It’s been another successful year for the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show organisers, with tens of thousands attending over the five days, and the permit to use the Carlton Gardens as the venue for another three years granted late last year. Whether it was as successful in a landscape design sense, well, that’s another story.
Anyone who has entered into a garden show, constructed a show garden, or been involved with a show garden will know that a lot of time and effort goes into creating these concoctions that are on display for such a short time. At MIFGS, there are 9 days of solid construction, followed by 3-4 days of bump out once the show is done and dusted for another year.
This doesn’t include the time actually coming up with a design, drawing it up, finding sponsors to help defray the thousands of dollars cost of materials and labour, and the construction and planning that happens off site to make the build quicker and easier when you get to the build. Add to that the complexity of building a show garden in a heritage listed garden where nothing can penetrate the soil in a TPZ, and there is no digging allowed, it makes planning and creating a garden more challenging again, as you have to try and work out how to conceal all those pots, and still have the garden viewable by the public at ground level.
All this for 5 days of actual show!
So why go to all this trouble?
Well talking to designers who do go to the trouble, there are a number of reasons.
They want to generate more work through exposure and displaying their skills. Competing at a garden show like MIFGS certainly helps that, with crowds of around 100,000 coming through the gates, not to mention networking opportunities presented throughout the show. If you build something that people like it can lead to many more projects. This isn’t guaranteed though, and quite often a show garden doesn’t translate into more work. Many of the gardens would be seen as aspirational, but not something someone can imagine in their own backyard.
They want to raise or maintain their profile as a designer. Exhibiting at MIFGS and winning an award raises your profile as a designer, meaning you can start to (or continue to), charge more for your services and reposition your brand within a different market. Being an award winning designer has a certain cache.
The opportunity to create a design that reflects them as designers. Often as designers we’re restricted by what the client wants and the physical and climate constraints of a site. Building a show garden is often a way to do something for yourself. This doesn’t always work out, especially if you have a major sponsor on board who will no doubt have some say in what happens in the design.
Because you get addicted to garden shows! The excitement leading up to the build. The thrill of seeing your garden come to life in a matter of days, rather than months or years. The buzz and camaraderie during construction, the congratulations and commiserations following judging, the shared exhaustion of the show and the sadness at pulling it all down after 5 days. It’s addictive.
However at the end of the day, it really comes down to return on investment. You do it because there is some sort of perceived gain for you and your business.
And this leads me to this year’s show, and the continuing trend of designers playing it safe. Don’t get me wrong, there were some stunning gardens in the mix, many of which I really enjoyed, however I would have to say, as in more recent years, the overall trend is to create safely beautiful gardens that appeal to the public, magazines and (hopefully) judges. But having seen some of the reasons, and seen the amount of time, effort and money going into creating a show garden, maybe you can understand why.
This year the perceived standard of the gardens was further compounded by the judging. Out of 10 show gardens being judged, there was only one (well deserved) recipient of a gold medal. This is in comparison to 4 gold medals in 2016. Why the sudden change? Surely the standard wasn’t that bad this year? Well the explanation is that there has been a change of judges following last year’s show, and there seems to have been a significant correction in how awards are given out with that change. While you don’t want to be handing out awards willy nilly and devaluing them, I have to say that I feel that this year’s judging was particularly tough. A number of people, both exhibitors and those familiar with the show, were surprised at what some gardens were awarded (or not).
The real question will be as to how many designers get involved in the next show, given the judging this year. Will it affect the show in the longer term? We will have to wait and see. However one thing that seems to be different at MIFGS in comparison to other garden shows, is that the brief seems to play only a small part of the judging criteria of the show gardens. Maybe this is why the more avant guard gardens can be found in the Achievable Gardens and Boutique Gardens, where the brief plays a significant part of the judging criteria. Food for thought – maybe designers can take more risks if their gardens are judged according to their brief and aren’t punished by being a little bit out there.
My personal favourites this year –
I see Wild – Phillip Withers Landscape Design. The orange and rust colour palette and plant selection was great. I loved the challenging juxtaposition of fruit trees, perennials, natives and cactus. Every point on the perimeter had a view and the balance and detail were wonderful
Metropolis – Candeo Design. The large mass of the built forms softened by a lush planting palette, which changed depending on the aspect of the garden, deservedly won this the HMA best use of plant life.
Back to Babylon – Tract Landscape Architecture. A light and airy space with detailed planting. The only drawback was the height (dictated by the rootball of the peppercorn tree, I found out talking to PTA Landscapes later), which meant you couldn’t see into the garden.
Nature and Nurture – Christian Jenkins. I really enjoyed the planting in this garden and the concept of a garden that is for restoring balance and an inner calm. I could see myself making time to practice mindfulness in such a space (which would make my husband happy as I never make time now.)
Tree and Shrub Growers – Always a bit of a highlight for a self-confessed plant nerd, this year it ticked all the boxes. Unlike most show gardens, which ignore the site context and create an artificial construct, this garden borrowed from the surrounding landscape beautifully. Just as you would if you were designing a garden for a client. And who wouldn’t want to use the Carlton Gardens?
So it will be interesting to see what happens in the future. I would love to see more risk taking, but if there are no rewards for the risks, how can you blame designers for playing it safe?