I again made my annual trip to Melbourne for the Melbourne Flower and Garden Show 2018. As I’m a horticultural out-of-towner and a landscape/garden design specialist, I spend most of my time studying and analysing the big show gardens (as well as the boutique and student gardens). So what were this year’s standouts, disappointments and trends?
Gold and Best in Show – Australian Case Study Garden – Design E-GA
Eckersley Garden Architecture (E-GA) again combined with major sponsors Australian House and Garden magazine in a large show garden, although the designers this year were a trio of its younger designers: Josh Cocks, Rupert Baynes-Williamns and Clare Mackarness. The ‘Australian Case Study Garden‘, which also celebrates AH&G’s 70 years in publication, represents the designers’ view of “true Australian style”, reflecting both European gardening heritage and migrant influences.
I agree that this was a very well-designed contemporary garden with energetic and innovative planting combinations and, overall, an excellent result from a three-person design collaboration; not an easy way to design a MIFGS garden. But I couldn’t see much evidence of those ethnic influences, or the plants and garden fashions of the past 70 years that I read were part of the brief. Maybe it’s the advantage of having lived and gardened through those decades variously featuring standard iceberg roses, Grevillea ‘Robin Gordon’ or buxus hedges, but most of the plant material looked like more recent fashions and cultivars to me. I’m also not convinced by the collection of ‘Aussie’ items scattered through the garden – a Hills Hoist, cricket bat and stumps, eski and board shorts. A bit too obvious and tokenistic I thought. Maybe I’ve lost my sense of fun! However I did really like the brick fireplace/chimney – that stack bond style made a strong central focal point and is very evocative of the early 1960s.
GOLD Medal and People’s Choice- Inspired by Time garden, design by Orisis Shanghai Ltd
I hardly know where to begin with this garden, except to say that I found it to be one of the most ghastly gardens I’ve ever seen at MIFGS. Evidently that reveals my cultural bias towards a different aesthetic, as its confounding and depressing award of a Gold Medal and selection as People’s Choice winner goes to prove that I swim against the tide on this one.
I think it was confused, cluttered and looked like someone had been through a catalogue of Chinese garden ideas and decided that they had to have them all. There was striped paving, plain paving, stepping stones, pebbles and black water ponds, a stone-stacked wall, cor-ten cut screen panel, a different cor-ten screen in another design, painted timber slat pergola, bamboo screen, 2 x three-part painted glass screens, cor-ten wall water feature with yet another different laser-cut design, traditional black rounded tiles…and that’s before we even start listing the added decorative sculptures, rocks, pots, lanterns, painted tree, rustic tools AND highly coloured planting. If it had a wow factor, it was wow in a totally gob-smacked way that this design is now MIFGS Gold standard.
The construction and finish of the garden were indeed excellent, but surely good design is the most important thing in show garden judging?
I also overheard several show-goers saying what a lovely Japanese garden it was, which was even more depressing and must have sent the Japanese landscaping team at the nearby the Unity garden into a (quietly restrained) frenzy.
An inspirational garden design – Unity garden, design Ross Uebergang and Yousuke Yamaguchi.
This lets me segue into a quick discussion about a garden that didn’t win any medal – the Unity garden, designed as a cross-cultural experiment by Melburnian Ross Uebergang with Japanese designer Yousuke Yamaguchi.
When I asked several designers I met at the show which was the garden they liked the most, their responses were unanimous – the Unity garden. In fact one said,
“Thank goodness for the Unity garden pushing some boundaries!”
I’m not saying that this garden deserved a medal as the construction standard was not good enough for that. But it makes me think that there could be a discretionary MIFGS award for ‘Design Vision’ which rewards those designers who do want to push design boundaries and experiment with new and untried materials and unconventional planting ideas. Taking those risks will only occasionally pay off in the conventional medal sense, but full marks from me to Ross and Yousuke for giving it a go. I loved the crackling dryness of the cut foliage used as planting and the surprisingly delicate rammed earth curved screens (now who but Ross would choose a heavy and difficult material like clay for that purpose). It also really fulfilled its brief with its combination of Japanese aesthetic and very Australian materials and plants.
Although there were a couple of exceptions, most of the MIFGS 2018 gardens favoured an informal design style without strong ground plane shapes or straight lines. Swathes of multi-species planting, naturalistic water features, boulders, and stained or even unfinished timber were common. Colour palettes were also subdued and autumnal, with browns and greys, rusty tones, combined with cream, purple and rusty orange. Planting combinations nearly all had grasses, an obvious choice for foliage impact in late summer, as well as perennials with small flowers. Pruning was subtle, with just a bit of shaping here and here to give shrubs a stronger rounded form.
The Aquascape Harmony garden (BRONZE Award) designed by Meg Geary (MG Gardens) and Ben Harris (Ben Harris Gardens) and the Living Garden (SILVER Award) by STEM Landscape Architecture and Design were standout examples, with naturalistic water courses so expertly designed and constructed that you’d swear they were cut out of the bush somewhere and craned in.
More Australian plants but also non-apartheid planting schemes
Emmaline Bowman’s (STEM Landscape Architecture and Design) native planting in the Living Garden was exquisite and the garden aptly rewarded with a SILVER medal. Her knowledge of local plants and her combinations continue to mature and her planting combos would have to turn even the most hardened ‘exoticophile’ into a native plant enthusiast.
