Here at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (or MIFGS for its regulars) it’s certainly a-buzzing. Possibly a few less big show gardens and stalls than previous years, but the high quality work is still there. Wandering down the main avenue of show designer show gardens, there is plenty to catch the eye, and I would have to say that the material of 2012 is undoubtedly TIMBER, with cor-ten rusting steel (as much as I love it) finally starting to look a little last Thursday. The garden inclusion of 2012 is definitely the fire-pit, popping up and filling several otherwise nicely shaped sitting areas. Why is there such a compulsion to fill every ground-plane void in current design? But I digress – more of that tomorrow.
Before I venture into the world of big-ticket show gardens, I’d really like to start with the more modest Avenue of Achievable Gardens, sponsored by Debco and the Nursery and Garden Industry of Victoria. Built by students from 5 of Melbourne’s TAFE colleges: Swinburne, Chisholm, Kangan, Holmesglen and NMIT Greensborough, this selection of about a dozen gardens was the best I have ever seen. These tiny little gardens, barely 10 square metres or so are a very difficult design challenge – to look like ‘something’ when there’s barely enough depth for a sitting, let alone swinging cat. Did someone raise the bar this year and require this crop of landscape students to jump it? Whatever the reason, I was really impressed with the individuality of the designs, the interesting use of different materials, the variety of colour themes and the high build quality of each display.
First up is ‘Verdure Ignited‘ from Chisholm TAFE, designed by Peta Donaldson and constructed by Jessica Swift, Kate Penny, Anita Kormitzi, Matt Trueman, Stuart Albela, Tim Chedra & Nicole Gibson. Contrasting red and greens give this garden some sass but I also liked the shape of the curved stone sitting wall, the rough texture of the reddish timber wall that gives it protective ‘back’. I’d lose the firepit, but look at all those wonderful vertical lines, and segmented rectangular shapes in the stone wall, background trellis, mirrors and paving, fluffed up with fresh green grasses. Yummo.
Second down the avenue is the fun ‘Life’s a Beach‘ also from Chisholm TAFE, designed by Felicity Ashurst and built by Keith Smyth, Matthew Rose, Liam Frogley, Jason Wimital, Amy Dowson, Scott McHarry and Steve Leo. Beach boxes were part of Melbourne’s seascape from 1862, the explanatory notes tell me but I’m already smiling as I look at these delightful little cut-outs, each cleverly made semi 3D by adding doors and vents, especially as I watched a young visitor named ‘Elijah’ run straight into the garden and attempt to open one of the doors. Surrounded by coastal plants with warm-toned flowers, I could easily imagine sitting there and taking in the sun and sand stretched out before me. On that fabulous bench (ahh, I covet it much).
Strolling on, I come upon another Chisholm TAFE garden, called ‘Idiosyncrasy‘, by Bethany Finch, Drew Taylor, Angus Hardeman, Julie Harrison, Damian Toner, Jack Stevenson and Lewis Wilcox. Built around a vintage clothesline, this is a garden to look at, rather than imagine yourself in. As a show garden, it suffered a little from its more realistic planting spacings – show gardens really have to be ridiculously overplanted to give them that kapow look. I like the unusual arrowhead-shaped deck area (although I see this was different to the original plan) and the contrast of lime-green lomandras with the rich purple-reds, especially the burgundy ficus.
Across the way is ‘Romance That’s Out of this World‘ by Wade Tankovich of Kangan TAFE. What an innovative use of a trompe l’oeil background photograph, to instantly take me away to some romantic mountain get-away. Based on a theme of rings (as in one romantically placed upon your finger) and the box that housed it, this garden really did speak of a love nest for two, surrounded by dainty and fine-textured foliage. Approached through a framing arch, the sun kisses the top of the mountain while the loving pair survey their domain. Yes, it is romantic, and in a surprisingly ‘ungirly’ sort of way.
‘Modern Living in the Victorian Bushland‘ by Ben Hutchinson of NMIT Greensborough celebrates Victoria’s indigenous vegetation. The garden features a narrow triangle of decking that spears into the soft, surrounding plants. Using the boards lengthways along the V shape accentuates its dramatic form. This garden is deceptively simple – it’s a place to relax (maybe with thicker cushions), to listen, and to enjoy the spicy scents of the bush. And the texture of those ferns – I am so there.
