“I grew up in Mississippi,” says Phillip Watson, the out QVC personality who’s making an appearance on March 5 during a special LGBT Night Out sponsored by G Philly during the 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show. Not only does Watson have a lot to say about the fine art of horticulture, a passion he’s enjoyed since he was just a kid toddling around the backyard with his aunts, but also his new book – Pleasure Gardens – a kind of garden-lover’s memoir interwoven with spectacular landscape designs.
Watson says he first formally studied horticulture as an undergrad in his home state. “Upon graduation, I tricked my father into sending me to grad school,” he says. “But I didn’t want to go to grad school. I took the money and moved to Fire Island.”
It was the mid-1970s – well before the AIDS crisis would forever change the popular gay resort town. The twenty-something Watson would take up landscaping duties for the legendary Belvedere Guest House. His family, all the while, thought he was attending the University of Georgia. The charade went on for many years.
“I stayed in Cherry Grove,” he remembers. “It was 1976 and full tilt on Fire Island.”
Today, as a host with QVC, the gardening expert makes his home in West Chester. “I’ve spent 16 winters here,” admits Watson, an affable Southerner with no shortage of charm and a passion (make that obsession) with rare plants. During his fabled career, he ran a plant nursery, belonged to a gay horticulture society and rubbed elbows with many famous clients for whom he’s designed lavish landscapes.
“Horticulture never gets old,” says Watson. “New things are always coming on, new varieties of old favorites and new plants that people have’t tried before.”
And his advice to even the novice gardener is: Do a little research before digging up the dirt. “You can get cuttings from botanic gardens and grow it yourself,” he says, whether you’re working with an outdoor landscape in the suburbs or even just a deck or windowsill in the city. And there’s a lot to learn from the Flower Show, he says.
The out president of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society Drew Becher will also be on hand during LGBT Night Out to introduce Watson and to chat about the show and some of the unique projects the PHS is currently working on in the region.
This year’s Hawaiian theme is one that’s especially close to Watson’s heart, having long used tropicals in landscapes where they may be least expected. “They used to be only sold as house and gift plants,” he says. “You can put them right into your borders without spending a lot of money. And it creates a resort feel to your garden.” He says you can even find exotics at places like Home Depot nowadays.
Watson explores these and many other hard-earned gardening tips in his book (attendees will be given copies) with no shortage of life lessons and funny, poignant personal stories.
“The book gave me an opportunity to not just reflect on my career, but to remember people who influenced and inspired me,” he says, “and who took me in and took care of me, and guided me and taught me – those first clients who said yes when I didn’t have a track record. They took a chance on me. And they made a huge difference.”
As a boy, it was his great aunts that first introduced him to the outdoor world in the backyard of their Mississippi home. “I think you have to own all of who you are,” says Watson. “If you’re not honest with yourself, you can’t do good work for anyone else.”
G Philly‘s LGBT Mixer, March 5 (6 – 8:30 p.m.), Pennsylvania Convention Center, Ballroom A (enter at 12th and Market); Watson is also giving a lecture during the Flower Show – Garden Magic: Big Ideas for Small Spaces, March 8 (1-2 p.m.).