Catherine StewartMelbourne Flower Show matters – or does it?

In late March 2017 I, and many of Australia’s horticultural media, landscape designers, landscapers, horticulturists and garden lovers, made our annual pilgrimage of to the autumn Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (MIFGS). With nine big display gardens, five boutique gardens and 12 small student-built achievable gardens on show, I was eager to see what was on offer at MIFGS in 2017 and who had won what.

I See Wild, design Phillip Withers Landscape Design, Gold Medal and Best in Show MIFGS 2017


Although many dismiss garden shows as ‘catwalk fashion’ and irrelevant to what people are actually doing in their gardens, I beg to differ. Having visited MIFGS for many years now, I know that trends are very obvious and will repeat themselves in client requests and general landscape design for several years after, whether it’s the Year of the Fire Pit, the Year of the Timber Deck, the Year of Bluestone Paving, or the Year(s) of the Outdoor Kitchen (yes it did go on for an unfortunately long time).

For the past few years, MIFGS has been a real treat. I’ve been wowed over and over – not just by brilliant design, high-quality construction and exquisite planting but by something else, something that excites and inspires.

In 2017, despite there being some very fine gardens on show, it all felt a little ho-hum.

I See Wild, design Phillip Withers Landscape Design, Gold Medal and Best in Show MIFGS 2017


Phillip Withers’ wonderful Gold Medal-winning garden was certainly an exception, showing a new design maturity and restraint in its layout, colour palette and planting. Paradoxically called ‘I See Wild‘, it was a standout garden for both Phillip and MIFGS 2017, winning the only Gold Medal awarded in the Show Garden category and also Best in Show. Bold textural contrasts were allowed to take centre-stage in a mainly charcoal, sand and green-on-green garden highlighted with subdued spots of rusty yellows, burnt orange and silver grey.

I See Wild, design Phillip Withers Landscape Design, Gold Medal and Best in Show MIFGS 2017


Gratifyingly, despite this new restraint, Phillip’s ability to put together surprising and delightfully eclectic combinations of plants was still everywhere – succulents nestling beside nasturtiums, Achillea dancing around under the rangy wattle, and giant spiny grey agaves bursting out of a bank of kangaroo paw, banksia, rice flower, Eryngium and orange Echinacea. Phillip breaks planting rules with an assurance and style I’ve not seen in any other designer. And the way those tan stems on the repeated Correa alba drew those pictures together…well! I suspect you just had to see it ‘in the flesh’ to really appreciate what he had made. His uncanny ability to make such alluring plant pictures with seemingly disparate plants is complemented by understanding that while the plants draw the eye, the shapes and proportions of the three-dimensional voids in a garden are what makes it truly great. I loved the use of levels, like sunken enclosure of the zoysia lawn, and the detail in the paving was just beautiful.

I See Wild, design Phillip Withers Landscape Design, Gold Medal and Best in Show MIFGS 2017

I See Wild, design Phillip Withers Landscape Design, Gold Medal and Best in Show MIFGS 2017


So there we have the only Gold Medal winning show garden at MIFGS 2017. Appropriate and fair? Or perplexing and unfair?

There have been lots of legitimate complaints in recent years about the MIFGS judging and this year was no exception. In previous years I have seen a gold medal awarded to a garden that didn’t meet all the eligibility criteria as it was not possible to see all the garden when standing in front of it. I, and many others, have also questioned a Best in Show choice when there was another much more obvious winner. There have been judges who really should have stood aside because of apprehended bias (for a full explanation of what that legal term means, click HERE). Those who complain or question (which, of course, often happens when tempers are frayed in the heat of the moment) can find out they’ve done their last MIFGS garden, one of the reasons that MIFGS 2017 was missing several outstanding and experienced designers.

MIFGS 2017 had a new panel of judges who chose to only award one gold, a few silver and bronze and, for some gardens, no medal at all. Perhaps that’s a necessary correction to the excess of medals, some undeserved, awarded in previous years. But there are still major structural problems with the judging that need to be addressed.

MIFGS judges gardens in a most unusual way when compared to other ‘international’ garden shows and this has troubled me for several years. At the Chelsea Flower Show, as Best in Show winner in 2013 Phillip Johnson will attest, the brief is everything. The designer submits a brief – a description of the why, what and how of the garden, and then is judged on how well the garden meets the brief. The designer is allowed to make a short presentation to the judges to explain the garden and how it meets the brief, detailing any changes from the original, and then leaves them to it.

