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Garden Design

MIFGS: tiny student gardens with big ideas

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

April 22, 2015

Student gardens at MIFGS (the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show) are always a highlight for me. Designed by institute and uni students, hopefully before the conventions of the landscape industry and client expectations stifle some of their creative juices, it’s always a pleasure to wander down the Avenue of Achievable Gardens. It’s also good to see Debco continuing to be a major sponsor of this area (along with NGIV and Lysaght) as these are our stars of the future.

The 2015 MIFGS student gardens showed a good range of student talent and, as always, each one of them had something special to offer. And whatever I might think of any individual design, I’m impressed by the gumption and hard work needed for a student to be at this show. Any student that pushes her/himself to enter and then build one of these gardens on the most minuscule of budgets is worthy of praise and success.

'Life's a Motion Picture', design Carol Loveland, MIFGS 2013

‘Life’s a Motion Picture’, design Carol Loveland, MIFGS 2013

That said, I’d very much like to see more ‘out-there’ creations in 2016, like we’ve had in some earlier years. I loved it when these student gardens were more about running riot with design ideas, no matter how crazy, and less about impressing future clients and being environmentally responsible.

The Darkest Corner, MIFGS 2013

The Darkest Corner, MIFGS 2013

Oh for a design brief that says “I just wanted to go wild, get a bit silly, and have fun rather than be serious and worthy”. But maybe I need to move on with the reality times about that? We’ve all gotta eat. And save the planet.

So enough of my pickiness. As I have done before on GardenDrum, my write up of these student gardens highlights each garden’s positives but also points out what I think could have been done better.  What I find often happens is that students (like most designers) will pick up on any negatives and contact me saying “yes, I know! I should(n’t) have done….” They tend to be too self critical and overlook the really good parts of their garden. And there are lots of those.

Something to note about my design comments, particularly in regards to balance, symmetry and focal point come from the imposed viewing angle that we, as show goers, are forced to adopt i.e. we’re looking at these gardens as a 3D picture from the ‘front’, not as gardens we can walk into and experience on an interesting angle, or from one side to the other.

Now let’s check out the winner’s garden for 2015, as it’s really impressive.

'Rousseau's Jungle' Design Heather Forward MIFGS 2015

‘Rousseau’s Jungle’ Design Heather Forward MIFGS 2015

‘Rousseau’s Jungle’ by Heather Forward, University of Melbourne: 1st place

Henri Rousseau 'Le Rêve'

Henri Rousseau ‘Le Rêve’

Based on the famous jungle painting of French impressionist Henri Rousseau, this astonishingly good garden was indeed a true winner. Designed with a painter’s eye for composition and form, not only was the planting excellent but the attention to detail and construction standard was one of the best I’ve seen in a student garden. There’s just the right balance between everything: the warm red-browns and cool greens and grey; and between the rounded leaf shapes of Canna, Ficus and Strelitzia, and the strappy leaves of lomandra, palms, cordylines and lirope, further echoed in the steel backing screen. There’s even a balance between upright vertical lines from the foliage and a strong horizontal line along the pond edge.

The mass of large leaf foliage at eye height creates that ‘in your face’ jungle feel, but is offset by dainty maidenhair ferns at ground level. The pond is just the right tannin brown-black and carefully selected flat stones disguise every centimetre of the pond liner. And that tiger!

'Rousseau's Jungle' design by Heather Forward MIFGS 2015


'Urban Oasis' by Veronica Bosque, Clare Mesenberg and Jo Zorzi MIFGS 2015

‘Urban Oasis’ by Veronica Bosque, Clare Mesenberg and Jo Zorzi MIFGS 2015

Urban Oasis by Veronica Bosque, Clare Mesenberg and Jo Zorzi, Holmesglen Institute: 2nd Place

A good working relationship between 3 designers is not an easy achievement but I’ve noticed women designers are usually better at pulling it off. Maybe there’s a more collaborative approach there. Urban Oasis combines permaculture design principles, including a rain garden, companion planting and edible plants. I really like the way that instead of the usual raised garden beds, the human garden visitors are sent down below ground level. Maybe there’s a hint there that we should be subservient to both the soil and the plants on which we depend but take so much for granted. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘getting into the garden’! It also puts all those flowers and food plants at eye height that we usually looking down upon. I’d love to sit in there, even under that wonderful but somewhat Damoclean sculpture/light.