Even better was seeing more gardens with Australian plants and their exotic cousins playing very happily together, each contributing to a satisfying whole. A bit of a metaphor for what we’d like for our whole country.
I’m so over of the plant apartheid practised in Australia which requires that gardens are either exotic, or native, but never both. The segregation starts in the plant nurseries with that stupid ‘Native Plants’ section and continues through too many designers’ work. They’re all just plants, and many so-called ‘native plants’ are native only to the nursery in which those cultivars were bred, as they don’t exist anywhere naturally, and many others are as botanically different between east coast and west as they are from nearby other countries.
At last in MIFGS 2018 we saw several designers choosing plants based on much more important criteria – their texture, form, foliage colour, flowers and durability, rather than their origin. The results were spectacular and, I think, some of the most interesting plant combos we’ve seen at this show to date (Phillip Withers’ gardens excepted!). It also reflects much more what happens in most suburban gardens as gardeners usually care little about being purists one way or the other and are just as likely to impulse buy a fan flower for their garden as a campanula.
Where the mix had probably been at best 80-20 exotic to native in recent years, in the MIFGS 2018 gardens, designers are now choosing a much broader palette of Australian plants to add to this glorious mix. There is still more selective breeding needed to get a wide enough range of Australian plants that will thrive in ordinary gardens to have 50-50 native-exotic gardens but I hope we’re on the cusp.
Goodness knows why any designer wants to include a water feature in a MIFGS show garden. They are notoriously difficult to install in these ‘no dig’ gardens on sloping sites and invariably leak. This predicament is usually indicated by tell-tale hoses draped surreptitiously over one edge that keep them filling as fast as they drip away. At least those towering Carlton Gardens plane trees must be getting a good watering!
But 2018 saw most designers ready to take on the risk so I’m guessing they see it as a current garden must-have. And many of these water features were exceptionally good quality. It takes a seasoned expert to be able to place stones so convincingly. The water courses made by MG Gardens and Ben Harris Gardens (Aquascape Harmony Garden – BRONZE Award), STEM Landscape Architecture (Living Garden – SILVER Award) were spectacular (scroll back up for those photos), and MIFGS newcomer Ben Hutchinson’s Grow Together was also charming.
Good rock work needs to be combined with planting that adds to, rather than covers up the stones, so that the solidity and textural contrasts of each material complement rather than dominate the other. Water-living plants are harder to do well than land-growing plants, and it is here that real expertise shines.
In theme with this year’s naturalistic designs, most timber was stained rather than painted.
Fire bowls, pits and places
I know there are those who think that backyard fire bowls and fireplaces are so last Thursday, but I heartily disagree. Have they never raised a teenager? Far more useful and cost effective than a swimming pool, a backyard fire will keep those young pyromaniacs safely entertained for hours. I think that a firebowl is a brilliant garden accessory as, unlike a firepit, you can wheel/drag them into the most wind-protected spot on the day. There were some really gorgeous ones scatted through the MIFGS 2018 stalls, mostly rusting steel but then that does work well with timber.
Ornamentation – when too much is barely enough
What is it with landscape designers these days and adding stuff, more stuff and yet more stuff into their gardens? It’s long been one of my main criticisms of the Achievable student gardens but this year they showed restraint and the main show gardens went all out.
Yes, there have been overly spartan and minimalist periods when gardens were all smooth clean lines and there was barely an interesting sculpture but we seem to be in an opposite phase and I can’t say I like it. Several of the MIFGS 2018 show gardens had so many focal points and decorative touches – wall art, several different ‘floor’ treatments, paving patterns, sculptures, nice boulders, fancy planters, several types of furniture, cushions, throws, lights, candles, glasses and various bits and bobs that it made the eyes and head dizzy. And all of that on top of complex and often colourful planting.
I remembered the satisfying simplicity of Ian Barker’s truly wonderful ‘Crossroads’ MIFGS garden from 2015 (one of the best MIFGS show gardens there has ever been) where the complex planting was all the decoration needed, but which I believe was marked down by the judges for lacking other ornamentation. Good garden design doesn’t need baubles for babies. Unfortunately it seems that MIFGS judges like and reward this excessive and distracting ornamentation. The prime offender in 2018 was, of course, the Orisis garden – but I’ve discussed that above.
Brent Reid of Candeo bucked that overdecorated trend with his Square 1 garden, beautifully constructed by those show garden masters, Semken Landscaping. I really liked Brent’s garden. There’s something so refreshing about creamy-white and rich greens quietly singing together. Brent is a very good plantsman and the undulating waves of form and textural contrasts through the foliage planting, occasionally punctuated with an erupting aloe or a speckle of white flowers, was exquisite. I loved the way there were dense plants everywhere, including under seats and tables – it gave the impression that the garden spaces were carved out of a block of three-dimensional greenery. Look at that long and solid-looking seat, seemingly floating on a sea of lush foliage! Brent also added a hint of canopy with a light pergola. This was something I missed in many of the other gardens which felt too open to the sky.
Really, really rusty
I can’t complete a MIFGS round-up without commenting on the dominance of cor-ten (rusting) steel in the garden ornaments for sale at the show. I lost count of the rusty-look firebowls, birds, archways, wall art, screens and general doo-dads. Although I like the colour and patina of this material, I think that the current pervasiveness will make it date very quickly.