Catherine StewartMelbourne Flower & Garden Show 2016 – trophies, trends and titbits

As a show, the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (MIFGS) 2016 felt a little quieter than previous years but there were still many fine gardens. I like to stand back first for a while to get an overall impression, then examine each part of the garden more closely. Although good gardens have strong overall design qualities, they are always supported by interesting detail that’s not immediately obvious, but definitely adds to the sum of the parts. Then, if I can, I then talk to the designer to understand the ‘why’ of the garden, which I find often adds to its appeal.

The Greenery Garden by Vivid Design. MIFGS 2016

The Greenery Garden by Vivid Design. MIFGS 2016


Two main avenue standout gardens for 2016 were those by Vivid Design (Carolyn and Joby Blackman) and Ian Barker Gardens which both won Gold Medals. I don’t know how the judges were able to pick between them for a Best in Show – awarded to Vivid Design for ‘The Greenery Garden‘, which also picked up the HMA Best Use of Plants and the Mark Bence Construction Awards.

Reflection by Ian Barker Gardens. MIFGS 2016

Reflection by Ian Barker Gardens. MIFGS 2016

Both gardens are beautiful and displayed exquisite planting – a hallmark of both design companies – and pared-back hardscape, letting the shapes and spaces and planting masses both define and decorate the garden. Both used level change to great effect: Vivid Design to contain a central sitting area and, in Ian Barker Gardens’ ‘Reflection‘, cascading levels led us gently down a slope and onto the lake itself – an extraordinary and groundbreaking (so to speak) construction achievement.

The Greenery Garden by Vivid Design. MIFGS 2016

The Greenery Garden by Vivid Design. MIFGS 2016

If forced to choose I would have given the planting award to Ian Barker Gardens (IBG) but probably still Best in Show to Vivid Design. As much as the garden-over-the-lake concept intrigued and the garden was lovely and very site-specific, I felt that IBG’s 2015 garden design was stronger. But that planting! The unexpected combinations and sophisticated plant palette that IBG have been developing over the past few years really shone with wispy grasses speared by tiny shafts of rich maroon, flat plates of creamy achillea and, uncharacteristically for Ian, golden flowers that had danced their way into the mix.

Reflection by Ian Barker Gardens MIFGS 2016

Reflection by Ian Barker Gardens MIFGS 2016

Reflection by Ian Barker Gardens. MIFGS 2016

Reflection by Ian Barker Gardens. MIFGS 2016

It’s refreshing to see gardens that don’t rely so heavily on focal points and the standard MIFGS inclusions to create their interest. MIFGS gardens had become far too much about focal points and big ticket items, where pavilions, outdoor kitchens and bathrooms, outdoor fires and huge sculptures drew attention away from what’s most important in a good garden: well-shaped three-dimensional spaces, balance, and mass and void. When the wow-factor of a garden’s outdoor furniture or a full kitchen attracts more attention than the garden’s structure, then you know that the ‘beads and baubles’ are compensating for something that’s probably lacking.

Do the NT! by Candeo Design

‘Do the NT’ by Candeo Design

Another garden I particularly enjoyed was the ‘Do the NT‘ garden for Northern Territory – Outback Australia, by Candeo Design (Brent Reid) which deserved its Gold Medal. Layered to represent the different vegetation zones of the Northern Territory – monsoon forest, wetlands, open woodlands and heathlands, and desert – the garden’s design allows a 360 degree tour. Each of the vegetation communities shines, but you’re always drawn to that symbolic red heart, aflame with Sturt’s Desert Pea. Again this is a garden that reveals beautiful detail as you look more closely, like the snakeskin-like finish on the decking, animal images in the polished steppers and carefully mingled plant combinations.

Do the NT by Candeo Design

Do the NT by Candeo Design

Another garden worth mentioning for several reasons was ‘Ohana’ by Georgia Harper Landscape Design (Silver Medal). Without the delightful exuberance of landscape designer Phillip Withers this year, MIFGS felt like it was taking itself all pretty seriously, so I was delighted to see a bit of fun in Ohana’s gorgeous giant wahine surfer smiling down benevolently on passers by, and its groovy surfboard table. And a great plant choice mashup and sophisticated pavement, as I describe below.

Ohana by Georgia Harper Landscape Design

Ohana by Georgia Harper Landscape Design

There was also a smaller garden that deserves a special mention – ‘Right of Way’ by Daniel Tyrrell Landscapes. This was a clever mock-up of a typical Melbourne laneway with its large bluestone cobbles – usually a bare and unappealing place. In Daniel’s hands it became a place of beauty and colour – the ‘greenery in between’ as he described it – showing what you can do outside your back fence. Just add a talented street artist and some easy-to-grow perennials (and maybe Daniel).



