Catherine StewartReview: 2014 Australian Garden Show Sydney

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.

AGSS 2014 Welcome Garden by the Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands

AGSS 2014 Central Allee of the Welcome Garden by the Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands

First Impressions

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.

AGSS 2014 Welcome Garden - Mt Annan section, by Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands

AGSS 2014 Welcome Garden – Mt Annan section, by Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands

The Gardens

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.

AGSS 2014 Best in Show 'Open Woodland', designer Myles Baldwin

AGSS 2014 Best in Show ‘Open Woodland’, designer Myles Baldwin

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).

AGSS 2014 'The Unexpected Garden' for the St Vincent's Curran Foundation, designer Andrew Fisher Tomlin

AGSS 2014 ‘The Unexpected Garden’ for the St Vincent’s Curran Foundation, designer Andrew Fisher Tomlin

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.

AGSS 2014 'Refugium', by Sydney-based designer Adrian Swain

AGSS 2014 ‘Refugium’, by Sydney-based designer Adrian Swain

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.

An Alcove (Tokonoma garden) Design Ishihara Kazuyuki

An Alcove (Tokonoma garden) Design Ishihara Kazuyuki, Chelsea 2013

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.

The Judging

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.

AGSS 2014 Peoples' Choice Winner - 'My Island Home', designer Phillip Withers

AGSS 2014 Peoples’ Choice Winner – ‘My Island Home’, designer Phillip Withers

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.


The Location

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.

AGSS 2014 layoutThe Layout

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.

Adam Woodhams on the HMA stage at AGSS 2014

Adam Woodhams on the HMA stage at AGSS 2014

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.


The Timing

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.

A small courtyard garden filled with Sydney-appropriate plants. Design Peter Nixon.

A small courtyard garden filled with Sydney-appropriate plants, photographed in March. Design Peter Nixon.

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.

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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.

11 thoughts on “Review: 2014 Australian Garden Show Sydney

  1. Great review, Catherine. I also thought the show was good. Much more buzzy than last year. I admit to taking a slight intake of breath whilst reading your Andrew Fisher Tomlin remarks but, despite being born British, I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment. We have done English gardens to death and would learn far more from looking to Asia now. On another note, whilst it occurs to me that the run up to the show is quite a good fit with horticulturists’ downtime (although I don’t think many of us have had downtime this winter), we are going to struggle to keep the ideas fresh with a limited plant palette. It is an important skill to learn to be flexible but when you have the perfect fit plant and it is not available you feel like crying sometimes!

    • Thank Janna. I did hesitate before writing my comments about Andrew Fisher Tomlin’s show involvement as he is such a nice and generous man who I know personally approached some of the City and Balcony designers and encouraged them to have a go at a show garden. But I do feel strongly about Australia’s place as part of SE Asia and would love to lure in a whole new demographic of recent migrants by emphasising that content. And the plant palette is indeed very limited when what’s really a late-winter show date is imposed on the designers and nurseries.

  2. I agree, great review! Since I couldn’t attend it has been wonderful to read your no-holds-barred comments – which are very thoughtful and practical. And to pick up on your encouragement for the younger/newer designers. Hope your gumboots have dried out OK…..

    • Yes, you can always rely on me to have an opinion. But I do hope it’s seen as constructive rather than just critical. And yes, the gumboots came up trumps. They should have quickly moved the stall there that sold gumboots to the entrance area!

  3. Oh I so agree with your thoughts especially on it relating to all gardeners. We commented on the fact that it was aimed at small or balcony owners and yes this is a Sydney show but there are lot of us country attendees who were underwhelmed.
    We went on Saturday and it was a quagmire with wide expanses of nothingness and even a few empty stalls. But at least we didn’t have to cope with a crowd. 🙂

