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Washington Voices

Inspired by cats, sisters saw garden expo take root

Thu., May 10, 2012

They are three sisters and they’ve always lived in the Spokane Valley house where they grew up.

They agree that their love of gardening and all things growing and green began about 18 years ago when they took in Oliver, a stray cat. Oliver had a fenced run in the backyard but not much to look at in terms of plants or wildlife. And so the planting began.

“That may seem odd, but we started doing our garden because we wanted entertainment for our cats when they were out in the run,” said ViAnn Meyer, who together with her sisters Della Meyer and Chris Sheppard are the creators of Spokane Garden Expo on Saturday at Spokane Community College.

When the sisters began planting flowers and bushes to attract wildlife, they also got involved with the Inland Empire Gardeners; together with a small group of other members they traveled to Seattle for the big flower show there about 15 years ago.

“We just loved it,” said ViAnn Meyer, “and we came back to Spokane saying, ‘Why can’t we have a show like that here?’ ”

Sheppard said the other home and garden shows tend to be more about hot tubs and interior design and not enough about gardening. The sisters contacted a garden club in Boise to get help and advice, but they couldn’t get anyone in Spokane to co-sponsor the show.

It turned out they really didn’t need a co-sponsor: at the first three-hour Garden Expo in 1999, which was at a regular Inland Empire Gardeners meeting, 23 local businesses and 300 visitors showed up. At last year’s expo there were 370 garden vendors and an estimated 30,000 visitors.

“That first time, when 300 people showed up, we knew we were onto something,” said ViAnn Meyer.

The first full-day expo was in 2000 after the sisters secured a larger venue: It’s been at Spokane Community College on Greene Street since then.

In the early days, they sent out letters to businesses they thought may be interested in having a booth at the expo, and over the years word spread quickly.

On Saturday, there will be 60 plant vendors from Spokane, Seattle and Oregon among more than 300 businesses showing their garden-related wares.

“It seems like the bigger the show gets, the more mom-and-pop stores we get,” Sheppard said.

Community college students also sell plants they’ve grown in the SCC greenhouses.

“It’s turned into more of an all-day outdoor festival,” said Sheppard. “We have a kids corner with special activities for children, and just so much going on all day.” The show now has a food court featuring ice cream, espresso and other snacks.

As the show grew, so did organizational demands. Suddenly the sisters needed to rent portable bathrooms, meet fire district regulations and make sure everyone selling food has the health permits needed.

“There’s just so much to do,” Sheppard said.

ViAnn Meyer keeps track of every booth, vendor and speaker using a system of binders and folders developed over the years.

“We do some stuff on the computer, but most of it we still do by hand,” said ViAnn. “Everyone wants a map of the area, but if we had to print it out it would be 18 pages long – that’s just too much to hand out.” A small four-page vendor pamphlet corresponds with large maps at the expo making it easy for everyone to find their way around.

Sheppard is the show manager and her husband, Mark, is in charge of security.

“He’d love to help everyone unload their stuff in the morning, but that’s not physically possible,” Sheppard said.

It takes 60 volunteers, working all day, to make sure the expo goes off without a hitch.

“There is no way we could do it without all the volunteers,” said Sheppard.

So what’s new at this year’s Garden Expo?

ViAnn Meyer said to expect lots of ornamental grasses, fancy hostas and exotic perennials.

“The newest trend is blending perennials and edible plants and vegetables in the same flowerbeds,” said ViAnn Meyer.

The sisters live together, garden together and work together – don’t they ever get tired of each other?

“No,” said Sheppard, whose husband is the only man in the Meyer household. “We get along just fine and we have this great big house were we all have a private area.”

They are proud to be the trio behind the Garden Expo, and they are grateful for all the help they’ve received over the years.

“We knew we had to start it by ourselves if we wanted to see it happen,” said ViAnn Meyer. “And sometimes you just have to ask people for help and you’ll be surprised how much they’ll do to help you.”

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