Catherine StewartAustralian Garden Show Sydney Review

The Australian Garden Show Sydney 2013 has one more day to run. I’ve been there for 3 days now, checking out the exhibits, show gardens, crowd and location…..and food of course. This is a brand new show for Sydney, which hasn’t had a large outdoor garden show since Sydney in Bloom disappeared nearly a decade ago. While AGSS has had some glitches, I think this show has a bright future and that 2014 will be a cracker.

Phillip Wither's garden 'Viridis'

Phillip Wither’s garden ‘Viridis’

I can’t quite imagine how you go about pulling off a show this size, especially in such a crazily short time frame, with many in the horticulture industry only finding out details of the show’s ‘when and where’ about 4 months ago. Given that, to see 7 large, plus 6 smaller show gardens appear in the Centennial Park location seems like a miracle. I think many in the landscape design and construction industry felt it was too short notice to be involved and have been doing a bit of a ‘wait and see’ before they commit to participating next year. But I’m hearing some positive comments about that from a number of industry contacts so I’m confident the number of show gardens will grow in 2014.

What deserves a thumbs up:

1. That the show exists

Brendan Moar's garen 'Suspended'

Brendan Moar’s garen ‘Suspended’

2. Large show gardens from Brendan Moar (a Best in Show that was worth coming to see by itself), Myles Baldwin, Jim Fogarty, Phillip Withers, Charlie Albone, Indira Naidoo and of course the UK duo of Andrew Fisher Tomlin and Tom Harfleet having fun playing around with Australian plants.

3. Small and student gardens by Peta Donaldson (Best Urban Garden), Katie Burgess, Lilly van Epen, Christopher Owen, Samuel Chamberlain and Yallah TAFE

4. The garden talks – THESE ARE FABULOUS and quite unique to AGSS. If you’re reading this and it’s still Saturday night, change your plans for Sunday! The ‘Sharpen Your Garden’, ‘Seeds of Wisdom’ and ‘Sustainability’ talks have shown off the cream of local gardening talent and been packed to overflowing during the day, and the range of expert information available is more than in any book or TV program you’ll ever find. And of course there’s also that fab fun duo of garden2kitchen cooking up a storm. I overheard one woman say she had paid for an ‘all days ticket’, and come each day to attend about 6-7 talks every day, and that it was well worth the money just for that.

5. The gelato cart

6. Coachwood Nursery – veteran show exhibitors Ruth and Peter Donnelly are always a big favourite. Their well-priced, collectible succulents and cactus plants are loved by those who want to take home a little something as well as those looking for an unusual addition to their garden.

Busy buyers at Coachwood Nursery stall

Busy buyers at Coachwood Nursery stall

7. Ross Garden Clinic – Graham, Sandra and Linda Ross are one of Sydney’s gardening dynasties who make time to engage with every gardener who comes looking for their advice. I have watched them all work hard these past few days and seen how pleased those show goers were as they left with some reassurance, or new knowledge, or just pleased to have had some time with a person who’s on the telly. And I loved the white coats.

8. Alpine Treemovals for a great display of large containerised stock.

Jim Fogarty's garden 'The Last to Leave'

Jim Fogarty’s garden ‘The Last to Leave’

9. Jim Fogarty and Andrew Fisher Tomlin/Tom Harfleet for using so many beautiful Australian plants in their gardens.

10. Florilegium’s pop-up book shop has been a huge success and helped many local authors presenting talks to sell their books, with organised book signings after a scheduled talk.

What deserves a thumbs down

1. The price of a child’s entry ticket. While under 5s are free, $20 is just way, way too much to pay for your kids aged 5-18 years to come along to a garden show (which a 13-16 year old will probably do only under protest/bribery anyway), and it really showed in the crowds, with a conspicuous absence of both that age group and their GenX parents. Make it $10 next year and I’m sure there’d be a huge increase in both kids and their parents, which would be a net gain for everyone.

Wide open, treeless spaces at AGSS

Wide open, treeless spaces at AGSS

2. The spacing of the exhibits. Maybe it was wishful thinking that there would be more exhibitors coming on board late in the day, but the stalls and gardens are too widely spaced to give the show enough buzz.

3. Activities for kids – the Twigz Young Sprouts Kid’s Spot is great, but located way out on the show fringe. While I know that the wildly successful Chelsea Flower Show is a very posh place that doesn’t even allow entry to under 14 year olds, I think that a more family-friendly event with lots of kids activities would be a win-win for this Sydney show. More baby animals and some adventurous face painting would probably be enough to do the trick.

