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MIFGS celebrates it's tenth annual ... - is it better than Chelsea?

Neil Williams compiled the story while Jo Lidgerwood gathered the pics.

Best in Show - Jim Fogarty Design

There can be little doubt that the famed Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (no wonder we use the MIFGS acronym), is at the very heart of the gardening calendar in Australia. This fact is confirmed by the hundreds of articles, radio broadcasts and telecasts all over Australia (and further distant) both in the mainstream media and in the trade-related hort media circles, which dedicate primetime to talking about MIFGS. And why indeed not - if you've got it then flaunt it I say!

The 2005 presentation of MIFGS marked the tenth annual presentation since the amalgamation of the former Victorian events, Garden Week and the Flowergrowers' Spring Show.

As past issues of Greenworld testify, the hybridised MIFGS has gone from strength to strength, albeit, not without a number of hiccups along the way.

Better than Chelsea?


Looking back over the ten years of MIFGS which I've reviewed for Greenworld, there was a time in the formative years when we hort media scribes were chastising the mainstream media for exaggerated claims that MIFGS was 'the Chelsea Show of the Southern Hemisphere'. At that time it certainly was not, but just how much has that changed? Already we've seen MIFGS entries in Chelsea win gold, and just last year Wes Fleming's 'Australian Inspirations' team won Silver Gilt - just an outer coating off achieving Gold in the coveted 'Show Garden' category which is the global peak of excellence in the art.

This year in the Media Hospitality Tent, I once again heard a number of serious scribes whose opinions I respect, waxing lyrical about the many ways in which MIFGS is closing ground on the famous Chelsea Flower Show in London.

Don't get me wrong, we haven't made a quantum leap forward in terms of the overall quality and quantity of the Chelsea exhibits, the likes of which we may never match, but what those scribes were really reflecting on was not so much the showbench or the show gardens but rather the splendid ambience and the recreational facility of the leafy Carlton Gardens and the granduer and Victorian splendour of the Royal Exhibition Buildings. There's nothing like that at Chelsea and so in those terms, MIFGS is clearly right up there.

That heady buzz of expectancy
Once again looking back over the ten year history of MIFGS, I have always experienced a few special moments marked by quite profound sensory experiences which are almost euphoric, and which linger on in the memory.

HMA Award for best use of plant life - Greenhill Propagation by Vivid Design

One such moment this year was arriving at MIFGS in the early morning light on route to the annual breakfast launch function, this year on the upper balcony of the Great Hall. Walking in through the security gates at the misty start of what was to be a glorious autumn day in Melbourne, everything, (give or take a few stressed standbuilders still frantically slapping paint around), was in readiness. The Carlton Gardens simply sparkled and as we approached the Great Hall the sun shining through the gleaming waters splashing thither and yon from the forecourt fountain, seemingly turned the droplets to diamonds. It was one of those photo opportunities shutterbugs dream about.

A moment of fleeting euphoria
Stepping inside the Great Hall there was that unmistakably fragrance of a million or more flowers set in brilliantly colourful and creative arrangements. And in an instant, there it was, the sights, the sounds and the heady aromas of a great flower show suddenly fused into a moment of pure euphoria. Such moments are fleeting and invariably are quickly broken - in this case by a shouted greeting from a friend hurrying by. But fleeting as it may have been, that was my magic moment to stow away in the MIFGS Mark 10 memory chest.

The breakfast was a buzz of animated conversations, eggs Benedict, glittering prizes, excited winners making victory speeches and the announcement by Premier Steve Bracks that MIFGS was now widely acknowledged as being in the top 5 of global flower shows. My media colleague Tony Fawcett tells me the other contenders are Kunming (China), Philadelphia (USA), and Hampton Court and Chelsea (UK). You can place MIFGS where you will.

The threat on the Carlton Gardens site
As can readily be seen, much of the magic and allure of MIFGS stems from the picture-perfect venue in the Carlton Gardens and the famous Royal Exhibition Buildings and one would well imagine the show being staged there for ever and a day. But there are dark clouds on the radar which appeared some years back and simply won't go away.

In the Carlton precinct which surrounds the MIFGS site, there is a small, though extremely vocal and influential bunch of people who want nothing more than to get rid of MIFGS and all of its trappings. The protests actually began right back in 1996 when the Carlton Gardens were first closed off to clear the way for the staging of the Festival.

'Rent a crowd' protesters?

Simonds Home Garden by Patio Landscape

Some observers say the dissidents are 'rent a crowd' protesters left over from the old Albert skirmish when a highly vocal minority put up the same sort of fight to try to block the staging of the Grand Prix and the redevelopment of Albert Park.

Now I'm no motor racing fan let me assure you, but when I recall the neglected Albert Park of the post WW2 years when I was a sea scout on the lakeside, it was a rather sombre place, largely the domain of golfers in whose territory 'intruders' risked a crack on the head from a miscued golf ball any time they missed the cry of 'fore'. In short, it was not a people-friendly place, but today whenever we drive through or do the walk around the lake, we marvel at the vast numbers of people and pets who frequent the grounds to enjoy the atmosphere of this 'born again' recreational facility right on Melbourne's southern doorstep.

