A show garden designed by Ross Uebergang and Japanese collaborator Yousuke Yamaguchi reveals a sober and troubling message about a threatened and fragile landscape amid disappearing nature. Melbourne writer and landscape designer Yvonne Pecujac reports.
After three trips to Japan and helping to create gardens there with third-generation landscape designer Yousuke Yamaguchi, Melbourne landscape designer Ross Uerbergang knew who he wanted to call on when it came to designing a show garden for the 2018 Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (MIFGS).
Like England’s prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, MIFGS is unique in Australia for bringing together all parts of the industry and awarding recognition to industry practitioners.
Run for five days each March outside the birthplace of the country’s federation, the public flock to Melbourne’s historic Exhibition Gardens to hear talks, see exhibits, buy plants and see show gardens created by designers.
No stranger to the show, Ross Uebergang had his own prize-winning boutique garden entries in 2012 and 2014 under his belt - gardens that featured his love of recycled materials and sustainability.
This year Ross wanted to design something completely different - drawing on inspiration from his childhood memories of his family’s 130ha property in the Northern Grampians: a place of sparse dry bush, rounded ancient boulders and an almost other-wordly stillness.
Ross hails from Horsham, something of his country upbringing still lingers in his considered answers and jack-of-all-trades approach to designing, creating and hands-on building, whether it’s placing rocks, welding or working with wood. His abilities and vision are broad and it’s this unique approach he bring to his landscapes.
His concern for threatened flora communities in the environment links him to a growing global movement whose champions include Piet Oudolf and the Dutch naturalistic movement, Noel Kingsbury and James Hitchmough in the UK, and expat Bernard Trainor in California among many others.
As Climate Change and the results of global habitat destruction become increasingly felt, the extinction rate of plants has gathered pace, with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimating that currently a third of all flowering plants in the world - between 60,000 and 100,000 species - are now on the edge of extinction. This is what the Botanic Garden Conservation International refers to as a “plant extinction crisis”.
In our own corner of the world, the fragile grasslands flora ranging from the banks of the Yarra River to the border of South Australia is now estimated to be less than 1%. Unlike the well-known devastation of the American Prairie, ours is a story that is little known, even among locals.
And with the loss of plant species comes the loss of insects and animals once habitats fragment. As all life depends on plants, including an atmosphere that can support human life, soil fertility, water filtration and food, this crisis threatens not only essential resources and ecological stability but the very integrity of our biosphere.
In his 2018 MIFGS entry, Ross represented the fragile ecology of the Northern Grampians with charred Allocasuarina trees and dry grass tussocks. The ever-present danger of bushfire suggested by the sparse garden of charred trees ringed with charred timber, with the more existential threat of human-caused destruction looming close behind.
Ross built the garden with local flora but global themes: it was only fitting that his international collaborator - Japanese Landscape Designer collaborator Yamaguchi - lent a spare and restrained zen edge to the garden’s sober and troubling message. The garden featured outdoor dining, a water rill and a modern take on a pergola - a tall permeable cylinder with a render that suggested parched, cracked earth, that allowed the office to step outside with the use of a laptop and some cushions - at once part of the online connected world yet still a part of the landscape. The reimagined mobile office surrounded and ringed by charred doorways and burnt trees.
In a garden show where the plants are timed and primed to look fresh, colourful and abundant, the more disquieting context and message of plant species loss is all but lost. By comparison with his competitors, Ross’ show garden looked austere, stark, a beautiful art piece, an unsettling but important statement.
The internal tensions between the stark ecological impacts and the human activities within a landscape already stripped of its native flora to less than 1% of what it was in pre-colonial times - dining and doing business as if tomorrow will never come - reflects the much of the blithe disregard and myopia that plays out every day in real life, in our cultural conversation, in our political discourse. A garden with layered messages, the ‘Unity’ garden proved formally and aesthetically beautiful but too challenging and intellectual for many people. Where were the flowers? Where was the living flora? Where was the Garden Show’s traditional promise of freshness and abundance?
Most disquieting of all: Culture sits within Nature, the garden seems to say. We ignore that message at our peril.