4. No shade. I’m sure that the Centennial Park trust has dictated a ‘keep out there beyond the tree root zones’ requirement but with 2 show days topping 30 degrees, it’s been unbearable. The dark sandy soil with its thin grass covering seems to reradiate heat. Siting the avenues of stands so that there was some intervening shade trees would make a huge difference. And for those looking for somewhere to sit in the shade for a rest, it’s been really difficult.

The lack of shade has also affected the photographability (I think I just made that word up but you know what I mean) of the show gardens. With intense bright sunlight every day, it’s been pretty impossible which is hard when these designers need to make plenty of mileage out of their time and money investment.

5. Lack of entertainment around the show area. I’m comparing this to MIFGS, but the presence of buskers and street performers really makes a difference to the mood of the crowd and the feeling of fun. They could be self-funded in true busking style. Note that I’m not advocating the ubiquitous MIFGS pan pipes….

6. This will probably not win me friends but I do have to question the necessity, wisdom and expense of bringing international ‘stars’ like Andrew Fisher Tomlin and Patrick Blanc to AGSS. They are talented designers to be sure, and I can understand the wish to have this show get some international cred but don’t we have enough of our own gardening and design ‘stars’ to do this? It feels like cultural cringe to me to import talent when we grow our own so successfully.

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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.

22 thoughts on “Australian Garden Show Sydney Review

  1. mary on said:

    Definitely far too expensive for a family event. Very little value for money.

  2. Jo on said:

    I quite agree with your comments, and would like to add that public transport was a problem. We caught the bus from Central Station, where the only sign we could see indicating which bus to catch was handwritten on A4 paper. The bus dropped us near the Paddington (I think) gate, but we then had to walk quite a distance to the show – rather exhausting for several elderly people. This certainly put a damper on any purchasing, knowing we had to carry everything back up the hill. Compared to MIFGS and Floriade, it was rather disappointing (and expensive), which is rather sad for all the people who put a lot of work into it.

    • Yes the show location was almost right in the middle of the park which I think makes it at least a 700m walk from any entrance, and a real uphill back to the Paddington Gates. Maybe a shuttle electric ‘train’ like they have at the Botanic Gardens would work.

  3. I agree with you about the spacing of the exhibits, as well as the lack of trees or shade. Perhaps the location was the only one available, but it would have been nice to have more greenery (rather than burnt grass) as it felt more like a Field Day in the outback instead of an oasis in the middle of Sydney. I went on Thursday and the two talks I attended were a bit disappointing. Definitely not value for money. Left me wanting.

    • The talks were a bit of a odd mix. Developing a few themes could work better, such as a day devoted to edibles, another to design talks, maybe one to native plants and another to reuse/recycle etc so that people could pick a day which would really reflect their interests.

  4. Erica on said:

    The food was very disappointing and we would have liked a board in front of all the talk venues with a list and times and more seats. We walked away from some of the talks because we had to sit on the grass in the hot sun.
    It would have been lovely if the landscape designers had been able to design the route so that the audience could have been lead through the show, rather than the open scattered arrangement. Better luck next year.

    • Agree very much about a talks list at each of the venues. They were announcing talks over a PA by Saturday, but not on Thursday or Friday. And yes re the show gardens! Would have been so much better to have them both nearer the entrance and not in a disjointed line.

  5. Del Thomas on said:

    Hi Catherine, thanks for your candid summation, I couldn’t get there and was dying to hear how it all came together (in the short time frame..!) and what the comments are…as you say…’I think this show has a bright future and that 2014 will be a cracker.’..!!

  6. Chris Slaughter on said:

    It saddens me that so much positive has been tossed aside with return comments. I too attended the show throughout and sure the weather was just unbearable but tolerable. Lets consider the time of year and the fact that we had summer conditions at the start of spring. How anybody was expected to predict this is beyond me. For a brand new show I say bravo for everybody who has the guts to give it a go. Sydney lacks massively any real form of collective horticultural, design etc events and it is just so encouraging to see us trying to rectify this. Furthermore, for a brand new show placed under current economic difficulties I would say first class. Might I also suggest the element of international designers is not a case of what we have ourselves and more of creating a platform for ourselves to be able to compete internationally and having such representation demonstrates this. I can assure you such persons would not of come if there was a doubt of the shows intent.

    • Hi Chris,
      thanks for your comment.
      Would it not seem that a Garden Show titled “Australian Garden Show Sydney” might suggest an absence of international talent (just for once ..BTW) and a focus on design talent from here in Australia … ? Rather irritating then that those invited from the other side of the planet would be here to make a garden from plants native to Australia…. Not that I’m suggesting design talent from wherever it comes is limited to planting from those respective parts of the world each designer comes from …ludicrous no ? Certainly I’ve designed gardens here for years comprising plants both exotic and native, why not ..