  4. Great review Catherine. We happened to be in Centennial Park on the Friday that the Garden Show was on, but felt the cost, even at seniors rates, just too prohibitive, to wander around through slushy fields, dodging showers and that from outside resembled a circus compound.
    We spoke to a young couple who had been into the show, they were not at all impressed with the Gardening Show, especially as it set them back $70 entrance fees.
    Over the years we have attended many gardening shows, but reached the point where they just all appear same, same and nothing ever has a ‘wow’ factor like the Chelsea Flower Show that I have only ever seen on TV.
    Must agree with your comments on bringing a Brit designer in for the show, Australia does indeed have a wealth of talented designers who should have been utilised to showcase their amazing ‘aussie gardening knowledge’

    • Hello dirtgirl! I’m always intrigued about people’s expectations of garden shows. I think this one delivered good quality content, so I wonder what that young couple were looking for that they couldn’t find. As far as ‘wow’ goes – wow costs lots of money – much, much more than people might think. Chelsea’s backers are big non-horticulture companies, like banks, charitable trusts and insurance companies, but similar companies in Australia have not yet made the connection between their customers and a demographic of garden lovers. Given its advertising schtick, you’d think that BUPA could see the connection! And of course Chelsea has been built up over 100 years, not just two. If we don’t support our garden shows in their early, formative years, we will never have anything like a Chelsea.

  5. I went to the show on Sunday with my wife and there are three things that stuck in my mind:

    1. Mud
    2. Vertical gardens and succulents
    3. Very expensive pot plants.

    I shall not be returning next year. I can see much better use for my $70.

  6. Unfortunately Bill must have missed the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens stall selling a wide variety of plants at their normal, very reasonable rates 🙂

  7. Hi Catherine,
    Great review of the Australian Garden Show – Sydney.
    Firstly, for total disclosure, I am one of the Victorians that crept over the border to do a garden and I am one of your Gardendrum writers (and I am 2/3 of the way through writing a blog)
    2 weeks ago I would have completely agreed with your opinion of Andrew Fisher Tomlin being at the show. After being onsite and being able to spend time with him and listen to him and learn from him my opinion has completely changed. I feel he was an amazing addition to this garden show. I understand that I was a part of inner sanctum of the garden show and I got to spend more time with Andrew than the general public however as a designer, if people want us to push the boundaries and create the ‘wow’ factor that some readers are saying this show was missing, face time with someone like Andrew is something that will help our industry evolve and give some of the young designers the confidence to push boundaries. It is as a shame more people didn’t get to share what he so generously offered other designers at the show. Let’s hope he comes back to Australia next year and spends some time sharing his wealth of knowledge again…
    The timing of the show is a very tricky topic. October or November show, Nurseries are sold out of plants and to be honest I wouldn’t even consider it as I am normally too busy at that time doing paid work. I had a lot of trouble getting plant stock to the point my garden was put together in 6 weeks and I got a sign off on the majority of plants a week and a half before I was on site and the day I got to site I still didn’t have any trees locked away for the garden. It’s brutal to then read blogs from people picking holes in your design and your planting of your garden when you wrote a plant list of a nursery’s availability list on their website and hadn’t seen a plant until the tailgate of the truck folded down on site. At the end of the day, I chose to put myself out there and do this show so I will take it with a grain of salt. But I can openly say that the amount of effort by all designers and contractors of the gardens of all sizes should be applauded. In general the people in our industry are pushing hard to help this garden show succeed. We are big enough to have an Autumn Garden Show and a Spring Garden Show. The event’s staff and director were amazing and are pushing hard to make this show better every year. They are open minded to creative criticism and want this to be a success for everyone involved. We do however need more people helping this push forward. I for one will happily stand aside for a NSW designer to take my spot, I will even offer to help advise if they wanted anything I have to say that may help. But until Sydney designers understand the positives us Melbourne designers have been able to learn from MIFGS maybe I will have to come back. Let’s aim for 10 show gardens next year and close up those gaps between gardens and have some a new breed of designers come to the party.
    I agree with you and let’s get 10 city gardens and 10 balcony gardens at next year’s show.
    Ok… maybe I should go and finish writing you a blog.
    Australian Garden Show Sydney = VERY GOOD FOR OUR INDUSTRY
    Kind regards

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