Urban Oasis MIFGS 2015

‘Urban Oasis’ by Veronica Bosque, Clare Mesenberg and Jo Zorzi MIFGS 2015

From a design perspective I’d have liked a slightly less busy planting scheme as I think there’s too many contrasts of form, colour and texture happening all at once. But permaculture design is less about swathes of pretty planting than practicality so if that’s what works for food growing, I can get it. Lord knows I’m no veggie gardener!


'Grounding'. Design Benjamin Taylor, MIFGS 2015

‘Grounding’. Design Benjamin Taylor, MIFGS 2015

Grounding by Benjamin Taylor, University of Melbourne: 3rd Place

Benjamin’s garden is as simple as many of the others are complex. It’s a nicely balanced composition, with the weight of the wall offset by its corresponding gravel void and the weight of the stone dry creek bed to its left. And I’m a sucker for the contrast of fine, wispy foliage like those grass trees against heavy timber and stone. The wall itself is another strong design point, cleverly breaking down from its structured central section into more rumbled stone as it morphs into the dry creek bed. Surrounding aromatic plants like lemon myrtle and native mint call us to brew up a herbal cuppa in the billy.

'Grounding' MIFGS 2015

‘Grounding’. Design Benjamin Taylor, MIFGS 2015

Although the left hand circle works on the plan, I don’t think its as effective when built. It’s too small to have an obvious purpose and we’re viewing it at too low an angle to see how those two circles relate. I’d also have liked to see the fire pit stonework a bit more carefully done to work better with the wall. But I like the Japanese aesthetic of the those tea tree and hessian screens and the way they carry through a dry, dusty colour theme, relieved by the splashes of fresh green foliage.


Delicious Sanctuary MIFGS 2015

‘Delicious Sanctuary’ Design Amanda King, MIFGS 2015

Delicious Sanctuary by Amanda King, Holmesglen Institute

Designed as a quick-to-construct and easily relocatable container garden for either homeowners or renters, ‘Delicious Sanctuary’ offers an example of how a small courtyard could support plenty of edible plants and still look very inviting. Five timber crates are arranged in a geometric grid about a central axis, but the rigidity of the symmetry is balanced by the cornucopia of planting that springs from each box. Painted pallet-style screens provide a cheap DIY background that hides the fence, creates yet more growing space for spillover plants and also a framework for those very stylish decorated mirrors. Round pots slotted in between the crates are filled with citrus.

'Delicious Sanctuary' Design Amanda King. MIFGS 2015 Photo Janna Schreier

‘Delicious Sanctuary’ Design Amanda King. MIFGS 2015 Photo Janna Schreier

Delicious Sanctuary Design Amanda King MIFGS 2015 Photo Janna Schreier

Delicious Sanctuary Design Amanda King MIFGS 2015 Photo Janna Schreier


I’m not sure about the pots – I think they made it a bit cluttered and I would have liked to keep a clearer sense of that strong, grid-like structure. From a practical point of view, it might also be easier to access all those plants in the crates.

The attention to detail in this garden adds to its appeal, such as choosing a round table to offset the squareness of the crates, the very beautiful decorated mirrors and those wonderful ceramic planters on the table which look like large balls of string.


'The Crossroads' Design Ben Newell, MIFGS 2015

‘The Crossroads’ Design Ben Newell, MIFGS 2015

The Crossroads by Ben Newell, Swinburne University of Technology

This little garden had one of the best planting designs using (mostly) native plants I’ve seen in a while. Ben has a real eye for combining their very distinctive colours and textures. I particularly like the rusty red kangaroo paws and leucadendrons against the grey corrugated iron wall. He’s also sensibly used small groupings of each plant which gives them a better colour presence than if they were more intermingled and added just the right touch of tufted, more upright plants.