THAT GARDEN – Design Phillip Johnson. Chelsea Flower Show 2013 Best in Show


Being judged against a brief is essential as this is what real-life landscape designing is all about. I’ve known excellent and skilled designers who did design jobs that were total failures, not because they were bad gardens but because they were not what the client needed or wanted. The recently aired TV series Dream Gardens is an excellent example of how the brief is king. Despite the anguish of the plant fanatics who think a real garden doesn’t have a pool, cabana, kitchen or water feature anywhere in it, the best garden for a designer’s clients is the one that they want.

But not so at MIFGS. In fact when you speak to the landscape designers who exhibit gardens there, the lack of any clear understanding about why some gardens get medals and others don’t is really disheartening. That’s absolutely not the fault of the judges, it’s a problem with the whole MIFGS judging process. If this doesn’t get fixed, I can’t blame designers for giving up and staying away, compounding the loss of those fine designers who say they have been told that they’re not welcome to come back.

So does this MIFGS controversy really matter? In some ways yes, but in others, no. For the designers exhibiting, it can matter big time. A MIFGS garden costs tens of thousands of dollars, plus the uncosted time of the designer and landscape teams who must also neglect their own businesses for months ahead of the show. To not understand why you didn’t even rate a medal at all is terrible. And attracting sponsors for the following year when you haven’t won a high-level medal becomes even harder. So, from the point of view of MIFGS maintaining credibility as one of the world’s big garden shows, yes it matters.

But, if you talk to some of designers who didn’t do well in MIFGS terms, once they’ve got over the gut-wrenching sense of failure, most sensibly pick themselves up and get on with selling their design services to an appreciative public. And many do very, very well out of that, despite not having a medal – effectively a medal by public acclamation. Which itself raises the question again about judging criteria. If no-medal gardens are winning juicy design contracts for their designers, perhaps the judges are using a faulty and inappropriate set of judging criteria?

Over the years that I’ve been going, I’ve seen the MIFGS gardens become safer, more conservative and more obviously aimed at winning clients. I can totally understand this – if I were putting in that amount of money and time, I’d want to win a heap of work out of it too. Why would you scare off prospective clients with a show garden that didn’t look like it could sit comfortably in their own backyard? But this is also a reflection of what designers see that they must do to win a medal. It’s evident in the main show gardens and it’s spilled down through the Boutique Gardens and even into the fabulous Avenue of Achievable Gardens, once the place to find exciting, fun-filled, innovative and experimental design.

A wonderful ‘out-there’ student design – Life’s a Motion Picture, designed by Carol Loveland. Avenue of Achievable Gardens 2013

A Maleficent View, design Leon Kluge and Bayley Luu-Tomes, Philadelphia Flower Show 2015


But a garden built in answer to a brief, and judged on that, gives a designer scope to explore all sorts of exciting and out-there design opportunities, whether it’s a theme such as a Disney movie (as used by the Philadelphia Flower Show in 2015) and won by Leon Kluge and Bayley Luu-Tomes with their astonishing Maleficent garden, or one developed with a show sponsor, be it a car maker or a tourism company.

Tree and Shrub Growers garden, Silver Medal, MIFGS 2017

Tree and Shrub Growers garden, Silver Medal, MIFGS 2017


So MIFGS 2017 for me was a disappointingly lacklustre affair. Yes, there were a few gardens across the categories that stood out in their design and planting, like the Phillip Withers garden, the magnificent Tree and Shrub Growers Victoria garden (surely the best use of that site ever), Stem Architecture’s exquisite and perfect ‘Wild at Heart‘ Boutique Garden (more on that garden designed by Emmaline Bowman soon) and Dale Johnson, Ross Peck and Liz Beale’s beautifully-designed and built ‘Awash with Nature‘ Achievable Garden.

Stem Architecture, 1st place Boutique Gardens, MIFGS 2017


So who do I think missed out on the right medal this year? I would have given Tree and Shrub Growers Vic a gold medal. Truly great show gardens evoke a sense of inevitability about them – a tough ask in a foreign environment like a show site. This one looked like it had grown out of the ground all by itself – a huge credit to designer.

But I still can’t figure out why Christian Jenkins didn’t even rate a bronze for his luscious tropical rainforest garden, ‘Nature and Nurture‘ for Beyond Blue. So many people (including my husband) said it was their favourite garden and also many designers I spoke to thought it was fabulous. After being able to walk through and sit in it, I have to agree that it was a very good garden. It was an inward-looking garden that separated you so well from the hurly burly of the show outside and immersed you in healing nature, surely perfect for its Beyond Blue purpose. The planting was a soothing green-on-green and wonderfully detailed, just right for a spot of healing mindfulness meditation. I just wanted to drink it up. And yes, very effectively answering a brief! Despite this confounding MIFGS non-medal decision, I suspect (and hope) that it will win Christian lots of work as he really deserves it.

