Over the last couple of years my overwhelming impression is of a gardening culture desperately looking for a more naturalistic style. Wildflower meadows and cottage gardens featuring a wide diversity of simpler flowers were a feature of many of the show gardens. The towering spires of double-flowered delphiniums, the big blowsy multi-petalled roses, the seemingly endless forms of dahlia such as peony, cactus and waterlily were scarcely to be seen in the show gardens. Box hedges were also as rare as Australian gardening TV programs at the moment.
In addition, the Royal Horticultural Society was promoting plants with simple wild-type flowers in response to a widely perceived plunge in the number of bees in Europe and other parts of the world. Some of these prominent feature plants were the none other than bottlebrush and native mint bush from Australia. It was an incredible irony that the plants that were disregarded as drab and uninteresting by the early British settlers in Australia are now being held up as the plants of the future for British gardeners.
On a broader note, travelling around the gardens of Europe has led me to the conclusion that for several hundred years the objective of garden designers was to celebrate the apparent dominance over nature that Europeans had established. Water was channelled around by various ingenious methods to service the burgeoning towns and cities and to create opulent water features in the finest gardens of the day. The symmetrical patterns of parterre gardens and centuries old topiaries speak of a desire to shape nature to suit the human purpose.
All the while nurseries and their plant breeders were selecting mutations of flowers, foliage and form in the popular plants of the day. The columnar Italian Cypress seems to me to symbolise a rather emphatic exclamation mark to the landscapes of southern Europe. The huge extra-petalled flowers that were being selected were often given names such as ‘Monstrosum’ in recognition of their bizarre novelty value. As is human nature the wealthy will always pay fortunes to have something of rarity and often a large percentage of the population embraces this if it can be mass produced.
However, the pendulum seems to have well and truly swung the other way amongst the trend setters of garden design, if many of the award winning gardens at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show were anything to go by. In particular I found the wonderfully informal wildflower meadow designs to be a potent antidote to the bout of pencilpinitus and acute buxus toxicity that I was suffering by that stage of my European garden tour.
Once again, Flemings Nursery from Victoria sponsored a show garden at Chelsea 2012. To their great credit Flemings have given an opportunity to a different Australian garden designer to create a show garden each year for the last eight years. Over that time these gardens have won four gold medals and four silver gilt medals which is a tremendous achievement that has demonstrated that Australian garden designers are on a par with their European counterparts.
This year’s design was by Jason Hodges of Better Homes and Gardens fame who won a silver gilt medal. Jason continued a trend towards the ‘outdoor room’ concept that has been so successful locally. Jason’s garden was a rather personal statement relating to his own life experience in gardening and I thought it had a refreshing Australian informality to it that was also a salute to our multicultural society as well. You can find details of the garden at www.flemings.com.au/chelsea 2012/ , congratulations to Jason and Wes Fleming for another tremendous promotion for Australian horticulture.
I feel very strongly that the challenge for Australian garden designers is to continue to develop a uniquely Australian garden style that celebrates our plants, landscapes and lifestyles. As a multicultural society, perhaps a blend of styles from around the world such as this year’s Flemings garden will continue to emerge as has happened with culinary pursuits in our kitchens and restaurants. However, it is surely time for us to move beyond the Buxus hedges and topiaries and minimalist styles that have dominated so many Australian gardens in recent times. Please can we embrace the vibrant biodiversity that European visitors travel halfway around the world to experience.