The eight Inspiration Gardens at the recent Australian Garden Show Sydney showcased lots of ideas for small to medium sized gardens, both in the way they used space and levels but also in materials, colours, textures and planting combinations. I liked them all in different ways. Some were spacious and serene, others energetic and colourful and the others settled in somewhere between.
But before I get into talking about each garden, I want to share some insight into these designers as a group. I know many of them quite well and have always found them to be very welcoming and helpful. But then I’m in the horticulture industry so that’s an obvious bias. However earlier this week, a media industry colleague told me that she and her partner had gone to the Australian Garden Show Sydney on Sunday. When I asked her about her show experience, she immediately said how much she had got out of talking to the designers at their show gardens, how friendly and chatty each of them were and how they all were very free with their advice and design tips. She couldn’t care less about the rain – she was inspired! For her, it was an excellent show just through that engagement.
There’s two things to think about there. First, if you’re a designer and are thinking about creating a show garden, learn from these wise experts and really polish up your interpersonal skills and talk to your audience. Even after 4 days of rain, mud, difficulties and thousands of conversations, these AGSS designers were still at their gardens and as approachable and upbeat as when they started. Now that’s a true professional. They might not get a commission today, but I’m sure my colleague will be recommending these generous, personable and talented designers to everyone she knows.
Second, if you’re a show visitor, don’t just skulk about without interacting with exhibitors at a show. Yes, you can ‘just look’ but that’s not what will enrich your knowledge and make your ticket purchase worthwhile. It’s the conversations you do (or don’t) have that will change your whole experience. I suspect that those who came away feeling they’d not had a good time or had wasted their money will realise they didn’t talk to a designer, listen to a talk and ask questions, or pick a nursery experts’ brains about every plant on their stands.
And now, for the eight Inspiration Gardens.
NOTE – this is going to be a good news story, not a critique. Most of these designers are my friends, so I just can’t go there. Instead, I’ve tried to distill what I like about each of them as designers, and also what I really fancied in each of their gardens. If you want to read criticisms rather than what to admire, you’ll have to get your jollies elsewhere.
(And click on each photo to see a much bigger version pop out for better detail
1. Myles Baldwin’s garden Open Woodland won Gold and also Best in Show and was a beautiful and elegant split level design, with a cantilevered pavilion in charcoal and blond wood over a dark pond. However it was the colour palette that really stood out. Apart from green, it’s almost monochromatic, using variations around a slightly pinky brown through to grey-beige, in flowers, stabilised deco-granite pavement, timber and stone.
It’s rare to see such a restrained palette in a show garden but I think it creates a restfulness that allows the proportions of ground plane shapes, and plant form and textures to take centre stage. (I can feel a blog about monochromatic gardens coming on….). I also really love how that froth of Viburnum tinus flowers spills from one level to the next, and the balance of stiff rectangular shapes with informal, rough-topped hedging.
At the rear of the garden is a hint of Myles’s popular ‘gardenesque style’ using palms, ferns and pittosporum for a jumble of foliage textures. My only question was the lack of physical connection between the two levels, with no step down betwwen the two. When I asked Myles why, he said “because I didn’t want one”. And there the matter rests. (GOLD AWARD and BEST IN SHOW)
2. Tread Lightly by Christopher Owen. If you didn’t know Christopher was a quietly spoken, thoughtful man you could easily guess it from his garden. In fact, I find it hard to imagine Christopher sitting down at a drawing board or computer to design his gardens. I suspect he just sits in the space, and imagines and dreams them up out of some soulful place, and they emerge from his mind into solid reality around him.
Christopher’s design, constructed by I’ve Got Time, is an excellent example of the power of using the ‘thirds rule’. (Look at the placement of both the firebowl and the reused timber seat.) His garden is beautifully balanced between the oily smoothness of dark water, the rough textures of split timber, and hard metals, all surrounded and supported by dense, lush foliage. I love the starring role he gives to the burnished hoop pine bark. Everyone wanted to go into this garden and just sit. And be. (SILVER AWARD)
3. Peta Donaldson’s (Natural Design) The Pavilion, created in association with Green Art Gardens shows off her command of space, proportion and just the right amount of contrast. I think white is the hardest ‘colour’ to get right in a garden and she uses it so confidently and expertly, ‘de-icing’ it’s colder, clinical side by combining different surface textures in the pavilion lining, smooth columns, brick work, terrazzo pavement and snazzy pressed-relief back wall.
Peta decided to go wild with her feminine side in this garden, bringing flowering shrubs and perennials into her usual mix of undulating clipped shrubs.
