Flower Show Gardens

Why is so much kudos given to flower show displays? How can they be called sustainable?

Why is so much fuss made about display gardens in flower shows? People who win awards with these shows appear to assume that this award is a pinnacle within the landscaping industry. I question this.

These display gardens do look clever and demonstrate well the designer’s capability – for putting plants together with other external materials like decking, walls etc. But the whole composition is transportable. How can these ever be regarded as gardens? To be truly commended for designing a garden and then putting this garden into practice takes significant plant knowledge, assuming that plants are used and not just hard landscaping. Look closely at the entrants to these events – most of them are young and aspiring landscape designers, newly out of design school. Once they have won an award or two they probably regard themselves as the best in the business.

I am not trying to be a kill-joy. But it takes years and years to learn what plants work in different soils and conditions. There are very, very few plants that work in all situations, when you consider drought, poor drainage and so on. And wouldn’t all of our gardens be totally boring if these were the only plants used? So it is up to the younger landscape designers to bide their time, like us older members, and learn the trade through diligence, research and empirical learning. There are no books available to hasten this experience. The book ‘Grow What Where’ is a good tool that I occasionally use, but plants are changing all the time, new hybrids come in and old species plants move out. It is totally frustrating trying to keep up with plant availability, but so be it – it is part of our business.

There are two issues that I feel need to be considered here. The first is the increasing promotion of display gardens in Flower Shows and the subsequent notoriety of the winners, and secondly is the portrayal of ‘sustainable’ gardens in these shows.

I come to the area of sustainability from a varied background. As a 60 year old, who has gardened for at least 40 years with numerous private gardens, most of which have been open to the public with Open Gardens Australia, I am an avowed specialist in sustainable gardens. I have won awards for this knowledge, in South Australia and in 2014 for the Landscaping Victoria Sustainable Gardens Award. I was also the owner and designer of Australia’s first and only Ecotourism accredited garden in South Australia which went on to win a significant tourism award. In this capacity, I feel that I have some justification for questioning the sustainability ethic of these flower and garden shows. The most recent award won by Timandra surpassed Phillip Johnson’s garden entry [of Chelsea Flower Show fame] in the same category. Timandra’s entry was totally sustainable, and through a thorough knowledge of the subject, it was documented why this entry was totally sustainable, with the visit to the garden by the judge proof of quality of entry. And there is no construction within this garden. Construction per se in a garden is NOT sustainable, and this is the very essence of the flower show display gardens!

It is a real challenge for landscape designers to design for their clients a garden that is going to not only look good, but grow into a masterpiece. And this can take years to come to fruition. Getting the plants right – the right plants for the soil, the climate, proximity to sea and so on. None of these issues need to be factored in with a display garden. They are either left in their pots and camouflaged as such or potted out in soil and disposed of after the event.

To me there is little skill in putting together these display gardens that don’t need to continue growing to really show the designer’s ability. So why do the landscape designers make such a fuss about winning awards with them? Is it because they haven’t won any ‘real’ awards where the gardens have had to perform in situ for at least 2 years in the ground. A good garden should last indefinitely when well-tended, not collapse after 2 years because of inappropriate plant selection – the basis of any proper garden.

Most gardens die within the first 2 years when inappropriately done. I wonder how long many of these display gardens would last if planted into situ in a client’s garden. Considering that they are based solely on their appearance and appropriateness for the look the aspiring designer wants to achieve and not relevant to any topographic situation why are these ‘gardens’ given so much kudos?

Surely there are others around who are questioning these flower and garden shows beyond just me? Why is there so much apathy in the landscape industry to have allowed this to become so predominant? The practice has been going on for at least 12 years in Australia that I can recall and has now usurped the genuine entrant in the awards process, the true professional who provides gardens for real clients with real soil and climate issues.

Alison Aplin
Timandra Design & Landscaping