There’s also a clever playing with perspective here. The two diagonal paths leading to the centre focus our attention on a miniature table and chairs, which fools our eye into thinking that the garden is much deeper than its mere 3 metres.

The Crossroads by Ben Newell MIFGS 2015 Image by gardendrum.com

‘The Crossroads’ Design Ben Newell MIFGS 2015

I like the basic symmetry of the design but I’d have preferred that birdbath to be off centre, maybe more front left, to mess things up a bit. Its pebbles do make it more small-bird friendly, but the overall look is too busy to also be in that central sightline.


'WSUD meets the Water Wizard' Design Nicola Muston MIFGS 2015

‘WSUD meets the Water Wizard’ Design Nicola Muston MIFGS 2015

WSUD meets the Water Wizard by Nicola Muston, Holmesglen Institute

For the uninitiated, WSUD stands for ‘water sensitive urban design’ which means designing gardens that allow rainfall to penetrate the ground to naturally replenish the water table, instead of sending stormwater accelerated across hard surfaces straight down the drain and coursing into the local rivers. Featuring a rusty colour palette, Nicola’s waterfall had me instantly intrigued.

'WSUD meets the Water Wizard' Design Nicola Muston. MIFGS 2015

‘WSUD meets the Water Wizard’ Design Nicola Muston. MIFGS 2015

Designed to show how a house downpipe could connect to a rain garden, water fills and then overflows from one vertical pipe to the next, slowing it down and giving a lot of pleasure from its sound in the process. It then flows along a ‘leaky’ bed, filled with plants that can cope with temporary inundation, followed by periods of dry weather, and then connects ultimately with the stormwater drain. Unlike lots of water features, the sound of this one was beautiful, combining a wide range of pitch and tone.

From a show garden design point of view, it would have been better to have the rain garden closer to the front so it was more easily seen, and maybe a bit of a bend would have given it a more natural, rather than drainage channel feel.

The plant selection is perfect for a Melbourne garden and would have given show-goers plenty of ideas about combining textures and form.


'A Garden for Butterflies' Design Daniel Mounsey, MIFGS 2015

‘A Garden for Butterflies’ Design Daniel Mounsey, MIFGS 2015

A Garden for Butterflies by Daniel Mounsey, Melbourne Polytechnic

Daniel’s design is simple and strongly symmetrical, using unstructured planting and a range of textures to contrast with a single semi-circular void. Plants are chosen not just for their appearance but also to provide foraging opportunities and habitat for butterflies native to Victoria, both in their adult and larval stages.

'A Garden for Butterflies' Design Daniel Mousey. MIFGS 2015

‘A Garden for Butterflies’ Design Daniel Mousey. MIFGS 2015

There’s a good texture range in the pebbles and I like the weeping Lomandra ‘Tanika’ brushing down over the face of the rich, dark red wall. What I’d have preferred is to have the bird bath positioned off-centre, balanced by denser planting on the opposing side. There’s something about a circular shape that seems to demand something in its centre, but it nearly always looks better if it’s not.


Native Zen Oasis by Mayumi Middleton

‘Native Zen Oasis’ Design Mayumi Middleton, MIFGS 2015

Native Zen Oasis by Mayumi Middleton, Melbourne Polytechnic

Planted with Australian native plants but designed using a Japanese-inspired Zen garden style, this garden is pared back to the simplest of design components – suggestions of ground-plane circles in water and raked sand, mostly tufted plants and a colour palette of beige, brown and green. It is restful, in that zen kind of way, and shows you don’t need lots of snazzy things or even much soil to make a satisfying garden.

'Native Zen Oasis' Design Mayumi Middleton. MIFGS 2015

‘Native Zen Oasis’ Design Mayumi Middleton. MIFGS 2015

A bamboo shishi-odoshi gives the impression that its feeding water to the small pool, although I think for show garden purposes they are not actually connected. Using devices such as this cleverly solves the problem of how you get water into a naturalistic water feature, where it can’t easily flow from higher to lower ground. The pebbles lining the pool perfectly echo the colour of the background reed screen, and I like the way Mayumi has finished off the lower edge with a strip of bamboo. Very neat.