‘Fantasy of Art‘ by Michael Barette, also of Kangan TAFE, is the prize-winning entry of these student gardens. What a terrific plant and colour palette Michael has used. Soft, brick-red sedums, bronze-gold nandina, the quiet greys of westringia, lambs ears and the steel mini-orb backdrop, and dark purple aeonium reflect exactly the colours on the artist-inspired inclusions. This is fun and I think I could live very happily with 3 giant paintbrushes in my garden.
‘Melbourne Tropical Oasis‘ by Tamara Koelmeyer of NMIT Greensborough is a refreshing change. I don’t think I’ve ever seen coleus used in a show garden before, or papyrus, or palm grass. Not being a Melbournian, I have no idea whether these plants actually grow there but they sure look fabulous. I really like this garden – its restful greens, its lush foliage, the spiral path in crunchy gravel – they’re all real feel good.
The next plot’s garden is ‘Restful Companion‘, by Cara Hinsley of NMIT Greensborough, which won 2nd place. Designed as a sustainable garden of edible plants, companion plants and surreptitiously incorporating a 2000li water tank disguised as a raised vegie garden, Cara has given this concept (in my slightly jaded opinion) a fresh twist by adding in a romantically swathed daybed. I’d thought I was over both edible gardens and daybeds, but together somehow they form quite an irresistible combination. Lying down and plucking some fruit – hmmm – very me. (Just don’t ask me to cook).
‘Perspective‘ by Kim Earl at Swinburne TAFE could also be called Ode to Proteaceae, with a beautiful collection of Proteaflora plants giving colour, texture and interesting form. I’ve never heard of Brunia stokoei (Majira), so that was educational for me too. Those copper, burgundy and grey colours combined with fresh green are the ‘in’ thing and I love the timber and dried plant decoration.
Another Swinburne garden called ‘Recycle, Reclaim and Reuse‘ by James Duffy, Nathaniel Kidgell, Josh Sullivan, Sam Miller, Ranen Wilson and Mitch Gobel is a real hoot. I once saw a stepped brick fence with an old planted-up shoe on each step and here it was reincarnated in spirit in this fun garden. It sends a clear message – don’t be precious about your design and materials – you can use anything to make a garden if you add a little creativity and humour.
‘The Darkest Corner‘ by Bonnie Hibbs, Jacob Burness, James O’Loughlin, Luke Wilson, Michael Karageorges, Naomi Jenkin and Rhiannon Kilpatrick also of Swinburne was actually bathed in sunshine when I saw it but I liked it all the same. Reminding me of an English folly garden, of gloomy ruins and gothic sensibility, the imaginative use of plants here really impressed, especially using Ceropegia (chain of hearts) draped about the ruin and the eerie look of a sparsely foliagreed elm wreathed in air fern (Tillandsia). Building a convincing ruin is much harder than it might seem, and this was very well done.
The next two gardens from Holmesglen TAFE have a similar inspiration. Building a garden is an impossible dream for many renting a house, and these two gardens provide clever solutions. ‘Moveable Garden‘ by Tomoko Nishada at Holmesglen TAFE uses a checkerboard pattern of interlocking decking, pebble and planted squares and then replicates that pattern on the vertical in a cor-ten screen. A very practical design for a small courtyard, and easy to remove if and when needed. I love the tiger grass and the contrasting charcoal pots on pale pebbles.
Mahli Cadman’s ‘The Rental‘ picks up the same relocatable idea, but what a different garden. Crisp turquoise and lemon combined with mint green and both pale and darker grey is, I am sure, a colour combination I never seen before in a show garden, but it certainly works. Very chic retro 1950s.
‘The Birds and the Bees‘ by Brooke Nolan (also from Holmesglen) has 3 elements that I love together – fine crushed gravel, smooth pebbles and large broken-edge stone pavers. Native Australian plants provide restful grey-greens and cor-ten rusting steel and leucadenrdrons some rich, earthy browns. And there is my favourite seat again!
If I have any advice to these wonderfully talented TAFE students, it is: keep up the good work; don’t be afraid of tipping a garden off balance, of moving that seat out of the middle; don’t feel compelled to fill every void (a good garden needs empty spaces as well as volume; and widen your colour palette (less red-brown perhaps). But that’s all being pretty picky, because I honestly wouldn’t mind looking out my window at any of them. Favourites? Probably the imagination of ‘The Darkest Corner’, the practicality and universal appeal of Moveable Garden and the simple happiness of Life’s a Beach. But it was Verdure Ignited that gave me my first ‘wow’….