I love the counterpoint of the tall, dark narrow conifers with the huge white terrazzo steps that seem to float one above the other, defying their apparent weight, and also the softer circular shapes mixed with rectangles. And where was that music coming from? A high-end bespoke garden sound system made it impossible to pick any speaker source. A very classy garden. (SILVER AWARD)
4. I’ll now look at Phillip Wither‘s My Island Home, constructed by Semken Landscaping, for a complete change of pace. Phillip is an energetic designer whose gardens show an infinite talent for combing plants in new and interesting ways – cactus with flowering shrubs, kangaroo paws with palms….I see them on his plant list and think “how on earth is going to pull this off?”. But of course, he always does and both show goers and I love his colours, the feeling of movement in his gardens and his obvious sense of fun. And how about the wow of that jewel box of succulents, just like a pool filled with coral. I bet that’s already being replicated in hundreds of home gardens.
Phillip designs his show gardens to take people away from their current head space to somewhere new, and he definitely succeeds. Look at the arrival fun of that undulating timber boardwalk and bridge. Never the expected, boring way for Phillip! And when I saw him in his new green jacket, a perfect match for his garden colours, I knew he was a designer who lives and breathes it. (BRONZE AWARD and PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD)
5. Brent Reid of Candeo Design is a regular at the Melbourne show and his garden for Sydney, Cache, constructed by long-term show garden partners Semken Landscaping, showed some trademark skills – handling level changes and putting together distinctive planting combinations, especially using tonal contrast as you can see in the B&W photo version (right). Brent makes gardens that anyone can immediately picture themselves in as they’re approachable, seemingly effortless and deceptively simple. But as anyone who has tried to design their own garden knows (me included!), achieving artistic simplicity is paradoxically difficult.
I love the islands of foliage, anchored by straight tree trunks, the way he breaks up his hard surface area in thirds between pavement and softer timber, and I am smitten with this corten steel pergola. It’s sort of part archway and part tunnel, drawing you in to the sitting area with echoes of its rusty tones in foliage around the garden. (BRONZE AWARD)
6. Adrian Swain of ecodesign is new to show garden design. His garden, Refugium, built by The Other Side, is a strong debut and reflects our love of garden pavilions and the way they can create both a destination and an alternative garden viewpoint. Noted British design critic Tim Richardson has contemptuously dismissed the “shack-at-the back-syndrome” in show garden design, but then he’s never lived under a hole in the ozone layer or in over 30 degrees C every day.
Adrian’s garden refuge is a big, bold place, with a high roof (so much better on hot days) that’s balanced by large surrounding trees. It’s great to see a garden that’s obviously for lots of people and entertaining but still so planty. I love the way the coral-barked maples match perfectly with red kangaroo paws. I’d never have thought of that. This garden cleverly combines a rich, opulent feel with a down-home reuse/recycle aesthetic. (BRONZE AWARD)
7. Andrew Fisher Tomlin‘s garden, The Unexpected Garden constructed by Bates Landscape and for the charity the St Vincent’s Curran Foundation is designed for someone with dementia to enjoy. This means simple flowing paths rather than intersections that creating worrying decisions, and gentle sensory stimulation from textures, fragrance and colour.
Andrew must be a walking plant encyclopedia, as he design gardens in cool climate UK, tropical Jamaica, the Mediterranean and, occasionally, now in dry subtropical Sydney. His understanding of our delicate, fine-textured native flora is really impressive, and the contrasts of the large dark, cycads are exactly what they need to show them off. Maybe this is the advantage of not being hamstrung by our strange cultural obsession that native plants only belong with….more native plants. (BRONZE AWARD)
8. The Learning Garden designed by Penny Hand and Kate Low of Northern Sydney Institute of TAFE, was the first garden along the main show avenue and a fitting introduction to the high calibre of the show gardens. The construction quality from Certificate 3 Landscape Construction students was outstanding, giving this garden the Best Landscape Construction Award.
I particularly like the back part of the garden, with its strong planting scheme of repeated rosette foliage form from ferns, cycads, gingers and cardboard plants, but with variety in tone. So often the best planting schemes keep one thing constant, like form, and only vary in one other, such as tone (light or dark shades of one colour), or colour. And what a great gabion wall! Having packed what seems like endless metres of gabion myself, I know how many hours go into getting it just right. Tessellating Sydney sandstone rather than the easier lumps rounded basalt both gives this wall its sense of place and creates a colour echo for the timber deck in front. I can imagine the devleoping sense of enclosure in a real-life setting as the surrounding tuckeroo trees matured and interlaced,
I also like the rusty, industrial detailing on the gabion wall. Like several other gardens I found it hard to get a good shot to really do it justice because of the ghastly black plastic on the inside of the security fence.
My pick of 2014 AGSS Trends
Colour palette – rusty red, and muted maroon through to pinky-beige
Water features – dark, still water
Flooring – stabillised pavement rather than paving, timber decks and decorative trims
Decoration from colour, texture or good-looking utility items rather than added art or sculpture