As a show, the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (MIFGS) 2016 felt a little quieter than previous years but there were still many fine gardens. I like to stand back first for a while to get an overall impression, then examine each part of the garden more closely. Although good gardens have strong overall design qualities, they are always supported by interesting detail that’s not immediately obvious, but definitely adds to the sum of the parts. Then, if I can, I then talk to the designer to understand the ‘why’ of the garden, which I find often adds to its appeal.
Two main avenue standout gardens for 2016 were those by Vivid Design (Carolyn and Joby Blackman) and Ian Barker Gardens which both won Gold Medals. I don’t know how the judges were able to pick between them for a Best in Show – awarded to Vivid Design for ‘The Greenery Garden‘, which also picked up the HMA Best Use of Plants and the Mark Bence Construction Awards.
Both gardens are beautiful and displayed exquisite planting – a hallmark of both design companies – and pared-back hardscape, letting the shapes and spaces and planting masses both define and decorate the garden. Both used level change to great effect: Vivid Design to contain a central sitting area and, in Ian Barker Gardens’ ‘Reflection‘, cascading levels led us gently down a slope and onto the lake itself – an extraordinary and groundbreaking (so to speak) construction achievement.
If forced to choose I would have given the planting award to Ian Barker Gardens (IBG) but probably still Best in Show to Vivid Design. As much as the garden-over-the-lake concept intrigued and the garden was lovely and very site-specific, I felt that IBG’s 2015 garden design was stronger. But that planting! The unexpected combinations and sophisticated plant palette that IBG have been developing over the past few years really shone with wispy grasses speared by tiny shafts of rich maroon, flat plates of creamy achillea and, uncharacteristically for Ian, golden flowers that had danced their way into the mix.
It’s refreshing to see gardens that don’t rely so heavily on focal points and the standard MIFGS inclusions to create their interest. MIFGS gardens had become far too much about focal points and big ticket items, where pavilions, outdoor kitchens and bathrooms, outdoor fires and huge sculptures drew attention away from what’s most important in a good garden: well-shaped three-dimensional spaces, balance, and mass and void. When the wow-factor of a garden’s outdoor furniture or a full kitchen attracts more attention than the garden’s structure, then you know that the ‘beads and baubles’ are compensating for something that’s probably lacking.
Another garden I particularly enjoyed was the ‘Do the NT‘ garden for Northern Territory – Outback Australia, by Candeo Design (Brent Reid) which deserved its Gold Medal. Layered to represent the different vegetation zones of the Northern Territory – monsoon forest, wetlands, open woodlands and heathlands, and desert – the garden’s design allows a 360 degree tour. Each of the vegetation communities shines, but you’re always drawn to that symbolic red heart, aflame with Sturt’s Desert Pea. Again this is a garden that reveals beautiful detail as you look more closely, like the snakeskin-like finish on the decking, animal images in the polished steppers and carefully mingled plant combinations.
Another garden worth mentioning for several reasons was ‘Ohana’ by Georgia Harper Landscape Design (Silver Medal). Without the delightful exuberance of landscape designer Phillip Withers this year, MIFGS felt like it was taking itself all pretty seriously, so I was delighted to see a bit of fun in Ohana’s gorgeous giant wahine surfer smiling down benevolently on passers by, and its groovy surfboard table. And a great plant choice mashup and sophisticated pavement, as I describe below.
There was also a smaller garden that deserves a special mention – ‘Right of Way’ by Daniel Tyrrell Landscapes. This was a clever mock-up of a typical Melbourne laneway with its large bluestone cobbles – usually a bare and unappealing place. In Daniel’s hands it became a place of beauty and colour – the ‘greenery in between’ as he described it – showing what you can do outside your back fence. Just add a talented street artist and some easy-to-grow perennials (and maybe Daniel).
1. Mixing Australian native plants with more intensely coloured exotics
Georgia Harper Landscape Design in ‘Ohana‘ gave us a great eclectic planting mix of succulents, broms, lomandra, myoporum, frangipani, woolly bush and mandevilla.
One of the best examples of this ‘I-don’t-care-where-you’ve-come-from’ mash-up was created by the very talented Kim Earl (Candeo Design) for ‘The Retreat‘, a garden designed by world-renown British designer Paul Hervey Brookes. Sadly, circumstances forced Brookes to withdraw personally from the show but testament to the high regard in which he is held by his fellow show garden designers, a group of them determined that the garden would still be built and planted. With Semken completing the landscape work, Kim Earl took on the job of interpreting his drawings with the appropriate locally-sourced plants. With PHB’s stellar reputation that’s a daunting task but she pulled it off brilliantly and did him proud. She’s definitely a designer to watch.
The garden featured a formal garden design of strong intersecting axes loosened up with an exciting mix of natives and colourful exotics, perfect for an international designer who can come in and ignore all our silly local prejudices about what’s allowed to be planted with what. Purple salvia with golden kangaroo paw, hot pink gaura, feathery grey westringia, purple statice and pink rice flower? More of it, I say!
2. Intermingled planting
Whether it’s flowers, like in ‘The Greenery Garden‘ or ‘Reflection‘, or foliage in BLAC’s ‘A Garden Called Frank‘, planting repeats but isn’t planted contiguously. That’s right, very little mass planting, except for a very few hedges. This is a much harder planting style than bands or sweeps of one plant but, ultimately much better for pest and disease control, biodiversity and, you could argue, encouraging people to be interested in plants as decorative items for their garden.
3. Fastigiate trees
Several gardens featured tall narrow trees that made decisive exclamation marks in the planting design. It’s a role that used to fulfilled by conifers until we collectively decided they were oh-so-20th-century (a strange ‘group think’ given their great drought tolerance). A good example is this fastigiate bay in ‘The Greenery Garden‘.
4. Shaggy not shorn
Even those trees and hedges that were shaped tended to have a slightly shaggy look, rather than the ‘this is so neat it could be plastic’ perfection. Plants actually looked like…well, plants. I like it! Perhaps it goes with the current fashions for bushranger beards and ponchos.
5. Small and intricate detail
In good gardens, the detail can be the divine when it’s done well, or the devil when it’s over- or badly done. Whether it’s the brass strip detail through BLAC’s timber lined pavilion, the delicate wave pattern that washed through Georgia Harper’s crisp pavement in ‘Ohana‘, or Candeo Design’s textured decking, many MIFGS show gardens showed lovely detailing – as you would expect of these experienced designers.
In The Greenery Garden it was the thin profile bricks that also folded up onto the back wall of the pergola area, and also pergola slats painted black on one face and white on the other. (See the white side in the bay tree photo above)
6. Black, off-white and grey neutrals in hardscape, with some pops of blue and minty grey-green are the colours for 2016 (well, in Melbourne)
What was (mostly) not in the show gardens
1. Peta Donaldson of BLAC doesn’t do flowers (except, strangely, spring bulbs), so she had team members cut off every flower in the plants used in the BLAC garden.
2. During the build period, Ian Barker woke several times after nightmares that his garden had sunk into the lake.
3. The large picture at the back of Georgia Harper’s Ohana is a mosaic made from at least 10 gazillion tiny tiles.
4. Many plants such as the large cycads in the Do the NT garden were trucked down all the way from Darwin.
5. Maples are very ‘in’.
[And look out next week for my write up of the fabulous MIFGS Boutique Gardens]