Each year I write up the student gardens in the Avenue of Achievable Gardens at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. In 2016, I also judged those gardens and a tough assignment it turned out to be with one of the best range of gardens I’ve seen, for design, construction quality and plant interest.
Each small garden is a tiny 5 metres wide by 3 metres deep (16½ ft x 10 ft), giving a good representation of a balcony garden or a very small courtyard garden. And the gardens must be ‘achievable’, which means that an average home gardener would be capable of replicating the design, materials and planting, all within a budget of $8,000. (Note: the students aren’t given that money, but they have to show that all the materials in the garden can be purchased for that amount). At least 75% of the garden must be soft landscaping.
The gardens on show were designed by students representing Melbourne’s finest educational institutions that teach horticulture and landscape design, including Swinbourne University of Technology, University of Melbourne, Melbourne Polytechnic, and Holmesglen Insitutute. Students submit designs for their chosen environment (sun/shade/cool climate/subtropical etc) to their institutions and the best are selected and supported. In 2016 there were 12 gardens but the competition to win the right to build a garden is getting so strong that there’s talk of more gardens next year.
To enter and then build a garden students need to have design and documentation skills, good plant knowledge and a construction team, but also be innovative and resourceful as they source cheap materials, find out how to build their creations, and learn new ways of achieving their goals. It’s a steep learning curve for someone new to garden building, and invaluable practical experience for their future careers.
The judging process involves mostly objective criteria about the design brief, the design’s strengths, plant selection and build quality. And that’s really tricky, when a good garden is so much about how it makes you feel rather than whether it ticks certain boxes.
‘Refuge‘ by Lincoln Flynn, Holmesglen Institute
Designed to be a place of quiet respite at the end of a long and busy day, Refuge shows simple but strong design based on circles with offset ‘centres’ positioned using a golden mean/ratio. The result is a beautifully balanced composition in plan view, complemented in elevation by the repeated use of rusty colours in the water feature and fire bowl, timber seat back and screens. The finish on the timber and gabion was exquisite and the mixed paver selection made it look like a dappled shadow. And what a clever idea to use toning orange, rather than a more contrasting colour behind the screen.
I would have preferred a screen pattern that blended better with the circular design but otherwise this garden was very hard to fault.
‘Refuge‘ won first place in the Avenue of Achievable Gardens 2016 and also the People’s Choice Award for 2016.
‘Kidsense‘ by Fiona Webber, University of Melbourne
Featuring a beautiful woven tunnel and pod cubby house, Kidsense aims to incorporate the fun of childhood discovery into this tiny space. The tunnel, floored with crunchy gravel begins at walking height for a small child and then drops to crawl height as the surface changes to soft sand. The garden is filled with sensual delight, with textured wall panels, chamomile lawn, patterned shade, shiny and soft plants, and rich colour. And it’s beautiful too – this is no naff kid’s garden filled with primary-coloured plastic and ugly equipment and I’m sure much more appealing to both kids and parents because of it.
I think the little river of silver-leafed foliage was too high contrast and not supported enough by similar colour echoes in the composition… but look at that weaving. Gorgeous stuff!
‘Kidsense‘ won second place in the Avenue of Achievable Gardens 2016.
‘The Golden Afternoon‘ by Jaz Rhodes, University of Melbourne
This dreamy garden of soft grey-greens and reflections pulled me in as soon as I saw it. Backed by a water-colour style canvas, the very restrained planting palette of green, grey purple and cream is sophisticated and restful while the mirrors and bead-decorated ‘tree’ add a bit of sparkle.
One of the design features I liked in this garden is the use of bigger foreground plants, rather than everything relying on a low front with rising height to the back. It gives a great sense of depth. And the careful weaving of sweet potato vine throughout the garden created a good contrast between managed plantings and that sense that nature was waiting to take over. I was less keen on the large stone steppers and if those little eucs had been just a bit taller, we would have had a better plant layering.
The Golden Afternoon won third place in the Avenue of Achievable Gardens 2016 and fifth place in the People’s Choice Award 2016.
‘Inviolatum‘ by Holly Bedyn, Swinburne University of Technology
I love seeing students push the boundaries of garden design and garden making in their show gardens and here’s one that does it very well. As judges, we were constrained by the ‘achievable’ home garden requirement which prevented us scoring it as highly as we might have liked.
Moody and melancholy, Inviolatum sets a scene of decay and disintegration watched over by a the unblinking eye of a large dragon hiding among the plants. Drifts of fog and trickling water from the archways invite us into a world that’s a stark contrast with the surrounding hot and sunny Melbourne day. The detail in this construction is extraordinary, with tiny pockets of moss in the arch’s cracks and crevices. The access to the seating area had got a bit lost in the dense planting and the jagged stones didn’t seem to quite fit, but I loved this garden of imagination and ingenuity.
‘Inviolatum‘ won third place in the People’s Choice Award 2016.
‘Ranch Relaxo‘ by Vivian Scarpari, Swinburne University of Technology
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a Mexican-themed garden and this one is very different to the last, with rich blue and mint-green creating a cool backdrop to the warmer terracotta pots and pavers. There’s just the right amount of colour echo bouncing around the garden in whites, blues, terracotta and golds, and I very much like the way the strong tones of the door are surrounded by a pastel version of the same colours in the breeze blocks. A most interesting range of desert-loving plants completes the picture, with nicely detailed gravel mulch.
I would have liked the planting to be in groups rather than spotted about the garden and I felt there needed to be some height in the back right corner to balance the composition, however this garden excels in how to use colour to best effect.
‘Symphony of Life‘ by Mahshid Malekarazy, Swinburne University of Technology
It’s good to see a student tackling several design challenges and getting them right: the level change to a small sunken sitting zone is easily reached by correctly proportioned steps; the mirror is angled so it doesn’t reflect straight back at the viewer; and the introduction of bands of silver foliage is well-managed by positioning blue foliage as a toning companion.