But again, I feel that the tree sitting dead centre isn’t quite right and if the overall effect were a bit more ikebana, where asymmetry is extreme but perfectly balanced, then the garden would be even better.


'The Pollinator Partnership' Design Rebecca Bennett, MIFGS 2015

‘The Pollinator Partnership’ Design Rebecca Bennett, MIFGS 2015

The Pollinator Partnership by Rebecca Bennett, Swinburne University of Technology

Bees and pollinators are definitely the garden design theme du jour. The hexagonal shape derived from honeycomb is both strong and attractive, and I like its part in this garden. Interlocking hexagonal ground plane shapes delineate three separate levels, stepping up from left to right. Pollinator houses, from bird to bee to bamboo insect ‘hotels’ are dotted about the garden.

'The Pollinator Partnership'. Design Rebecca Bennett. MIFGS 2015

‘The Pollinator Partnership’. Design Rebecca Bennett. MIFGS 2015

The back panel with its honeycomb mirror is a real stunner. Impossible to photograph without spoiling it with your own image, it really dominates the garden and I like the colour echoes of its rich gold around the garden. The small hexagonal cascade at the front is well done too. What I’m not so crazy about are the honeycomb cut timber stepping pads as I think they busy-up the picture too much and the stark white and black of the hive. The cushions balance it a bit but I can’t help think it would either have been better another colour, or that it needed more dark foliage or white inclusions to tie it in.


'The Wilde Side' Design Sonja Van Nieuwenhoven, Elise Nothover, Katya Hamaniuk and Ellen Davies, MIFGS 2015

‘The Wilde Side’ Design Sonja Van Nieuwenhoven, Elise Nothover, Katya Hamaniuk and Ellen Davies, MIFGS 2015

The Wilde Side by Sonja Van Nieuwenhoven, Elise Nothover, Katya Hamaniuk and Ellen Davies

Another collaboration by women designers produced ‘The Wilde Side’, featuring an extensive wall garden and a geometric rectangular ground plane layout, but almost totally overgrown and disguised by its plants. Dominated by tufted plants like liriope, lomandra and dwarf casuarina plus various grasses, it has a shaggy appeal with that ‘nature will triumph in the end’ feel about it.

The Wilde Side Design MIFGS 2015 Image by gardendrum.com

‘The Wilde Side’ Design Sonja Van Nieuwenhoven, Elise Nothover, Katya Hamaniuk and Ellen Davies, MIFGS 2015

It is a nice change to have a garden where plants are the boss, and not clipped and conforming to our preconceived ideas about what’s a pleasing way to grow. But to me, it make those neat mounds of native daisy and fan flower look a little out of place. Maybe something flowering but a bit more wild-side itself, or grouping them together more rather than intermingled would have worked better. But one thing really has me puzzled – why ‘Wilde’ with an ‘e’?


'Pipe Dream' Design Thea Sestoso, MIFGS 2015

‘Pipe Dream’ Design Thea Sestoso, MIFGS 2015

Pipe Dream by Thea Sestoso, Swinburne University of Technology

How many ways can you use simple old PVC pipe? With Thea’s imagination and ingenuity, countless ways it seems. I like the way Thea has left them in their original off-white plastic colour with code printing showing, rather than using paint finishes to make them look something fancier than what they are – plumbing off cuts.

'Pipe Dream' Design Thea Sestoso, MIFGS 2015

‘Pipe Dream’ Design Thea Sestoso, MIFGS 2015

In ‘Pipe Dream’, we have a screen, a free-standing wall, a retaining wall, planter, stepping pads, and even guinea pig habitat. I think that wave wall to the left of the garden is wonderful. The different diameter pipes and cut lengths give it a real fluidity. We have a wine rack we made from glued-together cut PVC pipe about 20 years ago, so I know this construction lasts surprisingly well.