1. Mixing Australian native plants with more intensely coloured exotics

Georgia Harper Landscape Design in ‘Ohana‘ gave us a great eclectic planting mix of succulents, broms, lomandra, myoporum, frangipani, woolly bush and mandevilla.

Ohana by Georgia Harper Landscape Design - eclectic planting mashup

Ohana by Georgia Harper Landscape Design – eclectic planting mashup

The Retreat by Paul Hervey Brookes - with Kim Earl

The Retreat by Paul Hervey Brookes – with Kim Earl

One of the best examples of this ‘I-don’t-care-where-you’ve-come-from’ mash-up was created by the very talented Kim Earl (Candeo Design) for ‘The Retreat‘, a garden designed by world-renown British designer Paul Hervey Brookes. Sadly, circumstances forced Brookes to withdraw personally from the show but testament to the high regard in which he is held by his fellow show garden designers, a group of them determined that the garden would still be built and planted. With Semken completing the landscape work, Kim Earl took on the job of interpreting his drawings with the appropriate locally-sourced plants. With PHB’s stellar reputation that’s a daunting task but she pulled it off brilliantly and did him proud. She’s definitely a designer to watch.

The Retreat by Paul Hervey Brookes - with Kim Earl

The Retreat by Paul Hervey Brookes – with Kim Earl

The garden featured a formal garden design of strong intersecting axes loosened up with an exciting mix of natives and colourful exotics, perfect for an international designer who can come in and ignore all our silly local prejudices about what’s allowed to be planted with what. Purple salvia with golden kangaroo paw, hot pink gaura, feathery grey westringia, purple statice and pink rice flower? More of it, I say!


Reflection Ian Barker Gardens - intermingled planting design

Reflection Ian Barker Gardens – intermingled planting design

2. Intermingled planting

Whether it’s flowers, like in ‘The Greenery Garden‘ or ‘Reflection‘, or foliage in BLAC’s ‘A Garden Called Frank‘, planting repeats but isn’t planted contiguously. That’s right, very little mass planting, except for a very few hedges. This is a much harder planting style than bands or sweeps of one plant but, ultimately much better for pest and disease control, biodiversity and, you could argue, encouraging people to be interested in plants as decorative items for their garden.

A Garden Called Frank by BLAC

A Garden Called Frank by BLAC


3. Fastigiate trees

Several gardens featured tall narrow trees that made decisive exclamation marks in the planting design. It’s a role that used to fulfilled by conifers until we collectively decided they were oh-so-20th-century (a strange ‘group think’ given their great drought tolerance). A good example is this fastigiate bay in ‘The Greenery Garden‘.

The Greenery Garden by Vivid Design - fastigiate bay trees

The Greenery Garden by Vivid Design – fastigiate bay trees


4. Shaggy not shorn

Even those trees and hedges that were shaped tended to have a slightly shaggy look, rather than the ‘this is so neat it could be plastic’ perfection. Plants actually looked like…well, plants. I like it! Perhaps it goes with the current fashions for bushranger beards and ponchos.

Shaggy hedging in The Greenery Garden (and surprising leaping hares!)

Shaggy hedging in The Greenery Garden (and surprising leaping hares!)


Textured cypress decking in Do the NT by Candeo Design

Textured cypress decking in Do the NT by Candeo Design

5. Small and intricate detail

In good gardens, the detail can be the divine when it’s done well, or the devil when it’s over- or badly done. Whether it’s the brass strip detail through BLAC’s timber lined pavilion, the delicate wave pattern that washed through Georgia Harper’s crisp pavement in ‘Ohana‘, or Candeo Design’s textured decking, many MIFGS show gardens showed lovely detailing – as you would expect of these experienced designers.

Ohana by Georgia Harper Landscape Design wave form pavement

Ohana by Georgia Harper Landscape Design wave form pavement

In The Greenery Garden it was the thin profile bricks that also folded up onto the back wall of the pergola area, and also pergola slats painted black on one face and white on the other. (See the white side in the bay tree photo above)

The Greenery Garden by Vivid Design - pergola changes colour to black on the other side

The Greenery Garden by Vivid Design – pergola changes colour to black on the other side


6. Black, off-white and grey neutrals in hardscape, with some pops of blue and minty grey-green are the colours for 2016 (well, in Melbourne)


What was (mostly) not in the show gardens
Edible gardens
Wall gardens
Rusting steel
Outdoor kitchens
Mass planting
Edging hedges
Buxus balls



1. Peta Donaldson of BLAC doesn’t do flowers (except, strangely, spring bulbs), so she had team members cut off every flower in the plants used in the BLAC garden.