I’ll write more about Christian’s garden next week but, in the meantime, you can also be the judge…is this a ‘no-medal’ garden?

Christian Jenkins garden for Beyond Blue, MIFGS 2017

Christian Jenkins garden for Beyond Blue, MIFGS 2017

Christian Jenkins garden for Beyond Blue, MIFGS 2017



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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. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

11 thoughts on “Melbourne Flower Show matters – or does it?

  1. Interesting overview of MIFGS Catherine. I haven’t gone the last two years for a number of reasons; the only thing I really miss are the social gatherings of like minds and seeing some of the wonderful artwork. I have to agree with your summation of the awards as per the pics you have shown. I think these results are only a major discouragement. Cheers Annette

  2. That second photo of Phillip Withers’ garden is absolutely stunning. I love how the silver mounds of foliage give a feel of rocks; how the relative forms and heights of the plants make the garden look so established; how Phillip has, as you say, retained his signature quirkiness throughout; and how his choice of rusty colours and grey-greens look so very right for Australia. It has a slight feel of a Jim Fogarty garden about it, another extremely talented landscape designer.
    I haven’t been to MIFGS since 2015, but since then I have been to Chelsea and Hampton Court, which have given me a slightly different perspective. Until MIFGS can generate the sponsorship deals that Chelsea can, I think we sadly have to accept that this is in a different league. However, I think it should be comparable to Hampton Court. The main difference I see between MIFGS and Hampton Court is that MIFGS gardens so often look flat, simply because lots of very low plants are used. I love the Tree and Shrub Growers garden, but it does look a little stunted to me – it needs some mid-level mass. If purchased, mid-level plants are obviously expensive, but two ways of overcoming this could be for nurseries to promote themselves more and loan plants or for designers to plant up smaller areas to reduce cost. I think this would make the world of difference.
    I believe MIFGS is important to the industry, but as you say, it can do a lot of damage if the judging isn’t right. Whilst I don’t feel I can sit in London and pass judgement on the judging from just a few photos, overall, I think the criteria must be transparent and meaningful and the cut off for the different bands of medals should be roughly split equally between gold, silver and bronze, albeit different years will be better than others and awards should reflect this. One gold feels deflating for visitors and designers alike, but if we value credibility, perhaps once in a while it may be the right thing?

    • Another important difference with the Chelsea show apart from the sponsorship money involved is that MIFGS is a very strict ‘no dig’ garden show. The majestic trees of Carlton Gardens need to be protected so every garden has to be carefully built on top of the existing soil level, with all structures stabilised without any footings (no easy task) and all plants sitting in pots above the ground that are then covered around. So to ‘plant’ a large pot-sized shrub or small tree needs a lot of material built up around it (at significant cost) and some of the more sloping sites lend themselves much better to that than others. My understanding is that at the Chelsea FS, designers can bring in machinery and move the earth around and plant into it directly, creating very different and more permanent-feeling gardens.

      • Main Avenue at Chelsea is an avenue of mature plane trees! There are very strict guidelines on exactly what you can and can’t do at various distances from each tree trunk. Perhaps there is some learning here on risk management of trees that could help MIFGS?

  3. Absolutely agree! And the tree and shrubies garden was a stand out it looked like it belonged. A show garden that responds to its location is a rare thing and should have received a gold!

  4. Catherine. A fabulous summary and certainly there was a lot of talk about the lack of medals handed out this year. I felt the Shrub and Tree Growers garden was easily the best garden on show this year and used that site at the top of the gardens exceptionally well. It just fitted in and didn’t look like a show garden at all, but had some exquisite planting combinations, and sense of scale. The garden designed by Brent Reid was a strong representation of Melbourne: its grid, the laneways, the opportunities for small garden spaces in hidden areas and on top of buildings. But I thought it would have benefitted from some explanation, as I had directly from the designer and construction team (Semken). I don’t think I gave Phillip Withers’ garden enough time as I found a few of the plant combinations a bit challenging, but it certainly was brave and bold in its juxtaposition of shapes, textures and tones in interestingly foliaged plants.
    I think the issue for MIFGS is if there are not enough medals handed out, designers, suppliers and construction teams will not want to take part, without the opportunities for promotion that a medal provides. And if there are not enough show gardens for the paying visitor… But, then again, just giving out medals for coming along is a bit like todays kids’ sporting activities. Participation medals don’t give you anything to aim for or to feel that you have achieved something extraordinary.

