VENLO, Netherlands -- The sun is shining, trees are budding, and flowers are unfurling their brilliant petals a bit earlier than planned, thanks to an early Dutch spring and the hundreds of gardeners putting finishing touches on Floriade, the once-a-decade world horticultural exposition.
Organizers are reluctant to repeat the expo's historic billing as "the greatest flower show on earth," because, they say, horticulture encompasses the artistic, scientific and economic aspects of plant care rather than just gardening and looking at flowers.
Still, the flowers are bound to be a major draw, and there are a heck of a lot of them to see.
In all, 1.8 million bulbs have been planted across the exposition's 108-acre (44-hectare) grounds. That's complementing 190,000 perennial flowering plants, 18,000 shrubs, 15,000 hedge plants and 3,000 trees.
One typically Dutch garden already in bloom flaunts two adjacent vistas: one patch of royal purple tulips, mixed with grape and cornflower blue hyacinths. Adjoining it is an eye-popping combination of red and yellow tulips with red, white and blue "baby breath" hyacinths, also known as grape hyacinths. Folding chairs that look like tulips when they snap shut offer a place to sit down and take it all in.
More than 100 participants, often countries or regions, are setting up displays showing off some of their best-known foliage. Some, like China, have built whole pavilions devoted to the latest national trends in plant care and display.
It's "a different experience than a theme park or a zoo," says spokesman Mark Wijman. "It's a very relaxing place, just to walk around and see beautiful things."
Don't worry about missing the plants or flowers in bloom, Wijman assures a group of reporters previewing the grounds in late March, even as hundreds of workmen struggle to complete structures that will house the plants that are still arriving by the truckload: When one field of bulbs has begun to fade, gardening SWAT teams will toil through the night to uproot and replace them.
In addition, whole gardens of perennials have been planted in such a way that new blooms will unfold in different patterns and rippling colors as spring makes way for summer and fall.
Floriade runs through Oct. 7 and is counting on upward of 2 million visitors from the Netherlands and Germany alone, plus gardening aficionados, flower fans, and businesspeople in smaller numbers from every corner of the world.
Arriving visitors can get an overview of the massive scale of the grounds by taking a gondola ride over the treetops, looking down on the splashes of color and eccentric buildings far below.
While trying to get a handle on all there is to see at Floriade is daunting, there are five broad divisions.
To the right of the entrance is the "Green Engine," which includes "Villa Flora," the indoor part of the exhibition, showcasing "classic, modern, trendy and extreme" tastes.
Straight ahead of the entrance is "Environment," which, among other things includes a competition on office gardens and some of the expo's more commercial exhibits. One is a rather practical idea: Admire a particular garden layout and think it might look good in your own backyard? Nearby shops are selling combination packages of bulbs or seeds to help you try to replicate it.
To the left of the entrance is the "World Show Stage" which contains many of the national displays, as well as live performances in the late afternoon, and into the night on weekends. It's also one end of the aerial gondola.
On the other end of the gondola, far right of the entrance, is the "Relax and Heal" zone, where the structures are white, the tea is mint and the cuisine is mostly Asian.
And farthest opposite the entrance is "Education and Innovation," which has greenhouse displays including tropical plants from Asia and other equatorial regions, as well as the expo's largest displays for children.
Individual contributors fund their own displays, often with the help of local businesses eager to show off their country's best.
Germany's neighboring province of North Rhine-Westphalia province has funded a wooden structure of sloping angles, reminiscent of recent Scandinavian architectural designs, placed right near the expo's entrance. Its highly crafted display conceals miniature manicured gardens, unexpected vistas, and beanbags for visitors to relax on.
Perhaps with a nod to Europe's economic crisis, a Greek garden is simplicity itself: a grove of gnarled olive trees planted in rocky soil.
If you've heard of the Netherlands' 17th-century tulip bulb mania, you may enjoy seeing firsthand what all the excitement was about: Some of the strains have been kept alive and pure by aficionados, and are on display.
In "World Show" there's a stage for live performances near the end of the day, and some countries' displays – for instance Italy's – are located on a promenade along a man-made lake where kiosks sell snacks and offer spots to relax in the sun or shade.
There's a children's program in which youngsters lead their parents on a hunt through the grounds, giving adults a chance to take in the displays as the kids seek information to win a prize.
There are also playgrounds and buildings for children, notably the "House of Flavor," where kids can play interactive games. One display involves a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk plant with a tube of water stretching high up in the sky: Kids can operate a pump, sending a bubble of air floating upward.
Elsewhere kids can help fry vegetables with the help of staff cooks; another room lets them sit in the driver seat of a tractor as footage of fields being plowed rolls by.
One of the Innovation restaurants serves food featuring produce grown on the premises, including strawberries in at least a dozen varieties. White asparagus, a regional specialty, is grown in a crypt-like structure with a wonderfully creepy text above the door (so far only in German and Dutch):
"Here lies buried the white queen, yet she should not at all be mourned, for such is her life's desire and end."
If You Go...
GETTING THERE: Venlo is a small city on the Netherlands' eastern border with Germany. Venlo is 80 miles (140 kilometers) from Amsterdam and about the same distance from Brussels, a two-hour trip by car or train assuming no delays. It's slightly closer to The Hague or Rotterdam, and closer still to the Dutch cities of Maastricht and Eindhoven or Germany's Dusseldorf and Cologne. Shuttle buses run from Venlo's central train station to the fair grounds.