Catherine StewartMelbourne 2015: my best in show garden

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?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’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.

No, Ian is not my younger brother.

No, Ian is not my younger brother.
Photo courtesy Kim Woods Rabbidge, Our Australian Gardens

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?

Ian Barker Gardens Melbourne International Flower Garden Show 2015 Cross-Roads Garden Plan

Ian Barker Gardens Melbourne International Flower Garden Show 2015 Cross-Roads Garden Plan

Ian Barker Gardens Melbourne International Flower Garden Show 2015 Cross-Roads Perspective sketch

Ian Barker Gardens Melbourne International Flower Garden Show 2015 Cross-Roads Perspective sketch

Angelica gigas in Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads MIFGS 2015

Angelica gigas in Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads MIFGS 2015

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.

A forest of Betula and Pyrus enclose the garden. Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads MIFGS 2015

A forest of Betula and Pyrus enclose the garden. Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads MIFGS 2015

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.

Just like a woodland clearing. Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads MIFGS 2015

Just like a woodland clearing. Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads MIFGS 2015

The dark and dreamy pond. Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads. MIFGS 2015

The dark and dreamy pond. Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads. MIFGS 2015

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.

Subtle level changes and shadow banding in the bluestone paving. Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads MIFGS 2015

Subtle level changes and shadow banding in the bluestone paving. Ian Barker Gardens Cross Roads MIFGS 2015

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.

Firecracker Sanguisorba flowers. Design Ian Barker Gardens MIFGS 2015

Firecracker Sanguisorba flowers. Design Ian Barker Gardens MIFGS 2015

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 Design 'Equilibrium' MIFGS 2015

Nathan Burkett Design ‘Equilibrium’ MIFGS 2015

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?

The floating timber arbour in Nathan Burkett Design's 'Equilibrium' MIFGS 2015

The floating timber arbour in Nathan Burkett Design’s ‘Equilibrium’ MIFGS 2015

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.

Nathan Burkett 'Equilibrium' MIFGS 2015

Nathan Burkett ‘Equilibrium’ MIFGS 2015

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.

Pleached plane trees, grown by warners' Nurseries. Design Nathan Burkett 'Equilibrium' MIFGS 2015

Pleached plane trees, grown by Warners’ Nurseries. Design Nathan Burkett ‘Equilibrium’ MIFGS 2015

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.

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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. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

14 thoughts on “Melbourne 2015: my best in show garden

  1. helen mckerral on said:

    From the pics at least, Crossroads is my preferred garden too, Catherine. Hooray for gardens that actually have plants in them!

    • MIFGS has definitely got more planty over the last few years, with plant lovers like Ian Barker, Carolyn Blackman, Phil Withers and Brent Reid leading the way.

  2. Also loved Ian Barker’s garden, for the enclosed feeling, (that bluestone doorway…) gorgeous use of plants (Angelica won me over, too) the cornflower meadow and dreamy pool. Was interested to hear Mark Browning from Cycas Designs say he was surprised to get Best In Show, too.
    But are you sure Ian’s not a long-lost relative?

    • Yes, you’d have to think that when even the recipient is surprised – indicating he thought there was a better garden there – then the judging did get it wrong. Ian is a very generous and nice person so I’d happily claim him as a relative but I think it’s a case of all red-heads looking alike.

  3. Michelle on said:

    Ian Barker’s garden was without doubt my favourite – I returned to it a few times during my few hours at the show and I was blown away every time. It seemed so tranquil & yet functional, and the use of plants was wonderful.

    Just superb!

    • Good description Michelle – tranquil and functional. Which in other less adept hands could also be boring, but not with Ian’s plant choices.

  4. Fabulous commentary, as always Catherine. I was waiting to hear more from you – I needed help knowing what I thought myself!
    Wish I’d taken up the offer when Matt Reed invited me into Ian’s fabulous garden – by far the most captivatingly planted garden I’ve seen at MIFGS. I would have loved to have known what it felt like in there – and that’s a win in its own right – the longing to be able to step deep into such a garden. Very few of such gardens entice you in – you can tell at a glance what it would feel like to be in them, and you know it wouldn’t be any better than from the outside looking in.

    • More than any other garden I’ve been at MIFGS, this had a strong sense of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. When you sat inside, it was like everyone else was outside your bubble.

  5. My vote was definitely for Ian’s garden too. It was the only one of the main show gardens that inspired me to write a whole post about it (although I admit it’s not quite finished yet!!). I loved the fact that it was entirely different to the others and the contrast of formality and informality was pleasantly surprising (a sign of a great show garden, to me). When I learnt that Ian was contemplating a ‘safe route’ but opted to follow his passion in designing a naturalist garden (and stating that he still had much learn), I loved it even more. I’m with you on the judging criteria overhaul and hope that Ian will go one step further next year and create a naturalist garden that whilst restrained, has even more bee-attracting flowers! I do so enjoy your reviews, Catherine, but it is annoying that you point out things I hadn’t noticed despite standing in front of the gardens gazing at them for significant periods of time!

    • Janna, I’m sure when you blog about Ian’s garden you will point out an equal number of thoughtful and insightful observations that will make me see different things too.

  6. Catherine. Also having had the privilege of walking inside Ian’s garden I concur with you and want to say how peaceful and beautiful it was in that shady space. Ian’s plant palette was very subtle and he should be very proud of what he achieved there.

    • I’m just disappointed for him that Best in Show eluded him once again. I’d selfishly rather that in 2016 he makes another garden for us, rather than to please the judging but the reality is, Best in Show does make a commercial difference.

  7. Drew Batt on said:

    Catherine,
    Loved reading your thoughts on the Show Gardens and enjoyed the perspective you bring to these matters. I would be most appreciative if you are able to offer your thoughts on my post headed Showtime at hortitales.com, which is a reflection on the Show Garden concept.
    Regards
    Drew

  8. steven on said:

    Thanks Catherine for your insightful perspective. I really liked many of the show gardens, but these two were my favourite. However, it raises my annual MIFGS dilemma. I just want to be IN these gardens and not viewing them voyeuristically! I do completely understand the many reasons for not allowing people to walk through the gardens, but as you’ve mentioned so well, being inside the garden is so different to being outside it. So I long for a show garden that provides the opportunity for us all to be within it to fully appreciate its design, it’s intent and to feel what the designer feels when designing the garden with all of its nuances.

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