What do you make of this year's Ellerslie show?
OPINION: While gardens to delight abound at this year's Ellerslie International Garden Show, the public and plants are the losers, with confusing layout of the show, fewer gardens than previous years, and even fewer gardens displaying skilled plantsmanship.
Curiously, though I said last week I wanted more flowers, one of my top gardens this year had few. Perhaps I meant I wanted more plants, more clever plantings.
Tony Murrell is one of the country's more experienced celebrity gardener designers, always guaranteed to have a show-stopper up his sleeve. This year it was a pair of life-sized driftwood moas. As cool as they were, it was his actual plantings - and his woven rope seating arrangement ("The nest", he explained) - that had me in "I want" paroxysms.
His great drift of rushes gave way to intricate and clever combinations of natives and exotics; the ground-hugging white gardenia and purple liriope flowers and bronzing oak-leafed hydrangeas the only variant in the many shades of green.
Plantsmen (and women) seemed in short supply at Ellerslie this year. The much-vaunted Weta Workshop Gloaming, this year's feature garden in the large marquee, was suitably atmospheric, and Johnny Fraser-Allan's meticulously sculptured creatures - hobbit, trolls, dragons et al - of the forest cute and/or scarey. The smells of our native forests were there, supplemented by recorded birdsong and falling water, but, 1) it was too dark to discern many plants, and 2), how creative do you have to be to cart in a number of native trees and shrubs and place them around a few fake, albeit impressively large and realistic, rocks?
Plants and plantsmanship also came a poor second to design, hardware and furniture in the student rooftop garden designs, though many had interesting features.
For a perspective other than middle-aged, I brought along 20-something Esther, who thought Bayley LuuTome's design "pretty cool", with equal emphasis on both words. Among other delights, his Mondrian-inspired roof throws very pretty lights on the pavers and monochromatic plantings of pale yellow dahlias and mauve agapanthus in respective beds below.
Christchurch's Rebecca Hammond and Grant Stephens of H & S Design took out the supreme award for their Revolutionising Reuse, which convenor of judges Andrew Fisher Tomlin says "exemplified excellence in design manifest with integrity from concept through to design detailing".
As its name suggests, this series of rooms is constructed largely from materials with past lives; whole chests of drawers, a kitchen full perhaps, make the walls of one room. Though as my hugely practical gardener daughter, Nell, mused, it would have been better if they had put a glass top on some of the counters and used the drawers for seed trays.
And as funky as the piano and its moss-cushioned stool are, are they practical? Will the kitchen cabinetry hold up in the elements? Whoa, no. Arguably, shows like these aren't always about functionality. Having said that, not one garden pushed any boundaries of anything, let alone design. Although in the student gardens especially, some plantings would have tested the plants' capabilities. Don't they teach plantsmanship in the Lincoln landscape architecture course?
The youngest exhibitors at the show, however, display a heart-warming appreciation for not only plants but the environment as well. Raumati South School's garden is a highlight. Its central keyhole vegetable garden is circular with a wire-netting bound compost in the middle, which, young pupil Josh Tristram informs me, "you water the compost and it all goes out into the garden".
"It works," he adds proudly, "we have one at school."
The garden's water sculpture is powered by a bicycle, with two rainwater barrels alongside. A gay mix of flowers sit below an artwork constructed of melted plastic bottle caps; and in pride of position is a great heart-shaped wall fittingly constructed of pieces of pumice (presumably found on the local seashore), each carved into a heart shape and engraved with the carver's initials. Apparently the entire school was involved in the garden's creation. Some of the pupils were disappointed at only getting a silver award, but were visibly cheered when one of their mates suggested they might get the people's award.
ROMANTIC WATER GARDEN
Ben Hoyle will probably get it, though. Like last year, he has created an eminently photographic and eminently romantic water garden. The rectangular metres-long pool has deliciously curving grass causeways cast upon it; some leading nowhere, others to an island of flowers, one to a pit lined with cushions. While the grass is artificial, the plants in the gardens are not. He is one designer who knows a thing or two about plants and juxtaposition. His grass spiral paths are immaculate in form and design, the island beds delightfully rampant. Red (or rather orange) hot pokers stand resolute beside wayward fennel's yellow umbelliferous flowers and luxuriant fronds and purple Verbena bonariensis, at their feet sunny dwarf rudbeckia. And that's just one island.
Esther and I both loved the Terra Viva-sponsored garden, a sophisticated symphony in white and green. And full marks to the garden centre for their involvement - not least given the absence of the city's major garden centre chain.
The garden industry is not the country's most lucrative, and to create a garden or display, even a stall for Ellerslie, is not cheap. Disappointing, nonetheless, are the ommissions, the lack of local support. Few of the city's landscape architects and landscape architect firms are represented. Where is the Canterbury Horticultural Society? The dozens of garden clubs? Our local nurseries? Too expensive, too much demand on the dwindling membership?
The Christchurch Botanic Gardens might feel tied up celebrating their 150 years this year but it is a pity our leading horticulturalists could not offer more than their birthday cake in the Zealandia Flower Bed Competition, which, grand as it was, lacked the charm of the Keep Christchurch Beautiful patch, whose message is more apparent from above: 22:2;22 picked out in red in an undulating sea of purples, mauves and white - the date, optimistically, they reckon the city will be back to some sort of normality.
Well done, too, the bonsai, the alpine garden and the Christchurch beautifying societies, though I somehow missed you - missed the whole Hort Galore marquee in fact. And the conceptual gardens' periscopes in trees that I had wanted to experience.
'BETTER THAN THE A&P'
I could blame myself, but I prefer to credit these ommissions to the Ellerslie organisers, to whom the city paid undisclosed millions for their expertise. Visitors arrive through the entrance, with no fanfare. It's like we've got your money (a whopping $42 gate price), now it's over to you, wander at will. Our map has no key, so what? Explore this dusty expanse of Hagley Park dotted with displays.
We went on media day, which has its ups and downs. Ups are definitely no crowds, no loo queues. Downs are no refreshments, and not all retail stalls are open, but those that are and those that are setting up are enticing. Not open also is Edible Ellerslie, a seemingly burgeoning component of the show which in itself kind of smacks of a certain resignation on the part of the organisers that the city's gardening fraternity isn't big or interested or wealthy enough to support such a show.
I missed Dave Mee Ellerslie's CEO's speech to the media but reports have it to be apologetic, "earthquakes, mutter, mutter ..." with far too little apparent enthusiasm or pride in this year's show.
I give Esther, 24, my final word.
"It's better than the A&P Show," she says. "No tractors ..." But she loved The Gloaming's creatures.
And the price? "I'd go with Mum, if she paid."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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