Image by gardendrum.com

‘Pipe Dream’ Design Thea Sestoso, MIFGS 2015

From a garden design perspective, I think the garden is too dominated by seeing how many pipe reuse ideas can be fitted in, rather than what works best in combination. (OK, so I don’t like stepping stones. They always look a bit ‘fairy dell’, like a Brownie pack meeting). The freeform wall and the planter, which looks like an adorable alien, just don’t seem to go with the neater, rectilinear retaining wall and screen. Now I look at the photos, replicating the different diameters and cut lengths in the screen at the back, and giving it a similar wave form weaving in and out of the bamboo would have looked terrific.

The planting is well done too, with those sweeps of gold, green and dark plum.


'Green Haven' Design Andrew Genovese, MIFGS 2015

‘Green Haven’ Design Andrew Genovese, MIFGS 2015

Green Haven by Andrew Genovese, Melbourne Polytechnic

'Green Haven' Design Andrew Genovese MIFGS 2015

‘Green Haven’ Design Andrew Genovese MIFGS 2015

‘Green Haven’ is a simple design that makes a very usable little garden. I really like the cut rounds of timber forming a paved floor to the lacy tunnel of bamboo, and the way that lightness contrasts with the solid, round shape of the water bowl. I’ve been into a couple of gardens via a plant tunnel and it’s a wonderful entry idea as it quickly sets a mood, either immediate silence if it’s tall and narrow, or it gets everyone laughing if it’s low and wide. It’s a pity it wasn’t set more on an angle so it was more obvious from the front, but such are the size constraints of these tiny gardens.

The left two thirds of this garden is very good, but I felt that the right hand side needed more planting to balance the lushness of the front and left, and I wondered why there were two empty pots on top of each other in such a prominent position. If you can take them away in your imagination, it would look much better. With those pots, tunnel, tree fern and bromeliads, there’s a lot of weight and focus in the central area of the garden that makes the sitting area at the right feeling a bit brown, rather than green.

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5 years ago

Pithy and thought-provoking as always Catherine. Your promotion of the work of these students at MIFGS to a wider audience must be very encouraging for them and they should all be very proud of what they achieved. And yes, thank you sponsors whose support enables it to happen. It’s worth noting that the engaging tiger in Heather Forward’s winning garden was also all her own work.

5 years ago

I, too, really enjoyed seeing these gardens and love your more thorough review of them. The symmetry theme is interesting. I think landscape design theory, in recent times, has been so focussed on formal, geometric layouts, particularly for small gardens, that when combined with the latest, eco/pollinator/water/sustainability-friendly trends, results in very conflicting messages. Sadly, garden design literature seems to struggle to move with the times and generally offers a very one-sided view of possibilities.

5 years ago

Thanks Catherine for your great detailed review of these student gardens. I always make sure I have a wander down the Avenue of Achievable Gardens each MIFGS to see them, but alas I must confess that I don’t stop for long enough to immerse myself into the designs. I realise that this is to my detriment. I think I get caught up in the glitz, glamour and awe of the show gardens where there are bigger budgets and bigger gardens. However, I need to see how good these students are and to support them. Gosh, if I look back on my student horticultural days and think of some of my pre-experience designs and plant selections I would be embarrassed, but alas that is why we continually learn. So when I see really good student designs I realise that these are talented people that understand design principles and plant selection and know how to make that work in a small space. Bravo to them I say!

5 years ago

Thanks for your review! I totally agree with your comment about my ‘garden for butterflies’ that would have been better with less demanding symmetry! I put all energy into the plants and needs of the insect, with little regard for human aesthetics, as it was my first ever display and design. I didn’t receive any prize or place (our school had zero funding! the displays across the road, and winners..had 3000$ each! hence the varied quality of plant selection and abilities in landscaping) but the knowledge that i did a small promotion for the importance of the Butterfly in the garden, out weighs any misgivings about human orientated judgement.
(argg cant change my profile due to this ID system..digital persona instead of gardener one! anyways… http://www.secretgardener.melbourne, – regards daniel Mounsey)