Loads of flowers, a soft autumn-toned palette and quiet, reflective water are the big design stories out of the 2013 Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, shortened to the more user-friendly ‘MIFGS’ by regular show-goers.
Rectilinear shapes have replaced many of the curved designs of recent years, often with intersecting squares and rectangles at different levels. While I like a part circle or a sweeping curve, they are much harder shapes to use to good effect in a small show garden where you need to have very strongly defined spaces. But I hope we don’t abandon curves and circles in the home garden where they’re often the best way to deal with awkwardly shaped blocks and uneven slope.
Flowers are everywhere, in tightly-packed meadow-style plantings. I heard the main display gardens at this year’s show described by Better Homes and Garden‘s Roger Fox as “very Chelsea”, and I can see exactly what he means. Soft, rosy pinks, bleached yellow, ivory, and small shots of blue and purple dominate the flower colours in many of the gardens. It’s pretty, unstructured and frankly quite a relief from years of very textured foliage gardens.
Will this be a hard trend to push with the home gardener, who will see it as a very high maintenance planting scheme? In a cooler climate like Melbourne (although after this recent super summer, is it any more?) a hard chop-down in early spring and trims a few times during the growing season are probably enough to keep it under control. Not so sure that’s going to work in any warmer climates.
Still, it’s beautiful and joyous and there’s a subtle but important difference to the old days of the perennial cottage garden. Plants are grouped into small blocks for maximum impact, especially from a distance, rather than the slightly messy ‘one of this, one of that’ of the old-style cottage gardens of the 1980s.
Plants you’re likely to see a lot more of are coneflowers in every shade, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Achillea, flowering grasses, daylilly, salvia, geranium, verbena, Agastache, several of the newer coloured-leaf euphorbia cultivars and various daisies, like cosmos and coreopsis. Most gardens also featured quite a few trees, including pinoak, birch, pear, ash and Tilia limes. Many of these are fastigiate forms or pleached for height rather than a spreading canopy. Bold foliage accent plants are stiil around but only one here or there as a strong focal point, like strappy Gymea lilies, an agave, ginger or flax.
I was glad to see that a few gardens did head off in different planting directions, like the very interesting planting in Hunter Black Design and crazy, mixed up (but very appealing) palette in Cube-ism by Phillip Withers and I’ll blog more about them soon.
Hardscape dominant colours are cool white and ivory contrasted with charcoal and black, and then warmed up with light-toned timber and stone. I was pleased to see a few splashes of my favourite orange, especially in the Cycas Landscape Design garden. Those wall flowers were no wall flowers.
Timber is the material du jour, often turning up rough-sawn and reused for strong texture, or with light-coloured stain. There’s still metal too but it’s a quieter, more background presence than previous years in silver, white or charcoal.
Light-coloured natural stone features strongly, both as walling (bookleaf and smallish cut blocks) and in paving. And sharp stone gravel is everywhere – as mulch, as paths and between larger paving slabs.
Paving still has large unit pavers but they’re often interspersed with smaller details like crazy paving and mosaics. A few of the gardens took the more rustic trend a little further with clay brick-style pavers or slivers of stone.
Water has a quieter presence in the garden, in still, reflective pools and dark water rather than waterfalls or fountains. Small rills or long, thread-like drops (a bit like a beaded curtain) restrict the amount of water needed. Pools are no longer bright blue but quieter grey-green, turquoise or even charcoal-black.
Lawns have reappeared in many of the gardens, and the soft green swards really set off the more colourful perennials. I like a bit of lawn in a garden as I believe that they can be environmentally sustainable and sensible with the right turf choice and appropriate maintenance schedule.
(Mostly) noticeably absent are:
Outdoor rooms – MIFGS 2013 gardens look like GARDENS, not rooms without a roof. This, to me, is a great relief.
Outdoor kitchens – I say YAY! to the loss of such environmentally irresponsible conspicuous consumption.
Large bluestone paving slabs – they look great but cost a bomb and are a nightmare to install so the home garden reno budget will be better off.
Australian native plants – I’m really worried about this. Breeders have been working hard for years to produce good quality Australian plants for home gardeners. While you might like the Chelsea look, I’d like to see it interpreted using a mix of our own plants and tough exotics. I think Australia is the only country in the world that practises such comprehensive plant apartheid, where you seem to have to grow one or the other but not both together. Where are the fan flowers, native daisies, eremophila, groundcover banksia and yellow buttons, like I saw flowering in the Australian Garden at Cranbourne a few days earlier?
Endless strap-leafed plants – I think it may even have been a cordyline-free zone.
Edible gardens – I know, I know, there’s lots of people who love to grow and eat. But I’ve always worried about persuading people into gardening by pushing this most difficult and resource-requiring form of gardening. So I’m happy we’ve still got easy-to-grow herbs but fewer vegetable gardens and orchards.
Sustainable gardening – I hope it’s still there but just in more subtle ways. There were no water tanks or obvious reuse of materials. Less hard surface (and outdoor bathrooms and kitchens) and more shade and plants is still in the right direction.
Topiary and tight pruning – I quite like a bit of more formal geometry mixed with loose planting but if it means the end of every guy with a power hedge trimmer thinking that’s all there is to a garden maintenance business, then maybe this is a Good Thing.
Big water features – I’m not a fan of Trevi Fountain type installations, and big water features lose a lot of water, but something oversized and powerful can be a good way to play around with scale in a garden.
Rounded river pebbles – I still like the look of them but as most people use them thinking they’re low maintenance, when they’re exactly the opposite, this is probably a Good Thing too.
Corten rusting steel – I can’t help it. I’ll never lose my love of this stuff. Used as edging or sculpture among grey-green, fine textured Australian plants it still looks wonderful to me. Interestingly in the sculpture area of the show there were still many rusting steel exhibits, so artisans and the public haven’t lost their taste for it either.