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Garden Design

Accidents do happen: show garden hazards

Leon Kluge

Leon Kluge

September 30, 2014

“I could have done that, easy peasey”
“Oh! I don’t really like red”….or my absolute personal favourite:
“I don’t get it?”
“There’s not much to get, just read the explanation board right in front of you….”
(No, I didn’t really say that to him, but I may have been tempted to)
“Accidents do happen!”

accidents do happen in a show garden build

Accidents do happen

These are some of the interesting comments that I remember while showcasing gardens at international garden shows.
 I have been designing for local and international gardening shows for many years. Now one would think that it would become easier as time goes by, but strangely no…in some ways it becomes tougher.

Make no mistake. There is nothing I love more than to participate in international garden competitions. It is a huge honour to be invited to a big flower show. Sometimes I wonder, why would they invite me? There are so many other amazing designers out there; but then I get excited. Another show, a different city, different challenges…striving and a fighting for that elusive and sometimes very slippery GOLD medal and so it should be!

Winning gold at a Garden Show

Winning gold with David Davidson

These flower shows are the catwalks of gardening and garden related fashion. Just like the fashion catwalk in Milan, New York, and Paris would give you an overdose of creativity, boldness and downright wackiness in clothes. So do the main gardening catwalks in London, Singapore, Philadelphia and Melbourne. Yes, some of those outfits I would buy and wear which were parading in front of me on the catwalk (I might first have to do a serious amount of sit-ups).

But then there are the clothes that make you wonder: What was the designer smoking! It might just be something as simple as the way the neckline of that wacky dress is cut that sparks a fashion statement and new world-wide trend.

Public buying the plants at the end

Public buying the plants at the end of the day

It is the same with show gardens, people are there to look at and admire but they are also there to spark new ideas, to set new trends, to promote new plants, in short to make gardening exciting and ever evolving.
 But for the designer behind the scenes there are a lot of sleepless nights and doubt before that garden can climb onto the public catwalk.


Prefabrication speeds up show garden build

Prefabrication speeds up show garden build

Preparations for a show start in most cases a year in advance. You get the brief stating the theme, deadlines, stand size, your contractors name and a budget. Your smile usually disappears when you see the budget, hoping they forgot a few 0’s, but you know they didn’t. Finding financial sponsorship for garden shows is more difficult than finding a pink vegetarian lion in the Serengeti.

Then the design process begins, usually with a strong coffee or two. Sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, staring at it…..Why is nothing coming out of my head?

Did I have too much coffee? Did I take the dog out to pee? Stop it Leon, focus!!!!

So it would continue for days on end with seemingly no inspiration and contemplating a new career in fish farming…. but then…unexpectedly and whilst swerving out for an overloaded taxi I see workers mixing up mortar by the side of the road, and the shape of a left over dry heap of cement gives that spark to the design that I have been looking for. Then designing can finally begin.

Working through the night again to have Show garden ready for Judging

Working through the night again to have Show garden ready for Judging

After designing the garden (and it usually happens to be the night of the deadline) the design is submitted. Slowly feedback would start trickling in, usually stating that you are a million Yen over budget and you must cut; and cut deep, but without compromising the look and quality of the garden. Easier said than done I might tell you. Eventually after breaking three calculators you finally get to the magic total that makes everybody happy, and prefab construction starts, and you cross your legs arms and pinkies hoping all goes well and according to your plan.


Construction begins on site at a garden show

As the contractor building the structures can´t speak a word of English. This is the only time when you’re glad you never went for Botox as facial expressions become your first language on site. At the same time however this is when your heart starts racing from excitement to see your vision slowly coming to life, emerging out of nothing.

It is a magic feeling, until you hear your contractor say those dreaded words:

“UH OH!!!!”

Preparing for a typhoon

Preparing & protecting my show garden for a typhoon that’s about to hit Japan Gardening World cup

But there will always be unforeseen challenges, a broken one of a kind mirror, or even a passing typhoon, we have had it all!

making friends-jo thompson


Let me tell you it makes for some good laughs around the bar at night when all the show designers come out to play in their muddy clothes and dirty hair. The camaraderie between international garden show designers is something very special.  Yes, we do compete against each other to get ´Best in Show´. But we are a close-knit and small family that would always help each other out in a sticky situation on site and be a shoulder if things might get a bit hairy.

After construction time runs out and the clock says it is time to put down tools, whether you are done or not (just like Master Chef). Then the dreaded judging starts. This is when designers get quiet and seem to disappear, either to go for a snooze after hardly any sleep for a week, or just reflecting a bit by themselves. At some shows the awards are placed at the garden early morning, and when the gates open you would find out quietly whether you had a bronze, silver, silver-gilt or gold. Then of course there are the more extravagant shows that have a big award ceremony with champagne and brown crab eggs on toast. Similar to Project Runway everyone gets called out on stage to receive their award. Standing in a line cracking a fake smile if the award you got wasn’t the one you were hoping for.

For me, when the show opens to the public, that’s the best part of the whole year of planning and show garden construction. It is when I get to see the public enjoying the gardens, talking about them, analysing them, and me smiling and listening from a distance.

Gold Medal Garden Show


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helen mckerral
helen mckerral
9 years ago

What a great blog, Leon! I’m just a gardener, not a designer, and your observations really brought the show garden process to life!

9 years ago
Reply to  helen mckerral

Hi Helen
Glad you liked it.
Spend the last 3 weeks building showgardens in Asia, will tell you all about that show in the next post.

Janna Schreier
9 years ago

Great article, Leon.

9 years ago
Reply to  Janna Schreier

Thank so much you Janna

Jo Thompson
9 years ago

Ah I love that photo of us!! Xx

9 years ago
Reply to  Jo Thompson

I know my friend! Hope for a new photo of us again soon somewhere.
Its always great fun working at a show where you are involved. X

Bronwyn Alder
Bronwyn Alder
9 years ago

A very entertaining and insightful article. As a young newbie to the industry, it makes me feel very excited to get further involved (currently studying hort and design at Ryde TAFE).