Top of the class at this year’s Flower & Garden Show

By Gabrielle Stannus

Could you create a balcony or small courtyard garden five metres in width by four metres depth within a budget of $8,000? That is the challenge given to landscape design students entering the Achievable Gardens competition each year at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, Carlton Gardens. Participants came out at the other end of this competition with experience which will make them highly sought after and employable in the industry.

The Achievable Gardens competition provides students with a great learning experience during which they proceed from concept design to project coordination and construction of a show garden. The brief is to design a garden that is achievable, meaning that an average home gardener would be capable of replicating the design, materials and planting within a virtual budget of $8,000. At least 50 percent of the garden must be soft landscaping, i.e., plants. This year, students from Holmesglen, Bendigo TAFE, Kangan Institute and Melbourne Polytechnic accepted the challenge and this observer thinks they all deserved top marks for their work, as did the show judges.

Students commence their design by drawing a concept plan. Seen here is ‘Re-Frame’ by Emma Powell (Image: Emma Powell)
Students commence their design by drawing a concept plan. Seen here is ‘Re-Frame’ by Emma Powell
(Image: Emma Powell)

I spoke with Emma Powell, Gina Robertson, Sarah Tulloch and William O’Neil, students undertaking Certificate IV in Landscape Design at Melbourne Polytechnic, about their participation in this competition. Sarah, Gina and Emma each received the First Prize for their gardens, as they met or exceeded marking criteria to achieve a ‘First’. Emma also received The Avenue of Achievable Gardens Award of Excellence for her display, i.e. the ‘big prize’. Canopy loss from recent storms inspired Emma’s design ‘Re-Frame’, in which she used quick-growing pioneer plants and perennials planted alongside slower growing plants to hold structure, e.g., Acacia binerva ‘Sterling Silver’. Emma ‘re-framed’ (reused) other materials, including an old copper repurposed as a bird bath, and fallen tree logs used as totem sculptures and seats. Whilst Emma’s planting selection was mostly native, she also included exotic varieties such as the Marlborough Rock Daisy (Pachystegia insignis).

Emma says participating in this competition enriched her learning experience tenfold. “It gave me a whole extra year of learning. I was taken through the horticulture department and used their facilities and learnt from the lecturers there. I was also introduced to the workshop and all the lecturers and resources we had there, which I would have otherwise never used,” explains Emma, “I learnt how to use tools, grow plants, and troubleshoot problems.”

‘Balance by nature’ by Gina Robertson (Image: Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show)
‘Balance by nature’ by Gina Robertson (Image: Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show)

“Participating in the Achievable Gardens competition was a great way to put in practise many of the things I had learned during my course, such as propagating plants and bringing them up to show standard,” says Gina Robertson, “I also gained more confidence in my ability to create a plan and build it. During the show, I met some fantastic professional designers and saw how they put their gardens together. It was great to chat with them about the ideas behind their gardens.”

Gina’s garden ‘Balance by nature’ displayed a modern Australian outdoor space which aimed to restore the balance in our lives by enticing us into a relaxed garden to reconnect with nature. Gina managed to create depth and perspective in her display with a winding path and curving walls, the latter painted in gorgeous red ochre tones. Her plant palette was uniquely Australian and featured the silver-barked Gungurru (Eucalyptus caesia) overhanging a bench made from reclaimed Sugar Gum. Gina won Best Use of Plant Life and the People’s Choice Award (voted during the event) for her garden.

‘Alpine Calm: At the retreat of snow’ by Sarah Tulloch (Image: Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show)
‘Alpine Calm: At the retreat of snow’ by Sarah Tulloch (Image: Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show)

Throughout the project, these students received guidance from their teachers, including Ashley Cook and Michael Hirst, and practical support from fellow landscape design, construction, and horticulture students. “The teachers supported me by teaching me how to use tools and construction processes that I had not used before. That was fun!” says Gina, “Each teacher had unique skills and experience so that meant I was able to get the help I needed to prepare all the different elements of my garden in the workshop and nursery. Teachers from the Horticulture, Landscape and Floristry departments were all very generous with their time and knowledge.”

“As new designers, our teachers helped us gain a perspective on how people would see the gardens that we produced, and on a practical level, they were always there with extra hands for all the shovelling and lifting,” adds Sarah Tulloch. Sarah’s garden ‘Alpine Calm: At the retreat of snow’ paid homage to the turn of Spring in Victoria’s alpine regions, a time when snow melts slowly revealing the life below its clean white cover. Sarah’s mostly silver-foliaged plant palette was pared back. Her garden featured sculptural Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) with sweeping lines of Grey Tussock Grass (Poa sieberiana) blurring the connection between garden and sky. Some petite Native Violets (Viola hederacea) were tucked under a steel-grate walkway which formed a separate micro-climate. This last feature earned Sarah the ‘Creative Use of Space Award’ from the competition judges.

Students then realise their concepts at the show venue with the help of their teachers and fellow students. Seen here is ‘What just happened?’ by William O’Neil coming to life (Image: William O’Neil)
Students then realise their concepts at the show venue with the help of their teachers and fellow students. Seen here is ‘What just happened?’ by William O’Neil coming to life (Image: William O’Neil)

“The practical know-how is what was most helpful. But also, learning what a garden show set up and pack down is all about, which translates into other major event coordination and planning,” Sarah explains, “It was amazing to see how the event was organised and how that influenced the way you need to sort things for the production of your garden.”

“Bringing a design to life, with complete creative freedom and in a situation of high exposure was invaluable,” says William O’Neil of his show experience. William’s garden ‘What just happened?’ reflected on how our lives were turned upside down during the pandemic. William was inspired by lived experience, modernist art and design (including Roberto Burle Marx), and Aboriginal craft. Steel balls represented community and lock downs. A gold line painted across the garden wall represented evolving circumstances, as well as alluding to the distant landscape. A granite gravel path represented the present, leading on to the future. Plant life was varied and ranged from Giant Bromeliads (Alcantarea imperialis) to the Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima).

‘What just happened?’ by William O’Neil (Image: Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show)
‘What just happened?’ by William O’Neil (Image: Melbourne International Flower & Garden Show)

According to William, the six months of pre-show preparation offered insight into the reality of project management, with students learning how to deliver to set deadlines for both design and construction components within a budget. “You also need to be reactive and adaptable, not everything can be planned in minute detail. Some things are out of your control, and you must be able to work with that,” explains William of his show experience.

Gina agrees, saying “Sometimes you need to have alternative products and plants for when things do not go to plan. Participating in this competition taught me how to source plants from suppliers and choose stock wisely. I learned that it is really important to choose people with the right skills for specific jobs, and be flexible. I also learned how to use my display garden at the show as a marketing tool to promote my new business.”

“Having the opportunity to build a show garden was one of the biggest achievements of my life to date,” concludes William, “I gained the satisfaction of creating something artistic and intricate, navigating all the demands that a show garden involved.” He also gained meaningful exposure to a new audience of over 100,000 people. The Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show’s Achievable Gardens competition provides a steep learning curve to those students entering it. However, they come out the other end with excellent design and construction skills. Look out for these designers as they now start to make their mark on the world.

Gabrielle Stannus

Inwardout Studio

M: 0400 431 277

E: gabrielle@inwardoutstudio.com

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