Catherine StewartMelbourne Flower & Garden Show – 2012 Flemings Student Comp

I’m looking at Flemings Student Design Competition today, which has been running for several years now. Quite a few of the winners, like Yen Ong, have gone on to make a name for themselves in Australian garden design.

The brief is tricky for someone who has never done a show garden before – work out how to protect the parkland before your build by covering the grass and distributing the weight of any heavy inclusions (like ponds) over as wide an area as possible to prevent ground deformation. To protect the heritage-listed park and trees, no ground penetration is allowed. For a 6m x 6m site the budget is tight ($3000 + plants), the labour limited (120 man hours) and while the preferred plant selection is indicated what exactly you’ll get is unknown until a sponsoring nursery is allocated to the project.

The brief for 2012 is ‘The Sense Garden‘, using Oscar Wilde’s quote:

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul”

Four finalists are selected on the presentation of their interpretation of the brief (10%), creativity (30%), design quality (20%), proposed construction techniques (20%) and planting choices (20%). They get to build their gardens, and then the winner of the Don Fleming Student Design Award is chosen once the show opens.

[As an aside here, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Don Fleming for his continued support of high quality garden design in Australia. His contribution via this student award and his continuing and very successful forays into Chelsea have done a lot to raise the profile of landscape design here.]

The winner of the 2012 award is Ross Uebergang for ‘Eden‘. A round, rich-red bed sits centre stage in this secret fantasy garden, framed by hedge walls of pear, maple and magnolia and looking out through a odd-shaped viewing window. The red theme is carried over into the foliage and flowers of maples, the rusty leaf backs on evergreen magnolias, bromeliads and gerbera, as well as the red-browns of cor-ten rusting steel edging, chandelier, decoration, water-feature table and the stained timber furniture. Stiff spikes of Sanseveria replace table legs. I love the lumpy ‘carpet’ of small clipped hebe, the crazy angles of the viewing window, the mad idea of a table that’s also a pond and the way such a heavy looking bed just floats in mid air above it all. I’m less fussed on the mirrors as I don’t think they work so well here, but look at those little details like the array of plant-filled glasses and the foliage texture contrasts. I expect we’ll see Ross U Landscapes on a fully-fledged show garden one day.

Rourke Hartwig‘s entry ‘The Illusionist‘ has show-goers gasping in disbelief. I have to confess that I also went around the back of the garden to check how it all worked. I’ve often written about using mirrors in garden design to create illusions of space but I have never seen it used so cleverly and effectively as Rourke has here. Where exactly is that spill-over water feature? Or the wire ball sculpture? When I asked him from where the design inspiration had come, he confessed that it was when he was out mowing. What a dangerous precedent to set! Using 30 degree and 60 degree angles in the set mirrors, this garden looks twice the size of its tiny 36 square metre plot. And then there are those lovely stripey, lines in paving and pergola timbers, which are cantilevered over a side wall so they can stop mid-air. A simple but lush planting scheme of lilly pilly, bromeliad, ferns, rheo, and variegated mondo fills every nook but there’s still plenty of space for me to imagine myself in there too. And the build quality is exceptional.

The Gift‘ by Phillip Withers features stone hands giving you a basket filled with seating area, firepit and candles, from where you can look out over a mass of fresh green foliage, silky grasses, spikey orange banksia flowers, and yucca rosettes. Stepping stones give access to all areas and a gentle water rill connects the two stone hands. There is a lot to enjoy in this garden – I have to admit orange is my favourite colour so I’m already keen, however, while I can see the idea behind the stone hands in the design, I think it would look much better without them. The plant selection is both bizarre and yet outrageously perfect. From my recollection all those plants could actually grow together but I doubt anyone has thought of doing so before. Gerberas with yucca? Banksia and windflower? Banana and acacia? And yet……….I dunno, it just works. Wow – well done Phillip.

Esther Sughito (self-confessed wearer of black apparel and eternal optimist) has designed ‘Coffee Street‘, which taps into Australian’s obsession with this dark, sensual, wonderful drink, to which I must confess I am hopelessly addicted. A coffee cup with mondo and poa ‘greenwall’ recreates a Melbourne terrace house complete with cascading dichondra ‘iron lace’ and featuring a window servery, old milk crates for patron seating, coffee bean gravel between Melbourne’s favourite bluestone paving and light-coloured grassy plants for a little coffee froth. I really like Esther’s ideas here, but somehow I wanted it to all look a bit more gardeny and pretty, however that’s my failing, not hers. It’s the best thing at a show to have something that stretches our notion of ‘what’s a garden’ and MIFGS is usually pretty conventional, so I’m really glad this garden is here.

For more info on these talented up-and-coming designers, visit Four Designers

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

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