I’ve written before about why I didn’t think the Best in Show award at the recent 2015 Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show went to the most deserving garden. And of course, as several commenters have pointed out, it immediately begs the question – if I disagree with the judges choice, which garden would I have chosen, and why?
I’m not privy to all the judging criteria behind the MIFGS awards system. I’m assuming like most shows, it’s a combination of how well the garden answers the designer’s own design brief; overall design quality; plant choices and combinations; hardscape choices; and the quality of the show garden build.
How the garden is perceived by show goers is governed by having to view it only from the front and sides, rather than being able to go inside – as the MIFGS organisers say:
“Public access into the Landscape Show Gardens is discouraged unless prior permission is sought from the Show Organisers”
Access is an obvious safety issue. As the gardens are built ‘no-dig’, major hardscape elements like pergolas, pavilions and walls are built without the footings that would normally stabilise these constructions, so it’s just not safe to let everyone in to walk and sit inside. But it means that as garden viewers, we’re often denied the most satisfying and interesting view of a show garden. That’s what it’s like to be in, rather than look at. As regular readers of GardenDrum will know, I think that most gardens are, unfortunately, designed with the ‘looking at’ in mind but rarely enough thought of the ‘being in’.
My view of these two shows gardens is affected by the privilege of having been inside them. From this I can tell if they have a comfortable ‘people scale’, if there is a sense of enclosure, and if the proportions of mass and void feel right. Do I want to sit there, stand there, or walk there?
My TWO ‘Best in Show’ gardens are by Ian Barker, and Nathan Burkett.
Ian Barker Gardens: ‘Cross Roads‘, presented by Australian House and Garden.
The title of this garden has a back story (apart from the generous sponsorship by Australian House and Garden magazine. Why don’t we see more sponsored gardens like this at MIFGS?) Several years ago, Ian and his team decided to focus on building MIFGS gardens that were plant-focussed, especially exploring Ian’s love of perennials. Although the 2013 garden won gold, the 2014 garden wasn’t so successful. In 2015, should they follow their planty preference, or change course and go for a more ‘conventional’ garden? (My interpretation of ‘conventional’ is the standard inclusions of pavilion, lawn area, water feature, outdoor furniture, sculpture, and some pleasant but ‘usual suspects’ planting.) The 2015 garden put them at a crossroads – conventional, or plants?
Fortunately for us, plants won again in Ian’s 2015 MIFGS offering. ‘Cross Roads‘ departs from Ian’s previous gardens by focussing on foliage rather than flowers. As such it’s a quieter affair, featuring sombre purples and an array of greens, with just small sparkles of dainty golden flowers like Artemisia ‘Guizhou’. Beyond any other plant it was the arresting Angellica gigas flowers that attracted people’s attention, with its glossy wine-red stems and umbels of deep purple flowers.
But let’s talk about structure, and enclosure. Refreshingly, there’s no built pavilion, so structure comes partly from Carlton Gardens magnificent borrowed trees but also from a surrounding thick forest of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii and Pyrus betulaefolia ‘Southworth Dancer’. When you’re in the garden, there’s a sense of being in a woodland clearing, where sunlight penetrates the forest floor to allow smaller plants to flourish around the margins.
Contrast banding across the clearing’s bluestone paved floor suggested shadows cast by surrounding tree trunks. Terracing down the gentle slope is so subtle, you’re almost unaware of it and a solid mixed shrub hedge end to the garden stops it feeling like it’s all draining away downhill. Stacked bluestone walls add a touch of something more solid and also serve as seats, with a few lacy, steel laser-cut cubes as extras. A quiet, dark and dreamy pond, appropriately at the bottom of the slope, looks perfectly in place.
It’s a quiet garden. And it feels still, even in the hurly-burly of MIFGS. But it does have a practical side too. It might not strike you at first as a party garden, but it could easily cope with 50 guests, with that amount of paved area and occasional seating.
So what went wrong that Ian Barker’s ‘Cross Roads’ did not win Best in Show 2015? I hear that one judge mentioned a lack of focal points. Pfft. Do all gardens need beads and baubles for the babies? Without a ‘look-at-me’ sculpture, the eye feasts on the plants, relishing all the finer details of planting combinations, the glossy reflective foliage, and those little firecrackers of Sanguisorba flowers. I can’t remember a MIFGS garden in recent times where I was so taken with the planting and I think this exceeded Ian’s 2013 and 2014 designs.
Sounds like we need some less conventional judging criteria?
And now to my second Best in Show proposal –
Nathan Burkett Designs: ‘Equilibrium‘
While Nathan Burkett’s ‘Equilibrium‘ garden is very different to Ian Barker’s, they do have some things in common. Both turn their back on the pavilion as a focus and find height and structure using more planty, or in Nathan’s case, gravity defying inclusions. At first glance that covered path around the back of the garden looks like any ordinary walkway. Can you see the posts?
Look harder. Still not? Well, you’re not not seeing things. There are no posts. That amazing, beautifully crafted cantilevered timber ceiling just floats above the space, held up by force of gravity on the weight of the Ficus macrocarpa var. hillii ‘Flash’ hedge behind it. (I knew it. Landscapers will tell you they can’t make ‘air hooks’ to hold up your crazy design ideas, but they obviously can if they want to).
Nathan tells me that the garden’s design came to him during a midnight shower. He was so excited by it he jumped out to draw something before he lost the inspiration but could only find his daughter’s red crayon.
In a way, his design is also a clearing in a forest, only a much more austere and stylised version. Again there’s little in the way of embellishment. The back wall is deliberately unadorned. The furniture is low key and placed side-on, so although it’s technically centre stage, it’s not what attracts you. Which is a good thing. I’m a bit over schmancy furniture that demands too much attention.
The design is formed by paired layers of rectangles, each set at a different height and nearly but not quite symmetrical about a central axis.
What else grabs your eye are the two pleached plane tree ‘living pergolas’, grown by Warners Nurseries, balanced on either side of the garden. The Platanus orientalis are pleached on the horizontal plane in the original style, where villagers planted a grid of trees and wove their branches together strongly enough to support their emergency huts above intermittent floodwaters. I first admired something similar at the Eden Project back in 2000. (Maybe that’s why plane trees are called plane trees?)
In Nathan’s design, they’re like little floating islands, separated from their surroundings by a narrow water rill. I like that sense that you have to make a conscious decision to go there, rather than it being something you can just wander through. And I even like their skirt of buxus. You could keep it at just the right height with your mower.
I also like the way the creamy Anston paving contrasts with the warmth of all that fine sawn timber, each vertical and horizontal piece beautifully mitred and finished.
The one weak spot for me was the firepit – very elegant but somehow too clean and pristine for its purpose.
So which one wins my Best in Show? I think Ian Barker, by a whisker.