Catherine StewartTAFE NSW Landscaping Challenge 2012

At Sydney’s Royal Easter Show, on now until 19 April 2012, four local TAFE colleges battled for supremacy in landscape construction in the TAFE NSW Landscaping Challenge.

Drawing lots to choose one of four student designs, the landscape students, many in the second year of their apprenticeship, but some still in pre-apprentice training, must show prowess in building a range of design elements including paving, decking, walling (there must be a level change), a water feature installation, planting, turfing (or installing artificial turf) and mulching. Judging looks for details like precision cutting, even joints, neat check-ins of timber work and alignment of fixings. The landscaping teams can also add elements to the design, such as lighting, sculpture, wall art, or more utilitarian inclusions like water tanks and clotheslines. Choosing the correct materials is a must, as is trying to make the whole landscape construction as ecologically sustainable as possible, including recycling or reusing materials.

With over 100 apprentices gaining valuable real garden building experience during the construction of the four gardens, this is a great teaching exercise. Landscape teachers at the four TAFEs strongly support their teams, as do a host of generous sponsors.

As one of the competition judges, I was really impressed by the high standard of this year’s gardens. The judging was a very difficult decision, and we had to delay the presentation while we tried hard to separate the scores and finalise the placings, as the gardens were all very close. The difficulty was compounded by one of the gardens being a much more challenging build, both in set out and construction ingenuity. It had really tested the Northern Sydney Institute Ryde TAFE team, which had done a superb job, but they were pipped at the post.

Winner of the 2012 RAS Award went to Illawarra Institute Yallah campus for a very high quality build. Many of the materials, such as bamboo flooring and recycled timber decking, reduced both the ecological footprint and cost of the garden. An innovative reed bed water filtering system, water tank, clothesline combined with good craftsmanship to bring home the top prize. And what a clever display concept they’ve used, building sliding glass doors into surrounding walls so that it seems as if you are looking out into a small garden. Brilliant.

Runnerup Ryde had a wonderful (and Melbourne Flower Show worthy) circular design by Caroline Gallagher to work with, but it also proved to be both a set-out and construction challenge to get it built from scratch in the allotted time. With no time left for those necessary last minute touches, Ryde could not catch Yallah, despite the beautiful inky-black pond, crisp white deck and well executed planting. I even liked the slightly rumpled artificial grass laying – perhaps not exactly to plan, but maybe accidentally giving a textured ‘meadow’ look which contrasted well with the smooth, clean lines. It’s good to hear that at the end of the show this garden is to be reconstructed in the Ryde campus grounds, as it is a truly unique and wonderful show garden design.

Third place getter Padstow produced another high quality garden with superb paving, well fastened decking and a truly professional sandstone block wall. I also really liked the way the pebble mulch around the water feature used a combination of many different sizes for a naturalistic look.

Fourth place went to Richmond. This was hard, as it was still a garden of excellent workmanship. A strong diagonal axis created some set-out challenges which were well-handled, and the planter beds, seats and water feature made from recycled stone were precisely cut. Nice work.

I’m sure there were valuable lessons learned by all the students. Apart from improving their skills with materials and tools, I know they will also benefit from learning how to interpret a garden designer’s intent, as it is that mutually respectful and creative combination of designer and landscaper that makes the very best gardens.

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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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