What if you could complete a master garden design course in a day? That's what you get when you attend one of the major flower and garden shows in anticipation of spring. Certainly, looking through web sites, books, and magazines are useful ways to find inspiration, but walking through dozens of gardens in a day (sans bone chilling winds and snow drifts) is my idea of comfort and efficiency. Colorful container garden at the Northwest F&GS If you live anywhere near Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco or any of the big-time, celebrity-studded venues, you'll find the inspiration to push your design chops to the next level. True confession: I've only been attending shows for a few years, mainly to find fresh ideas to share with my readers. But even though I've been designing gardens since the 70s, each time I visit a show, I come away with new tricks, discover hot plants, and find innovative products to use in my own clients' gardens. (And this year, you can find me sharing my design wisdom at two West Coast shows, but more on that in a minute.) My intent isn't to diss the smaller regional shows scattered around the country, but the resource pool of top-of-their game designers, garden creators, and speakers can be limited. On the other hand, regional shows feature local professionals intimately aware of the opportunities and challenges of gardening right where you live. If a local home and garden show is as far as your spare time and budget can take you, by all means, get thee to a nearby exhibit hall and soak up everything you can. The following advice applies regardless: Purchase with Purpose We've heard the warning never to grocery shop when you're really hungry. The result? Finding yourself conjuring dinner from a bag of Chee-zee Poofs, a pint of Ben and Jerry's Here Comes Pastrami ice cream, and topping the concoction with a root beer reduction sauce. The same caution applies at garden shows, especially when you attend without a game plan: You'll watch powerlessly as you transform your SUV into a Third World bus with plants, tools, and bags cascading out the windows and lashed to the roof. But you don't have to submit to these torments. Here's how to get the most out of your foray to a show and avoid draining your Visa card. Color theory lessons abound at vendor booths. 1 Picture = 1000 Words: Bring photographs of your garden-the good, the bad, and the ugly. While looking through the lens, you'll get a sobering look at what's working and what's not, plus you can show designers and nursery salespeople the exact conditions you're working with. You don't even have to print them out if you save them on a digital camera with a clear display. Be Inspired: Sort through your Leaning Tower of Fine Gardening back issues. Review the dog-eared pages you found so exciting and describe what attracted you to those gardens-the color scheme, the serenity or excitement of the compositions, accessories that made you smile. Bring the best of the best clippings with you, so you can explain what you're hoping to achieve. Have a Game Plan: Sketch the areas you'd like to fix up to help set limits on your ambition. Jot down key data like the approximate dimensions, solar orientation, and soil type you're blessed (or plagued) with. Consider whether some of the plants need to solve a problem, like protecting a hillside from erosion or screening an eyesore. Right Plant / Right Place: Wouldn't it be cool if you could press the STOP button when a plant reached the size you want? Until someone develops an app for that, do your homework. Read the label for the plant's mature size (caution: it's variable), special needs, and hardiness. If the vendor isn't totally swamped, ask whether that adorable Heuchera you crave will thrive where you intend to put it. Smart phone users can instantly research a candidate plant at Fine Gardening's website by entering the name in the Plant Guide box. This is the info you need to avoid the overgrown mess that frequently comes from impulse purchases. Wall planters fashioned from goat feeding troughs (SFFGS - 2011) Attend a Seminar or Twelve: No matter what your gardening passion might be -- nurturing Mister Stripey heirloom tomatoes or creating a secluded fern grotto -- there's bound to be an expert or author sharing their knowledge. We're talking the Joe Lamp'l--P. Allen Smith--Alice Waters caliber celebrities. And then there's me. On Thursday, February 9 at 5:30 p.m., I'll be making my first appearance at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle. Join in the fun as I dazzle the crowd with a power-packed, entertaining lesson titled (take a deep breath; ready?) How to Design Any Style Gardening Using Locally Appropriate Plants. Gimme an hour of your time and I promise you'll depart a better, more confident garden designer than when you came through the door. Then on to the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show (the web site is currently being updated for 2012) where I'll try something never before attempted at a garden show (or maybe it has). We're calling it Tour the Garden Floor. Instead of sitting in a room watching my luscious slide show, I'll be your docent as we wander the exhibit gardens on the main floor, interpreting the designs and using them as walk-thru 3-D classrooms. If you miss the fun at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 21, I'll be offering a repeat performance at the same time the next day. So whaddaya think? January isn't over, so I think the door is still open for making one more New Year's resolution. Maybe this is the year you'll treat yourself to a big show and take your garden to the next level. For more, read last year's column: Your New Year's Resolution: Get Thee To A Garden Show View the discussion thread.