2. During the build period, Ian Barker woke several times after nightmares that his garden had sunk into the lake.

3. The large picture at the back of Georgia Harper’s Ohana is a mosaic made from at least 10 gazillion tiny tiles.

4. Many plants such as the large cycads in the Do the NT garden were trucked down all the way from Darwin.

5. Maples are very ‘in’.

[And look out next week for my write up of the fabulous MIFGS Boutique 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. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

12 thoughts on “Melbourne Flower & Garden Show 2016 – trophies, trends and titbits

  1. Meez Pat on said:

    Love your pictures of this year’s landscape wonders at the Melbourne Flower Show. As always, there were some very fine exhibits.

  2. Absoultly agree, the details were subtle and elegant this year, allowing the overall design (and the plants) to shine. One detail I didn’t notice was the black and white slats on the Greenery’s pergola, so glad you pointed it out, I now love the garden even more.

  3. Shade is attributed to these gardens by the majestic beauties within the gardens themselves. The display gardens make little provision for changing weather patterns with trees for shade.
    Structures and sails are not the same as trees, as evapotranspiration is not enabled.
    We need more trees with broad canopies that can help insulate our homes as our climate changes. And there was little concession to Australian indigenous plants – which is planting for the future surely?

    • Georgia on said:

      Hi Alison – agreed, trees are by far a more dynamic method to attain shade, and I’d love to see more of this in a showgarden format.

      However, it’s important to note that using super advanced trees is extremely difficult to do, and especially on that site; presenters are encouraged to incorporate the site’s existing trees where possible; availability of large enough species is a restricting factor, but most importantly, accessibility to the site has a significant influence on what we can and cannot include in showgardens. Large trucks and cranes are not encouraged, and can only be used on certain individual sites, and there are many weight restrictions in and around existing tree areas. This is a very good thing, as the custodians of the site take the treescape very seriously.

      On top of all that, the timing of this particular show doesn’t allow us to experience seasonal change, where many species really come into their own – or at least you can’t plan for it.

      Over the years, I think the built shade element is often used in showgardens because it’s generally lightweight, can be brought in and assembled with minimal disruption to the site, and for many people, it adds a sense of drama, and built shade is an element that can also serve as something sculptural. As block sizes dwindle, large canopies aren’t viable for many home gardeners, and I’m seeing a real push towards productive, smaller trees instead.

      In my 5 days at the show, I heard many people make similar comments, so thought I’d give a bit of an ‘insider’s’ point of view.

      I also agree that indigenous plants were in somewhat of a slump this year, although there were some highlights – especially with Candeo and Kim Earl’s gardens. A few of us experimented with blends (and isn’t experimenting what the show is all about?) and I thought the plantsmanship in general was exceptional this year.

      • Hi Georgia
        I understand totally where you are coming from. Unfortunately many people visit these displays and get, in my opinion, the wrong impression of what a garden is and the essential benefits that a garden can provide re naturally insulating a home.
        Most people don’t know how to put a garden together, and so they see these gardens, the pinnacle of the landscape design industry, and the visual message is ‘don’t bother with trees’. I am a member of the 202020 Vision which is trying to increase the knowledge of the need for more trees in the environment. So I will continue to push my barrow while I have the chance. But I do understand where you are coming from. Perhaps this is why I am not interested in entering these display garden projects. I’m rock solid on sustainable landscapes and their development.

  4. Wow, this is seriously readable, Congratulations! How great to learn more about those award-winning designs, whose focus is exactly what one hopes for. And about some others as well, especially Daniel Tyrrell’s Right of Way – is this a direction of the future? Re. Peta Donaldson’s removal of all flowers from the plants used in her BLAC garden, I know that Fiona Brockhoff, a really fine designer, has always tried to avoid placing plants where emerging flowers might interrupt views or alter the flow of her designs. It’s interesting that at the 1999 MIFGS Fiona (with David Swann and Jane Burke) staged a display that focused on coastal indigenous plants and sustainable gardening techniques. And she’s still receiving enquiries from interested 1999 observers!

  5. candice52 on said:

    Well covered Catherine as usual and looking across the selection this year, a very refreshing combination was had by all it seems… I really think I missed a few things this year. But with your expert reviews, its the next best thing for sure!

  6. Having missed MIFGS this year by just a couple of weeks, I’m delighted to be filled in; thank you, Catherine. From your photos and words, there are three gardens that make my heart sing: 1. Daniel Tyrrell’s Right of Way, which is a fantastic example of creating beauty from nothing, with the potential to truly enrich lives; 2. Georgia Harper’s fabulous mix of plants, which demonstrates creative and interesting effects with a range of Sydney-hardy species which are rarely seen so beautifully combined; and 3. Candeo Design’s Do the NT: that first photo is pure Australian garden heaven to me. Lush, full, stimulating Australianness through and through. What a joy!

  7. Julia on said:

    Very insightful read, thanks Catherine! 🙂

    • Thanks Phil – it was the great surprise piece of that garden ie not visible from the main part of the garden. And a good lesson in garden design – don’t reveal everything at once!

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