The 2014 Australian Garden Show Sydney (AGSS) was a good show. Perhaps I’m partisan as I judged, gave talks, and several GardenDrum authors built display gardens. But putting that aside, I think it was a good show with lots of sound fundamentals, although it’s still got things it should change, or fix, to move to the next level.
The Botanic Gardens did a splendid job in creating a Welcome Garden just inside the main entrance. It’s a pitfall of several shows (Melbourne and even Chelsea) that there’s no sense of arrival or ‘wow’, as it’s the perfect opportunity to set up expectations and a positive vibe. So very well done to Jimmy Turner, Director of Horticulture Operations, and his RBG team. The Welcome Garden proved a popular sitting and meeting point.
Eight BIG landscape gardens is a good display for any garden show, especially when they’re designed by some of Australia’s leading landscape designers. Each was quite different from the other, another good sign, with a wide range of shapes and spaces, materials, and ambience. Overall the build quality was good. Some had a couple of rough edges but, given the appalling weather over the previous week, I’m amazed they were as good as they were. Plant availability is always an issue when the weather turns nasty and this gave rise to a few surprising plant combinations. But the garden designers and contractors know this is always on the cards, so it was good to see their resilience and determination win through.
Added to that were the many small Balcony Gardens and four City Gardens. I’m a bit disappointed there weren’t more in the City (25m²) category as this is a size to which many show goers really relate, as it reflects the scale of their own courtyard, front garden or entertaining area. There’s many good reasons for AGSS to concentrate on building this up. The Balcony gardens were a delight, and I love it that so many young designers are prepared to give this a go. Full marks also to major sponsor Debco, which has kept up its support of these small ‘beginner’ show gardens for several years in both Sydney and Melbourne. (I’ll be writing up these wonderful small gardens later this week).
One thing that I don’t understand is why we have an English designer, Andrew Fisher Tomlin, fully funded to design and build at AGSS each year. I have nothing against Fisher Tomlin – he is a delightful and very talented man who has generously helped and encouraged several local designers. But why do we still have to look to England to give us international cred? Perhaps I’m wearing my Colonial chip on my shoulder but it bothers me to bring out someone from England when we could support so many local designers with that money.
Alternatively, I wish we would recognise Sydney’s geographical position in Asia, and bring in the highly esteemed Ishihara Kazuyuki from Japan, John Tan and Raymond Toh from Singapore, Lim In Chong of Malaysia, or Jihae Hwang from South Korea. I daydream and imagine the entirely different demographic of migrant or first generation Asian garden lovers who would come to see one of these highly-acclaimed designers, and sigh deeply at the missed opportunity.
There is also an issue with display garden funding, with non-Sydney designers being offered money to come to the show, and locals not. I can understand why those from elsewhere need help to be at a Sydney show, with their extra accommodation and travel costs, but (much as I love these designers and value their work) it’s not then a level playing field. As a Sydneysider, I feel that building up local support by spending it on Sydney-based designers would be a much better return on investment.
There was controversy over the judging of the main display gardens, with a disappointing number of higher ranking medals – only one gold and two silver, plus five bronze. This was explained away as necessary to “maintain a high international standard” so AGSS can claim international show credibility. While some in the industry worry about such things, I doubt that most show-goers care one way or the other, as evidenced by one of the bronze award winners, Phillip Withers, receiving the Peoples’ Choice Award.
Fortunately for me in the City and Balcony garden judging it’s more about encouraging and supporting (mostly) younger or inexperienced designers rather than looking for faults. That said, I think there was a very high standard of design and construction work in those smaller gardens, especially considering the next-to-nothing budgets for the build.
Centennial Parkland’s Brazilian Fields is locked in as the location for AGSS. I can see why from a practical view – it’s got nearby roads on two sides for construction access and is equidistant from the Park’s main entrances. But it still suffers from the feeling like you’re out in the middle of a big, empty paddock, even when it’s filled with gardens and tents. It compares poorly to the Melbourne show which is allowed to nestle in under the shelter of Carlton Garden’s mature trees, giving designers a rich borrowed landscape and a sense of enclosure with which to work. At least this year the installation of underground power removed the need for noisy generators, but it’s still a weak point.
The location also proved a weak point for how it could handle two weeks of very wet weather. After 2013’s dry dustbowl, we had a muddy quagmire to deal with. Weather is nobody’s fault but runoff ‘rivers’ running through some of the display gardens is pretty severe. Despite the duck boards brought in, I was mighty glad of my gumboots on Sunday.
I’m sure there are exhibitors chopping and changing until the very last minute but I still think that AGSS could do better with its layout. The main landscape gardens are set so far apart and back from the next row of exhibitor tents (Ross Garden Clinic), it makes them look like they’ve all fallen out of the sky and the location look more paddock-like than ever. If a pathway is too wide, then it needs a much bigger crowd to fill it and generate that show ‘buzz’. The main display garden avenue is a crucial part of creating that buzz, but these gardens are way too far apart for that to happen.
Conversely, in the central area of the show around the balcony and city gardens, the perpendicular row of exhibitor tents (23-35) is so close to the gardens that I couldn’t really photograph the winning City Garden (G30) properly. These gardens deserve more space.
The Talks and Entertainment
What a range of speakers and topics! This is seriously one of AGSS’s major strengths and if you only went to the show for that you would have got your money’s worth. Support by the local gardening industry kept three talk stages running through most of the four day event, with everything from how-to demonstrations to more abstract topics, PLUS there was the garden2kitchen demos and the floral pavilion. I just wish I’d had more free time to hear some of the great people who were there.
While two weeks of rain can’t be predicted (nor last year’s month-long hot and dry spell), the beginning of September is a really DUMB time to have a garden show in Sydney. It shows that those driving the timing don’t have enough horticultural knowledge to know that Sydney is NOT a September spring city. Our native plants’ spring is in August, so they’ve already peaked and gone, and the plants that really shine in Sydney’s dry subtropical climate are still dormant, or heading into dormancy for a November flowering. Maybe the decision makers grew up in a garden filled with azaleas and think that’s what Sydney gardening is about. Sigh.
This means that many of the plants in the display gardens have to be year-round doers like succulents, palms or clipped evergreens, or flowering, trucked-in, out-of-towners that don’t really grow well in Sydney at all. And, of course, it locks out many local small plant nurseries which sell Sydney-appropriate plants as those plants won’t be looking their best for another couple of months. Fortunately the up-coming Plant Lovers’ Fair at Kariong will cover that beautifully but it’s a missed opportunity for AGSS and a stranglehold for designers trying to make Sydney-appropriate gardens.