Catherine Stewart3 small gardens a landscape challenge

For several years now I have been judging this little landscaping competition. Three of Sydney’s TAFE colleges that teach landscaping, Padstow, Yallah and Richmond (there were four but Ryde now goes its own, independent way) bring in dozens of apprentice landscapers to build three small gardens at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. The results are a little bit about design but mostly about stretching the skills of the students.

Richmond TAFE's winning garden

Richmond TAFE’s winning garden

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor many studying landscaping, being an apprentice is a long slog of mixing mud, carting materials and trying to learn on the job. This TAFE Landscaping Challenge gives them the opportunity to show off their abilities in brickwork, block work, stone masonry, turf laying, carpentry and planting but even more importantly, problem solving.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs every landscaper knows, quick and clever problem solving on site is a large part of the job. What often separates the good, and successful landscaping companies from those whose businesses do not thrive is not skill so much as necessary flexibility. This flexibility sees good contractors keeping faith with their designers when things don’t work out as planned, and also finding solutions for a client’s problems, whether those problems are budgetary, environmental issues or unexpected site complexities.

Can you see the secret screws?

Can you see the secret screws?


It’s also a good opportunity for these future builders of tomorrow’s landscapes to learn that a garden plan, even by a good landscape designer, is not a set and forget exercise. Unexpected site conditions requiring recalculations, experimental materials or applications of materials in new ways that go either swimmingly well or drastically wrong…..the best tradespeople will be those who are willing to take some risks and also work co-operatively as part of a team, getting to know their own strengths and weaknesses and being willing to subcontract out the components in which they are less than the best.

The TAFE Landscaping Challenge is a very short, four day build of a 6m x 6m no-dig garden over concrete (so ‘no dig’ really does mean ‘no dig’, unlike some of the more creative interpretations we see of show gardens built over grass). Other constraints are that the gardens cannot have any walls and there is no power to them after the build, so any pump or lighting has to be solar powered.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe design theme for 2014 is ‘Gardens of the Forest’ and judging considers design (20%), construction complexity 20% (so teams are not penalised for a good attempt at a much more difficult design), choice of construction materials (10%), ‘green’ skills 10% (using environmentally responsible materials), innovation and extras (10%) and planting choice and placement 10%.

Richmond TAFE

Winning garden by Richmond TAFE

The winner this year was Richmond, aka Western Sydney Institute of TAFE. I liked the way the designer had rolled the ground plane up in one corner to create an internal view with lush planting and a small cascade, plus this gave some extra height for the tall shrubs. Siting a small, covered sitting area where it works the diagonal is also a good technique for stretching the feel of a small space.



I also liked the checkerboard feel of the path with the offset pavers, the bespoke cut out patterns on the screening and the ingenious swinging mirror. I didn’t like those male and female symbols on the ground as I felt they cluttered an otherwise nice space, and the green painted vegie/herb garden didn’t quite match. There were also some really nice construction techniques used, like a secret screw system for the decking, and green inclusions like a solar powered pump and hidden rain tank with only its green downpipe an odd jarring note.




Yallah TAFE

2nd place to Yallah TAFE



Second was Yallah, or Illawarra Institute of TAFE, with a nicely laid out sitting area, again with its own internal view of a still, black pond and lush subtropical plants. there were some really lovely inclusions in this garden and some exceptional workmanship.



Sometimes workmanship isn’t how well something’s been done but how cleverly, and that way the roof screening was slotted into the pergola noggins created a superb result.




The seat was also beautifully built and had exactly the right curve and tilt to make it very comfortable and the bespoke cast seeded concrete pavers added some interesting detail.

Painting the cutouts of the breezeblock walls is another clever inclusion, giving an impression of stained glass from a distance although I can sympathise with the students allocated this painstaking job. Design-wise I think there’s a bit too much going on in this garden – too many different round/petaloid shapes in particular – but all in all a very nice garden in which to sit.

Padstow TAFE

Padstow TAFE

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThird this year was Padstow, South-Western Sydney Institute of TAFE. With a previous design being capriciously withdrawn only a few weeks before the event, Padstow had to really pull a rabbit out of a hat. This children’s fantasy garden has some really lovely features. A tannin-stained brown stream adds a nice bit of mystery, as does the cute hobbit-style cupboard in the corner and the drapery of Spanish moss.





Dominating the garden is a ‘tree’ made of she-oak trunk and slotted branches, covered with lush greenery from hanging baskets and then topped with a solar panel. I think some more imaginative planting choices around the garden, and a less splintery version of recycled timber would have seen this garden get higher marks.

The overall standard of work in this competition continues to impress me. Oh that I had found so many competent contractors in my designing days! The quality of timber joinery, stonemasonry and brickwork is very high and every year there’s better attention to all the details that really set a quality job apart.

My only qualm for the future of this competition is that I have questions over the receptiveness of the audience for which these gardens are being built. Having watched the surrounding crowd for about 15 minutes later in the day, out of about 100 passers-by, I didn’t see one person walking past stop and give any of the gardens more than a cursory glance. Maybe it’s the fact that the TAFEs abandon the gardens to the show as soon as the judging is over and there’s no one around to spruik TAFE to passers by, or even explain why these gardens are there. Maybe it’s a lack of explanatory signage. Perhaps it was just the crowd on the day. Whatever the reason, it makes me worry that this is not the best venue in which to showcase our landscaping students and their formidable talents, as these are good gardens deserving of much more attention.

The show garden about an hour after the awards were presented

The show garden about an hour after the awards were presented

If you’re going to the Sydney Royal Easter Show in 2014, you’ll find these little gems outside the Flower and Garden Pavilion until the show closes on Wednesday 23 April – and do give some feedback by casting your vote for the People’s Choice.

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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. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

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