So what's it all about Alfie?
And it's much the same story in the Carlton Gardens which are carefully and expertly restored each autumn. The lawns are quickly refurbished to the point where if you take a stroll through the site now, you'll find very few signs of the 'damage and desecration' claimed by the protesters. Sensibly too, from a horticultural perspective, the perimeter barriers around the trees were widened to minimise any risk of root compaction damage. From a timing perspective, the task of dismantling the 300 or more displays began immediately the gates closed on Sunday evening and would you believe the Gardens were re-opened to the public again on the following Tuesday? So what's it all about Alfie?

On a par with the Melbourne Cup

More importantly again, MIFGS brings great joy to countless thousands of gardenlovers from far and wide, town and country alike and with attendances consistently topping the 125.000 mark, the MIFGS Festival is right up there with other major events such as the AFL Grand Final, the Melbourne Cup, the Grand Prix and the Royal Melbourne Show. As far as I can see there's no case to be answered but as IMG Co-ordinator, Greg Hooton told me: "We're taking the threat seriously and doing everything we can to placate the protesters." Greg refused to be drawn on the likely outcome. Let's hope common sense and the will of the wider community wins out.

The wow factor for a 10 year old boy
With something in excess of 300 exhibits to inspect, it is pointless to try to walk readers through the displays, instead I shall try to record some of the highlights I observed in my travels.

Although my 'magic moment' was not a 'wow factor, one of the best stories I heard in the media tent came from New Zealand floral publishers, Tricia and Mike Legg of 'Floral Design'. While standing admiring a spectacular Jamie Durie Garden in the Simonds Homes display, which featured a giant-sized hammock suspended over a stylish lily pond, the small boy stopped in his tracks, pondered the suspended couch and the water beneath and just said "Wow".

Mike and Trish went on to say that in their international opinion the standard of the floral work in the Great Hall is second only to Philadelphia, thanks in no small part to the sponsorship backing of Tesselaars, Interflora and Telstra. They said top florists now find MIFGS is superb for business and is a not-to-be-missed event on the floristry calendar.

Plants to the fore
In our Greenworld reviews of MIFGS we've always campaigned hard for greenlife to be the dominant element in displays and show gardens. This year again, there was a marked improvement in the use of a broad palette of plants as evidenced in the DPI 'Future Choice' garden display which showcased non-invasive garden plants. On the stand I spoke to Kate Blood of the DPI, notoriously known as "The Weed Woman'. Kate said she was pleased to say MIFGS 2005 was cleaner of 'weeds' than ever before. "Slowly but surely, the 'garden thug' message is getting through," says Kate.

HMA Award to Greenhills
Still on plants, Robert 'Shorty' Harrison is a plantsman from way back and one who has invested substantially in advertising and promoting his 'Touch of Class' and 'Watermiser' ranges of waterwise plants. Robert and designers, Caroline and Joby Blackman of Vivid Design, took out the Horticultural Media Association (HMA) Award for 'The best use of plantlife within a design'. Shorty seemed pretty pleased!

Tree & Shrub Growers of Victoria

Another honourable mention too, to Wes Fleming for his continuing support of youth design in the Flemings Student Design Awards, now in their sixth year. The competition always attracts the cream of youthful design talent and their collective skills add a contemporary dimension to MIFGS. We also extend best wishes to Wes and the Flemings 'Float' team who at the time of writing, were just setting off for the UK in pursuit of the elusive 'Chelsea Gold'.

Always a traditionalist at heart and an unashamed devotee of English gardens, my outright favourite was 'Memories of England; designed by last year's Chelsea Silver Gilt winner, Jim Fogarty of Jim Fogarty Design. Just for once the judges agreed with me, awarding Jim the City of Melbourne Award for 'Best in Show'.

And just to throw in a complete wildcard, I was really taken with a riotously colourful 'Bacchanalian Feast' exhibit in which most of the 'building materials' were actually good old Tuppaware. A highly creative exhibit that really pulled the crowds.

Before summing up, I'd just like to include a few thoughts shared by NGIA CEO, Richard de Vos, probably on his last official visit to MIFGS. Richard said: "MIFGS just seems to get better and better and it is truly a tribute to the vision, hard work and dedication of all involved. I noted a more holistic and community-inclusive view of gardens and gardening with participation by the Asthma Foundation, Primelife, The Royal Children's Hospital, Edible Gardens, and the Anti-Cancer Society.

"There was also an increased visibility of NGIV (and its logo) through numerous joint activities and displays. MIFGS is much more than a garden show, for it showcases our industry at its very best and does much to lift our pride and sense of value. Well done."

In summary
There's so much more that I would like to have covered but space is the eternal enemy. I'd like to congratulate Greg Hooton and his team from IMG on a splendid presentation. Congratulations to all exhibitors, winners and others alike; my apologies to those who should have been included but were not, and a final thankyou to all of the terrific sponsors without whose support we'd still be floundering in the wilderness.

And for a very final word on just what makes MIFGS so special, let me say that while we may never match the overall excellence of Chelsea, born as it is out of centuries of English gardening tradition and heritage, but given a choice of a day out at Chelsea pushed from pillar to post by madding crowds, or a day in the balmy autumn sunshine at MIFGS, then I know where my vote lies and it is for these very same reasons that my media colleagues and others are saying, "it's better than Chelsea!"

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