      No, what I’m saying is that for a very long time, perception from Event Management companies here has been that the (Australian) gardening public won’t attend their event, without the allure of design expertise “names” they feel have more credibility and therefore pulling power than could otherwise be got from local designers to get bodies through gates for their event … How refreshing it would be to see them engage more accurately with this vast gardening public craving just one thing,

      “… show me knock out gardens made from plants that will inspire my interest, then let me buy those plants at the same event FOR MY OWN GARDEN.”

      True, it won’t matter to THEM where the designers come from and my point is that since that’s the case, wouldn’t it be cheaper for the Event Company if they did come from here … ? Local design expertise with local connection to the best planting to REALLY DO IT FOR THEIR EVENT, without the last minute panic of having to support an unfamiliar designer new to town in connection to growers who would have stock under tremendous time sensitive pressure “to produce” beneath a smog of jet lag.

      Instead new show dates are typically focused on a “popular spring” in September, strangely, a time of year in Sydney when planting that excels here simply hasn’t flushed enough or at all, to make the kind of high impact a serous gardening public requires for return loyalty the following year. In Sydney’s case, this means that a dazzling and expansive planting band width only a few months later that could be shown, is lost to other considerations on dates that suit chief sponsors to kick off THEIR earlier program of events ….. someone should tell the plants if only they could perform earlier too all would be well but they don’t seem to understand money, imagine…

      Better to make less feature of “names” both local and elsewhere and get the Event Management company’s to invest in “plant porn” show gardens, the real hard core stuff that speaks UP to an expectant Gardening Public in content and information serving great interest in improving their own gardens.

      Now, Catherine has said that,
      “The ‘Sharpen Your Garden’, ‘Seeds of Wisdom’ and ‘Sustainability’ talks have shown off the cream of local gardening talent and been packed to overflowing during the day, and the range of expert information available is more than in any book or TV program you’ll ever find.”

      …so it appears that these have gone some way towards a well attended Speakers Program supporting the circulation of valuable information the Gardening Public are gagging for across a desert of mediocrity and misinformation elsewhere – GREASSSHHHHH

      I can also assure you Chris from experience, that “such persons” are very happy to take the $’s on an overseas event all expenses paid, while local talent who have the chops for the job and reach to the planting that would please the Event Manager and the Gardening Public, go begging on “too early” erroneous show dates .. by this time the beaujolais is long finished and everyone has walked away, pity.

      • A fine rant there Peter! According to what I’ve been told, the show’s early spring timing was fixed by Destination NSW so the show would be a ‘curtain raiser’ for subsequent NSW spring events. It was NOT the preference of the show organisers. Pretty typical to have decisions like this made by those who know nothing about gardening and I agree, this is just wrong for Sydney’s climate and a real shame. November would be way better but no doubt someone would rant on about it being “too close to Christmas” as if that’s the only focus of our summer existence.

        • Hi Catherine,
          yes on Destination NSW “curtain raising” purposes for a September date. I just wish they would highjack someone else’s industry that doesn’t depend on the immutable forces of nature for its “wow factor” in a September date for Sydney like some hapless rag doll of the Event World.

          What if AGSS COULD be a show date anywhere from November to May as a star performer on Destination NSW event calendar and use a Boat Show, Motor Show, Dog Show, Holiday Show, Sports Show, Baby Show, Wine & Food Show, Fashion Show ANY show to get the punters in, who, as it turns out, are AS happy to go to any of these at any time of year regardless but as it happens for this September kick off …

          But no, no it HAS to be a Garden Show at just about the worst time of year when its dependant planting looks soooooo not “show ready”. Its like settling for just a piece of sky when there is sooooooooo much else on offer during a seven month period when it would be hard NOT to have a good show in combination with much of the current content.

          As it is, how will the Event Management company (who do VIVID I believe) secure loyalty for another 2 years with a fraction of the planting and “facing the curtain” of their audience desperate for a glimpse of Show Gardens made with the real thing.. Expert talks with pictures are a poor second but I expect will HAVE to do, combined with growers of interesting non general line clever enough to get around the “September plant dearth” problem like Peter & Ruth Donnally at Coachwood but I could count the growers on both hands in this position.

          SUCH a pity as it means alienating the vastly un-mined Gardening Public while steadily losing steam to the third year…. no ? ipso facto Sydney in Bloom that was a little later I think but still suffered the same fate because content still wasn’t “planty” enough in speaking up to its audience.

          Rant completed.

