With the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show all wrapped up for another year, we tend to look back at the show gardens for inspiration, and perhaps some clues as to where the Landscape Industry is headed. Phil Withers' garden won the much-deserved Gold medal, however I would like to focus on one of the silver medal winners. The annual Tree and Shrub Growers Victoria exhibition is designed to showcase the trees and shrubs that their members grow. Every year they create a commendable garden, however this year's was something unique and veryspecial; their show garden 'Legacies' spoke to its location. Until now, I assumed that show gardens are just that, all show! The context of most show gardens is based on a fanciful brief of a non-existent space. The gardens ask the viewer to imagine the context of the garden and imagine themselves using the space, with the most successful show gardens drawing the viewer deeply into the fantasy. However, this is still a fantasy!
As a designer who works hard to maintain a Sense of Place in all gardens, I worry that visitors to the flower show take the gardens too literally. Instead of finding inspiration that relates to the context of their own garden, they simply want to copy the fashions they see exhibited at the show. This is where 'Legacies' was unique; it connected seamlessly with its surroundings and became an extension of Carlton Gardens. There was nothing special or exciting about the materials used, it was mostly second hand sleepers and rocks. It was the design that stood out. That seems an odd way of putting it, as it was designed not to stand out, but to recede into the surrounding landscape as though it belonged. Perhaps this is the start of a new kind of show garden where the brief is to connect to the space the show garden is in. Any good designer can come up with a fanciful brief that shows off their skill as a designer and will appeal to their target audience, however it takes real skill and observation to come up with a design that not only appeals to your target audience, but also sits comfortably in its setting.
Utilising the borrowed landscape of Carlton Gardens is nothing new. Many previous designs have used existing features and incorporated the existing trees and, of course, who could forget Ian Barker's fabulous garden last year making skilful use of the pond? In each case, the borrowed landscape was used as a prop within the fantasy of the design. This is where the 'Legacies' garden differed; their design highlighted the exisiting elements. The garden allowed the visitors to see the features of Carlton Gardens in a new light. Unremarkable trees, like the variegated Privet, became captivating and went from being forgettable to being vital to the design. The grotto bridge in the pond which most people would pass by without a second glance suddenly become important, and a focal point of the garden. The design didn't envelop the borrowed landscape in a fantasy, making it unrecognisable. Instead, it highlighted and framed the borrowed landscape so that it became more important and vital to the overall composition.
I have seen many show gardens over the course of my career, and this is the first time a garden has captured the essence of good design. Good design is not about creating a fantasy, good design is about working with what already exists to make it better. For five days, 'Legacies' made Carlton Garden better.