  5. Thanks for your thought-provoking summary Catherine,
    You raise some very interesting questions and dilemmas. Are show gardens fundamentally marketing exercises for the landscape design and construction and nursery industries? For the most part I find the level of artifice about show gardens generates little intrigue or interest, and the crowds detract enormously from the viewing experience for me.They kinda kill any atmosphere. So I have attended very few garden shows.
    Having said that, I am left wondering what other opportunities do designers and craftspeople have to showcase their work to a wider public audience, and tout for business? Not too many. But does it really require the prestige of a medal to pull in the commissions? I would have thought that having one gold medal as in most other competitions would increase the prestige. But there you go, I’ve never really considered gardening a competitive sport anyway. The best can’t be determined with a stop watch. It’s a subjective judgement. And some of your reasons given for approving of the gold medal winner did not work for me. But that’s just my aesthetic taste.

    And then there’s the design ideas for the DIY gardening crowd, You’ve gotta love ’em for their hands on involvement. Garden fashion those ideas may be, but with the demise of that traditional sources of ideas, the Open Garden Scheme and gardening magazines, where else are they going to get their new ideas from, Bunnings? And I do find the shows can generate some interesting broader discussion amongst professionals and other interested parties, Just take your article for example .

    But you are right, there is a question of raison d’etre that the show’s organisers need to address. And as for permanently tossing out designers from the show, if you are going to view garden design as competitive sport, all I can say is it wouldn’t happen in footy, where you can cop a fine for questioning the umpire’s decision or at worst a few weeks suspension, but not expulsion. If this is true, It does make the organisers appear overly precious. Bloody hell, they’re dealing with bruised egos, not drug cheats!

    Just a couple of comments on the gardens pictured. I totally agreed that the Tree and Shrub Growers Garden (2nd picture) was a fabulous use of site. But then Janna Schreier’s comment about lacking mid level interest also rang true.
    I’ll be interested to read more detail about Christian Jenkin’s Beyond Blue garden. There’s certainly evidence around that an abundance of green foliage can be very soothing. But for me sticking a mindfulness meditation pagoda in the middle does not work. Mindfulness meditation is inward observation, communing with one’s own nature, not the external one. There is a reason why all those exquisite Japanese gardens in Zen meditation centres are screened off from the meditation hall. All that lovely greenery is just a distraction from the inward attending meditation process. This is not to say being in the garden is not a meditation in itself. Quite the opposite, and by contrast, Japanese tea gardens are designed to enhance this experience. For this purpose attention of all senses directed in the opposite direction, out to the external natural world. And like the inner directed mindfulness process, it can induce a meditative calm. However one is immersed within the garden rather than separated out on a platform. The other thing that doesn’t work for me is the dry stone work steps. This is probably a result of the construction constraints of the site, (structures needing to be dissembled with minimum impact), but It doesn’t look stable. I’m sure it would have been completely sound and stable, it just looks unstable. And that’s anxiety producing, not what I’d be wanting from a ‘mental health’ garden. However, I am making these judgements from a photo, not from being immersed in the garden, and it’s quite possible that the experience of being in this garden is very different from viewing the photograph of it.

    • Thank you Paul, for your (as always) thoughtful and interesting observations. I see no reason why garden designing can’t be a competitive endeavour for some, just as quilters, fashion designers, architects and painters create beautiful work but also exhibit it and compete for prizes. And I think that ‘hands on’ gardeners can get lots of design ideas from a show garden. There’s no doubt fewer ideas about plant growing and making plant pictures but there’s lots to learn about proportion, shape, and mass and void, which I think are often missing in very plant-focussed gardens, to their detriment.
      Re the mindfulness meditation, I probably should not have used the word ‘meditation’ as the mindfulness therapy I practise to manage my depression is not about removing oneself from sensory stimuli but embracing and focussing on it – to be completely present in that moment in that place, with other thoughts banished. I walked through and also sat for a while in Christian’s garden and it was ideal for it. And I can assure you, all parts were completely stable! Those stonework steps were not dry at all but well mortared. The mortar was raked out and well-concealed to promote the natural feel of the garden.

      • Ah! The perils for the garden commentator in not Being There! After merely looking at a picture, I should have known well enough to keep my mouth shut.

  6. Excellent article Catherine: MIFGS certainly has a judging process problems, and I also think that being selling oriented often doesn’t add any particular value to the Design scene: every year you see always the same styles repeated over and over and over because they sell!
    This year in particular, as many of you already said, the Philippe Whiters garden was fresh and new. Some of the plants he used were stunning and some plant combinations could be studied to see how thay work in a real garden and through the years.
    The Tree and Shrub Growers Garden is an exceptional explanation on how to deal with Genius Loci. Very well done.
    Other gardens had proportion problems or just a confusing mood: if lemongrass and coriander immediately say Vietnamese, the wrong combination of materials and plants created a strange mix. The overall mood should be clear enough not to need an explanation.
    Last thing: I would kill for Christian Jenkins talent in combining plants together!

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