission and are feasible for us to pull off!

Let’s talk about the theme this year?

It’s Riviera Holiday, and the focus is on the plants and designs of the Mediterranean region. It is an area that is experiencing a rapidly warming climate and reduced water. We’ve partnered with Monaco, which is a country that has a strong commitment to climate change research and environmental sustainability, and, of course, they have a connection to Philadelphia with Princess Grace Kelly. We will immerse visitors in the sights, scents and tastes of the region so you’ll see an enormous variety of Mediterranean plants — everything from olive trees, lemon trees, lavender and rosemary. We will have French designers attending and lots of workshops. There are also several new interactive experiences like the “PHS Grow It!” Center and Mobile “Pop Up” moments to show how some of the show’s incredible displays are brought to life. The Bloomin’ Brunch is also a new event held daily for foodies and horticulture lovers. The “Taste of Saint Tropez” themed Brunch will treat guests to an exclusive dining menu in a beautiful setting. The opening night party is ’80s themed and always a big draw. 

What’s your favorite family tradition?

The night before Thanksgiving, all the cousins bake pies together. It’s something we’ve done since we were in preschool. It started out in my grandmother’s kitchen, and we’ve kept it going ever since. She is no longer with us, but now the next generation of kids are participating as well. 

What’s the strangest conversation piece in your house? 

No question it’s … I can’t believe I’m telling you this; we have a porcelain statue of a baby that sits on our windowsill. I saw it at a rummage sale, and I thought it was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen, so I bought it, and it now sits on the windowsill and stares at everybody walking by. 

Most unusual job?

I’ve done a lot of different jobs, but my favorite crazy one was washing pots and pans in a hotel in Yellowstone National Park. It was a huge dining room, and we received piles of dirty pots. Somehow getting them all cleaned and shiny gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. 

What would you put in a time capsule?

I would put Philadelphia plants that won’t exist once climate change takes hold, so people can see the world we were surrounded by before it was gone. I’d clip the front pages from the Inquirer and the PGN, the Tribune and Al Dia, so we’d have a sense of what was happening.

Three favorite smells?

Hyacinths are a pretty good spring scent. That incredible perfume. I also love the smell of a newly mown lawn, particularly being barefoot and smelling the grass clippings underneath you — that’s summer to me. And, there’s something about the smell of the city when it’s wet. It’s not necessarily a beautiful smell, but there’s something intimate about it to which I attach. 

Others are embarrassed when you…

Mansplain too much. I’ll give you an example. Before I met Michael, I was on OkCupid. I love public transit; I think it’s really fun riding buses as a curiosity. Someone on the site expressed a similar interest, and I sent them 500 words on my favorite bus routes and why. Obviously, they did not respond. So if you ask me about a building, I’ll probably give you a whole lecture about it. 

So to wrap it up, I read that there are 4,000 volunteers for the flower show. Is it too late for people to get involved? 

Not at all, and it’s a great way to experience it up close. You can go on the website and sign up for the flower show or see what we’re doing the rest of the year. We have volunteer opportunities year-round. And here’s something most people don’t know, anyone can enter a plant or flower into the flower show competition. If you have something you’ve grown that you think is great, you can enter the flower show! It’s not too late!