The woven pergola is a lovely thing, with delicate beading adding some colourful sparkles in the sunlight. However it is the attention to detail in this garden that is both its delight and its weakness, with too many decorative objects that distract attention away from the main elements.
‘The Writer’s Garden‘ by Maximilian Buchmann, Melbourne Polytechnic
I was really pleased to see a very different plant palette here, with lush but restful green-on-greens enlivened by both repetition and contrasts of form and texture, as well as both shiny and less reflective foliage. As a writer I love being able to work outside and this green oasis looked a very appealing spot, with the tree fern producing more canopy as it matures.
The one thing not quite right here is the elevation and scale of the sitting zone, as it’s both too high and too narrow, and so rather too precipitous for writer concentration and creativity. If it were both 300mm lower and wider, this garden would have been a strong contender for a prize.
‘The Writer’s Garden‘ won fourth place in the People’s Choice Award
‘Revelling in Levels‘ by Yvonne Green, Melbourne Polytechnic
Filled with clever reuse ideas, this garden has lots of interesting detail, like the combination brick and pebble paving and that wonderful wall art triptych. The planting shows a confident and beautiful selection of plants dominated by purple, burgundy, blue tones and silver, arranged in many pleasing combinations. If you’re looking for ideas about how to create a very appealing small garden with hardly any budget, this shows how with some old concrete blocks and bricks, easily propagated plants and a little imagination you can make something you’ll love.
There were some access issues here with uneven and very small steps and stepping stones and then too big a step-down into the sitting area, plus a few too many details like extra pots, but it’s a nicely balanced composition and I think the planting is brilliant.
‘The Picking Garden‘ by Kerri Heron, Melbourne Polytechnic
Filled with pretty flowers and splashes of colour, this garden is a delightful place for working, pottering about and sitting. It’s a good example of how more mass within a space can often make it feel bigger than if it’s left open and empty. The small groupings of birches work brilliantly to create that mass, and their slender vertical trunks draw the eye upward, giving an extended vertical dimension balanced by the widening effect of the slatted timber screen.
We judges were all very taken with the potting bench with its carefully curated selection of shapes and colours (not like mine at home!). I felt that the group of birches in the back right corner crowded that section of the garden (pulling them to the front would give even more depth and interest), the sitting area was too small scale to be really practical and removing the wall pots would make a simpler backdrop to an already busy garden.
‘Breakfast in Bed‘ by Claudine Reynolds, Holmesglen Institute
Isn’t it a lovely thought – to arise from one’s bed, drift outside and sit among delicious food plants while sipping a cup of tea and devouring a hearty breakfast – hopefully delivered by some doting partner. A compelling fantasy for one wedded to a computer for long hours! The size and health of the food plants, purpose-grown by Scotsburn Nursery really added to the attractiveness of this garden and I enjoyed the conceit of garden as bedroom.
The chests of drawers were a good way of getting some bulk and height into the garden, but I find that symmetrical garden designs are very difficult to get 100% right and it was small a detractor in this garden, as the alignment of the white furniture right in front of the white ‘bedhead’ meant that neither was shown off to best advantage. I also wondered whether, if you moved a chair, you would then need to carefully realign each leg with a paver before sitting.
‘Breakfast in Bed’ won second place in the People’s Choice Award 2016 and also the Sustainability Award 2016.
‘Nestled into Nature‘ by Micaela Hibbert, Holmesglen Institute
With a backdrop of burgundy Agonis, plumed grasses and a semi-circular ‘frame’ of rusty steel hoop, this garden featured a selection of plants that would thrive in Melbourne’s climate. What is essentially a formal and symmetrical layout is relaxed by more informal clumps of tufting grassy plants. Planting is carefully selected to create habitat diversity for various pollinators.
I really like the way the rusted steel hoop is reflected onto the ground plane with the same shape of edging but, although the chair is perfect with those pavers, it seemed less well-matched to its background. The contrasting purple salvia would have benefitted from its colour being picked up elsewhere in the garden.
‘Shared Habitat‘ by Mat Teubert, Melbourne Polytechnic
Featuring delicate planting and amid large boulders this garden showed how easy it is to convert a small space into an appealing place for animals, insects and their human companions. A simply defined clearing is just the right size to accommodate outdoor dining, and the selection and placement of native plants like Goodenia, paper daisies, lomandra and native bluebell looks lovely against the solidity of the rocks.
What doesn’t work so well here is the small wall garden, partial screen and white birdbath, and I think the garden would have been better without them. A little less symmetrical placing of main objects like the furniture and trees (I’d move the right-hand tree to the front and push it further to the left and then add a larger shrub in that back corner) would also improve the composition.
The Avenue of Achievable Gardens is managed by the Nursery and Garden Industry of Victoria and supported each year by generous sponsorship from Debco and background fencing from Stratco.
Some advice for future entrants for the MIFGS Avenue of Achievable Gardens in 2017
- a good design brief does not describe what is in the garden. If I’m looking at your built garden, I can already see all that. A design brief tells me the ‘why‘ of the garden by summing up the constraints and opportunities of the site (real or imaginary), what the home owner wants, sources of inspiration, and then explaining how the offered landscape design will deliver.
- check and double check current plant names and correct spellings
- check your scale – if you have a sitting area, can your selected furniture fit comfortably? Will the level change you want turn out to be too steep in such a tiny space?
- make sure any seating areas have easy access
- restrict your number of focal points, like sculpture, artwork, specimen plants and eye-catching inclusions. In such a small space, more than two or three will likely compete for attention and probably spoil the strength and integrity of your design.