Melbourne Garden Design Fest: Comparisons with Sydney

Garden Design Fest - Cameron Paterson's Toorak Garden

Natives and succulents at the entrance to Cameron Paterson’s Toorak Garden at the Melbourne Garden Design Fest 2014

This weekend saw the sixth Garden Design Fest in Melbourne and I was lucky enough to be able to pop down for the day to see as many gardens as I could.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; having booked flights I then discovered that some of the gardens shown on the  website really didn’t look that exciting.  I was also a bit unsure if I would find them a bit ‘over-designed’; that look of being a bit too staged and a bit too disconnected from the owners.  Having met the owner gardeners at at the New Zealand festival only a couple of weeks ago and experienced their passion, I wondered if I would find the whole ‘meet the designer’ a little too salesy and and maybe even a little too ‘look at me’.

I went to five gardens in total, designed by four people.  One designer I couldn’t find, one was pleasant enough and two were the loveliest, loveliest, people you could ever meet.  Genuinely humble despite their enormous skill and with huge generosity of knowledge and warmth.  I chatted away to both for quite some time.  It was interesting that my favourite gardens were theirs – coincidence or not?

It also made me realise that you can divide the world’s garden designers into two types and I am very sure about which space I play in.  Both types have a place but with very different philosophies.  In fact, I can feel a blog coming on about this!

But back to the gardens; three of which were very, very special indeed.  They covered natives and exotics – two of them were about 50:50 of each, one mostly exotics – and ranged from immaculate precision to abundant, free flowing designs.  All tailored perfectly to their environments.

Here is a taster of my three favourite gardens.  I have so many exquisite photos of each that I will explore each in turn later on.

Cameron Paterson's Toorak Garden

1. Cameron Paterson’s Toorak Garden – neat, compact, lush natives; if only more native gardens shared these characteristics

Sandra McMahon's Kilsyth Surprise

2. Sandra McMahon’s Kilsyth garden – a surprise around every corner (would you expect to see 34 different rose cultivars in this garden?!)

Cameron Paterson's Balwyn Delight

3. Cameron Paterson’s Balwyn garden – established, abundant planting with superb textural and form contrasts

As I left Melbourne, I felt hugely inspired – the gardens had exceeded my expectations by a mile.  But I also felt a little sad.  All those Japanese maples and lambs ears and hellebores.  Plants that don’t like the humidity and mild winters of Sydney.  Of course we have plenty of plants here that don’t grow in Melbourne, but it doesn’t stop you wanting them all!

It also made me realise that Sydney hasn’t found its way with gardening in the same way that Melbourne has.  There seems to be more of a gardening culture in Victoria and so more gardening hours and thought has been put into developing garden styles there.  I also think that climate is a significant factor – in Sydney ours confuses us.

We can go temperate and we can go tropical but actually we are not quite either.  The tried and tested styles of each can’t quite be made to work because large numbers of key plants don’t thrive here.  There are few grey and burgundy foliage plants that really grow healthily; the white hairs of ‘grey’ foliage clog up in the humidity and burgundy maples and Loropetalum just never grow that well.

Ros McCully's Camberwell Colour

Silver and burgundy tones at Ros McCully’s Camberwell garden – the stonework is absolutely exquisite

We can try to do sub-tropical, and many do it well, but we don’t really have the regular rainfall for it and many plants need warmer winters.  You couldn’t call it a sustainable, low maintenance style.

And so we are left with either natives, which we generally don’t do well, or a very green look.  The green look is very popular in Sydney – you’ll know it if you live here.  Layers of neat green hedges with the odd tree thrown in.  It can, with regular pruning, look neat and tidy all year and the straight lines work well in small, square plots.  But I can’t help feeling it lacks imagination.  It is all very static.  People here demand that there are no gaps in winter, after all, we can use the garden year round, but our resulting evergreen hedges have a very ‘plastic’ look with little seasonal change.

I am working on some new ideas, for styles using plants perfectly adapted to our climate, that look good in every season AND with originality, depth of interest and that compliment each other well.  It is slightly slow going, as I currently have eight client projects, whilst studying for a Master’s of Horticulture in my spare (?) time, but I am immeasurably excited to be developing these ideas.  Sydney is such a wonderful city to live in but it could be even more beautiful…….I’m very much game to try and do whatever I can, in some small way, to work towards that!

2 thoughts on “Melbourne Garden Design Fest: Comparisons with Sydney

  1. Adriana Fraser says:

    An interesting insight into Sydney gardens that I had never thought of being a Melbournite. I look forward to the individual blogs on those gardens you visited whilst down here too Janna and yes some ‘big’ designers could eat a bit of humble pie methinks. It seems (in my experience) that the most humble people, in any walk of life, are usually the most talented, interesting and kind.

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