  7. Alexandra on said:

    It was expensive. There were few gardens to look at. It was primarily a venue for resellers of garden products…and I paid for that privilege! Not going to be conned into going again

    • But what show exists, whether it’s about gardens or boats, that isn’t primarily supported by vendors selling products??? Where have you been to one like that? At the much-loved Plant Collector’s Fair, the stalls are nearly all nurseries selling product. The very successful Queensland Garden Expo has maybe 2 or 3 small gardens, and the rest of the show is about selling products. The commercial reality of putting on a show is that it has to be supported by stallholders selling, or you’ve got no show. And this garden show had more value-add with garden talks than any show I’ve ever been to be before.

      • yes, completely agree with Catherine on this one… Have to have re-sellers to support the event being on in the first place. Just have to watch their content doesn’t incline towards the jumping castle and steak knives end of the spectrum for a gardening event. Coachwood Nursery comes to mind as a good example in line with an new event wanting to be garden focused …

        • Judy on said:

          Great to read some interesting comments on the garden show in Sydney last weekend. I took my daughter along, travelling from Townsville in north Queensland to do so, as she had never experienced a large garden show before. I have been fortunate to attend many both in Australia and around the world. Our immediate experience was not good, as we walked from our hotel in Bondi Junction to Centennial Park, and failed to see one sign indicating the direction one should take to find the entry gate. We weren’t the only ones either, a number of people joined us as we trekked along vainly looking for some guidance. Signs next time people, big ones, Centennial Park is a huge space so even a sign that indicated which gate to enter would have helped. Nothing mentioned on the event ticket either. The overall show experience was a bit disappointing from a plant sales point of view and variety of exhibitors, I really like this aspect of garden shows and also the bibs and bobs that go into a garden as well, small statues etc. The show booklet needs to have everything cross referenced so you can find things easily. The show gardens were well described but had no reference points to find a particular one. The lack of shade, seating and catering booths was also frustrating, a lot of us can’t afford to eat in the restaurant style marquies. I didn’t mind the size of the space the show took up as it did allow for ease of movement around, as anyone who has been to Chelsea will verify the crowds of people can make it almost impossible to view the show gardens. I wish the organizers all the best for next year, and hope that they take on board all the feedback from this year’s event. A big plus for me was getting to meet my favourite landscaper, Brendan Moar.

  8. Janette on said:

    I went to the show on Sunday I did remark to my friend that lucky I was cooler than previous days as there was no shade and I do feel angry that we were charged $35 for what?? The show gardens were great but not many to look at the rest was people selling there wares and I’m paying for that! I’m very disappointed for $35 I think I have a right to expect more. And why do I have to pay a surcharge with tickitek when I’m buying the ticket at the door??

    • That’s a good question about the Ticketek surcharge. I will inquire. But I’m mighty puzzled about your objection to people selling wares as I can’t think of any garden show in the world that doesn’t have exactly that, including Chelsea, MIFGS, Qld Garden Expo, Ellerslie……Some have more gardens as balance but not all eg the Qld Garden Expo has only 2-3 gardens and the rest is stalls. Would more nurseries selling their products have made a difference?

      • Craig Thompson on said:

        A garden show without nurseries selling plants would be akin to a hardware store not selling tools. The successful garden shows have nurseries and growers falling over themselves to exhibit. Unfortunately, for this show, this wasn’t the case. Too little time and not enough promotion. Why didn’t the show’s website list the exhibitors attending until the day of the show? How is the public supposed to get excited about it if nobody knows what to expect. Sure the speakers side of the event was well promoted as was the night-time bar, but not the stalls. Many of these things can and no doubt will be attended to in time as the show grows and lessons learnt, but the old adage that first impressions count will remain in the minds of many.

  9. Anna on said:

    More than half of the attraction of attending garden shows is being able to purchase plants which are unavailable in local nurseries or can only be purchased on line and also being able to meet the people who are only names on a website. I didn’t attend the Australian Garden Show so can’t comment it but appreciate Catherine’s appraisal. I have spoken to one person who had a stall at the Collectors Garden Fair and though he had been approached to attend he thought that it was, in his words, “too commercial”. I do notice that this particular person will be at Kariong at the end of September along with many of the nurseries who were at the Plant Collectors Fair.

  10. Dann on said:

    The $35 was pricey, but not that bad considering.
    It was hard to get around with 2 toddlers & our early arrival just meant we couldn’t get on the bus.
    More shade is necessary? Can’t they just get a bunch of more large tree nurseries to pave the wave. Perhaps offer a free stand for them.
    I will return next year, but won’t bring the kids. We didn’t go to the kid zone as it was too far away and they were hot.
    I also thought the exhibitors were great. Got a sprinkler for my hoselink and they gave me a show discount. some cute garden ornaments, a yellow pear tomato and cuc’s for $3. I was in Bunnings today and they wanted $6 for a boring old red one.
    What more do you want for your entry?

  11. Judy on said:

    Sorry Peter my overall review ended up under your comment. Judy

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